When you have a hunting dog it's easy to rationalize that you actually have to hunt quite often, that you owe it to your canine companion to head afield as much as possible and have something bordering on a moral obligation to, in my case, pursue pheasants at any cost, even when it means shirking responsibilities associated with work, home and – in extreme cases – family.
Our Labrador retriever, Ben, who passed away earlier this year after 16 incredible years, loved the fact that we adhered to that philosophy.
To be honest, when we moved to the North Country back in 1997 I wasn't sure it was going to work out from a pheasant-hunting standpoint. But Ben and I, as well as Paula, who joined us often, soon learned that there were, in fact, pheasants in the Adirondacks, courtesy of a DEC stocking program that planted birds on a state-owned tract just off Lake Champlain.
And it got better from there. After the Oct. 1 pheasant opener, hunting pressure dwindled, especially after the mid-October muzzleloader deer and bear seasons opened and even more so after the regular firearms deer/bear offerings were launch a week later. Ben and I had things pretty much all to ourselves, and when we did encounter another hunter, he was usually running a dog himself and perfectly willing to keep the secret to ourselves.
So we hunted. Often enough that Ben's efforts afield earned him quite a reputation among some friends who decided to tag along and see what it was all about. Ben was perfectly happy to work in front of anyone – unlike my previous Lab, Magic, who retrieved any bird shot directly to me, regardless of the shooter.
We took advantage of New York's liberal small-game hunting season structure to extend our pheasant pursuits well into the New Year, kept home only on those years when snow depths made things unworkable. All that mattered were the season dates. Christmas Day? Sure, we'd get out for an hour or two. Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day. They all meant some time off to chase pheasants. Ben was always ready to go and we could usually count on a couple flushes, thanks to Ben's field-vacuuming efforts.
One of his last seasons included a New Year's Eve outing on a bitterly cold – but sunny and windless – afternoon. Ben had slowed considerably, but the nose still worked and he had several flushes and retrieves that year as he headed toward retirement, flanked usually by Maddie and Haley, neither of which had the drive and desire of Ben and were content to let the old black dog do the dirty work.