Austin, TX. “That dog won’t hunt,” said noted Austin Texas trial lawyer Archie Carl Pierce at lunch when I told him I planned to hunt my new dog–a labradoodle. Most of the group agreed with Carl, advising me my wife would spoil that dog. A dog can’t be a working dog and a pet, he said. I laughed at the group, but because Carl was armed with seven decades in the school of life his comment deserved to be taken seriously.
The dog, Dixie Papa, was to be a companion for my wife after her father passed. A flat coat labradoodle, she was smart and a good pet. My wife and I disagreed about whether Dixie could get on the furniture—I lost. Dixie now has her own chair in the living room. She has been a great companion for my wife, but could she be a family dog and a bird dog too? Maybe Carl was right. I decided to try anyway.
We took Dixie to “Austin Sit Means Sit” dog trainers to work on the basics. I discussed my concerns with the trainer Kelly Coffey. Kelly told me that in her opinion there was no reason why she couldn’t be both a hunting dog and a family pet.
I started training her to be a bird dog. I had experience with an earlier dog who was gun-shy. That dog had run and jumped into the open car trunk when my dad fired a shotgun. So I started with a cap gun. Dixie did great; the sound didn’t spook her. I worked her up to a trip to a local Gun Club to hear shotguns. She was frightened at first but settled down. We were past the gun-shy hurdle.
While traveling I listened to the book Team Dog by Mike Ritland, a US Navy Seal who trained dogs for the military and tried some of his suggestions. Retriever? Dixie was a natural. Follow commands to drop the bird? Check. Hold on a stay command until released to fetch? Working on it.
After training, where to hunt? Even for those of us without acres to hunt, Texans are blessed with many options. There are guided hunts and private leases where you can go when you want. For me though, the best value is the Annual Public Hunt permit offered by Texas Parks and Wildlife. For $48.00 you can purchase a permit when you purchase your hunting license that qualifies you to hunt on any land that an owner has placed into the program. There are over 1 million acres of land in Texas in the program. I know other states have similar programs. They open a whole avenue for families to enjoy the outdoors who otherwise would not be able to.
Our first dove hunt arrived. I got up early, pulled down the shotgun, loaded shells and a bird bag in the car, and drove to land in the public hunt program at Granger Lake, close to Austin. I saw no doves to shoot at, so we had no birds to find in the field. My wife came along in her cute new hunting outfit. We left the field before it got too hot because she did not want to sweat it out. Another hunter we saw on the way out had seen and downed a bird in the brush close to the water. He was having trouble finding the bird and asked if Dixie could help him. “Find the bird” I told Dixie and off she went. After a few minutes she returned with the dove in her mouth and brought it to me. She wasn’t sure she wanted to drop it, but finally did. I was sure proud.
On our second hunt a friend joined us. Again, we downed no birds. Not her fault: the shooter must hit the bird they are aiming for! My bad. I think she just shook her head when I missed.
Hunt number three was just Dixie and me. We saw doves, and I even downed some. With great excitement I told her “Fetch!” She looked at me, wagged her tail, and ran off; I think she was smiling! I know I was. Dixie found the first bird, brought it back to me and dropped it. It is really a thrill to watch a dog work. What a great day! I shot some more birds, and after a couple of hours we gathered our trophies and headed home.
I called my wife to tell her about the good news on our way home. I could sense her trepidation. She didn’t want to see or eat the birds! We had family coming over, I was sure they would.
When I got home, I fired up the barbeque, cleaned up the birds, and got the dove ready to serve. Barbeque sauce, a jalapeno in the breast. All wrapped in bacon. Who could resist? Well, my family that’s who. Don’t worry, the birds did not go to waste.
After dinner that night, my wife asked if it was lonely hunting by myself. I looked at Dixie and felt like author John Graves must have in Goodbye to a River describing the last boat trip he took down the Brazos with his dog Pocono Shot in the late 1950s. When a lady asked Graves if the canoe trip had been lonely, he told her he wasn’t lonely, he had a dog. That is how I feel.
The fact is that dogs were breed for thousands of years to help man hunt in the wild. Prehistoric drawings of men hunting routinely include a dog. This heritage lies behind the many dogs today purchased to be pets. You may take the dog out of the hunt, but you really can’t take the hunt out of the dog—ask the squirrels or other small animals in your neighborhood.
I know many fear guns. I understand that. But if you haven’t held a loaded shotgun on an early morning along the Rio Grande east or west of El Paso where I grew up hunting with my dad and a dog—or any of the thousands of other spots people hunt– you can’t fully understand it. Your whole body tingles as you hear the birds’ wings, or catch a glimpse of them flying, or sense your dog’s excitement. The interaction of it all can be glorious. That joy includes the relationship with your dog, the birds, the trees, and the land. The song “The Bird Hunters” by the Turnpike Troubadour’s singing, “Jim the hunting dog who has a dozen Decembers behind him” was a hit for a reason.
Former United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, born and raised in the city, understood. He was a hunter, who fittingly passed away the night before a bird hunt in the Texas Big Bend. After he died, Justice Elena Kagan spoke of Scalia taking her bird hunting with great love. In one speech Scalia confessed “I am a hunter.” He then movingly described how holding the shotgun his grandfather had used hunting the fields of Italy made him feel close to him. Same with my shotgun and ancestors. He also expressed how many hunters have an almost religious experience in the wild; waiting and watching for the birds to fly. The judge advised hunters to pray a rosary rather than read a Bible while hunting because you need two hands to hold a bible and only one to hold your rosary beads. I think Scalia’s advice will get more than a few nods from hunters.
Dixie has shown she will hunt and that she is a good pet too. Whether hunting or watching TV at home, you will never be alone with a good dog by your side. Dixie and I may never get another bird, but a bird hunt is a great excuse to get out of the office, away from a lunch at the faculty lounge, away from this or that electronically amplified human crisis and into the rhythm of nature. The real question is not whether dogs will hunt but whether we will.
PS. While updating this piece, a calendar entry “Possible bird hunt in El Paso with Dad” popped up. He passed away weeks before we could make that trip. A reminder that time is sacred.