Jim Harrison: The Life of a Sportsman and the Lives of His Dogs
Photograph by Philip Newton Our greatest politician, Thomas Jefferson, said that “good wine is a necessity of life for me.”...
Photograph by Philip Newton
Our greatest politician, Thomas Jefferson, said that “good wine is a necessity of life for me.” I agree but he should have said “Good wine and good dogs are a necessity of life for me.”
Maybe it’s as wrong to call a great man like Thomas Jefferson a politician as it is to call a grand sporting dog a dog. It’s too categorical. For instance the best dog of my life was an English setter named Tess over whom I shot at least 1,200 birds, including grouse, woodcock, four kinds of quail—bobwhite, Mearns’, Gambel’s and scaled—and also sharptails and Hungarian grouse. Bird hunters are invariably sentimental about their dogs unless the animals are outright incompetent. With Tess the actual proof was simply in the numbers though with a dog that’s never more than part of the story.
Missy and the Airedales
To start at the beginning, I’ve always trained my own dogs but I wouldn’t offer this as a necessarily wise move. My first bird dog in 1964 was an extremely full chested and muscular English pointer bitch named Missy. From the moment we picked her up in northern Michigan she essentially became our trainer. As a pup she could scale tall bookcases to play with the cat. We were quite poor at the time, living in a drafty rental for 40 bucks a month in Kingsley, Michigan, with a furnace that couldn’t raise the heat past 55 on the coldest winter days. I’d been trying to grouse hunt with Verl McManus’ old beagle who had a singular talent of pattering around the woods treeing grouse—at which point he’d yip. I’d pretend the grouse had just barely landed or was on the verge of taking off when I popped them out of trees, and then one day I shot one on the fly flushing down between aisles of pines. The beagle naturally looked at me with admiration.
By the time Missy was 6 months I knew I was outfaced and took her to a trainer, who said euphemistically “That’s a lotta dog” as she climbed—with some success—a fir tree in his yard to get at a squirrel. That fall we moved to New York’s densely crowded Long Island just after Missy had learned a new trick. After I ran her she’d reenter the yard at top speed and leap over the entire hood of our car, then brake with her front paws while her momentum would pivot her ass around so fast it would drag her backward a few feet. Quite a dog.
A university community is no place for a sporting dog or a sporting gentleman. Missy had taken to excavating our suburban yard; after I came home from a wretched day at the university she’d hear my car and explode from under the ground like a creature in a horror movie. We had two years of solvency but at the price of boredom for someone who had grown up around woods and water. I was in my mid-20s and never took a real job again. The rest of my life has taken place in the immediate area of trout fishing and bird hunting, and where I could train a dog on wild birds right out the back door.
Sad to say but soon after coming back to northern Michigan Missy developed fibroid cancer and died. When I dedicated a novel to her many people assumed that one of our children had died and were further confused when they discovered it was “only a dog.” How can I forget the way she entered a pasture woodlot as if it were full of grouse and then the ground shook as she drove a big herd of Holsteins toward me like a gift, wondering why I didn’t lift my shotgun?
There was an interim then when I only hunted with friends and their bird dogs as if I couldn’t quite bear the memory of Missy. Starting around 1970 my friend Guy came up every fall for grouse and woodcock shooting. He had a lazy, incredibly neurotic Lab bitch named Rain who despite her “put-upon” attitude was a superb upland game dog with an uncanny nose. She was equally good at ducks down on Lake Okeechobee in Florida though she had to be lifted gently into the boat.
To fill our dogless space at the time we bought two Airedales, with the male whom I called Hud coming from a bear dog strain in Arkansas. Hud was well named because his favorite activity was screwing the garbage cans at midmorning every day. It didn’t look all that much fun to the owner but he obviously enjoyed it. He was a big boy and soon got into trouble for ripping off a barn door to get at a female in heat and tunneling under a kennel to mate a neighbor’s pretty boxer. He also knocked men off snowmobiles when they crossed our yard. The other Airedale, Jessie, a female, hoarded the bowels of entire cows the neighbors butchered. She would hunt but getting a bird back from her was a wrestling match.
My hunting life changed for the better when Guy sent us a young yellow Lab from England’s Sandringham breeding. I properly called her Sand and she was hunting well by the age of 7 months, learning more from Guy’s dog Rain than I could teach her. This is a rarely mentioned item in a trainer’s vocabulary, but a young dog learns very well from watching and hunting with an experienced dog. You are “guiding” rather than training the animal and your most important function is to discourage bad habits. Once the dog comprehends that you are partners the process is three-quarters of the way home. An occasional light spanking can be in order on young dogs, but it too severely wounds the dignity of an older animal. The best tactic I’ve developed is a stern word and a light ear pinch. If you love to punish, pick on someone your own size. Many hunters carry over illusions of control from their day jobs. They want what some call “lawyer dogs,” kenneled animals that only get to hunt a couple days each fall and are still expected to cover the ground in a ticktock, metronomic fashion. They are expected to be as efficient and obedient as a legal secretary. The half dozen top bird dogs I’ve known in my 40-year hunting life have all been dear companions of their owners’ daily lives.
I got so used to following Sand’s superb nose that I’d occasionally get lost—which is no fun at all in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where my favorite area is a dozen miles from anything. You’re more likely to get lost when the hunting is good. I soon could tell from the way Sand’s butt wiggled if it was a grouse or a woodcock. She often retrieved birds that I was unsure I had hit. She went through a short period where I caught her trying to bury grouse and then she would sit on the dirt pretending she couldn’t find the bird. I thought this peculiarity might have come from her convalescence after being hit by a snowplow, with her medical bills coming to $10,000 in contemporary money. We called a trainer in Pennsylvania, a friend of Guy’s, who said, “Kick her in the ass. She’s trying to hide the bird to eat later.”
She did have “eating problems” as many Labs do. Once on the way north I stopped at a tavern for a much needed drink and on returning to the car I noticed Sand had eaten a pound of butter, a dozen eggs and some bananas. The next trip I put all the sacks of groceries on the car roof when I went into the tavern, then forgot them, so that when I drove off I recall clearly the sound of three magnums of good wine crashing to the street.
A singular charm in Sand was never losing a downed bird even in the thickest Michigan cover, a common event with big-running pointing dogs that only wish to find more birds. The biggest problem with Sand other than that she was part pig was her fear of bears. Dozens of times I would drive to an area I wanted to hunt and she would jump back in the car if she scented bear. If I forced the issue she would walk behind me tight to my legs. Once in Sand’s late years when I was hunting with both her and Tess we came upon a bear in an alder thicket who growled before running away. Tess growled back and Sand disappeared. I said to Tess, “Where’s Sand?” then followed her more than a mile away to find Sand hiding behind a stump and still shaking. I was always mindful that an English setter had been killed on my Upper Peninsula property before I bought it. Small bears tend to be underrated. A bear hunter I met had a hound that needed 280 stitches after a run-in with a bear that was not that far beyond cub stage. When you skin an adult bear you see a musculature that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Mary Poppins.
The arrival of Tess brought on the true glory days of my hunting life. At the outset I was lucky to have Nick Reens as a friend, neighbor and hunting partner. Nick has managed, along with a few others, to breed a select number of litters out of an Old Hemlock strain. These are big-lunged dogs ranging from 70 pounds for a bitch to a current male, Ted, who goes 110 pounds. Though utterly docile and sweet in the cabin or house these are big-running setters suitable for the Southwest and Montana though they shorten up in the denser cover of northern Michigan. When cynics say that our dogs are “too far out” we’ve learned to give a pat answer, “That must be where the birds are.” Nick hunts as many as five at once and they act as a massive vacuum cleaner for the gamebirds in the area. One day on Drum Hadley’s 500,000-acre Grey Ranch in New Mexico three of us bagged 30 quail on a cold, windy day while another group hunting short-running eastern setters only shot four. The possible downside to this strain of setters is that the owner must be in fairly good walking shape. Though of serene dispositions these dogs don’t care if you have a sore foot or a hangover.
Curiously, it took some time before I did as well with Tess as I did with Sand. A fine pointing dog can promote certain laziness in your attention span. With Sand I had to watch her every moment. I knew Tess would hold the point but I was a little slow in learning how to approach her while hunting solo. With a hunting partner the avenues of escape are more limited. I gradually figured out it was better to come up on her from the side rather than directly from the back. This afforded me a clue as her eyes often followed the scent line. Sometimes in sparse cover she would lie out flat on her point which setters did earlier in their tradition and when she had to reposition she would often crawl very quickly on her belly. Like any good grouse and woodcock dog Tess kept a sharp eye on the direction missed birds were flying in order to repoint them. I’ve long given up this practice under the idea that if a bird escapes once it’s sporting to let it be home free. There are specific exceptions to this rule. One day in Montana it was blustery and the Hungarian grouse wouldn’t hold to the point but would flush wild well out of range. Because Tess had such a sharp eye we were able to pick up 15 singles.
Once on the ridge summit of Hog Canyon near the Mexican border we were sprawled on the grass resting from the steep climb when Tess, also prone on her side, went into a full point in that position. My hunting partner noticed it first and nodded and at this same moment a Mearns’ quail cock marched past her nose and then between us.
It was an extraordinary afternoon as a little earlier Tess had pointed a few feet below the crown of a hill too steep for us to scramble up, then held the point as she slowly slid backward some hundred feet or so to the bottom where we stood. We call this being staunch to point. Another desirable characteristic is called intensity.
Her main drawbacks were a weakness for rabbits and ground squirrels though this penchant was usually under control. Chasing a jack-rabbit can blow out a dog on a warm day. I have never understood the attraction of ground squirrels for dogs unless it’s the peculiar sharp squeak these rodents make. My cabin can have a half dozen red squirrels in the yard and the dogs yawn but they can’t resist ground squirrels. And dogs can have additional oddities. Tess never once acknowledged the presence of a horse or cow. I could also tell when she was a bit bored and then I would take her to new cover, which delighted her. Many dogs don’t figure out how to control running Gambel’s quail but Tess did, circling way out like a good pheasant dog and turning them back in my direction. This is pure hunting instinct rather than simple intelligence. Despite my affection for English setters there are a dozen breeds with more apparent intelligence. My wife’s English cocker, Mary, would have made Tess look like Big Dumb. (Mary has even figured out the proper time for me to get up in the morning and when it’s time for my afternoon snooze.) In defense of Tess her sole interest in life was finding gamebirds, with ground squirrels and eating dinner a distant second and third. The only food she ever begged for was the skin of a fried whitefish. If I gave her my leftover breakfast oatmeal with raisins she would finish the oatmeal but leave the raisins in a neat pyramid pile. She turned away in disgust and embarrassment when I offered her yogurt as a joke.
Our last hunt together was a tearjerker. We were over a mile from the car in a rough canyon near the Mexican border. She gave me two points and then quite suddenly collapsed. I carried her out over my shoulder with some difficulty and a week later had to have her put down. I thought I was mentally prepared for this moment but then I simply broke down. This has been true of the death of all our dogs, I suppose because I have never had any impulse to rate animals in levels of importance. We are fellow creatures.
In the late years of Tess’ career I got another puppy from Nick and we named her Rose. The mother was Sam who had a problematical early career after the trauma of being confined in a dog trailer while some kids were setting off firecrackers. She mostly tagged along with us for two years until we were hunting one morning in south Georgia and Sam decided she was over her trauma and began hunting beautifully. Back home she would regularly run the half mile from Nick’s house, scratch at our door, say hello, turn around and run home.
Frankly, I’d had some doubts about getting another setter because I was by then in my mid-50s and the early training period can be a real workout—which translates as you are going to bust your ass. I’ve thought that Rose has had no more than 80 percent of the intensity of Tess but this is partly because my own intensity had begun to wane. Tess regularly hunted perhaps 70 days a year or more in Michigan, Florida, Montana and Arizona. With Rose I started hunting half days and reduced my kill. One August morning in the Upper Peninsula Rose had 29 woodcock points in less than two hours. I was slow to admit that I enjoyed this training run as much as hunting. As I became a little more squeamish I’d simply yell “bang” at the flush and that was fine by Rose whereas my Lab Sand would look at me with disappointment whenever I missed. She liked the flavor of everything.
Rose’s biggest drawback is that she’s what’s called a competitive bitch and doesn’t like to hunt with other dogs, and if she does, she tries to beat them to the cover. We lost her for three days in a vast area south of Safford, Arizona, when she successfully outran all of Nick’s males. I’d like to say she learned something from this harrowing experience but I don’t think she did. After that I only hunted her alone or with dogs who didn’t mind her being out in front.
I gratefully accept that Rose learned a lot more hunting with Tess than she ever did from me. She learned to honor the points of Tess because when she broke a covey Tess growled and snapped at her. This one-day lesson wouldn’t have worked without her stern aunt. Rose has also been spectacular at singles. One day in New Mexico after a friend’s dog had bumped a quail covey I shot six singles while my friend took a hangover nap.
Rose’s downfall came last summer in Montana in her ninth year when she was struck twice by a rattlesnake in our yard and one fang broke off in her right eyeball, blinding her. She was already half-deaf but her recovery from the snake took several months. The venom affected her brain or sense of smell, or both. In the Upper Peninsula she bumped woodcock though she held steady to a number of grouse. On a few occasions she seemed not to recognize me. I didn’t push but let her try to recover at her own speed. She’ll point doves in high grass though she flags a bit and turns around to look at me explaining dove. She’s had some nice quail points this winter but not many, mostly because of the precipitous decline of birds in our prolonged drought. Many times when her beeper collar signals a point I’ve found her lying down looking at the mountains.
Rose is now 10 and I’m vaguely shopping for another pup. I’m thinking of ending my hunting life with an English cocker like my wife’s Mary whom I could easily teach to be president, or at least a senator, run a corporation, or write my novels. One day on a walk Mary scented quail and crawled like a Marine toward a covey. This breed of dog could definitely become a multispecies expert.
The other day near the end of the season Rose flounced around and trotted back to the car like a gaited horse after pointing a large covey of Mearns’ quail. I suddenly remembered reading that in the seventh century the Church decided dogs can’t go to heaven because they don’t contribute to the church. If that’s true then I don’t want to go either. I’m very poor at dates and numbers and what happened at what time in our life. But if my wife mentions the name of a dog we’ve owned and loved, I can re-create the dog’s life with us, and consequently my own.