The Promise

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Story and photos by Durrell Smith

These days I fancy myself a pointer man, true to my native Georgia roots and the Southeastern traditions of upland bird hunting, which means I hunt with both a pointer and a flushing retriever.

But four years ago I never would have seen myself operating in that dualistic fashion. Life looked much simpler, and my knowledge of gun dogs was still raw and very malleable.

I’d not yet owned a pointer. Way back then my gun dog journey began, like many, with a Labrador retriever. I asked the breeder for “the biggest, boldest you got.” She assured me that the little three-month-old pup she had was sure to be the biggest in his litter and he wasn’t a fan of sharing the food bowl with his littermates. “Jackpot,” I said.

On the way home both man and dog were quiet but pondering the curiosities about each other. I looked at him, he sniffed me, and I rested my palm on his head. A quiet “good boy” was all I had for him.

I named him Ruger, and we worked hard those following months in the field and at home. I’d put the little pup on the ground and do everything I could to manifest his natural ability to hunt.

He had instinctively known his job since birth and I intended to enable any opportunity to fill that calling.

With with my friend and mentor Eric, I’d throw bumpers into the lake for Ruger to retrieve on command. Ruger pounded into the water, tackling it in pure linebacker fashion. Each retrieve built his drive, and on land each pen-raised quail fueled a drive that grew larger and more monstrous, feather by feather.

It was shortly after one such training session that Eric asked me to join him on a trip to Kansas with him and his Chesapeake Bay retriever for a few days of nail-biting cold and an opportunity to hunt an unfamiliar landscape.

Sixteen hours we drove, from Atlanta to Concordia, Kansas. My family prides itself on being well traveled, and my granddaddy made it a point to take me as many places in the states as he reasonably could before I got to college, but this place was nothing like I’d ever seen before. It seemed to have been placed exclusively for hunters, intentionally placed well away from anywhere that meant anything to city slickers like me.

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We planned to stay three days. Hunting ducks that morning, there wasn’t enough training in the world to prepare a Georgia boy for that kind of Kansas cold.

I left with a frozen finger that day that didn’t stop tingling in the tips for another two or three months. But in the moment, I was awestruck, and my joy knew no bounds. The next day, however, would be for upland birds.

The next morning the sun rose over our tents, its rays bouncing off the frost of the truck’s windshield. It was windy that day and everyone’s nose ran in the face of that icy breeze.

We walked through knee-high grasslands, undisturbed in its beauty, and daunting in its expanse. Now this was what I’d imagined upland hunting to look like: rolling prairies, rusty old abandoned cars, and dilapidated houses. It was like a page torn right out of a magazine, but I felt as though most of America had forgotten about this place shortly after the Great Depression.

“Aint no life to live here, so where in the heck are the birds?” I thought to myself. It was so vividly lifeless, but I knew there was something special about this place, I felt it in my spirit, just as I’d felt the freezing temperature in my bones.

Eric knew there were pheasants and quail here, but with two retrievers, how were we going to approach so much land? The hunter we’d passed was unloading three shorthairs, and off they went into the depths of this seemingly endless country.

Seeing that, I suddenly felt we were outmatched in this country, and I’d begun to settle my mind on the birds we’d bagged up until that point, which consisted of a redhead and a coot, both now frozen in the cooler.

But we were here, so on the last day, off we went for our last rodeo. We walked miles to no avail, Ruger quartering fifteen yards ahead of me. This country was taking us for a spin. A rodeo it truly was. Nothing seemed to come together for Ruger, and I became increasingly worried that the dog would not make contact with a wild bird and the trip would be a wash. But it was in that moment that I started the tradition of telling my dog a famously optimistic one-liner that keeps us in the hunt when it gets tough.

“Don’t worry pup, we gon’ get you a bird."

Our time was winding down and we got back in the truck to hunt one last area before leaving. At the time I didn’t have half a mind for locating habitat for upland birds, but I knew how to take a hint from nature. From the passenger side of the truck I noticed a hawk lingering in circles above an old collection of discarded automobile parts. I looked beneath the hawk and abruptly told Eric to pull over. “There’s a rooster over there, and we’re going to get it before that hawk does,” I said.

The game was on. We jumped out, turned the dogs loose, and I grabbed two shells from my pocket and jammed them into my 870. Ruger and Razor searched frantically, matching the intensity of the moment. But after 15 minutes of searching, if there had been a rooster there he’d managed to evade us, and the hawk had obviously given up as well.

Since we were there, we figured it was worth it to continue hunting around the area since the day was almost over, anyway. We split up, Eric taking his chessie Razor to hunt the stretch of grassland near the auto parts, while I crossed the road.

To my right was an old house, weather beaten and lifeless. Nothing about it struck me as significant, and definitely the least likely place to hold any kind of gamebirds. I thought I’d move on past it into another areas of wiregrass, but Ruger was immediately pulled into a patch of brush right off the far corner of the old house.

He hesitated, confused as I was. His tail flagged a little, then a little more, and seconds later, he pounced and became engulfed in the fibers of the hedge as a large covey of bobwhites flushed.

I hadn’t been ready. I’d let my guard down but more importantly, I’d let my dog down. Ruger, however, had unfinished business. He kept hunting, and a late single flushed across my shooting lane.

In that moment, it all came together. One shot, two, and the bird fell. Ruger, experienced in retrieving pen-raised birds back home, performed a textbook mark and retrieve to hand.

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The bird’s last breath faded gently as Ruger dropped it gently in my hand. It was a job well done on a final opportunity, and a moment neither of us will ever forget. That day, on his final flush, Ruger became his own wild bird dog.

And ever since, even in the pineywoods of south Georgia, I’ve maintained my promise to this dog, “Don’t worry pup, we gon’ get you a bird.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, become a member today!