Axle performs valiantly on his first solo flight

WORTHINGTON -- It seems like it was only a few days ago, but in reality it was about four weeks ago that I shared with you that I had two new puppies that would be hunting for their first time with the start of the 2010 pheasant season.

Scott Rall/Daily Globe Axle gives a look of satisfaction at the completion of his first solo outing.

WORTHINGTON -- It seems like it was only a few days ago, but in reality it was about four weeks ago that I shared with you that I had two new puppies that would be hunting for their first time with the start of the 2010 pheasant season.

Their names are Harley and Axle. Both are black labs and range in age from 12-14 months. There is only one time a new dog gets to flush its first wild rooster and bring you their first solo retrieve. This is the first bird you and the dog harvest as a team with no other hunters and no other dogs.

Axle went along on a trip to South Dakota last weekend but he did not get a lot of work. With several other hunters and more than a few additional dogs, this was not the proper place to give Axle his first real introduction. Last Tuesday I decided I would go on what I called a "mostly old-timers hunt."

I took my friend Les Johnson (he's getting to be an old-timer) and we both took a gun that is at least 60 years old, two Browning sweet 16 A-5 automatic shotguns (another old-timer reference). He took his really old dogs Sunny and Brenna (a third old-timer reference) and I took Axle, the only young thing, hence the term "mostly old-timers hunt"

We did not hunt together but did hunt on the same property about a quarter of a mile apart. Les was optimistic about our chances for success. My outlook was more guarded. I am very accustomed to hunting behind well-trained and seasoned retrievers. Axle is well trained but he is anything but seasoned.


I know that in order to have a seasoned dog you will go through a period of learning that takes time and patience. This learning can only happen in the field in actual hunting situations. With the formal training completed, I was ready and willing to start part two of the learning process.

As we walked along, I was aware of the fact that there are things the human hunter can do to help and aid the young dog. The wind was out of the south and, whether your dog is young or old, hunting into the wind is always to the advantage of the dog.

I headed south and gently weaved east and west as we slowly moved closer and closer to an area of heavier cover. I assumed if a rooster was running ahead he might check up and hold in the heavier cover. I was, for all practical purposes, herding the birds ahead of us to a spot I thought we could get a pinch on them. This is the second thing the human hunter can do to improve results.

My plan came together when Axle flushed a hen at about 15 yards. He bolted after the bird and I let him run about 40 yards in pursuit. You do this with a young dog to build enthusiasm. If you call the dog off a hen at the instant of the flush you can unintentionally develop a trait of the dog not pursuing the bird regardless of its gender.

I was glad to see Axle's excitement. We continued about another 200 yards to a spot that was similar to the last and this time the bird that flushed was a rooster. All I could think of was "don't miss the shot."

I was hunting with a gun I have not used but one other time. My concerns about my accuracy faded away as the bird folded up immediately and landed in a very dense patch of reed canary grass. This grass was all matted down and folded over. It was about 2 feet tall.

Axle bounded to the fall and over ran the mark by about 15 feet. He hunted the area very hard and at just the right moment the bird flapped its wings in its last action of life and Axle heard it and bounded to the spot and made the retrieve.

I made Axle return to heel, sit on command and hold the bird. After about 15 seconds at that spot I gave the command "drop" and he dropped the best looking rooster I have seen this year directly into the palm of my hand. I know the flapping wings helped Axle on his first solo retrieve, but I think it was some kind of divine intervention for his benefit.


We had one rooster in the bag and, after several minutes of well-deserved praise, we continued our hunt. Axle flushed six more hens and we were getting close to sunset and about 400 yards from the truck.

As we continued to weave east and west into the wind there was a sudden rush as four hens and four roosters all flushed at exactly the same time. I had to wait for a clear rooster shot and missed on the first attempt.

The stiff wind from the south had my target rooster heading for the high country and in a big hurry.

The second shot was not a great one and the rooster hit the deck with only a broken wing. Allowing Axle to pursue pheasants at the instant of the flush really paid off. When the bird hit the deck Axle was only about 10 feet away and when the rooster took to running Axle ran him down in nothing flat.

Axle was returning with the bird in his mouth and I could see the rooster had his running gear in drive and the gas pedal to the floor. Axle had to hold the cripple securely until I could take it from him.

In traditional young dog style, when Axle loosened his grip to reposition the bird in his mouth to get a better hold, the bird took off on a dead run again and a second retrieve had to be made. The second time Axle returned, I gave him the firm command of "hold' and he complied. I did take the bird from him as soon as he returned in order to avoid a repeat of the earlier prison break.

With two birds nestled in my hunting vest, we sauntered our way to the truck. With Axle at heel we flushed two more roosters at point blank range walking on the path. It was about three minutes until sunset.

Everything went just as expected, with Axle making normal young dog mistakes, and me doing everything I could to help him achieve success. Not all first hunts end with a limit of birds, nor do they necessarily need to, but this one was a storybook ending to a great day.


Les met me at the truck and had bagged his two birds in about the first 10 minutes of the hunt. Les will say his success just goes to prove that even old dogs and old hunters can show younger hunters and dogs a thing or two. I would have to agree.

In the weeks to come I will share with you the story of Harley's first solo outing. We will have to see if the results are different.

Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at .

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