Things don’t always go according to plan. But sometimes they turn out pretty nicely just the same.
Days before Thanksgiving a year ago I brought home an eight-week-old chocolate Lab I named Chief D. Toblerone, aka Toby.
With a part-time job and a light, flexible freelance schedule I intended to train him into a spectacular bird-finder and well-mannered hunting partner.
Turns out it wasn’t the ideal year to take on the job.
Early training progressed more or less as expected before things went south starting in August.
DNR’s August Roadside Survey indicated pheasant numbers were down considerably in North Iowa, hardly ideal for starting a pup.
Then, as faithful readers will recall, my part-time job turned full-time plus due to understaffing at the Human Society of North Iowa. (Yep, they’re still hiring.)
Shooting a pheasant or two on opening weekend was all but a done deal when I trained my previous labs. They were ready and the birds were readily available.
As a young pup Toby had the opportunity to “find” a few roosters I brought home from successful late-season hunts.
On spring and summer walks he’d occasionally jump birds from the road ditch, demonstrating considerable enthusiasm in the process.
Yet our interrupted late-summer training meant Toby had only a handful of pigeons shot over him before the opener and no meaningful experience with tracking birds in heavy cover.
Unsure of his abilities, I envisioned shooting his first few roosters at point-blank range in light cover, hoping they’d be stone dead and easy to find.
The birds had other ideas.
The roosters we did encounter — many of which were likely older birds experienced with dogs and hunters — tended towards thicker vegetation and often flushed on the edge of range or beyond.
I passed on such shots while waiting for those “gimmes.”
By late November, just a few days before Thanksgiving and about a year after he officially became mine, we were still seeking Toby’s first rooster.
We headed to the restored prairie my wife and I own along the Winnebago River on a beautiful fall morning: sunny skies, cool but not cold temperatures and a light-to-moderate breeze.
As we worked the south edge of the grass a rooster flew from the hillside and landed at the edge of a willow thicket over 100 yards ahead. A second did the same another 200 or so yards further down.
I guided Toby along the thicket and then waded into some heavier cover in a small depression at the end.
The young dog skirted the tangle before diving in a bit far ahead, sending a cackling, low-flying rooster at marginal range sailing deeper into the willows. I held off.
From there we made several passes working north through the grass.
Toby bounced around happily but without purpose. As far as he knew we were just out for a walk.
Along the way we chanced upon the occasional hen. Whenever one flushed I laid on the praise whether Toby had anything to do with it or not.
After a few such encounters I noticed Toby tense up, put his nose to the ground and snake through the grass deliberately.
Twenty yards or so later another hen popped out almost underfoot. He gave chase for just a few steps and then watched it fly away before bounding excitedly back to me for a double helping of “good boys.”
Instinct was overcoming inexperience.
Toby demonstrated considerably more application thereafter and was rewarded with several flushes. He even trailed one runner for 100 yards or more while still returning to my whistles each time he got too far ahead.
(My eight-year-old veteran lab Hank could take a lesson!)
Yet after nearly two hours we had yet to see another rooster.
Finally I accepted what should have been obvious: it was time to take the training wheels off and let Toby hunt roosters where they were instead of where I wanted them to be.
The mostly impenetrable thicket features a few low spots where pockets of thick sedges and reed canary grass contain only a smattering of pencil-thin willows.
We found a deer trail winding through such an area and waded in.
Soon an indignant rooster cackled as he erupted from the chin-deep jungle, within range but not exactly close.
I swung my Ruger on the fleeing bird. He dropped with the first shot, but I could tell the hit hadn’t been solid.
Now I had exactly the scenario I’d hoped to avoid all season: a wounded rooster down in thick cover and a green dog that had never tangled with a live pheasant.
Toby charged in from my left as I worked toward the mark. Raw though he was, those few training sessions and a handful of duck hunts had taught him that gunshots often mean birds.
As expected, the rooster was not where I thought it had fallen. “Find it,” I encouraged.
Toby stuck his nose to the ground and once again assumed a businesslike demeanor as he plunged into the dense vegetation. Soon I heard the unmistakable sound of wingbeats up ahead, followed by silence.
A good liar might describe how the pup emerged with the still-kicking rooster clenched firmly in his jaws, head held high as the sunlight rimmed him with a heavenly glow.
Ok, not quite.
When the sound stopped I waded in to find Toby astride the wounded bird with a paw on each wing, obviously enthused but a bit uncertain how to proceed.
I dispatched the rooster, praised Toby lavishly and tossed his prize back into the grass. With encouragement he picked it up and pranced around a bit, obviously pleased with himself.
It wasn’t a storybook start to what hasn’t been a storybook hunting season for Toby and I, but sometimes things that don’t go according to plan turn out pretty nicely just the same.