My Christmas gift to my three Brittany dogs was a morning hunt on Christmas Day. In truth, it was a gift to my two male dogs and to myself.
Sassy, my 12-year-old female Brittany, stayed in her crate in the vehicle, all bundled up in her dog coat and nestled in a nest of warm blankets against the cold. She is a fair-weather hunter.
We hadn’t been bird hunting since deer season opened at the end of October. I don’t hunt with my dogs on public access land during deer season; it isn’t worth the risk.
Because I have put lots of time, energy and money into training my dogs, and because they are part of my family, I will not take a chance on one person’s potential lapse in judgment. That means we basically hunt in October and part of December.
December hunts can be lucrative, but this was not one of those hunts.
With everything else happening on Christmas Eve — work, baking, church pageant and late-night service, last-minute wrapping — I also dug out warm clothes and boots, my bird hunting vest that has special pockets for ammunition and dead game, bell collars, whistle, 20-gauge shotgun and shells and laid them out for the next morning.
The dogs watched this process with happy spirits, and when the alarm went off at 5:15 a.m., they were positively singing their exuberance. Hunting stuff laid out. Pre-dawn alarm. Owner groaning from lack of sleep. It can mean only one thing — we’re going hunting!
We arrived at our favorite hunting destination a few minutes before sunrise. The thermometer on my vehicle said it was 12 degrees outside. I had to really watch the dogs for signs of frostbite, hypothermia, dehydration or other stresses caused by the cold temperatures.
The dirt road into the state’s wildlife management area was a sheet of ice. The state had closed a gate across it.
So the dogs, bell collars on, and I — covered from stem to stern in layers of clothing — struck out up the hill to walk the mile or so to one of our favorite hunting spots. I walked a few yards into the woods parallel with the icy road, where the ground was mostly covered with leaves and dotted with patches of snow and ice, while the dogs ran up sharp rises and down into deep gullies, seeking their feathered quarry. It was a beautiful morning with bright, blue skies, but not a breath of wind.
I carry water for the dogs with me, but there was no shortage of half-frozen pools or little streams of rainwater that could be accessed with little effort. We hunted woods and fields, deep cover and edges, and the only “success” was a pile of feathers from a grouse, presumably the victim of something higher on the food chain.
Quincy slammed into a point when he caught the scent from the feathers, and Bullet immediately honored the point — a pretty sight no matter what. But Quincy quickly realized it wasn’t a live bird, and I could see he wanted to move.
There was a lot of eye movement and I could feel a restlessness in him, like an almost imperceptible fidget, although he didn’t budge. He waited for me to give him the command that would free him from his post, then took off looking for live birds.
I was so proud of Quincy. When training, we teach the dog to hold his point until the handler taps him on the head or back of his neck, or gives him a voice command that releases him. It is particularly important in field competitions, which simulate the actual hunting experience.
The patience to wait for me to give the signal is a sign of maturity that I haven’t always seen in Quincy, but at 4½ years old, he is getting more consistent.
We didn’t see anything else but some fresh deer droppings and a lot of coyote scat, which may explain why there were no birds or even squirrels. Or maybe it was just too cold and everything with even a pea brain was hunkered down in a warm and cozy spot somewhere.
Around 10 a.m., the wind came up and the temperature didn’t, so we decided it was time to make our way back to the vehicle. I say “we” because Bullet made it clear he was done with the cold by stopping his hunt and sticking close by me.
I checked the dogs’ feet to make sure they were not too cold and looked over both dogs for cuts or other issues. Finding nothing that needed immediate attention, we headed back, hunting along the way.
No birds, but Quincy hopped on what looked like solid ice on a stream, and broke through into the shallow icy water. I’m not sure the water even touched his skin because he wasted no time getting out of it.
It had warmed to a balmy 22 degrees by the time we reached the vehicle. We went home empty-handed, but I considered the dogs’ performances a success.
Julie Murchison Harris is community editor at Bangor Daily News. She is widowed and shares her life with three Brittanys — Sassy, age 12, Bullet, 10, and Quincy, 4 — in an old farmhouse in Hermon.