Story and photos by Michael Neiduski
When a dog hits middle age, you stop and think about where you’ve been together, while trying to avoid the thought of where you’re both going. That moment came for me in the middle of a wide-open-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see Oklahoma sagebrush prairie. I was on an out-of-state quail-hunting trip with a group of close friends, far from my home in North Carolina, and before that moment came, spirits were low.
I had recently moved away, and it was great to see my buddies on a road trip, but our bank of luck at finding birds kept coming up "Insufficient Funds". And then it happened: My seven-year-old German Wirehair, Plexi, pinned the first covey of quail we found on day three of a five-day hunt. Her tail gave it away just as she crested the sandhill in front of us. My friend Roy saw it too and instantly knew what it meant, his dog-reading career being three times as long as mine. Our pace quickened, with the dog now out of sight over the other side.
I found her still working it out: Left, right, left, hard right, tail faster and faster. Hard stop at a piece of sagebrush. Her tail fluffs up when she has birds dead to rights, and this time it looked like it could sweep the chimney.
The excitement built as we walked in on the point. "Hurry now, get in position, let’s not blow this. You take that side, I’ll swing around to her nose...."
A step. Nothing. Another step, and this time I hear the familiar twittered bird sounds, the scurrying in the sandy brush. I smile. I turn to look at Roy, to grin and say, "they're right here" but the words never make it out. The covey goes, guns bark, and out and down across the valley they fly, out of sight.
Finally. Mouthful of feathers. Birds to hand with my first bird dog. A covey rise shared with a friend and mentor, the man who shaped me and the dog into the team we are today.
The transformation of a puppy into a bird dog is an incredible thing. The prospects are what makes bringing that eight-week-old ball of fur home such a joyous moment. Potential. Hopes, dreams, places you will see together, birds they will bring to your hand. All in this fuzzy mass you can fit from your hand to the crook of your elbow on the center console of your pick-up like you’re holding a football, but it’s a living, breathing hope for the future.
We possess the same capabilities. Evolution. Change. Learning and growing and shifting priorities. Sometimes all it takes is bringing home a shark-toothed, sock-stealing demon filled with puppy breath to light an ever-burning flame.
I found myself settling on those thoughts as we sauntered back to the truck. Guns broke, joking about what the other two in our party who chose a different route back were saying to each other after surely hearing our shots. The moment of celebration gave way to gratitude and reflection. Appreciation for where I am, and a reminiscence on how I arrived here.
Eight years prior to that moment you would - aside from an occasional jaunt to fish and a two-week tryst in the woods chasing whitetails on my parents farm - find me on the couch with a video game controller soldered to my hands. My upbringing granted me access to 120 acres right out the door to roam and hunt and fish and spoiled me to no end as a child who loved outdoor pursuits.
As a teen I fell hard into deer hunting, following the patriarchal footsteps laid before me. Pursuing higher education in the midwest, my trips home for fall holidays consisted of more time in the woods than time spent with family and friends on those 120 acres. My 120 acres. The thought of hunting public land that contained some of the best whitetail habitat in the country within a stone's throw of the classrooms I wandered every day never occurred to me.
Why would I go do that? My upbringing was filled with stories of crowded parking lots, people claiming your spot, the minimal chances of seeing the quarry one pursued, or how another hunter tagged the biggest buck my grandfather ever shot because he found the trophy before my grandfather finished blood-trailing it.
It’s funny now to look back on my ignorance. It was the epitome of knocking it before I tried it.
After college I found myself in the tailwaters of some ridiculous life circumstances. So I did what any smart, well-reasoned, albeit overly optimistic 25 year old would do: I bought a puppy. Plexi came home with the sole intention of being a house dog I could use to blood track deer and occasionally chase ducks with, and maybe I would look into that upland thing, too.
If you are sensing a theme of continued ignorance here, you are not wrong.
I am the child of an addict, and while I don’t possess the insatiable drive for drugs and booze, I can firmly admit I am addicted to bird dogs, wild birds, and the wild spaces that allow me to put those two things together, places we all own together. Not mine. Not yours. Ours. I will happily stand in the front of the room and state, “Hi, my name is Mike, and without bird dogs, and quail, and public lands my life becomes unmanageable.”
I credit the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) with my addiction. The rambunctious puppy and an apartment proved a poor combination, but NAVHDA gave me the outlet to channel all that energy - mine and the dog’s - into something productive. The people were incredible; sharing knowledge, advice, ideas, and stories of bird hunts in places where I could run my new ball of never-stop-searching bird dog potential. I ate it up.
As my time chasing dogs and the birds they love took me to new places, and as work moved me around the country, I learned these spaces and the birds that inhabit them are finite resources, resources that are under constant threat of predation, weather, and civilization’s ever-present march forward. I realized the fire of my bird dog addiction could only be fed long term by the hard, never-ending task of splitting the wood that is conservation. Without conservation there is no fuel, a required piece of the equation removed.
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever work every day to keep that fire lit for all of us, as does the Ruffed Grouse Society, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, even NAVHDA, too, bringing people into the fold and exposing them to the power of a well-trained dog and the uplands. Involvement in these organizations has become just as integral to my existence, to feeding the addiction and my sense of purpose as does the loving, graying face that finds its way to my lap each night. The work we all do is done both for those in the now, and more importantly, those “within the womb of time… the unborn generations” as Theodore Roosevelt would say.
As for unborn generations, there is a deposit on another puppy. Due to arrive just in time for this coming season, another opportunity for growth and transformation. Potential. With any luck they will roll across that same Oklahoma prairie come January chasing memories and making new ones.
But the old dog has some years left, some gas in the tank, and birds still to bring to hand. Lessons to teach me, paths forward to blaze. Potential. Each point, each covey rise, hit or miss, reminds me of the journey here, and stokes the fire for all the opportunities to come.
Michael Neiduski lives in North Carolina where he spends most non-working hours volunteering for conservation groups, supporting his local NAVHDA chapter, and plotting his next bird hunt, near or far. He shares a home with a very hobby-tolerant wife and two bird dogs. They are expecting... a new shorthair puppy, Mack, and are excited to show him the joys of wild birds in wild places this fall.
VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE BREED(S) NOW IN THIS YEAR’S BIRD DOGS FOR HABITAT CAMPAIGN AND CREATE SOME HABITAT FOR UPLAND BIRDS AND BIRD DOGS.