The Wild Side: Sometimes a good companion makes a good hunter
I once read a quote that was attributed to well-known naturalist Aldo Leopold that really stuck with me: “The deer hunter watches the trail; the partridge hunter watches his dog; the waterfowl hunter watches the horizon.” As with many quotes, I am not sure the original intent was meant to be profound; Leopold may well have been talking about hunting. Frankly, I doubt it. To me, it speaks more to a life philosophy. Explore the concept with me for a bit.
I hunt deer, partridge and waterfowl. When I am deer hunting, I watch the trail-no doubt about it. In fact, I attempt to find a location where two well-used trails meet, and set up in good cover downwind of that intersection. Then I watch down the trails.
When I am hunting partridge (ruffed grouse), I definitely watch the dog. I let her choose which fork to take on the walk, and when she heads into the woods, I follow. She tells me when the scent gets hot or cold. She tells me that a bird was there not too long before, whether it ran or flew off, even when it landed in a tree. When I take a shot at a bird, she tells me whether I hit or missed it. I grew up grouse hunting without a dog, now I couldn’t imagine it without her.
When I waterfowl hunt, I watch the horizon; if you don’t watch the horizon, you don’t know where the ducks are coming from, or where they are headed. You don’t know when to call, or whether the ducks are being lured in.
Recently, though, I discovered a truth about myself. I love duck hunting the most of those three; probably grouse hunting next, and deer last. I enjoy and participate in them all, but duck hunting really suits me best.
Last weekend was the waterfowl season opener, and I was out duck hunting with some friends. I realized that I am bad at watching the horizon. Others on either side of me would see the ducks first, tell me what direction, where in the sky, how many, and even what species of duck before I ever saw them. Even with all that warning, I normally wouldn’t see the ducks until they were quite close.
I am not as good at watching the horizon as I maybe thought. I realized that one of the most important parts of duck hunting for me is working with my dog. She watches the skies while I call, so I can tell by her eyes where the birds are without looking up. When I take a shot, she is waiting for a splash, so she can get in the water. I try to point her to where I saw the duck, and she tries to find it. She is by no means a perfect retriever, but I am definitely not a perfect hunter. Together, though, we always enjoy the experience as a team regardless of the outcome.
I realized that in the hunting realm, I am best at watching the dog. I don’t do well sitting silent and motionless, watching the trail. I don’t do well constantly scanning the horizon either. If I am right about Leopold, this is an analogy about life. I think in order for me to be the best sportsman, the best person, I can be, I have to work with the dog. I can’t wait until something comes down the established trail to me. I can’t see what’s next on the horizon until it is close enough to make a difference; then I have to make a fast decision based on what is going on in the moment. Whether grouse hunting or duck hunting, my best chance of success follows when I take my cues from the dog.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.