The early season had been plodding along like it usually did, warm temperatures and lots of bugs hampering hunting efforts. With daytime highs in the 70s and sometimes 80s, the caribou clung to the high country and summits-terrain one may associate with sheep more so that caribou. Only in the very early morning could a hunter find the animals within reach and moving. In the opening week of hard hunting I had only a single stalk under my belt. I carefully approached to within 350 yards well before 7:00am and the morning winds carried my scent right to him but it didn't matter. Despite the cool of the early morning, the small herd of caribou were already feeding to the high country, moving steadily away and up. I passed the shot, 350 yards is a long way and it is much too early in the season to attempt to stretch the barrel that much. An intervening ravine kept me from getting closer and I watched the bull feed clear out of sight. That was opening day and I hadn't seen a caribou since.
Later in the week, Evan and I sat perched on an opportune knob glassing high tundra for any sign of the caribou that had to be moving through the area any day now. But we saw nothing. Tired of the tedium of endless glassing I'd endured I asked Evan if he'd like to spend the last hour of the day hunting for birds with his new shotgun. His reply was an enthusiastic, "Yes!"
I unpacked his new shotgun and inspected the chamber before handing the weapon to him. The gun was a Mossberg 510 in 20 gauge, made to minimal dimensions to fit a kid or a very small framed adult with a length of pull of just 10.5". Much too small for Dad to even shoulder. A friend won it at a Ducks Unlimited banquet and being childless, offered it for sale to me at a good deal. I inspected it and was on it like a duck on a junebug. Most youth guns were cheap affairs or simply an adult version with the stock and barrel sawn off- mostly an unsatisfactory weapon to hand a kid. This thing was built just like the company's adult sized 500- 3" chamber, 3 shot magazine, interchangeable choke tubes, decent recoil pad. A serious hunting arm made to fit the smallest hunters. How could I have said no?
My son made the transition from single barrel .410 to the pump action 20 gauge with only a little instruction under my watchful eye. At first he was uncomfortable with the recoil, but after firing his .410 at a hare earlier this year only to have it run off unfazed I explained his technique was solid- but his gun wasn't up to the task of a 40 yard shot. His 20 gauge would've made the difference.
I watched him load the magazine with three of the yellow hulled sixes and stuffed a handful into his jacket pocket. I didn't know what to expect. Satisfied that he had rounds in the tube but nothing in the chamber like I'd taught him, we set off with Sonny the Lab in the lead letting his nose steer our course through the broken bands of brush and tundra.
After a quarter mile of meandering, Sonny's reaction changed and he froze staring intently. I told Evan to chamber a round and ensure the gun was set on safe. I heard the roosting coo of a willow ptarmigan just ahead in the bush. I reached forward to grab Sonny's collar- he's not a trained bird dog but rather just a great trail dog with manners. The second my hand touched his back, his tail wagged through a 180 degree arc and he exploded forward toward the birds and with a flying leap crashed right in the middle of the covey.
The brush exploded in flapping wings and a giant, pale dog snapping at them as they fought for altitude.
Evan held his fire, likely as much from surprise as from fear of hitting his suddenly ill mannered mutt. I watched as a pair of ptarmigan flew a mere thirty yards away and landed under a slight piece of brush. I called Sonny to my side- smiling ear to ear if a dog could do such a thing, evidently pleased with him self and the preceding ruckus. I held his collar and pointed out the pair to Evan and said, "You go on up there, I'll hold the dog- just walk 'em up and shoot when they start to fly- just pick the closest one and let him have it."
Evan nodded in agreement and checking his safety, crept forward slowly and intent on the birds. He closed to perhaps twenty yards and the birds got uneasy and flapped and strutted a few time. Even across the short distance and above the dogs loud panting I could hear the safety snick off. I watched as he mounted the shotgun to his shoulder and held his finger straight along the receiver well away from the trigger and he took one more step in their direction.
The nearest bird flapped his wings and leaped for the sky; only a foot or two above the ground the shotgun boomed and the air around the bird turned white with a cloud of feathers. The bird crashed back to earth in a tumble of wing beats into the second bird who took the initiative to make a run for it. With the excitement of the moment, the pump gun was sitting with an expended round in the chamber and the second birds gambit paid off- he flew several hundred yards and dove into some of the thickest, densest brush the mountain had to offer.
"You got him son!" I exclaimed with joy, forgetting my grip on the dog who rushed forward to the bird. We immediately followed just as the dog picked the ptarmigan up in his mouth. Fearing the worst from my untrained dog but before I could speak my son yelled out "Good dog Sonny! Give!" and the dog plopped the warm bird at his feet. Evan picked it up with no small sense of wonder.
His first bird!
We placed the bird in our pack and after carefully checking the gun and retrieving the ejected cartridge- Evan patted the dog on the head and said, "Go get 'em Sonny, find us another bird" and they set off across the way toward the distant brush where the rest of the covey had landed. I kept up close behind, having a little trouble seeing to walk in the dim light with a few tears in my eye as I watched them work over the next band of brush,
A boy and his dog...