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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

For a moment we stood in a soggy field of soybeans swapping stories. Then Howard Irvin realized his pointers were out of sight.
"Now where'd those dogs get to?" he asked, ending an anecdote to start walking.

Just across the crest of a small hill was the answer. What greeted us was a painting. There, standing like statues, noses to the brush and tails straight up in the air, were Newt and Sally, Irvin's pair of English pointers.

How long the dogs had been locked in a point along the field edge is hard to say.

Even so, Irvin didn't run to the brush. He didn't seem hurried at all as he ambled over to the dogs, allowed me to take a few pictures, motioned me into position and then stepped into the tangle of briars Newt was watching so intently.

Maybe that's why, for a change, I downed the quail - a gamebird that normally gives me fits. Oh, my heart still hammered when the bird flushed. I still missed once, even though Irvin had joked, "They're pretty easy to hit when they're wet. They can't fly very fast then."

To me the quail still looked to be flying fast, even in the persistent drizzle.

But there's something steadying about hunting with a man who is supremely at ease with his dogs. An hour in the field with someone constantly yelling at his hounds can seem like a lifetime. One of my least favorite hunting memories is of spending a day in a duck blind with a hard-handed hoss who took out every frustration on his promising young Labrador retriever.

In four hours afield, the 67-year-old Irvin never raised his voice. He whistled some and often encouraged his dogs to hunt close. Mostly he told stories and walked leisurely through the mud while his dogs worked the brush and fields.

"My wife (Kathyrn) says that all I want to talk about is dogs and birds," Irvin said with a slight drawl. "That's pretty close to the truth."

This was the gentlemanly style of southern Illinois quail hunting I've often read about but seldom experienced.

At times the dogs ranged out of sight, something I've come to expect when in the company of pointers. But never once did they leave the county, something I've also come to expect from pointers.

"If you don't have a dog that's gonna reach out to find something, they're not gonna find much with these wild quail," he said. "I've hunted all kinds in my time. But I always wind up with English pointers. They're wild quail machines."

All too often, it seems, big-running pointers are dogs you seldom see once they leave the box. Not so Irvin's hounds. They checked back often. Most times when they did get out of sight, we'd find them locked up near a field edge.

"I've lost them for 20 minutes or more and then found them still on point," Irvin said. "He'll get so tired he'll just lay down next to them, still pointing."

Irvin was speaking of Newt, the 4-year-old black-and-white male he named after Newt Gingrich "because, at first, I didn't like the dog."

These days Irvin would gladly vote twice for his pointer. He's also pleased with Sally, a 2-year-old liver-and-white female who shows promise in her first season afield, and whose bloodline includes a bird dog hall of famer.

While Monday morning may not have provided hall of fame material, the dogs certainly worked well. We never experienced the furor of a full covey flush but we did down four of seven birds that rocketed skyward in singles or pairs.

Along the way Irvin reminisced about the hundreds of setters, pointers and Brittany spaniels he's hunted behind and the handful he can't forget. The dog he buried last year along a field edge was his best, he said. That pointer, King, died at 8 of cancer. Discussing King's passing was the only thing that quieted Irvin, himself a cancer survivor who 20 years ago was given three years to live.

"I realize they're just dogs. But that dog, he was special," he said. "I didn't brag about him too much because I was afraid somebody might steal him.

"A dog that will work for me that hard, why that gives me added determination to get them a bird. I'll go in with my teeth gritting for a dog like that."

DEER NUMBERS: The Department of Natural Resources expects to release preliminary harvest data from the first shotgun season later this week. We'll have a full report when totals are made available.

JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3212 or e-mail to

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