Photos by Erik Petersen
A young Labrador retriever rekindles an upland flame and partnership
By Douglas E. Spale
The light in my life was renewed by the arrival of a black Labrador retriever in my arms. Her name, Nua Kohtopu O’War (pronounced Naw Koo-towp, or just Kohtop for short), derived from the elegant Comanche language and meaning “my fire,” commemorates the warriors that fiercely roamed the prairie’s hunting lands.
Through our first year together, Kohtop and I overcame obstacles, achieved milestones and created beautiful memories. I am forever changed in my ability to triumph over grief, as well as by the power that comes from having a good dog by my side.
As the sun sets each day, the magic between us continues to grow stronger.
BLOODLINES AND BONDS
Kohtop was a springtime puppy, and my expectation was for her to hunt alongside me throughout the upcoming season. Our training regimen was standard to her retriever pedigree, and she excelled throughout the summer. However, her age of foolishness took over much of our lives. From kennel cries to constant licking and sporadic bursts of energy, she had the fire I desired … but also frequently tempted my patience.
It is a difficult transition to unexpectedly lose an exceptional bird dog in the prime of its life, which I had, and then try to build a new puppy into a bird dog. My thoughts often recalled the visual poetry my previous dog Sunka showed, even while I stood over this new wonder called Kohtop, a black ball of fire.
But Kohtop’s similar mannerisms evoked their shared bloodlines: two kindred spirits bonded to me and separated only by their time in my life.
As the autumn approached, Kohtop was hardly ready to chase wild birds. However, travel is mandatory for my Labs: Since my profession trends me toward city life, my quest for upland birds requires frequent trips.
The ability to travel the country in search of new environments is a fascinating challenge that I believe strengthens my relationship with nature while also giving Kohtop the best life possible. Together, Kohtop and I found a special fire throughout our first season together, with both anguish and accomplishment that will deliver promising outcomes for the rest of our lives together.
SPARKS FLICKER IN WISCONSIN
Our first upland hunting trip began in the storied northwoods of Wisconsin. It was an unfamiliar setting for us, but a land adorned by every fall color imaginable.
We were fortunate to attend a camp filled with incredible dog power and people from across the country. As we hunted forestland filled with grouse and woodcock behind pointers befitting of this type of environment, in my heart I longed for Sunka to be with me.
My young flusher, incapable of competing with the speed, prowess and control of the pointing dogs, worked hard. So did I. But we were two amateurs in an environment that proved to be exceptionally difficult.
Nevertheless, a special moment occurred when we hunted a logging trail by ourselves one afternoon.
At first, I was overwhelmed with emotions as we began walking through the woods. A few months prior, it was almost unimaginable that I would be hunting again, especially with a new pup. As we moved through the habitat, Kohtop stuck to the trail because of its ease. There was no command or coaxing that was going to compel her into the woods.
But then, in an instant, she gained speed in her gait and quickly dove into the cover. I clumsily moved to keep pace and I saw her flush a ruffed grouse. Astonishing!
The Labrador-shaped hole in my heart began to fill, and for the first time I thought she may live up to her predecessor’s expectations. I left the northwoods with a respect for its challenges, and optimistic from the sparks flickering from Kohtop.
FLAMES FANNED IN MONTANA
Fortune gave me a special opportunity to travel to Montana with my father and Kohtop to chase birds in that state’s vast grasslands.
This was a special way to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday and to show him Kohtop’s progress as a young bird dog. The skies in Montana appear endless with a unique, ephemeral blue light at the beginning and end of each day, while mountains stand majestically in the backdrop of endless uplands teeming with wild game.
This was our paradise. While we call the Great Plains our home, if there was ever an opportunity, Montana would assuredly be a close second.
We were paired with an impressive duo of pointers owned by a loving father and his two young boys. Erik Petersen presented us with a familiar image of a young father bringing up his boys in the uplands behind iconic dogs.
One day, we made a long loop around a property to get the wind in our favor, all while watching roosters pour into a cattail basin. As the pointers worked the area, Kohtop’s nose drove her in and out, her instincts overriding her intention to stay out of the thick cover.
Toward the end of the draw Kohtop flushed her first rooster, and I connected on the bird! My excitement waned at her fear as numerous pheasants continued to flush from the cover. I have never seen a dog afraid of flushing birds, but those impressive numbers left me astonished as well.
Montana etched its mark on our hearts, but most importantly fanned the flames of Kohtop’s desire for upland birds.
BLAZING THROUGH KANSAS
As I had hoped in the beginning, Kohtop and I finished our season in Kansas. While our previous travels gave us valuable experience, her prowess truly began to show. Although still very young, her focus greatly improved, her endurance and range impressed our hunting partners, and her nose surpassed my expectations on a few occasions.
While late-season hunting presented new difficulties, including experienced quarry and harsher elements, those obstacles did not halt our success.
We flushed coveys of quail in treelines back east, chased evasive roosters through dry fields of grass out west, and even flushed a few prairie chickens one evening in central Kansas. While my season began with a challenge-filled experience for my young pup, it ended with exceptional results.
Our goal last spring was to blaze through Kansas, and My Fire fulfilled those expectations.
It is a beautiful thing to think about, the way our love for the uplands and our bird dogs never dies but merely transforms itself into a new shape.
Our journey throughout the first year together produced unimaginable success, in spite of some failures. As Kohtop and I endured our struggles, the magic between us grew. This bond is the special charm that unites bird dog owners.
While the new light in my life is now a glowing flame, our story is just beginning. Kohtop is the embodiment of my passion to conserve the places we discovered, she is the manifestation of my aim to enlighten others on the beauty of nature, and she gives me the power to enhance this world.
Douglas Spale grew up in Nebraska and now lives in Kansas but is always at home with a bird dog at his side. He serves on the PF & QF national board of directors.
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!