Dog owners always know in the back of their minds that you will someday need to say goodbye to your friend of many years, too soon in most cases. How we dog owners deal with that loss varies from person to person and I had always figured when the time came, I would just deal with it on my own terms. There is no question that losing a pet, friend and hunting companion that you have spent years shaping, loving and sharing your life with can be painful and everyone deals with that grief differently. I read somewhere that we are entitled to one great dog in our lifetime. And as I have had a few that did not meet that standard, I feel blessed and incredibly lucky to have had three great dogs at the same time – all sharing my truck and the Maine woods, grouse and woodcock coverts, and many lake and river trips with me. Until now. The oldest of my three – my 14 and half year-old black and white springer has moved on. Although not a great fishing dog (she did love fishing but liked to retrieve the fish), she was a top-notch wild grouse and woodcock dog for me in Maine. And in addition, she was one of the sweetest dogs anyone could ever know – a lover of all people and all other dogs, but hell on red squirrels and raccoons. I always said if she had opposable thumbs, she would have brought me coffee in bed every morning.
Bridget and I spent countless hours over the course of her life guiding clients in downeast Maine and the North Woods of the Allagash, as well as the forests and mountains of the Magalloway region in western Maine. The stories are many, as you could imagine with any guide/dog owner that hunts as much as I do. But one story from her first season stands out from a hunt in the western mountains early in my tenure as a lodge owner – with a client from New Jersey named Shin Tagaki. I have never written this story down, but kept it close in my mind anticipating this moment for fourteen years. I have retold it many times over the course of her career as a hunting and lodge dog and figured this day would eventually come. This is a short story not only about Bridget, but about my client, Shin and the love he had for his setter too.
A little background is needed as my client – advanced in age and undergoing
treatment for cancer – with a bum leg, and hard of hearing– had never hunted grouse. He also had a young English setter named Momuji that had never pointed a wild bird. A challenge for me as a guide with a flushing dog. The disabilities of the hunter and the inexperience of his dog alone made for curious planning
for me – a pointing dog that has not pointed a bird before is by all accounts a flushing dog and we were limited to short hunts – a few hundred yards really. My client made it clear from the beginning though – he wanted his dog to have fun. He was not interested in the perfect point. He didn’t care if the dog flushed birds wild or chased rabbits (hares), of which he did both. It was a low-pressure hunt from my perspective. A walk in the woods with the dogs.
In one covert early in the day of our first year hunting together – while the setter was running wild on a hare, I spotted a grouse on the ground within gun range. I was about to let Shin know that if he wanted to take the grouse in the “pre-flight” position, as his first bird – I was okay with it. But before I could even get the words out of my mouth his 16-gauge double roared. He had his first grouse and while cradling the fallen bird and stroking the ruff on its neck, there was a tear in his eye. The stage was set. Although an excellent wing shot, Shin was okay with a ground shot if the opportunity presented itself.
Later in the day, in a new covert that started in an old logging camp yard long since reverted back to forest, we started down an old overgrown two track road toward a sizable stream with a large flood plain. The early successional forests common in floodplains are always a good bet for a grouse or two. We had put Bridget down to hunt and as her first season and new to the game, she would constantly check back so that she knew that she was doing what I wanted her to do. It prompted the question from Shin, I remember, “why does she always stop and look at you.” My answer to that question was that “I was the center of her universe and she revolved around me.” No truer words were spoken. We weren’t 50 yards into the woods when Bridget flushed a grouse out of the edge of a clearing, high and away. Shin raised the double gun, tracked the bird through the open and fired. I was standing behind him and watched closely for any indication of a hit. I saw no feathers, and the bird sailed high into the green growth along the edge of the river. Before I could get a word out, two more birds flushed from the opposite side of the trail low and away. Shin swung to the left and squeezed his second trigger and one of the birds dropped. Bridget followed the bird and made a very nice retrieve. Things were going well. As we celebrated our success and the great work by my young dog and the fine shot by Shin, I revisited the missed bird. “Were you on it?” I asked. “Did you think you hit it?” These are questions I always ask after a flush and shot. A good shooter knows when he hits a bird, even without there being any indication. Shin said he had a good shot and he could have hit it. So, we made a plan to try to locate either the wounded bird or to get another flush on it, based on its trajectory. We headed to the river’s edge and turned to work up river, figuring the bird did not cross. About 75 yards up river I saw a blur of black and white (Bridget) as she appeared to be on chase, but I saw nothing move. No hares. No grouse. No deer. We came immediately to an enormous downed spruce tree that was close to two feet across at the stump that had recently fallen to the ground, probably from winds the previous winter. This tree was big and it was tight to the ground. Bridget had interest in what was underneath, but it was so tight and thick with branches that she could not penetrate it. I stepped back and told Shin that I believed the grouse he had shot at was under this tree. I removed Bridget’s collar and lifted branches to try to let her get under the tree, but it was a futile effort. There was no getting under it. And it was so large we were helpless to move it. But Bridget wanted under it in a bad way. I certainly didn’t want to leave a wounded bird and as I scratched my head and considered options, I recalled I had my chainsaw in the truck that wasn’t really that far away. I told Shin to wait at the tree and keep an eye out for the grouse just in case it decided to try to sneak away while I walked the 10 minutes back to the truck for the chainsaw. Twenty minutes later, I was back with the chain saw and the hope of cutting up this massive spruce tree in an attempt to maybe find a wounded grouse that might or might not be under it. “Stand back and keep an eye out.” I said. I fired up the saw and started sawing my way toward the main trunk of the tree. I wasn’t 15 seconds into cutting when Shin’s 16 gauge barked just a few feet behind me and jumped me so much I almost dropped the saw. I shut off the motor, turned and saw Shin standing there with smoke coming out the barrel of his shot gun… “What the heck are you doing?” I asked. “The grouse came out of the tree.” “Flying?” I ask. “No, walking. I shot him before he flew away.”
The following year, we hunted again and I managed to find Momuji – Shin’s English setter – on his first point with a grouse, too far from the road for Shin to get a shot. He sent me in on the point and Bridget flushed the grouse. I made the shot – the first pointed grouse over the Shin’s setter. A proud moment for Shin and Momuji.
The last covert I hunted with Shin on the last year I hunted with him, was in the big woods, on the west side of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. We hunted an old skidder trail, working our way up a long hill – mixed hardwood forest with lots of young growth and raspberries around the logging openings – close to half a mile. Knowing that the walk back to the truck would really tax Shin with his limited mobility, I offered to run back to the truck with Bridget, allowing him to keep hunting uphill with Momuji until I drove the truck up the hill to meet him. I returned with the truck 30 minutes later to pick him up and there he stood, beaming with a beautiful cock grouse. “Momuji pointed it and I killed it on the flush.”
Shin never made it to Weatherby’s, although he was planning to come the year he passed. We shared a few hunts over the course of several seasons before that time came. I never saw Momuji again either, but my guess is that the two of them are chasing hares and flushing grouse somewhere in the Big Woods. Hunts and dogs, I will never forget.
And as for Bridget, I’d bring her coffee anytime. Hunt on.