Tater and Me
Gene W. Wood
Friday afternoon, October 23, 1964 was a color-filled model of late October in central Pennsylvania. We were hunting along Bald Eagle Creek, Bald Eagle Valley, Centre County. Buck, a middle-aged English Setter, was casting about in search of grouse and woodcock when he slammed dead on point. Under the direction of my host for the hunt, I walked up, flushed a woodcock and dropped it with one shot. It was my 24th birthday. I would be hooked on the magic of a pointing dog for the rest of my life.
Buck was owned by Game Biologist Steve Liscinsky, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s grouse and woodcock biologist. I was one year into my master’s degree in wildlife management at Penn State. Steve would become one of my mentors in the profession. He also introduced me to Harold Henry.
Harold was one of central Pennsylvania’s best-known sportsmen and renowned for his grouse and woodcock hunting success. He was also a major leader in the Pennsylvania Sportsman Federation in which, many years later, he would recruit me to serve on various committees.
But it was Harold’s Brittanys that had the biggest impact on me. He loved them and they loved him. Together they were the consummate predator pack on the hunt with Harold as the leader. These dogs were in fact hunting machines. Once, after I got to the point of having a modicum of knowledge about bird dogs, one Saturday noon I commented to a bunch of guys in a restaurant, and much to Harold’s delight, that those dogs went through the cover like a vacuum cleaner. Everyone laughed. They all knew exactly what I was talking about.
As the years went on, Harold would become another one of my mentors and a role model for owning, training and hunting Brittany spaniels. He was also plain spoken to the point of being merciless. In what for him was a mild admonition, he once told me in a solemn voice: “Wood, if you are going to train a bird dog, you gotta be smarter than the dog.” By that time I had become an instructor on the faculty of Penn State’s School of Forest Resources. The comment struck my ego like a blacksmith’s hammer. Now, many decades later and as I write this memorial to Tater, I can still hear those words and see the expression on Harold’s face.
It was along in May 1968 when a Pennsylvania Fish Commission law enforcement officer showed up at my door with an 8-week old Brittany spaniel pup. The officer had bred a highly prized female to get one of her offspring. Friends of mine had heard through the grapevine about the litter and knew that it was an excellent bloodline. They also knew that I was looking for my first bird dog.
The pup in the arms of the officer looked pitiful. Just a few hours previously he had been lifted away from his mom and litter mates and taken on the first long trip of his life and away from Erie, PA forever. There was nothing in this new place that smelled or looked like home, including somebody to play with.
The officer and I exchanged pleasantries and then he needed to go on to a meeting. I handed him $50 and he handed me the registration forms. I took the pup to the lower floor of the newly built and newly rented duplex with the firm conviction that he would never be allowed in the upper part of the house.
“Your name is Tater” says I to the fully comprehending pup. “You may be in this part of the house when a resident human is with you. You will sleep tied to a chain in the garage at night and when no one is at home during the day. The upstairs is off limits to you.”
Tater sat on the floor as I stroked his head and shoulders reflecting on the origin of his name. When I was about ten years old, one of my cousins introduced me to a kid of similar age and tougher than a pine lighter knot. The kid’s nickname was Tater. While surviving in far poorer than average circumstances at the edge of a brickyard, Tater had learned to fight like a buzz saw. As far as I could see, the kid feared nothing. While I was intimidated by him, I also admired him.
This pup was going to be a bird dog version of Kid Tater. He would never show meekness regardless of challenges of weather or how briary the habitat. He would live to find, flawlessly point, and retrieve woodcock, grouse and pheasants as I methodically knocked ’em down. Tater the pup was destined to be an absolute hunting machine.
Tater’s first night and full day in State College were traumatic for both of us. As promised, that first night, I tied him in the garage with a chain hooked to a choke collar about four sizes too big for him. The weather was fairly warm, so I left the garage door open. Sometime during the night he slipped the collar and escaped from hell.
Early the next morning, I checked on my new and highly prized pup only to find an empty collar lying on the garage floor. I think my heart wanted to crawl under the concrete. I was off from teaching for the summer, so I could spend the day looking for him. I walked street after street asking everyone I met if they had seen a small orange and white pup. All answers were “No, but I (or we) will keep an eye out for him. What is your phone number?” And so it went through the day.
It was getting dusky dark and I was heading out again as this was a time of day when many urbanites walked their dogs. Maybe, just maybe, Tater had been hiding all day and would come out and follow another dog if he saw it.
As I was leaving on my last search for the day, I met my neighbor from the other half of the duplex and his wife walking their beagle. “Gene, where is your dog?” The question was asked seemingly in jest. So far as I knew, he did not know that I had just acquired a puppy. I told my sorrowful story. (I never completely trusted that guy on this part.) His response: “Last night there was a puppy crying and scratching at my door. I called a dog catcher out in the county about the puppy and took him to the officer this morning.”
“What is the dog catcher’s number?”
I rushed back into the house, dialed the number, told my story and asked if he still had the dog. “Yes. He is tied out here under the house.”
“Where do you live? I’ll be there in 20 minutes!”
As I brought Tater home, he seemed to appreciate my presence. He had gone from hell to a worse hell, and now he seemed to be getting a reprieve. Once home, he could stay in the downstairs area, but blocked from the stairway to the upstairs. This was a lot better.
The next day, I set in to building a crate that was 6 ft. long, 3 ft. wide, 3 ft. high, framed with 2x4s, and covered with 2x4 welded-wire. It would sit in the garage and be his daytime quarters, which he did not like, but it beat getting lost again.
Several days went by with playing in the downstairs area when the family came home and walking on a leash. Then one evening as we were having supper in the upstairs area, Tater began to whine to be with his family. I walked to the head of the stairs to quiet him. When I looked down on his sorrowful, little face, it was just too much. “Alright, boy, come on up.” And up the steps he bounded to join his family.
And that is how it was for the next year when we bought our first house and moved. His only infraction of note was chewing the heel off one of my wife’s new alligator skin high-heels. (This was, of course, before the Endangered Species Act of 1973.)
Summer of 1968 was a time for Tater’s introduction to the great outdoors. He and my two-year old son, Joel, had become great friends. They would roll and play on the floor like two puppies. It was good for both of them, but now it was time to get on with what a hunting dog’s life would really be about, in my opinion.
Steve Liscinsky had led a partnership between the Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Dept. of Forest and Waters (now Pennsylvania State Forestry Commission) to study the effects of varying densities of deer confined to fenced enclosures on forest regeneration after clearcutting and on the deer themselves. He was looking to me to bring Penn State into the picture to do the vegetation impact research. The project was setup on a clearcut area of about 100 acres on the east facing slope of Harry’s Valley, located about 10 miles from State College.
Toward the end of August and the end of the growing season for most wild plant growth in that area, I went out to spend a few days setting up measurement plots. The slope was fairly steep, brush and logging slash were somewhat challenging for even a mature dog, and the days were hot. Nevertheless, in my opinion, this puppy had to start somewhere and this would be a good place.
Tater was at my feet for every step, which even in my ignorance, I knew was okay for a puppy. Every time I stopped to locate a sample plot to be measured later, Tater found the cool shade of some bushes and seemingly instinctively scratched out a bed in the cool, organic layer of the soil.
It was at the bottom of the slope where Tater learned to love water like a Labrador retriever. A very cool, shallow mountain stream about 6 feet wide ran through the area. He had never seen anything like it, but the moment he stepped into that stream and felt the pleasure of its coolness, he knew that he loved it. He would lie on his belly in the stream until I had finished what I had to do and started back up slope, then he was back at my heels again. Several days of this and he learned that heavy cover was not to be feared and, in fact, could be pleasurable. Just how pleasurable would be learned later in life.
Learning to not fear water, but instead to love it, lead to an interesting incident about a year later. One of my former professors was having a cookout for students at his farm and my family and I were invited. We took Tater to the outing for exercise and hoped for admiration.
There was a small pond on the farm and at the pond’s edge was a small row boat. Joel, now 3 years plus, was learning to fish and had his fishing rod. The professor’s wife invited us to use the boat, so my wife, Joel and I walked down to the pond with Tater tagging close by. When we got into the boat, he also wanted in, but it just seemed things might get crowded and there was the danger of getting in the way of a fish hook.
I had rowed us out a short distance and was helping Joel with his first few casts from a boat when I heard a splash. Here came Tater paddling at the best speed he could muster. He would not be denied. Who could deny such love anyhow? So, soaking wet, he was lifted into the boat. I don’t even remember him shaking off the water that would have given us all a shower. I only remember a sense of pride.
By the time Tater was around 5 months of age I had started his lessons in getting use to gunfire, first with a .22 caliber pistol and then moving up to a shotgun. He was never frightened by the gunfire, a natural strength that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. Much later in my life, and after many years of experience with many other dogs, I would look back on my ignorance at the time with some embarrassment.
Another of Tater’s strengths that I did not adequately appreciate at the time was his natural bent for retrieving. We had played at retrieving with sticks and balls, but I think that it was his playing with Joel that enhanced what was naturally in him. I could not anticipate at the time how that characteristic would one day make others chuckle and bring tears of pride to my eyes.
When the grouse, woodcock and squirrel season opened in Mid-October 1968, my good and true friend, Jim McClenahen, and I made plans to hunt the first day. I acquiesced to Jim’s desire to hunt squirrels for the first couple of hours of the morning and then move on to hunt woodcock the rest of the day.
Once in the squirrel woods, Jim and I split up with him hunting a few hundred yards away from Tater and me – a good decision on his part. Tater was at my heels until I would sit down at the base of a tree to await movement by some luckless squirrel. But, in his puppyhood, he was on the side of the squirrels. Once he knew that I was not going anywhere, not for a while anyway, he would set into exploring, albeit still close at hand. Such movement and accompanying rustling leaves kept the squirrels in safe seclusion. For me to have undertaken sharp reprimands for puppyish behavior would have only made matters worse.
Time dragged on as I cringed at the sounds of a few shots fired by Jim while my gun barrel stayed clean and cold. Finally, I started back to the car. Looking around, I saw Jim coming with three squirrel tails hanging from his hunting vest pockets and flaunting his success. He was a good and true friend, but that big smile just said it all: “Well, I picked up a couple.”
Through the rest of the morning and until mid-afternoon, when Tater was giving out, we hunted woodcock covers that I knew. Tater was always nearby when not at my heels. We walked up an occasional woodcock and shot several. Tater showed little interest in the dead birds when they were held in front of his nose. This bird dog of mine was not turning out to be the tough, young aggressor befitting his namesake.
And so it went for the rest of the 1968 hunting season. Tater loved being near me more than he was instinctively driven to get out from under foot and find birds. I loved him and was trying to be patient, but when I would hear of other puppies his age that were out performing him, my patience often grew thin.
I had spent my childhood with a bunch of my dad’s dogs always around. There was never any formal training. They just learned from each other to come when called, but not much else. Somewhere along the line my dad had learned a principle which he would occasionally proclaim: “Don’t try to put an old dog’s head on a puppy.” Those words often came to me and were important to countering my impatience.
I had grown up with dogs.
Winter 1969, cold and snowy, came and went with treks out on the landscape. Most were of short duration as Joel always wanted to go and he was just coming 3 years old. Dealing with a puppy and a very young son with an instinctive passion for the outdoors and hunting in his blood required some compromising.
That spring and summer, I had Tater with me, whether during field work or play, to the extent possible. He matured in the woods and fields and by September he was ready for the bird dog training season that opened in September. By this time I had read some good training books and under the tutelage, as well as chastisement, of Steve Liscinsky and Harold Henry plus more gentle help from my great friend and Pennsylvania Game Biologist, Lincoln “Abe” Lang, Tater and I were making good progress.
I don’t recall any particularly memorable moments in the 1969 hunting season. Tater was making progress as was I. Just being with him was pleasurable and a distraction from what had become an excessively demanding work schedule. Of course, he was always a topic of conversation in: “How’s your dog doing?” We were taking some birds, both woodcock and a grouse now and then. A lot of those were walked up as opposed to being shot over point. But it was becoming deeply embedded in Tater what we were about. He loved retrieving downed birds. Whenever he heard gunfire he came “to the gun” to look for that pleasure.
Along in April 1970 a friend decided to do my family a big favor. She was very much into efforts to save animals that had ended up at the animal shelter. Finding a beautiful Weimaraner bitch, that was supposed to have been spayed already, she payed whatever fees were required for adoption, then gave to us her adoptee as a family pet and hunting dog. Her name was “Togus.”
Togus created quite a few stories of her own starting with arriving one day before I returned home from a conference, becoming very protective of her new digs and not wanting to let me in the house when I showed up at the door. She was a model picture of her breed, muscular, beautiful head, steel-gray eyes and perhaps weighed around 75 lbs compared to Tater’s 45. But she accepted Tater’s dominance and that summer they ranged the fields and woods with me, which was good for them both.
Togus was very protective of the family. I remember once when Joel was about to celebrate his fourth birthday, him telling a little friend, “You better watch her. She is a little biter.” At the time he was about a head taller than she was.
That spring, my wife and I took Togus and Tater to obedience training classes. I had Tater and she had Togus. Tater came out at the top of the class. Togus was somewhere well below that level. In early summer, the teacher strongly encouraged me to enter Tater in the obedience class of a local dog show. We entered and he was second among about a dozen competitors. Everyone in the spectator crowd thought him to be the top dog, but in our stops I had been doing a military heel click which served as a second command beyond my simply stopping. The judge told me gently, but clearly, that my ignorance had kept Tater out of first place.
There was one little interesting story that came from that show. One of the exercises was to have the dogs lineup in a prolonged down-stay position until commanded “Sit” by the handler standing about 20 yards away. Then when told by the judge to have the dog come, upon the handler’s command the dog was to go sit in front of the handler. The final step was made when the judge said “finish”, the handler was to command “Come to heel”, and the dog was to go and sit by the handlers left side. As I recall, the prolonged down-stay lasted about 5 minutes. After being in the down position (lying on his belly with head up) for about 2 minutes or so, Tater decided things were getting somewhat boring and laid down flat on his left side and closed his eyes. The crowded had a good laugh.
When it came time for the “Sit” commands, Tater sensed something was about to happen and sat straight up and in place when I gave the command. (The “in place” being critical to the fact that he had not left his position.) Each handler called his dog separately. When Tater’s time came, I called him. He bounded to my feet and sat perfectly in front of me. I waited for the judge to tell me to finish, all the time Tater starring straight up into my eyes with a connection that everyone, including the judge, could feel. The judge told me to finish, I barely opened my mouth to command “Come to heel” when he squirmed around on his butt to his position squarely by my left side. The crowd broke-up, but it was a laugh of admiration.
He certainly had not performed our perfected move to get up, go around my right side and sit by my left side. However, with his head tilted up saying “I love you. What can I do next”, I remember the thought going through my mind, “I don’t care if we lose. You are my dog.”
Togus loved to hunt, but she lacked the instinct to point. This presented a horrible problem. Once the training season started, I worked her and Tater together on woodcock. Tater would find a bird and dutifully point, then Togus would run up and bust the bird. She finally had Tater to the point that when he was on point and heard her coming, he would break point. This just could not be tolerated. Fortunately, I found a good home for Togus, but not until after she had a litter sired by Tater, so I also had to find homes for the four pups. By the grace of God, eventually, it all worked out.
By September 1971, Tater was coming into his own as a good bird dog. He was finding and pointing woodcock and an occasional grouse. By early October, but still before the grouse and woodcock season opened on the 15th , the evenings were already cool and excellent for dog work before sunset. Joel was 5 years old and could go with me on short outings, and he loved doing it. Tater would be out ranging around with his bell collar on. Joel and I would be making our way along some trail. Life was good.
As we were going along one evening about an hour before sunset, , Tater’s bell stopped. I turned to Joel and said “Tate’s on point. Let’s go to him.” Just as we started to leave the trail, the bell started ringing again. “That bird has slipped out on us” I said to Joel as we walked on. Within a minute or two I could hear Tater coming up behind us. Joel yelled out, “Dad, look at the feathers in Tater’s mouth.” I turned to see my dog with his mouth loaded with a huge number of porcupine quills. That “bird” had been a porcupine that had donated a lot of its defensive armor to a still young bird dog.
We were only a short distance from home, so back to the car, take Joel home and call for an emergency visit to the vet. Tater was so loaded with quills that the vet said that I needed to leave him. He would have to be anesthetized to get them all out. As it turned out, he had some down in his throat and they eventually would have killed him if they had not been removed. It was all a scary and expensive venture.
Tater was completely healed by the time the grouse and woodcock season opened and we had a good one. We hunted every Saturday and sometimes during the week if I could slip in a few hours. The more we hunted the better he got and the more he loved it. He was now living up to his namesake.
In the Spring 1971, I had heard about the newly formed Nittany Valley Bird Dog Club and the fun field trials they were putting on. A friend invited me out to one, so Tater and I went one Sunday. I had no more idea of what field trialing was about than I knew how to fly an airplane. I did know that my dog was pretty good at finding and pointing birds, but he had never encountered a pen-raised quail.
Tater was about 3 years old at this point. When they asked me what class I wanted to enter – puppy, derby or adult, it went through my mind that well, Tater is definitely not a puppy, and I don’t know if he should be considered a mature hunting dog, so I ignorantly, but innocently, said “Derby.” A short time later, someone asked how old Tater was. I said he was three. The trial had not begun, but the judge about jumped out of his skin. “Well, Gene, I am glad that you said that. The derby is for 2-year olds only.” I was embarrassed but moving him to the adult dog class was not a big thing and I apologized for my ignorance. I do not remember whether or not Tater even placed that day, but from that time on he never failed to place and often that place was first, even when we had trials open to all comers. I never entered him in an open class with the professional trainers, although as time went on, I knew that I should have.
In the fall of 1971, Tater and a German Short-Haired Pointer named Pete that I had acquired as a 16-week old puppy went with me to western New York to hunt pheasants in the first week of that season. My wife’s family farm was located there. We had pen-raised pheasants stocked in central Pennsylvania, but western New York had a lot more and the habitat was far better. I hunted with my father-in-law at the time, Tony Foltman. Tater hunted dutifully with Pete more-or-less following along. The first field we hunted had excellent pheasant cover and the birds were there. Within about 15 minutes Tater went on point. Pete was backing him up. As Tony and I approached, a cockbird flushed out at 12 o’clock. Both dogs held the point. I raised my shotgun, then thought of Tony, my host, and started to back off. Tony knocked that bird down just as a second cockbird flushed at 9 o’clock. I knocked that one down. Tater went out and retrieved Tony’s bird. I then sent him in the direction of mine, which he quickly found and retrieved. Pete was out of sight.
I knew that Pete was gunshy even after all the training efforts that I had made to overcome the problem. I had started him on a .22 pistol and then graduated to a shotgun. He could stand the pistol, but the shotgun just unnerved him. To that point, he had only been hunted in woodland areas with fairly dense shrubs. I had thought that maybe hunting in more-or-less open field cover might be different and less frightening, but my thinking was wrong.
Pete did not go far and was soon back to join us, but soon, just has had been the case in earlier woodcock hunts, when Tater went on point, Pete went in another direction. Pete became the essence of the adage: “Pretty is as pretty does.” His coloration and confirmation were ideal for his breed. When he would be on point, he looked like he belonged on the cover of a magazine. His temperament was good, although he showed no real enthusiasm for the hunt. For the next two days, Tater carried the load. We took our limit of two birds per day for each hunter. However, I was guilty of likely asking too much of Tater. Many of the fields had spots loaded with cockleburs. The burs would get between his toes and make running difficult and painful. I would periodically remove the spines as best I could. However, Tater hunted on at my stupid, self-serving request.
A short time after the New York hunt, Joel and I went to a nearby game lands hoping to find some grouse. We found none after a few hours of afternoon hunting and headed home. We owned a 1968 Ford Fairlane station wagon at the time. It was very convenient for moving young kids and dogs around. Joel was sitting in the front seat with me and Tater was in the back. As we drove past a long-abandoned farm field grown up in waist-high weeds, a cock pheasant ran across the road in front of us. The field was open for hunting.
I drove only a short distance to where I could pull off the narrow road and told Joel we would go back and try to get that pheasant. I loaded my shotgun, turned Tater out, and headed him in the direction of the bird. Joel and I walked into the field with him following in the trail that I was breaking. We did not go far when the pheasant flushed. Whether the bird flushed wild, as pheasants often do, or Tater had busted him, I never knew. However, he was close enough that I took a moderately long shot and knocked him down. Tater ran to where the bird had flushed and was soon bringing it back, apparently dead.
I took the bird from Tater and the three of us returned to the car. I opened the tailgate for Tater to load into the back and simply laid the bird in with him. Joel and I loaded into the front seat and were once again headed for home when all at once a hellacious commotion broke out in the back. I looked in the rearview mirror to see what resembled a close dryer at full speed. The pheasant had “come back to life” and Tater was determined that he would not get away. By the time I could get stopped and get to the back of the car, it was all over except for a few feathers still floating about. However, the bird was not badly damaged in the skirmish and went on to make a good meal.
In the winter of 1972, my barber, Phil (last name?), the friend that had invited me to join the Nittany Valley Bird Dog Club, had a good Brittany bitch that had come into heat. The dog had never really been hunted and knew very little about hunting, but it was easy to see that she was filled with energy and the instinct to hunt hard. I was wanting another Brittany pup, and I wanted Tater to be the sire. Tater had already bred Togus, whom we thought was spayed, but of course wasn’t. I never considered that he might have trouble breeding a female that he did not know well. But that turned out to be the case. Finally, in frustration, we arranged with a vet for an artificial insemination. The process was successful. Nine weeks later Phil’s dog produced eight healthy pups.
I had the pick of the litter and chose the most assertive pup in the bunch. Her registered name was Nittany’s Princess Anne – “Annie.”
The hunting season of 1972 came and while certainly not a mature hunting dog, Annie was almost a prodigy. Unlike Tater, who as a pup seemed to not get it, Annie loved the hunt and was right there with Tater, although not sure of what she was looking for, enthusiastically hunting for something. Tater would teach her what that something was.
We had a good woodcock harvest that year with Annie never showing any sign of gunshyness, just enthusiasm for the hunt. We also took several grouse and a few pheasants.
The most memorable event of that season came one Saturday when a friend, Jerry Storm, and I were hunting grouse along the heavily wooded slopes on the west side of Bald Eagle Valley. The day was in mid-fall, cloudy and somewhat dreary. Tater was hunting well and Annie was right there with him. We were approaching a large patch of rhododendron when the dog bells stopped, both at once. It was perfect cover for grouse, so I told Jerry to get ready and let’s walk directly into the dogs. As we approached, I looked at the ground and just ahead. No more than 30 feet away, backed up against a rotting log was a big porcupine ready to do whatever was necessary to defend himself.
I quickly informed Jerry of our situation and leaned my gun against a tree. I then walked up beside the dogs, both standing as if cast in concrete, and softly urged them “Eassseee.” Neither dog budged as I took each by the collar, one on my left and the other on my right, lifted them off their front feet, each still stiff on point, and began to walk in the direction opposite from their heavily armored prize.
Within a few seconds both dogs relaxed, but I held on to them and asked Jerry to get my gun. We went down slope about 50 yards, then I sent them on to hunt, which they dutifully did. We did not take a single grouse that day, but we avoided a major catastrophe.
Tater’s opus magnum in the field trial venue came in the spring of 1973. It was an open trial and we were entered in the adult dog class that did not include professional trainers. Tater was really good at this point in his life. He had been hunted a lot as well as trained a lot on pen-raised quail. He could recognize bird cover and go straight to where the birds should be. He never busted a bird (failed to point a bird he found) in a trial.
It was a Sunday morning and the second day of the trial when the adult dog class open only to Club members started. About 16 dogs were entered. In his heat, Tater was paired with a big, impressive looking English Pointer. Under the trial rules, the judges and gallery could ride horses, but the handlers had to walk with their dogs.
The judges signaled for us to send our dogs out. “Hunt’em up, Tate” and he was gone, not as fast as his competitor, but with total concentration and determination to find a bird. Within a few minutes I saw the big pointer go on point at the top of the first field, I thought: “No reason to go in that direction” and Tater was thoroughly covering the bottom of the field. One judge rode on to check the pointer who, as it turned out, was pointing a fresh deer bed, which hurt him point-wise.
The fields were surrounded with old, stone fences. Tater bounded over the fence into the second field and almost immediately locked down on point. I went running towards him, jumped up on the low, stone fence; then in my next stride came down on my left foot about 15 feet away. A great pain shot through my left knee as my ACL, or what was left of it, was being badly torn for the third time. Both the judge and I heard the pop of my knee. He quickly rode up, jumped from his horse and came running to me. Tater remained locked on point as if he had turned into stone.
While lying on the ground I looked past Tater to see a small covey of quail that had gotten together after the releases during the classes of the previous day. I saw a couple of them move slightly. I asked the judge to help me get up so I could work my dog. He said: “To heck with the dog, is your leg broken?”
“No, but my knee is messed up and I cannot get up.”
By this time Tater’s competitor had come through and gone on to work the next and final field. His handler and the other judge followed. The gallery on horseback went through an opening in the wall and had gathered in close proximity to us. The judge helped me up and a friend dismounted and walked over. Tater was still holding as tight as a steel spring. I asked the judge if my friend could work the dog. He approved the request. My friend took my training pistol and just as he walked by Tater the covey flushed. Tater held steady for the flush, but not for the shot, which in this class was not required.
The judge asked my friend if he would let me ride his horse and he work Tater for the rest of the heat. My friend agreed and helped me up on his horse.
Almost instantly Tater missed me as I spoke to him. He had never seen me on a horse, but he could hear my voice. He began to go around and around the horse looking for me. Finally, he looked up and there I was. I said to him, “Hunt’em up, boy.” Away he went scouring the cover for more birds.
As we entered the final field, which the pointer had already covered, time left in the heat was getting short. Tater did not go a hundred feet before he lockup on point. My friend walked up in front and began trying to flush a bird. Nothing happened, but I had total confidence in Tater that a bird was somewhere near.
By this time the other judge rode up and was observing. He called to the handler, “Look under his nose.” There laid a dead bird. The judge then told the handler to pick it up, throw it and fire his training pistol, which he did. When that bird fell following the shot, Tater could stand it no longer. He went straight to the bird, picked it up, then prancing with his front feet going high in the air (something I had never seen him do before or ever saw afterwards) and with the bird held high in the air, he went straight back to the handler, “Here’s our prize, Boss.” The gallery and the judges broke up laughing. I had tears in my eyes.
The heat time ran out and we headed back to the central gathering point. The judge who had followed Tater through the heat rode over and said to me, “You only get one great dog in a lifetime. That one’s yours.” I could only smile and shake my head in agreement.
At the awards ceremony, Tater took first place in his class and he won the annually rotating Nittany Valley Bird Dog Club Trophy for that year. If you won the trophy three times, then you could keep it permanently. I had visions that I would be a keeper. Tater’s daughter, Annie, was still a pup, but I had absolutely no doubt about her potential and Tater still had a lot left in him. But, “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”
By September 1973 I had been at Penn State for 10 years as graduate student and then faculty member. The snow and ice in the winters were increasingly giving me a lot of trouble with my right hip which I had broken at the age of 14 years in a football game almost 19 years earlier. In addition, while I was having a great deal of success in teaching and research, I was wanting to make a change. Relocation was going to require a locale with much less ice and snow.
About that time, Clemson University advertised for a forest wildlife ecologist to work at the newly formed Belle W. Baruch Forest Science Institute in Georgetown, South Carolina. I knew little of Clemson and nothing about the South Carolina coastal plain. I applied, interviewed and was offered the job in early December 1973. My first day on the job was March 4, 1974 – two days after the second birthday of my adopted son Andy.
I had grown up in rural, southcentral Virginia. My wife grew up on a farm in western New York. I only thought that I knew the South. Coastal South Carolina was a total cultural and environmental shock. From the standpoint of my dogs, the winter months were great, but after that, the heat and humidity were stifling. Snakes and alligators were a constant threat. It seemed that every type of microorganism, parasite and insect pestilence known to veterinary science was omnipresent. Within six weeks after arrival, Tater was almost killed by a wild hog on Hobcaw Barony Plantation where my research was centered.
We gradually adjusted to our new home where the kids were destined to spend their childhood and my dogs would gain a good measure of notoriety for their expertise with woodcock. But for the dogs, that would take a couple of years.
When I first moved to South Carolina, I had grandiose visions of all the quail hunting Tater, Annie and I would do. I had no clue that the days of Havilah Babcock, Professor of English, University of South Carolina and legendary outdoor writer about quail hunting in the lower part of the state, were long over. Babcock’s stories, some of the best published in the top outdoor sports magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, were combined into several small books which later became collector’s treasures. They told of his pleasures hunting the old tenant farms with small fields, lots of edge cover, pastures and piney woods that were burned annually. By the late 1960s and continuing, almost all of that “heavenly habitat” for quail was gone. The piney woods were widely converted into intensively managed pine plantations. The fields became expanses of soybeans and corn intensively treated with herbicides and pesticides. Piney woods with cattle-grazing and annual burning were rarely to be found. The landscape so loved and enjoyed by Babcock was a consequence of the socioeconomic impacts of semi-primitive (by today’s standards) agricultural practices.
Both agricultural and forest management practices had begun to change dramatically by the mid-1950s. By the mid-1970s “modern land management” was in full swing. There was almost no land resembling the quail habitats of 30-plus years earlier existing on public ownership and access to private lands that might have some semblance of quail habitat was hard to come by.
Therefore, the 1974-1975 hunting season was quite a disappointing frustration for my dogs and me. I was wondering what the heck the future could possibly hold.
In late spring 1975, Ron Brenneman, a former graduate student of mine at Penn State and now a young wildlife biologist, applied for a job working with me at the Baruch Forest Science Institute. He was hired and arrived in late summer. Ron was an avid deer hunter and that fall, while hunting on the Francis Marion National Forest just south of Georgetown, he noted the characteristics of woodcock habitat in some of the wetland forest areas. He told me about his observations and after the deer season closed, we took Tater and Annie to check them out.
The results were astonishing. Woodcock wintering in these habitats were in densities that I had never seen. The dogs could not get enough of the bonanza. We usually hunted one day per week and typically filled our bag limits of five birds per day per hunter (bag limit at that time).
It is usually a bad idea to mix work and recreation, but in this instance, I did. Research on this migratory bird in its wintering habitats was scant at best and non-existent in South Carolina. I quickly wrote a research proposal, which included a graduate student, for the fiscal years 1976 and 1977. A second project was later written for fiscal years 1978 and 1979 and which included a second student.
Tater, the master, and Annie, his understudy, became locally popular. Local people who had never seen any bird dogs other than pointers and setters, and who had actually asked me to identify the breed of my dogs, now not only knew the breed, they wanted a dog like Tater. From winter 1976 through 1980, my students, technicians and friends harvested over 500 woodcock. At least 75% were shot over Tater and Annie.
From a research perspective, those times were also productive. We published the first descriptions of woodcock winter habitat in coastal South Carolina, age-sex ratios of woodcock in their winter habitats, timing of onset of reproductive organ changes in wintering woodcock, and the diet of woodcock wintering in these habitats. In addition, we discovered for the first time that hard pesticides that had been banned from use for at least 8 years could still be found in fatty tissues of these birds whose diet was 70% earthworms.
Tater was now doing what he was born for, lived for, loved, and likely dreamed about. He was in his heyday. Annie was fast, but Tater was experienced and smart. He always found more birds than did she. Because the shrub vegetation was often thick and even the cypress and wetland hardwood trees, though large, were dense, I always attached bells to the dogs’ collars, just as I had in Pennsylvania, so I knew where they were at all times. It became a common saying for me and others who hunted with me that when at least one bell went silent: “Tate’s on!”
One of the many great memories of those days was when others hunting with me began to understand the relationship between Tater and me. Tater instinctively hunted with me; that is, he was not a self-hunter who when turned loose you hoped you would find him if he pointed a bird. Numerous times I would hear the bells on the dogs indicate they had broken their hunt pattern. Soon someone would say: “Your dogs are looking for you.” I would call out, sometimes they would come for a visual confirmation and then the hunt was back on. Otherwise, they just continued the hunt once they heard my voice nearby. We were a team bound together in love and purpose.
Of the two most important memories from those times, the first occurred when Tater was 10 years old and my son Joel was 12. It was during the Christmas holidays and I had bought Joel an Ithaca Featherlite, 12-ga shotgun for his Christmas present. It was a
Tater on my left and Annie on my right, probably in Spring 1982.
secondhand gun, but in excellent condition. He was small built, so we had put a crappy- looking, old, short stock on it for a better fit. Tater, Annie, Joel, a grad student and I were hunting on a sunny, but fairly cool afternoon. We had taken a few birds, but Joel had not had a shot. Tater was hunting near Joel when he slammed on point. Annie was not in the picture. The student and I stopped. I told Joel to get ready and walk into the bird. He had seen the scenario many times but had never been the actor. He half-raised his gun to his shoulder, kept his posture straight and head up, and confidently walked past Tater. The bird flushed. Joel methodically raised his gun and fired. The bird dropped like a rock. Tater loped out, picked up the bird, brought it back and presented it to Joel who was standing in a patch of sunlight amongst the cypress and gum trees. I have no doubt that Joel reflected on that small moment for the rest of his life, even among all the other great moments he would have as an outstanding deer hunter and saltwater fisherman. I know that at times it still floods my mind.
The next greatest memory from those days came in the winter of Tater’s fourteenth year. He had maintained amazing strength and stamina through his first 12 years, but then it was like some switch had been flipped. He really slowed down and was very obviously an old dog. Annie could run circles around him and had become an excellent hunter in her own right. By now, it was common for other people to join me on a hunt and bring their own dogs, osometimes Brittanys, the purchase of which had been inspired by Tater and Annie.
It was a Saturday afternoon and we were again hunting on the Francis Marion. My memory of the details is vague with respect to who was with me. I remember that in addition to Tater there was Annie and Spud, a Brittany pup that I had acquired from my Friend, Keith Causey, a professor at Auburn University. We were traveling in my old Toyota pickup with a dog box on the back. When we arrived where we were going to hunt, we got ourselves ready and released the dogs. The Annie and Spud were off the truck in a flash and headed into the woods. Tater got off more slowly and loped in their direction.
There was a small cove with scattered wax myrtle bushes and low ground cover where the low terrain dropped off onto the true wetland soils. The young dogs had exuberantly gone right through the lower edge of the site. Tater hit the middle of it and immediately locked on point. His body was old, but his instincts were as sharp as ever.
Of this hunt, I remember only that moment. This was my dog, and as the field trial judge had proclaimed many years earlier, the greatest of my life. He remains the unchallenged and unchallengeable dog-love of my life.
In the months that followed that hallowed moment, Tater’s health declined rapidly. Although on a good diet, in a good kennel, and with good vet care he had a persistent stomach ailment that was never really diagnosed. He developed major cataracts in both eyes and could barely see. He slept a lot and sometimes would just stand in the middle of his kennel and bark. Was he calling for me to come to him? Once when I had let him out of his kennel for some reason, he wandered out of the neighborhood and into downtown. A storeowner called me (my phone number was on his collar) and said that my dog was sleeping at the back of his store. Tater just could no longer find his way home. Undoubtedly, he had gotten very tired and just laid down to rest.
A few more months went by and he grew progressively worse. His stomach ailment was the worst ever. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s 1982, what had to be done was obvious.
He could barely walk from his kennel to my truck. I helped him onto the floorboard in front of the seat. We drove to the vet’s office about 12 miles away.
We struggled into the vet’s office. The vet assured me that I was doing the right thing. I lifted Tater up onto the table while feeling my very soul drenched in tears. Tater laid there quiet and resigned and still in my arms. The vet inserted the needle; completed the injection, and he and his assistant left the room. I stood there holding my beloved dog that had brought so much to my life, feeling him pass on and crying like a child crying for its dying mother.
I carried Tater from the vet’s office back to my truck and drove home where I picked up my shotgun, three shells and three dried woodcock wings that were artifacts from our research days. My wife at the time and both sons went with me to bury him. I chose a place on Hobcaw Barony Plantation beside a small cypress-gum pond surrounded by wax myrtle and sparse switchcane. I dug the grave and placed Tater in it. I then fired three shots from my shotgun and placed the empty shells and the wings beside him, then wept hard again as I covered the grave.
It has been almost 37 years to the day since that scene was played out. As I complete this story of Tater, the dog-love of my life, I still cry.