Sometimes a dog can make us re-examine what we once believed so fervently
Story By Reid Bryant, Image by Logan Hinners
If you’ve ever been a twenty-something, you’ll understand that the road through adolescence is paved in high ideals. I suppose it’s only natural; at that age you’ve done enough to think you know some things, and the earth hasn’t turned around enough times to prove that you aren’t swinging it by the tail. You’ve sifted through a jumble of identities in search of one that fits, which in turn becomes something worth defending, and you wield your conviction like a blade. You hold yourself and the rest of the world accountable to the rules you’ve written, confident in the dividing line that separates black from white, right from wrong, and the way you do things from every other way that things are done. The simplicity of it all is reassuring.
I can say this because I’ve been there. I’ve also walked just far enough down that road to look back with some perspective.
I was chewing on such matters the other day, and the configuration of ideals that I have aspired to, and relinquished, and at times re-considered, notably about my bird hunting.
When I was younger, I lived in northern Vermont, in a community of loggers and dairymen and back-to-the-landers, all of whom were doing their best to scrape by. It was a rural economy and a lean one: Folks up there hunted and fished as much by necessity as by design, and there was not much time wasted on the how of it.
My friend DB was non-typical of the place. He took a considered approach to our grouse and woodcock, and the native brook trout that spawned in gravelly shallows each fall. Among his many attributes, DB owned a purebred bird dog. Tobey was a Brittany with a regal head and a deep chest and the wherewithal to know when to move fast through the barren spots, and to picky-poke through the good. He was sheer terror on grouse and woodcock too, but DB wouldn’t shoot the woodcock on account of their declining numbers.
Tobey and DB were inseparable. I’d always hunted dogless, tromping through the overgrown orchards and tangles, hoping to stumble into wonderful things. But Tobey, and DB by association, showed me a path through the softwood edges that was laid by a genetic birthright and more years’ experience than I could soon hope to have. Tobey and DB didn’t play the odds, and their approach was far more effective.
It was a year or so into our friendship before DB trusted me enough to accompany him through the turning hillsides. Our days became full of dog bells, pulpy apples, and the smell of DB’s pipe smoke. I watched DB closely. He wore tattered chaps and red felt hat, and he shot a Belgian Browning. He didn’t shoot birds out of trees, and he didn’t hunt the slash-strewn patch cuts that would have been more productive, but far less pleasant to get through. He was a gentleman. He killed only the birds that Tobey pointed. Osmotically I suppose, those steps we walked together infused in me some firm ideas about the way things should be, were I to become a sportsman the equal of DB. I latched onto those ideas with a vengeance.
As one does, I grew older, and eventually moved away from that small town. In due course, I acquired some frayed pant cuffs, a hesitating taste for tobacco, and a Brittany of my own. I blew a summer’s wages on a wobbly double with a pair of triggers, and I shot even worse than before. I adhered to the rules I’d laid claim to, the rules that I used to define myself, and I categorically looked down upon those who did otherwise. I was neither self-conscious nor self-aware; my ego was full to bursting, and my conviction, as I’ve said, was a comfort.
I called DB one day in late summer for a check-in, and to plan an October reunion, when the birds of the year would have scattered through a forest of fallen leaves. It was then that I learned of Tobey’s passing.
“He wasn’t eating, and he seemed out-of-sorts, so Ann and I had him in the car on the way to the vet. Somewhere along the drive he got antsy, stood up in the back seat, whined once, and fell over dead. We pulled over and just sat there with him on the roadside, both of us crying like kids…” DB said with atypical candor, still raw. The thought of tears in his beard rattled me. I said I was sorry, stumbled through a goodbye, and hung up. Afterward, maybe I cried a little too.
In the weeks that followed, I hunted my pup and followed my rules, clinging to the choreography I’d seen embodied by DB and his Tobey. I may have killed a few birds, and I tried to do so the right way. I drove on up to northern Vermont later in November, after the deer season was through and the leaves were all down, and I rung DB. I asked him to go hunting with me, and he obliged. We ran my young Brit off the Eden Mountain Rd., through the alders at the foot of Mt. Bigelow. DB killed a bird that came up out of a meadow between the popples, one that my dog Sleeper had not stood staunch on, and I know his involvement in that imperfect dance riled him just a little. Back at the truck he stroked Sleeper’s ears and pulled out the big male grouse. I decided then to ask DB what and when his next dog would be, assuming he’d have already laid down some thoughts on the matter.
“I don’t think we will be getting another dog,” he said, looking down at the bird in his hands and smoothing the back feathers, fanning the tail. “I don’t think I can stand to lose another one, and so we’re done. You can only say goodbye to so many dogs in your life.” He was, at the time, maybe fifty, and looking at an easy quarter century of good hunting in those Vermont hillsides. I replied, uncomfortable with the implication of what DB was saying.
“But you always hunt with a dog. Won’t that make hunting pretty hard?”
He just sat there, looking down at his bird. My pup had opted to load himself back in the crate. He turned a stiff circle, lay down, and sighed. DB smiled at this, and the measure of a dog who didn’t need to be told what to do and when. “I guess I’ll just hunt with my friends who have dogs, and beyond that I just won’t hunt.” He tucked the bird back in his game pouch, zippered the Browning into its sleeve, and closed the tailgate. “How about a beer back at the house?” he offered as the truck turned over and blew a plume of blue smoke into the chilly afternoon.
I think back on this experience in the context of my own growing up, and my own hunting, and the vulnerability implicit in loving things wholly and well. It’s a quarter century later now, and I’ve lost a dog or two myself, and as I write this I’m watching an elderly one drifting closer to that last long sleep. I’ve also watched DB grow older, resolute in his convictions, dogless and largely absent from the October afternoons, their pulpy apples and Swiss bells. And I wonder now if the comfort of those convictions could rival the comfort of a warm body curled up at his feet, or tempting him through the October orchards on a line towards something good. I suppose we’ll never know. I’ve learned and become certain that only DB knows what’s best for him, and my convictions on that front don’t hold an ounce of relevance.
I think back on the ideals of my youth and my reliance on them, and I see myself relaxing more with every passing year. I’ve moved on to flushing dogs and there’s a pump gun in my closet; I’d be lying to say that I haven’t plucked a bird or two from tree limbs in lean times. But other ideals have remained intact, the ones with guts, the ones that resonate.
Which brings me back to DB, and the things he taught me.
What I see now, and saw differently then, is that the demise of his hunting, and his inability to have another dog, were not just outward gestures. They were, instead, the choices of a man who looked inside and saw what his heart could take, and knew what it couldn’t. He gave away something he loved when he saw that it wasn’t complete, and completion required another dog, and he just couldn’t lose another one. That sort of self-awareness is not performative, though the shell of it can appear so. I guess in the end we all should hold ourselves accountable to what fills our hearts, or leaves them empty. Those are better rules to live by.
The ideals I so craved in my younger years still appeal to me for their tidiness and their symbolism, but I try now to let those ideals take shape as they will, when and how they will, steering me towards a better understanding. DB taught me this too, though it took me some years to realize it. I find myself, some gray at my temples, longing for that dog who, in the pain of his passing, might give me the gift of never wanting to replace him. If my hunting gets buried beside him, I’ll be sad to see that go too, but it will be ok.
Once I was too young to think I’d ever make the choice to give up something that defined me, and I was far too young to think I’d ever want to. Life is funny in that way.
At least I think it is.
Reid Bryant is Wingshooting Services Manager at the Orvis Company and a frequent contributor to several sporting publications. He is the author of The Orvis Guide to Upland Hunting and the new release Training Bird Dogs With Ronnie Smith Kennels: Proven Techniques and an Upland Tradition. He lives in southern Vermont with his wife, two daughters, an aging Brittany and a springer that just doesn’t listen.
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Quail 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!