The Fountain of Youth

Lab with Pheasant

The old boy doesn’t leap into the truck like he once could, but he still manages to lurch up the running boards and cross the center console. Instead of stowing him in the back for this road trip, I break the rules and let him ride shotgun. He acknowledges the exemption and quickly curls into a ball and closes his eyes before we even reach the end of the driveway.

It’s just Wyatt and I on this adventure. He’s not ready to accept the realities of faltering health and advanced years. I don’t blame him. Gone are the days of hunting with other bird dogs. The desire to compete with their speed and distance risks fatal exhaustion and injury. Carrying a dog his size out of the field a few times made me quickly realize the game had to change.

The wear and tear of earlier hunts this season has me ready to ease up a bit too. Without the pressure of other dogs, Wyatt seems willing to compromise to a pace matching our current state.

The birds aren’t going to cooperate with this new downtempo pact, which is the challenge I get to solve in my head over the next 18 hours of driving. The plan is to return to where Wyatt found his first birds and made his first retrieves to recapture his youth. In 2008 he was just a four-month-old pup that had played with some wings in the backyard; that was the extent of his hunt education. Back then we believed in on-the-job training. Given how Wyatt turned out, it’s hard to say we were wrong.

It doesn’t seem possible that eleven seasons have passed, but Wyatt’s gray chin tucked up next to the shifter serves as a reminder as the sun peaks over the horizon in the rearview mirror.

Somewhere over this last decade together we both unwittingly traded the exuberance of youth for experience. There are days I wish the terms of that bargain were less strict. But on this trip the experience will be our only edge against wild birds that lack respect for wisdom.

Just a handful of years ago I walked 12 miles in a foot of fresh powder on these prairies with Wyatt pushing hard from sunup to sundown. Now we’ll be lucky if he can hunt much longer than an hour at a time. He isn’t going to be able to keep up with running roosters, at least not for long. When he was younger, I’d send him into the thickest, gnarly tracts and let him ferret out birds. But now I figure our roles are reversed. It’s time for me to keep my end of the bargain.

I have some areas in mind and tricks we’ve learned that should help me shorten distances and corral birds for Wyatt.

By the time we roll into town and get camp set up most of the day has gotten away from us. I decide we should at least drive around and get a quick look at the landscape and see how the cover has held up. When we hit the gravel roads it rouses Wyatt. He recognizes the rumble that’s taken us to so many places.

This evening the wind is howling. These conditions can be challenging to bird hunt, but they also offer opportunity. Wyatt and I need all the help we can get. I find a small corner of public access and roll past a couple hundred yards before bringing the truck to a stop. We’re gonna use the wind to hide our approach. We only have about an hour before sunset, but this should give us an opportunity to work out leg kinks from the cross country commute.

I strap on my vest and put a few shells in my pocket before turning into the breeze. Wyatt knows the plan. We’ve never hunted this field, but we’ve been here before. When he sees the shotgun snap shut he fights past the nagging arthritis in his shoulder and heads into the Bluestem.

I’m just happy to have him out here where it all began. For a moment I’m lost in flashbacks to that wild-eyed puppy experiencing the freedom of wide open spaces for the first time.

I let Wyatt get a ways out while I’ve been taking this leisurely stroll down memory lane when I notice him pause and cock his head. He takes two more steps and a small covey of Bobwhite erupt around him.

He shoots a look back at me and I see the glimmer in his eyes — he’s that puppy again. And with that look he shouts: “What are you waiting on? We’ve got birds to chase. Follow me.” And he takes off in pursuit.

I’ll follow you anywhere, my friend. Until the end.

Lab and Hunter

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