A Stroll with Ben 0. Williams
Birds Dogs, Upland Hunting & the Art of Life
Birds Dogs, Upland Hunting &
the Art of Life
Story by Tom Carpenter || Photos by Erik Petersen
Story by Tom Carpenter
Photos by Erik Petersen
Before YouTube hunters, social media influencers and 24-7 digital media, bird doggers and upland hunters thirsty for knowledge quenched the need in different fashion — magazines and books chief among them.
My friend Ben O. Williams is still, at 90, a writer of such impactful work. His essays, articles and books use wise, straightforward and elegant words that “teach as they go” to inspire and influence bird hunters.
Whether it is training a bird dog, understanding gamebird behavior, exploring fine shotguns, hunting the West, or any number of other topics related to the magic of the uplands, Ben’s messages inspire this thought: “I can do that!”
Those who have heard of Ben O. Williams know the reverence and respect of which I speak. If you haven’t heard of Ben O. Williams, meet him now, and via the video above.
I traveled to Montana to hunt again with Ben and his dogs last fall. Ben still has 4 dogs in his kennel, 2 Brittanys and 2 pointers. While hunting, we tried to recount the most dogs he ever had at once, and settled at 16. Or 17.
We revisited old haunts, remembered forgotten memories, rekindled our like-thinking about most things in general and bird dogs in particular (most all of my viewpoints there being absorbed from him).
But mostly we just strolled and soaked up October sunshine and watched bird dogs have fun while speaking of them, of upland gamebirds and the habitat challenges they face, and of the spiritual communion of hunting that brings it all together.
• • •
I first met Ben several jobs and decades ago when I needed an expert on Hungarian partridge, and hunting them, to write a book chapter on them. There was only one first choice.
Gulp. Call Ben O. Williams? He was a published author, popular essayist, and respected purveyor of bird dog how-to for the blue-collar hunter. His Brittanys and related breeding program were the stuff of legend too.
“Why don’t you come out and hunt with me and my dogs?” Ben said. It changed my life and was the start, as they say, of a beautiful friendship.
The following June I had one of Ben’s dogs, a female Brittany I named Scout (her father was Ben’s best-ever dog, Winston, whose life is profiled in the book Winston, The Life of a Gun Dog), sleeping next to my bed.
You follow certain rules when hunting with Ben — some qualitative, others quantitative, all to be followed.
You start a couple hours after sunup so the birds have time to feed, and you quit no less than an hour before sundown so they (Huns, sharptails, quail, you name it) can covey back up for the night.
In between, you hunt. Hard. With respect for the bird and reverence for the hunt.
Your bag limit is half the Montana limit, and maybe less than that if it has been a tough year on the birds.
It is all about the dogs, birds and country. Birds in the gamebag? Ben says: “If the dogs have fun, and you have fun, who cares?”
• • •
That is not to say Ben is a hunting wallflower. “The year I retired, 1986, I hunted 100 days in a row” he laughs, “and soon after, had a year where I hunted more than 200 total days.”
Ben has hunted all over the world, from Alaska to Argentina, Russia, Scotland, England and beyond, even Mongolia to hunt Huns on their native, ancestral ground.
But today we are on Ben’s home ground, a couple ranches up on the foothill flanks of the Crazy Mountains just a few miles from his house. Ben has hunted this ground since the 1960s.
Driving up a ranch two-track, an isolated hill on a high plateau evinces a memory.
“Remember chasing a covey around that thing all afternoon?” I ask Ben.
“Oh yeah,” he beams, his 90-year-old mind recounting details I had lost.
• • •
After scouring the area for an hour, the quartet of dogs had locked up on the covey that Ben knew well. “Finally,” he laughed, “We got ‘em!”
But we didn’t.
Pointed is not toasted. The Huns gave us the slip not once, not twice but three times — around the end of, along the other side of, and then back up and over, the hill.
“Let’s get ‘em!” Ben laughed, his blue eyes a-twinkle below the rim of his trademark hat as the last russet tailfan swooped over the crest.
And so we did, climbing over the top and finally cornering the birds, taking one apiece.
Now the blue eyes twinkled with a new, softer but equally intense gleam. Love. “Ah, we’re good. Two is enough. Let’s let ‘em be now. It’s going to be a tough night for them,” as drizzle turned to sleet.
Reverence and respect. A gentleman and a gentle man.
• • •
Today is more walking and reminiscing than hunting. The dogs hunt. We visit. Ben puts on a couple miles, hands behind his back in a comfortable stroll. I hope I can walk this far when I am 90.
Ben was raised in northern Illinois, back in the days when habitat and pheasants and quail abounded there. “In the fall, I would hunt my way to and from school with our family’s gun-shy springer,” he laughs. “I would stash my gun in the woods.”
After a stint in the army followed by college on the GI Bill, he and his wife Bobbie moved to Washington State, followed in a year by a move to Livingston, Montana in 1962, where they raised their family and Ben started his line of big-running Brittanys geared to hunting the West.
The term renaissance man is defined by Ben O. Williams. Twenty-five years a high school teacher (including basketball coach). A Master of Fine Arts degree tacked on. Architect (he designed his and Bobbie’s home along the Yellowstone River, among other homes in the area). Sculptor (including life-sized bronzes of pronghorn, bison, curlew and more). Aficionado of fine guns. Writer. Photographer. Bird dog breeder and trainer of legend.
And, no matter what the endeavor, aways a creator and an inspirer.
Articles. Essays. Columns. Pictures. Books.
Ben’s work inspires upland hunters. His “Western Wings” column has graced the pages of Pointing Dog Journal almost forever. He has blessed this publication with his work. Gray’s Sporting Journal is another famous outlet. These are just surface scratchers.
It is, however, in my eyes, his 14 books (largely published through Willow Creek Press) which have reached so many souls. To name a few works:
Western Wings introduced a generation to the magic of bird hunting the West. Huns and Hun Hunting is the seminal work on that bird (read it and learn that Ben is a scientist too). American Winghsooting chronicles, in Ben’s word and photos, the gamut of American upland hunting. Hunting the Quails of North America is Ben’s tribute to all six species.
And perhaps his most important work: Bird Dog, The Instinctive Training Method, which puts owning and hunting with a bird dog into every hunter’s reach via a simple approach boiled down as follows:
Let a dog be a dog. Keep it simple. Only a few commands are really needed. Obedience is the key. Go hunting, a lot, and you two will figure out a partnership. If you both are having fun, who cares — that is what matters.
• • •
There is a lot of Ben O. Williams in me — through his work, and through the blessing of my friendship with him. He is both a character and a builder of character. A whisperer to both bird dogs and our hunting souls. An artist of words and images and inspiration … and life itself.
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever. Inspiration (and a first Brittany) provided by Ben O. Williams had much to do with his journey there.
This article originally appeared in the Upland Super Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Pheasants Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Pheasants Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.