IT IS 5:58 A.M., AND THE BIRDS begin to fly. First, a solitary drake, cutting across the deep cobalt of the predawn sky, its shadow black as it flits between the skeleton tree trunks reaching up, always up. Soon, his flock mates join him, moving from cover to forage. Their wingbeats are audible, squeaky-creaky like an aural dotted line traced across the sky. From the other end of the blind, a shotgun flares, sparks flying from the muzzle into the darkness, the smoke not yet visible. One of the shadows high in the air folds its silken wings and drops, elegantly but with finality, toward the water.
“Scoop,” comes a deep-voiced command, and a jet-black male Labrador, responding to the word that is both his name and his signal, surges into the water. He has already marked the downed bird and swims inerrantly toward it. He disappears into the reeds, then returns, striking back for the boat without pausing. More shotguns blare as the dog clambers aboard, dropping the duck at his master’s feet before he spins, readying himself for the next run. He does not even bother to shake off. He is a working dog, as well as a prized pet, running the table on a series of ducks brought down for him by his flint-eyed master and the other hunters who’ve joined them this morning. Five hundred years and more of breeding have brought the dog—and his owner—to this point. It is an old game, one they have never lost.
You can learn a lot about the inborn nature of a hunter—or maybe just of a person—by watching how he or she interacts with a dog. Sometimes, if you watch for a while, you can even get a little glint of the soul, like a bright feather hidden deep in a brushy covert when the sun hits it just right. In the forests and fields of our state, you’ll meet grizzled, old upland bird hunters, their chaps faded by the sun; science-minded breeders armed with the modern tools of nutrition and genetics; tough nocturnal swamp foxes; and land-striders always looking for the next horizon. Some view their dogs as prized tools, others as next of kin. With their Labradors, drahthaars and German shorthaired pointers, these passionate individuals pursue bobwhite quail, ringneck pheasants, mallards, wood ducks, teal, widgeons and pintails, even deer—a panoply of dogs in a never-ending palette of nature’s most beautiful conflagrations of fur, feathers and habitat. Yet for every variation of breed and environment, what holds true in every instance are the bonds they’ve made—and the stories they tell.
Rob & Candy Lambert
–Axel & Caya–
Rob and Candy Lambert are natural-born encouragers who see their dogs not just as tools or even as mere companions, but as full-fledged members of the family. Out of an endless array of options, they chose to raise—and breed—a clan of drahthaars (roughly pronounced “draw-tower”), starting with the male, Axel, and his partner, Caya. The drahthaar is a tough customer—a German breed with a protective wire coat and whose traits, including a spectacular nose for finding game and webbed feet for swimming, have been finely honed and adapted to the hunt over manifold generations.
“I was looking for a fully versatile hunting dog,” Rob explains, “by which I mean the kind of dog that would adapt to whatever situation it found. Drahthaars are able to hunt fur game as well as birds. If you want them to swim, they can swim; point, they can point.” That versatility extends beyond the swamps and fields, spilling over into the Lamberts’ home lives, even professions.
Rob is a schoolteacher at Rogers Public Schools’ alternative education center (widely known as “The Rock”)—a tough assignment for a teacher, dealing with kids who are hard to reach and often suffer in ways teachers are not normally asked to address. “In the winter months,” Rob explains, “I sometimes bring Axel and Caya into the classroom with me. They’re smart—sometimes too smart. Axel once peed on the shoes of a kid who was really giving me trouble. Still, I find it lightens the mood—makes those kids forget whatever’s going on in their home lives outside of school. It just helps take the tension down a notch. And the dogs like it, too.”
That relationship, however, is one whose scope extends well beyond those familiar arenas. When Caya, birthed her first litter, Rob believed she had finished and began to tend to the puppies. Candy stopped him. With one look, an unspoken communication passed between the woman and her dog, and Candy knew that Caya was not finished. A minute later, one more mewling little ball of life snuffled into this world.
Arkansas’—and America’s—best-known hunting species is the Labrador retriever, but few Labs have the grit and resilience of Scoop and his young owner, 25-year-old Andrew Fairchild. “I was at work when I got the call,” Fairchild says, his voice tightening at the memory. “It was the animal-control officer. Scoop had been hit by a car, and they were taking him to the vet. He was only 18 months old. I rushed right over.” The news wasn’t good. Scoop’s pelvis was fractured in three places. “The vet took one look at me and offered to put Scoop down,” Fairchild says. “He could tell I was too young to be able to afford a $3,000 surgery.” The only other option was to put Scoop on bed rest—kenneling him around the clock—for three months, and there were no guarantees. “We decided to give him a fighting chance.”
That summer, Scoop and Fairchild went to work, first teaching Scoop to walk again. “He could move around a little bit, but we took it very easy.” By the fall, he was running—his gait was different, but Fairchild could see the daylight at the end of the tunnel. “We started with a dove hunt,” he remembers. “From the first bird to go down, he was marking and retrieving again. I can’t tell you how good that felt.”
Scoop is well-recovered now. From his potential deathbed, he has risen to become the primary workhorse of a team of four duck hunters. “Scoop has worked from blinds, from the bank, even from the bottom section of a tree stand hung just out of the water,” Fairchild says. “He has retrieved mallards, pintail, teal, gadwall, woodies, widgeons and spoonbills. We’re hoping for a canvasback this year, and I’d like to add to my collection of bands. I’ve only got one—from a greenhead mallard banded in North Dakota, but I know there are more waiting out there for us.”
German Shorthaired Pointer
Chris Cousins is the kind of man who has to shorten the length of his stride when he’s walking on concrete instead of the dry turf of the Badlands. His German shorthaired pointer (or GSP), Ally, just turned 9 years old. Together, they have spent her near-decade of life coursing across the rolling grassy heart of North America, pursuing wild quail, partridge and pheasants throughout the Great Plains, even though the duo could just stay close to home and shoot pen-raised, planted birds on game farms.
Their focus on wild birds speaks to a certain refinement of spirit, a recognition that some things need to be done the right way if they are to retain their value. “Two birds per hunter per day is a good outing,”
Cousins admits of his passion—a measure of “success” that would scare most people away from a 900-mile one-way drive. Even when Ally does manage to find a wild bird and come to a point, Cousins is often required to hold off: “You’re not allowed to shoot hen pheasants,” he explains. “Of course the dogs can’t tell the difference by smell, so you’ll get a lot of points even if you aren’t harvesting birds, and that lets the dogs be what they were meant to be.”
As the years have passed, more and more public land has fallen under the plow, thanks in large part to the recent rise of corn ethanol. This has forced Cousins and Ally into concentric circles of ever-increasing size to find adequate stocks of wild game.
“Recently, Ally and I were working a butte in southwest North Dakota,” Cousins recalls. “Those buttes are just enormous. My GPS tracker showed that she was locked on point about 900 yards out. Watching her run at that distance was so cool. By the time I got up to her, the wind was just howling. The grass there was pretty short, and when I closed in, a whole covey of sharptails busted up into the gale. They were so fast! We missed everything. Ally looked at me for a second and then just turned around and started trotting back to the truck. She knew we were done for the day. Those were the only birds we were going to find.”
Hunter Fry is the consummate trainer, an affable man also drawn to the drahthaar for the breed’s incredible versatility. “The amazing thing about these dogs,” he says in a still-bemused tone, “is their uncanny skill with no training at all.” The German breeding organization that certifies drahthaars has a “natural-ability test” that puppies have to pass when they are 1 year old if the owner wants the certification necessary to breed them with “papers.” The test is rigorous. “First,” Fry explains, “you take this young dog out and stir up a rabbit, which they have to find. Then they point a quail. A lot of breeds can handle both of those things. But the coolest part is the live duck test. You let a live duck go on a pond, and it’ll swim across and hide. Then the dog tracks the duck on the water using its nose. I didn’t even know they could do that!”
Abby, he notes with pride, passed the test with flying colors. “They also check things like teeth and coat, physical conformity to the breed standard. It took me 2 1/2 years to get Abby certified, but that’s what separates these dogs from a pet golden retriever. The German system keeps the hunting element at the forefront.”