Great Athletes

My two favorite activities, football and bird hunting are just a month away from their 2015 season. Like most hunters during this part of the year, I begin to plan and daydream for what is coming for both activities. Timing key dates for both has always been a struggle for me as I plan and try to do it all.

But this year something different happened to my “logic” while I was thinking of both football and bird hunting. I kept asking myself what compelled my Vision of the two activities as one? After thinking through the close association, I came to the conclusion that it’s the actual athletes for both that have me thinking with excitement for the coming fall.

Like great football players, hunting also has its great athletes − dogs. For those out there that have had the sincere pleasure of hunting with excellent bird dogs, you will immediately understand the comparison of what it means to be great. Like great football players, great dogs share similar traits in their development and the end result. Both have tremendous desire, natural talent and respect the training sessions that make them better, but best is their passionate love of what they do. Great football players, even when injured, are desperate to get back into the game. In similar manner, I have never seen great dogs not wagging their tails with enjoyment — regardless of the conditions and difficulties. Now I know that there are some readers who right about now are thinking psycho-babble.

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However, after 40 years of having the pleasure and enjoyment of hunting birds and waterfowl around the world, I have evolved in my thinking of what made those hunts memorable. Like most in their younger years, memorable hunts were marked by quantities of birds both seen and shot. Equally, when people see a live football game, they are typically captivated by the grandeur of it all. Even high school games continue to be cool − well, for about the first 30 minutes.

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As I looked back on those days, I completely overlooked the dogs that made the whole thing enjoyable, and ultimately, memorable. Think about the normal post hunt BS sessions − the discussion usually goes to either the great retrieves from a quarter mile out, or the great points made on quail holding in brush that two other younger dogs passed by a half dozen times because of the dry conditions, or the cool flushes just five feet from your feet in a blowing Dakota prairie wind.

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Like the memorable plays made by the great athletes, dogs share the same reputations and discussions well past the years when they occurred. Young hunters seeing bird dogs in action remember the dogs and “their first bird,” as the most memorable. And, like seeing great players and not so great players, dogs share the same levels of respect that continue to inspire smiles and memories. As you get older and more experienced you really begin to understand what is great, and more importantly, to respect the greatness.

The greatest retrieve that I ever saw was from a small golden retriever female named Flirt. It was in 1990 while hunting ducks in Katy, Texas. There were four of us plus the guide, who owned and trained Flirt. We were in concrete sewer pipe blinds that were so confining and limited, that we could only see the birds when they were within 20 yards of us.

For those of us who hunt waterfowl down South, you know how wary the ducks have become after going through the gauntlet of decoys set up only to be met with loud booms. So it was not your typical hunt where you can see the incoming birds and you actually plan and prepare the shooting.

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For Flirt, it was worse. Her position in the bottom of the blind made it impossible for her to even see birds drop. Basically, every retrieve that she had was blind − never being able to mark the fall. After the shooting stopped, the guide would bring Flirt out of the blind, line her, and send her into the flooded rice patty − usually within 30 yards of us. It became retrieve after retrieve − 10, 20, 30 yards.

Like great running backs, the short gains become obvious and predictable. After watching this for about five retrieves, I thought that Flirt was a pretty good retriever, but nothing great. Then, like a great running back taking a screen pass for what seems like a short gain, but through their abilities and talent allows them to score a 95-yard, five-broken tackles touchdown, in the same way Flirt’s time came to have my jaw drop in amazement, respect, and fond memories that lasted 25 years later.

It was a relatively slow day as the guide started to call to a single pintail drake who was flying so high that none of us could see it. Drake whistles are the most silent of all waterfowl calls. They sound like a pillow-muffled whistle from 50 yards away. We could hardly hear the calling let alone be convinced that it was working on this very wary bird. And the fact that we could not really see the bird actually working ever so closer, made the 10 minute dual between guide and duck ever more frustrating. We could barely hear the guide saying that the bird is coming in and he will call the shot. No sooner than he said this one of the hunters came up blasting. Being 10 feet away he misunderstood, and thought the guide had given the command to shoot.

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Everyone came up to see that the pintail was now about 60 yards away and madly gaining altitude. Over the pleading of apologies for shooting the drake too early and way out of normal range, we all watched the drake slowly fly about five rice patty fields away and into a tree line swamp (we later measured the distance by actually walking it), well beyond a quarter mile.

When all seemed lost, the pintail fell from the sky − stone dead. The hunter who shot proclaimed that he felt terrible, and others commented that it was a shame, but not completely his fault. Just when were ready to write the whole ordeal off, the guide was out of his blind and telling Flirt to heel. I glanced over, and immediately understood what was going to be asked of this dog. I won’t bore you with the level of difficulty by naming off the distance and the many obstacles to get there, but think if you were asked to find a drab-colored hat roughly pointed to you in a general direction about quarter mile to a half mile away, and in brush that is identical to everything around it.

After thinking that the guide was out of his mind to torture Flirt with this impossible scenario, my excitement was now really focused.  In fact, I stopped the conversation between the others, and told them they would be seeing the best and most memorable part of that hunt − either laughing to themselves as the poor dog ran around in circles becoming completely confused, or by watching proof of GREATNESS. I quickly explained the situation so that all of us would be witnesses.

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As the guide pointed her nose into the general direction with his hand, he said softly “Flirt, mark,” and then in an exaggerated command of looooooooong. The dog took off instantly bounding through the muddy water like it was simple confetti. As all of our focus was on the dog you could really see the extreme definition of her muscles. This was no weekend-only gun dog; she was committed, focused and ripped with definition.

Almost 15 minutes (I timed it) later, and six different attempts the guide patiently worked Flirt into the general area of the fall with nothing but hand and whistle signals. With every whistle blow, the now tiny figure in the distance would stop, sit and look back to see what direction she should take. As if this was not hard enough, it started to rain. About 10 minutes into this player- coach session of signals, the guide took his hunting jacket and shirt off, wearing nothing but a white t-shirt while it was pouring. He then tore two long pieces of the t-shirt bottom to use as “white hand gloves” − all so Flirt could better see him and his hand signals.

At this point, we were all watching through binoculars, as the dog all but disappeared in the thick brush − coming in and out occasionally to give us a crude reference of her location. When the guide finally got Flirt into the area, he stopped giving signals and proclaimed to us “I can’t do anything else to help her. Now it’s just up to her natural abilities to hunt and find that sprig.”

This statement offered the additional drama that was slowly creating a hell of a story. I mean this was the equivalent of a 99-yard march across the football field during a miserable downpour with players soaking wet and placing their hopes on the great players. On fourth and goal to go and time running out, the coach tells the quarterback to make the call himself.

We continued to watch Flirt through our binoculars eagerly hunting the area − tail wagging like she was waiting for a bacon smorgasbord. At this point, no one cared about the birds circling above and checking out our decoys. Watching all of this unfold WAS the hunt, with great talent happening right in front of us. We had a soaking wet guide with his bottom half torn t-shirt, which he made into small white flags for each hand, a dog that was sent to find something that she never knew existed, and both worked as a harmonious team to benefit the others’ success. It was very cerebral.

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After about 12 total minutes into the retrieve (seemed like hours), we completely lost sight of Flirt. Excitement about the unfolding drama soon gave way to disappointment and feeling sorry for both guide and dog. The guide slowly started to put his clothing on and we all went back into the pits to seek shelter from the rain.

As I got back into my hole, I heard one of the other hunters yell out “Oh my God.” We all came up instantly to see Flirt sitting there by the guide’s blind holding the pintail sprig in her mouth. I think that we all cheered for at least three straight minutes with excitement and delight at what this talented dog had just achieved. For her part, she gave up the bird to her master and quickly jumped back into the blind dark bottom with a no-big-deal, just-doing-my-job attitude.

After 25 years to this day, Flirt’s performance still makes me smile and look back at how great her abilities and talents made one of the most memorable days in my 40 years of hunting. Equally interesting is that two of the hunters that were in the party that day I met again at another club some four years later. All three of us could remember only one thing − the tremendous talent that the little golden retriever named Flirt possessed, and what a memorable privilege it was to see a great athlete perform.

Robert Bonev is an entrepreneur who is a lifelong upland and waterfowl hunter.

He resides in North Dakota.

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