The other day I was getting into my truck and a big, red leaf drifted down right in front of my face. And just like that, I wanted to go grouse hunting more than anything else in the world. Changing leaves means fall, and to me, fall means grouse and woodcock hunting. All I wanted to do was grab a gun and go. I have this mental problem that makes me want to hunt or fish so bad that I can literally focus on nothing else.
And yes, I know what literally means.
So I sat in my truck with visions of aspen stands, fine 20 gage doubles and the explosions of wings running through my mind. As has been the case for the last couple of years, my reflections on grouse hunting turned bittersweet. The season brings great memories but many of these memories revolve around a black, mixed-up breed dog named Tillman.
You see, I think Tillman was the greatest bird dog that ever lived.
I got Tillman from a farmer in Newaygo, Michigan who had an unwanted litter of puppies. The old guy claimed the little mongrel was half black lab and half Walker coonhound. The mother was on the property and was a gorgeous little Walker and sure enough, the neighbors had a pretty guilty looking black lab so the story checked out. I packed up the little bundle of ears, tongue and feet and put him on the front seat of the truck. He sat up like he was born to be there. Right then and there I named him “Tillman” after one of my all-time heroes, Army Ranger Pat Tillman.
Every year I go grouse hunting in Michigan’s upper peninsula. The trip usually lasts three to ten days depending on how happy my wife is when that first, red leaf falls. I always meet an old Army buddy in a place I will never in a million years tell you about and we walk miles of Aspen stands and scare the crap out of birds with our shotguns.
Rich, my hunting partner, had a couple of purebred bird dogs that cost him just a little less than the combined cost of my first three cars. His English setter and German shorthaired pointer were the absolute royalty of upland bird dogs. They pointed like statues and every time they stopped to look and listen they inadvertently posed for an oil painting. In contrast there was Tillman. He was goofy. He was clumsy. He tripped over his feet. He tripped over other dog’s feet. He was not majestic. I didn’t know what Tillman would do on a grouse hunt but Rich encouraged me to bring him whether he would hunt or not. He understood the importance of time with your buddy dog.
On our first morning of hunting Rich let his royalty out of their kennels and they quietly sat and waited for their collars. Tillman (who never saw the inside of a kennel in his whole life) jumped off the front seat of the truck and immediately peed all over my left front tire. The other dogs looked on disgustedly.
Rich adorned each dog with a GPS collar and fed them a high protein dog treat.
I flipped T-Man what was left of my Slim Jim and hooked the little brass bell I had bought to his collar. For ten minutes he ran in circles and rolled on the ground trying to catch the bell as the “real” bird dogs rolled their eyes and Rich chuckled.
Eventually we started into the woods with Rich’s champions working about a hundred yards out, their collars beeping as they used thousands of years of genetics to sniff out and point the hiding birds. Tillman, on the other hand, wasn’t quite sure what to do. I encouraged him to get out there and “hunt ‘em up” as I gave him a little push on the back hindquarter to get him moving. I would have been happy to have the little black dog follow behind me the whole day as long as I got to be in the woods with him…but a funny thing happened. Not being as comfortable on his own as the other dogs he never got more than about 15 yards ahead of me. His goofy nature had him running back and forth from tree to tree in front of me. He was a curious little devil so he liked to jump headlong into brush piles and big stands of weeds.
Let me go ahead and recap that: My dog ran a perfect “Z” pattern, 15 yards in front of me paying particularly close attention to brush piles and thickets. I had the worst pointer in the U.P. but a natural flushing dog! Although the birds scared the living tar out of him and he yelped on every flush, I limited out on both grouse and woodcock that day, and many days after. I hunted behind (and sometimes in front of) that mongrel for almost a decade until he was (literally) stolen from me by that insidious bastard Cancer three years ago.
So the other day I found myself in the front seat of my truck, holding a leaf and staring at the empty seat next to me. This year I’ll head up to the U.P. and hunt behind Rich’s new French Brittany but no matter how many birds we see, it just won’t be the same. Maybe I’ll head out to Newaygo after dark and let that old black lab off his leash. Then, just wait…Follow