Family / Sporting Life

Pride in My Pup

A hunting journal entry and reflection by my father, R. Wm. Kelly, Jr.

Dog ownership never was much of a consideration through my professional adult life. Sure we had a few when I was a kid and so many of my weekends were spent on local farms hunting and hanging out along side my father. Animals were part of my life, in-so-much, I was determined be a veterinarian when choosing a career- this morphed into a pathway towards a career in dentistry as I evolved through studying biology in college. While my childhood memories are marked with tales of good dogs and bad ones too, in my adult family we just didn’t have many pets around our house when raising my children, especially having one dog that I claimed as “mine”. After several years of retirement, it became apparent that things in life that you haven’t considered before become possibilities. My son, Will, invited me along for a long ride with my grandsons to a small town in Western South Carolina to pick up their new Boykin Spaniel puppy. He told me that the breeder also had another type of dog on this farm, a rather obscure pointer breed that I was unaware of.  A quick search online enlightened me about a breed little known in America, the Barque Francais. My ride along into the Carolina hill country was a trip down memory lane to one of those distant, but not forgotten rural corners where I attended Erskine College as a young man. This was once an isolated place where fun could be had sneaking off campus to the one beer joint in the county with a pinball machine. Without the knowledge of my wife, this ride down memory lane became a clandestine mission to bring home a puppy.

The Barque Francais is a French Pointer breed that looks like a GSP but is smaller; usually topping out at forty-five to fifty pounds.Their disposition is calmer than a German Shorthair. It is said that care must be taken when training them, especially being gentle as not to break their spirit, leaving them timid. The breed is as “birdie” as they come and best if exercised daily. They are probably smarter than your firstborn child.

I met Hattie (named after my wife’s old-maid aunt) after that two hour drive to Abbieville, South Carolina. She was one of an eight pup litter that were two months old. Each of the litter were all good looking and full of life. Hattie had two brown-liver spots starting at her tail and stacked like a snowman up her back. I gravitated to this dog- she was playful and friendly with me. Before she had a name, my first impression of that two circle shape that marked her like a number on a race car would have me calling her “Eight Butt”. Eight Butt did not even get home before my wife pronounced the name change to Hattie. 

The next two years were pretty good for Hattie and I. We lived on a lake with hundreds of acres of woods around us. Every morning she took a half hour run in the pines around our home. That dog thought she was hunting from day one at the lake. Instinctually, she quartered just beyond me and stayed pretty close respecting my pace, despite having a nose full of all the wild things living in the woods around us. I knew she was my pet and a house dog and she surely made herself right at home in our kitchen and in my lap. I knew the wild quail of my youth were mostly a thing of the past and she would likely never hunt them. Despite her apparent instincts, I reasoned training more of a vanity than a practicality and I never pursued field training her or “sending her off”. We moved into town by the golf club and the long, leash-free walks were over.  Instead of living outside in a pin, she had her own place in our large pantry and an electronic door to go out of as she pleased to her fenced run. When I am home she does not leave my side and jumps into my lap whenever I sit down to watch the news. My family argues that I give her a little “too much leash”- but that’s part of having a great sidekick. I travel with my sons to upland hunt regularly and admire watching others dogs working, each time wishing Hattie could be in the pack and knowing that I had turned a dog that had a great hunting instinct into a house pet. I have taken her out a few times by herself to find pin-raised birds I’ve put out with my grandsons on a friend’s local farm. I was pleased that with some coaxing and help she could the find birds that we scattered throughout the long pastures of fescue and forbs with brushy edges. These experiences made for an entertaining day of shooting “fish-in-a-bucket”, but further burned my desire to see Hattie hunt.

This fall, I was invited by three friends to quail hunt outside of Albany, Georgia. The hunting plantation was an accommodating Orvis endorsed operation. My first thought was that I could  take Hattie. I prayed in taking her she would mind her manners, at least around the lodge. My friends and the guide staff encouraged me to bring her and to try her in the field, so on the big day- she leaped into the crate for a road trip and adventure. By the time we arrived at the lodge she was over the excitement of new people and there was no jumping or running. She was just one of the crew. 

The next morning my thoughts were that if she did not prematurely jump birds or run out of sight it would be a good hunt, especially considering how it might take away from my fellow hunters if she didn’t perform. In the field, two seasoned pointers and a flusher were let out of their boxes and started to work. Hattie had what I know as that big dog-smile on her face when she joined in. I held my breath and then the magic started. Hattie quartered close by. A big brown and white English Pointer locked up after only a minute, poised with his long uncropped tail high in the air. I held my breath again. Would Hattie bust the covey? Heck no, she backed the pointer up like a champ! Her point was not pretty. She did not raise her front leg but she honored her mentor holding her head down. That cropped tail twitched and vibrated. I was so focused on watching her that I did not fire on a bird from that covey as my companions took the quail. From then on she worked with the other dogs, honoring each other in a pecking order, as if they were old buddies just out to have some fun while serving their preordained purpose. She was finding birds and making points on her own like a seasoned pro. She was good at finding down birds and retrieving. My friends and the guides alike were bragging on her and how well she performed. The more she hunted the more she emulated the other dogs. I always knew she had it in her, similar to those old Robert Roark stories about good gun dogs born with the instinct.

Most dogs are hunted half-a-day in the quail woods and retired for their fresh kennelmates to take over in the late afternoon after the hunters have rested and waited for later shooting. I can only imagine a good afternoon dog nap after a hard working morning is our equivalent of whisky and cigars at the hearth. When the afternoon hunt approached on the first day following her eventful morning running with the first heat of dogs, I could not resist bringing Hattie along just to walk. I reckoned she would be tired and just heel beside to me. She couldn’t stop- this was what she was born for and instinct dictated that she was going to keep hunting. For me, moving along under the pines with my friends, hunting is a calm day of conversation, observing the trees, the ground underfoot, and the air around. The pace is easy and punctuated by excitement of dogs on a covey and the fury of shooting over the busting coveys. Excitement never stops for a birddog. They are the true hunters- hearts pounding, adrenaline surging, never stopping- driven by instinct beyond thirst, raw bellies, and tiredness to cover the ground with their nose,  working back and forth like a typewriter, while we calmly walk forward waiting to shoot a flush.  Quail hunting on a beautiful autumn day through pristine land is close to perfection, but the feeling I had about Hattie made this trip truly perfect. The dog that is family to me, my child now that my children are grown- went from pet to respected hunting partner. It was very much like watching a son playing his first baseball game and hitting a homer or seeing my daughter all dressed up in a tutu dancing in her first recital. My chest swelled with pride. The puppy that chewed up our furniture was now a real working dog. All-the-while, she still looked at me with eyes that asked, ‘how did I do…. beloved master?’

Written by my dear dad, R.Wm. Kelly, Jr. and edited by me for BHB.

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