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New pups give hunters reason for optimism
August 20,2004
Ed Wall
Special to the Sun Journal

It's been said that an optimist is one who feels certain it won't rain, even as the clouds are forming. A pessimist is one who's sure it will and that he'll probably drown.

And a realist is one who carries his umbrella just in case. Almost all outdoor sportsmen fall into the first category.

Who else but an optimist could sit on a deer stand hour after hour, certain that a ten-pointer is going to step out of the brush at any moment, when experience and common sense tell him the odds are against it?

If hunters and fishermen are consummate optimists, then those who enjoy their sport in the company of gun dogs or hounds are the worst (or the best) of the lot.

Every time one of them looks at a litter of little Walker hounds, he sees the finest deer dog in the country --running for hours on end, never tiring, pushing massive whitetails out of the densest pocosins, all the while baying with a resonance usually reserved for operatic baritones.

If the pups happen to be Labs or Golden Retrievers, the scene is a wind-scoured point of marsh, with the hunter hunkered down in the brush and a pair -- no, make that a dozen --mallards dropping into the decoys.

The dog, of course, sits quietly by his master's side, waiting to launch himself into the frigid water to make the first of countless retrieves.

The fact that those scenes rarely mesh with reality never enters into the hunter's consciousness. It certainly didn't occur to me the last time I decided to fill a vacancy in my kennel.

As I stood gazing at a squiggly little mass of English Setter pups, there was no doubt in my mind that at least one of them had the makings of the finest bird dog most mortal men have ever seen. There was at least one field trial winner in the bunch for sure -- heck --maybe a National Champion! All I had to do was decide which one it was.

A couple of hours later I had made my pick and was on my way home with the future Gun Dog of the Year curled up in my mother's lap beside me. (Mama was an accomplice in the venture, even if she had to be kept in the dark about where we were going to insure her cooperation.)

I didn't make my choice in haste. No sir, I used sound, scientific methods, the kind described in detail by the professionals in the outdoor magazines. I applied the "Alpha Dog" technique and the "Check-Off" principle.

I prodded and evaluated and compared until the breeder, Mama, and probably the pups themselves, thought I had taken leave of my senses. Then, using my vast wealth of knowledge and experience, I made my decision. It was the little female with two black ears and soft, pleading eyes that would melt a railroad spike.

She was the one who leaned against my leg and looked up with an expression that said, "All right big guy, what are you waiting for? Let's go home." So we did.

Later that evening, after the excitement that surrounds the arrival of a new puppy had subsided, the little Setter and I lay on the couch and thought about things. (The couch can be off-limits later.) I'm not sure what she dreamed about but I imagined a crisp winter morning and a pair of beautiful English Setters locked up on point along the edge of a golden bean field, tails rigid, the feathering wafting slightly in the breeze.

I saw a covey of bobwhite quail exploding from the cover, me swinging my smooth old A-5, and the dogs returning, each with a bird cradled in its mouth.

I realized the odds are against that scene ever developing just that way, especially with the numbers of quail and woodcock continuing to decline.

I also realized that, if the birds did happen to cooperate and be where they should, I'd be lucky to scratch one down, much less two. If I did, I'd probably be the one bringing it back since my dogs in the past have been less than spectacular retrievers.

We hunters are all optimists, though. And we know that, no matter what, winter will come and bird hunting with it.

We also know that we'll be out there with older dogs and our pups, and they'll be the best anyone's ever seen, even if we're the only ones who ever see them. The little ones will be too young for any serious training. For them, it will be time for playing and exploring and learning that bird dogs are what they are.

It will also be a time, though, for dreaming about golden seasons to come.

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