A Gun Dog’s life – Living it Large
Amazingly, my spaniel Mac, weighed as much as sixty five pounds in his prime and stood as a giant (literally) in his championship bloodline. He was very large for his breed. I acquired Mac from Dansmirth’s Kennel, just as I had all of my previous springers. The Langhans operated Dansmirth’s Kennel for over fifty years and are held in a place of honor in the English springer spaniel field trial world. I have had the good fortune of knowing them for over forty years and have benefited from their wisdom and love for the breed. The sheer number of Dan’s National titles will stand as a record for any other gun dog handler! While Mac has never been in field trials or hunt tests, he had some major accomplishments to his credit. The Langhans always accepted the idea that Mac wouldn’t be involved in field trials. They have enjoyed following his life in the sporting journals. Knowing that a gun dog’s life is short and precious, I thought I might honor Mac by telling his story.
Besides being at my side always, Mac was a natural hunter and I was blessed to have followed him afield. With so much genetic instinct, his training came easy and mostly while having fun afield chasing birds. In summer, we would walk out the back door and flush doves. The pheasants were a ten minute drive away. I have always believed in training on wild birds, except during the nesting season. It offers a solid education for the dogs and the birds. Mac’s first rooster flush came at just four months old. I’ll never forget it, our older spaniel Bo had been diagnosed with cancer, so we introduced a new pup. Bo and I had been training in the open space near our home in the Denver suburbs when Mac joined us. One day at our most consistent spot, Bo got birdy in a line of cattails while Mac was romping in the grass on a side hill where he came face to face with his first rooster. This rooster was a frequent flyer for Bo, I had even nick named him “Big Red” for the large red face plates he wore. Bo pushed that old rooster out of the cattails and into the grass as if he had a plan to set Mac up. Red doubled back to the top of the ridge where he and Mac almost had a head on collision. The flush came right under Mac’s nose with Bo there to share in the moment! Mac watched intensely, his nostrils flared and his brain took in all the energy from both Bo and the rooster. Then Red let out an exuberant cackle in flight. I recall thinking to myself, “Wow, what an awesome first rooster flush for my pup!”
Bo taught Mac a lot. I have heard several outstanding trainers, including Lynn Miller of Blue Pheasant Kennel in Franktown Colorado, say that gun dogs can learn a lot from an older dog, especially if they have a good model. Mac then preformed that duty for several new pups. One pup, Izzy weighed in at a mere 29 pounds and was a spit fire. Izzy came to us from Windy Plains Kennel at the recommendation of Dan Langhans. Father and son field trialers and breeders Chuck Petrmichl and his dad have a combined 80 years of training and handling experience. We met in a snow storm on Christmas Eve in eastern Colorado just off the interstate. Old man Petrmichl looked me square in the eyes, handed me my tiny, but long anticipated bundle and said “You ought to name this dog Rocket!” He was right, as Izzy could run like the wind and was not only the smallest, but fastest spaniel I have ever owned. She was an alpha girl and kept Mac and our two children hopping. Mac really perked up after she arrived and immediately started playing like a pup himself. Mac shortly begun to hang back, watching his protégé drive into the birds. She hunted eleven days in a row on a hunt I titled “Walking a Hundred Miles for Grouse” that appeared in the Rough Grouse Society Journal, fall 2014. I believe Izzy kept Mac young. Mac also taught her how to catch a Frisbee and for her size, she could sky!
Mac loved to chase after that “flying” disc and catch it. In fact, the only blue ribbon he ever won, came from a regional Frisbee dog competition I had a wild hair to enter him in. He stole the show from the usual breeds you see on TV, shepherds etc. I believe the Frisbee added years to his life span because of the sprinting.
One of the most important lessons Mac ever taught Izzy was to never give up on trailing a downed bird. Regardless of how much scent is on the ground, Mac would keep working until he sorted out the blood trail. I took a friend prairie chicken hunting a few years back and in the process, he nicked down a big, but incidental rooster. The bird hit the ground running. Mac found the blood trail and disappeared up and over the far hill in pursuit. I mentioned that it may be a while. So we waited patiently for some time, a pregnant moment indeed, when Mac reappeared with his long tailed rooster – the bird still alive in his mouth. I witnessed a similar retrieve from the top of a hill where Mac flushed a rooster from the grass and it went down only wing tipped. The rooster then ran into a creek bottom that twisted and turned below me. It took fifteen minutes for Mac to trail and eventually catch that wounded rooster. I was lucky enough to watch the whole drama unfold from above. Mac was not slow by any means and had really long legs. I have seen him tackle a wounded rooster on a dead run – diving and tumbling with the bird in his mouth.
Mac ultimately became a pheasant hunting machine and we have bagged enough wild roosters for both our lifetimes while hunting mostly in South Dakota. Following Mac has led me right into the middle of hundreds of wild pheasants flushing and cackling from seas of corn, milo and native grass. Mac learned on his own how to out-smart a running rooster by sprinting ahead, cutting in and pinning the rooster(s) in between us. Many of the roosters in this position flush back toward the gun and present an easier shot, which helped me and offered a better chance for a retrieve – Mac was no dummy. With Mac, we’d limit out on roosters way too early in the day. So we started hunting prairie grouse. Consequently, I caught a bad case of the chicken fever and am now fixated on those big “boomers” – the male prairie chicken. These are the cock birds that strut and fight for their mates on the Lek in the spring time. Their Pinea’ feathers normally hang long and handsome off their neck, but when attracting females, they “boom” their air sacs and their Pinea’ feathers jet up and over their heads, erect like horns! Many sportsman say they are trophy birds. Now we bag our limit of chickens first, then we go pheasant hunting. Don’t get me wrong, I still love flushing wild roosters, but mostly they come incidentally while chicken hunting. I seldom pass on a rooster, but if you cross my path on the prairie, chances are, I will be chicken hunting. I am so ill with chicken fever that I can now tell the difference between the hens and boomers in the air. Mac got extra excited around the boomers as he always has around roosters. Funny thing is, Mac didn’t seem to have a preference of game bird species, but he sure went crazy over those wild cock birds.
Prairie grouse are traditionally hunted with big ranging pointing dogs, yet Mac, as a flushing retriever, mastered the art of hunting them. This is one of his claims to fame. Many times we have surprised a covey with the wind at our backs. Prairie grouse tend to position themselves out of the wind, just over a rise and while watching downwind for likely predators. Mac ran wider and further o
ut when the wind was coming from behind us. Running in the native grass is less taxing for the dog and the hunter, so we are able to cover more ground. As a bonus, I got to watch every athletic move he made in the native grass. Together, Mac and I evolved as bird hunters and ultimately, we remain enamored with a place we call “Prairie Grouse Haven” on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south central South Dakota. The prairie chickens are thick and there are plenty of wild roosters and sharptail grouse to keep any wing shooter and gun dog satisfied. I plan to place Mac’s ashes there. It is a place of majestic butts, vast native grasslands and rich agricultural valleys, where a Native American spirit blows in the wind across a historic landscape. It has become a home away from home for more than a decade now.
Prairie chickens and pheasants aren’t the only gamebirds we hunt. Mac loved diving into icy waters to retrieve ducks and geese. We did a lot of jump shooting for mallards near home when the weather turned cold and nasty. Izzy watched Mac haul in an enormous Canada goose from icy waters. Mac also hunted two species of doves in Colorado and three species of grouse in the Rocky Mountains in September. For fun and practice, we hunted pigeons in the summer. Worthy of note, Mac could
actually heard a flushed flock of pigeons back around several times, presenting driven style shooting for the guns. While our favorite place to be in the fall has been “Prairie Grouse Haven”, our recent success at a new place, “Mountain Grouse Haven” has us torn. Two species of mountain grouse, the smallest subspecies of sharptail, the Columbia sharptail grouse and the dusky grouse, North America’s largest forest grouse can both be taken on the same hike in this place. Close by, one can also bag sage grouse. The wing shooter’s goal is the Colorado grouse trifecta – three species of grouse on the same hunt!
Another of Mac’s claims to fame is the fact that his handsome mug has been pictured in many American sporting journals – over 100 in fact. Amazingly, he has as many published photos as he lived in dog years! I hadn’t actually counted until working on this story to honor him and was quite surprised and awed by this discovery. He truly has been a gift from God. Mac has claimed two covers, several two page spreads and one calendar – October no less. I have heard people say “Mac is an iconic American gun dog” – I’ll add, “Even though he is English?” Well, I guess he was around long enough to deserve some sort of special distinction. When he’d pass gas under my desk while I wrote, I’d remind him of what people were saying about him and what was expected of an iconic American gun dog. Mac however, wasn’t beyond reproach. Since he was so large for his breed, I could get on the floor and wrestle with him – the flag on his tail always signaling joy. He loved it when I got down and played bongos on his belly. If he had not received his share of lovin’ for the day, he’d come and get it. A classic love move he’d pull was to push his head in between your knees until he was half way through and you couldn’t help but bend over and scratch his butt. He loved everyone, not just me. Mac was invited as a gun dog celeb to several major sporting life events, including Bass Pro’s Fall Hunting Classic and Cabela’s grand opening in Denver. The way I looked at it was, I was lucky enough to tag along and tell his story. Folks were drawn to pet his soft, silky coat and look deeply into his dashing brown eyes. I’d usually say: “I have been blessed to be able to follow Mac afield”. Mac would simply wag his tail and enjoy every second of the attention. No pun intended, for a gun dog’s life, he lived his large!