Jerry Davis: Beloved bird dogs part of a long list of hunting traditions

July 1, 2018 GMT

MOUNT HOREB – There are reasons why people begin or stop hunting; many times those reasons are never completely understood.

About 35 years ago, I began hunting ruffed grouse in northern Wisconsin, without a dog. Shortly after, my then two teenage sons joined an assemblage of friends, brothers-in-law and me.

The first of five golden retrievers, Lady, was a surprise purchase by my two sons and she joined these annual, three-day hunting trips. One of the men had two bird dogs. When the last of his dogs passed, he cleaned and oiled his shotgun for the last time. We never saw him again. His dogs were too important to continue his autumn tradition.

The entourage became a quartet that persisted most years until 2017, when schedules and bird populations closed down this cabin-less camp.

Over the years Lady was replaced by Chester, Kyla, Maddy and lastly Carlie, all goldens, most unrelated. Each new birder seemed to be more adept, more human-like, and bird-knowledgeable than the former dogs. Usually an overlap afforded a younger canine time to learn from a predecessor what no hunter could ever teach her.

These dogs were usually single-owner animals, the last three housed by our older son, Tim Davis of Mount Horeb. By this time, I was going along for the ride without paying or providing for food, veterinarian bills and dog board.

Everything came to a screeching halt in late June when Carlie ran out of gas. No amount of food would energize this dog while cancerous cells put a heavier and heavier load on her body’s systems.

It seems from listening to Carlie’s owner that bird hunting at least as we’ve known it, has ended. The tradition of hunting Wisconsin pheasants, woodcocks, ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse was shut down due to the loss of other hunting traditions. Sometimes hunting traditions have been needlessly eliminated, not by a dog’s loss but changes in how Wisconsin hunters have been asked to change their style by a man with a pen.

Of course any one of the six original hunters could have stepped in and borrowed, rented or purchased a bird dog, but sometimes a person just cannot bring himself to buying a new hunting jacket, shotgun, dog whistle, or dog.

Carlie was 12, about the age when many goldens run low on energy, even though they never seem to run low on desire. She cannot be replaced. An excuse? Don’t even go there or you’ll have a bigger fight on your hands than the recent wrenching away of some other hunting traditions by our state.

On the last day of pheasant season, whether minus 8 degrees or 18 inches of snow, we were there if for no other reason than to say we kept up the year-end tradition.

Over the years, Carlie flushed more than 1,500 birds, we estimated. Several years ago, on an unseasonably warm October pheasant hunt she brought back a rooster after ripping her tongue on a barbed-wire strand. The vegetation was eight feet tall. Hunters could hear her panting off and on for 20 minutes as she searched. Then it stopped. Carlie appeared a short time later, looking like a painted clown, red by her own blood. Her mouth was closed on the rooster, so she could not pant.

An old hunting sweatshirt, now in three pieces, Carlie’s first toy animal, and this grand dog were mostly consumed by a final fire that would have been no match for her energy.

Traditions die hard, regardless of how they are taken away. Sometimes they end up taking more away than hunters anticipate, or the person with a pen could ever comprehend.