Lawyer Creek meanders down the valley, providing some lush bottom land of trees, reeds, and long grass. There are also thick patches of brush where the birds hide out and even the dog has trouble getting at them. The ranch has gone to great lengths to keep the habitat as wild as possible. It makes for some tough hunting for both dogs and guns.
Last year, Weatherby invited us to try out their new 28-gauge semiauto shotgun during a couple of days at the Flying B. Most such events are structured to show the gun to its very best advantage, which is hardly surprising. But in this case, we were looking at more than handling and the ballistic capabilities of either the gun or the gauge.
With four hunters, two guides, and assorted dogs, we split into pairs the first day and switched around on the second. On day one, I was with Roger Whitchurch, Weatherby's head of quality control (a good man to have in the event of malfunction), guide Jim McManus, and Jim's two dogs, June (a German shorthair) and Sophie, a rolly-polly Brittany.
So we had an unpredictable mixture of hard flushes and soft, close shots and far, birds that held and birds that ran. Combined with the variety of species, the hunting was not only a good test of the gun's handling characteristics, but also just what the 28-gauge cartridge is capable of.
In one instance, a chukar took refuge near a cliff, then soared up and over Roger's head en route to a high ridge. Roger got off a long shot and the bird wobbled, but didn't miss a beat. It set down about 250 years away-mostly straight up, unfortunately. Having seen where the bird dropped down, I set off up the slope with Sophie and June, and the three of us searched back and forth.
Finally, Sophie located the birds in a marmot's hole, and her plump Brittany behind practically disappeared as she burrowed in after it. I could hear flapping underground, and was wondering if I could grab her legs to pull her out when she scrabbled and scrambled backward out of the hole with a very bedraggled chukar in her mouth.
Sophie is not anyone's idea of the modern, state-of-the-art bird dog. She came late to hunting, having been the spayed house pet of an elderly gentleman who, knowing he was dying, wanted to find her a good home. Our guide, Jim McManus, owns Sophie's sister, and agreed to take her in. The age of five or six is awfully late in life for a dog to take up hunting, but Sophie adapted on pure instinct. Being spayed she tends to put on weight in spite of her strenuous life, and has plump and cuddly look.
The chukar-cum-woodchuck was just the first of several spectacular retrieves she made in the course of the day. One time, she spotted a runner on the other side of Lawyer Creek, and ran down over a hundred yards. Another time, on a ridge high above the creek where it flows through a steep ravine, she marked down a bird, then had to circle far around to get down the slope, and reappeared below us, right where the bird had dropped. It, too, had burrowed in, but Sophie splashed across, followed the scent, dug it out, and scrambled back up the ridge with it. All in a day's work.
"Some of the other guides laugh at her," Jim told me. "They don't think she's a real bird dog. They like shorthairs."
Yes, well, all that day, not a single bird escaped when Sophie was on the case. It didn't matter whether they were runners, or hiding in a dense briar patch, or landed across a watery torrent, Sophie found them, caught them, and brought them back. I'll take performance like that any day.
June, her shorthair kennel mate, was also a good dog, but my dominant memory is Jim bellowing "June! June!" as she bounded away on her long Teutonic casts. Given a choice between a canine Valkyrie and a plump French lapdog, well, vive la France.
In all the years I've been going to the Flying B, I can't remember ever having dog problems-that is, a dog that wouldn't or couldn't produce. The ranch has a resident population of about 60 dogs, including mothers, puppies, and trainees. The guides use ranch dogs, augmented by some of their own, as with Jim and Sophie. Two things you can depend on at the Flying B: A great appetite at the end of a day's hard work, and lots of good dog work to talk about over dinner.
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