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Stacy and I grinned as we each slid a Browning Auto 5 shotgun—his a beautiful Belgian-made 16-gauge, mine a later-model, Japanese-made 12-gauge—out of their respective cases. The Auto 5 is unmistakable, nicknamed “Humpback” due to an abnormally squared-off receiver. Its aficionados are an intimate group because most shotgun shooters find its unique sightline and sturdy nature (read: heavy) a bit anachronistic. Though it was designed and functions best as a waterfowl gun, I shoot mine for upland birds as well. Once you get used to heaving the Auto 5 to your shoulder and squaring your eye behind that magnificent hump, it can be tough to adjust to the low profile of a sweet-shooting double-barrel, the classic upland gun. At least, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself until my wife and our bank account agree to test the theory.
I don’t really know what I expect in these situations—a strategy session? the primal tones of an English-style hunting horn?—but upland hunts always seem to begin quite abruptly, and this one was no exception. A mere minute or two after arrival the three of us entered the field, moving quickly behind a joyously focused Slick. Slick is Jay’s third consecutive German shorthair, and as with the first two he trained her himself. After 100 yards or so she stopped ranging and began moving in ever smaller concentric circles, zeroing in on the bull’s-eye her nose promised was there.
Jay motioned frantically for us to move up behind Slick, and as we crashed through the thick mix of alfalfa, flax and wild grasses behind her she stopped, rigid, her nose and tail stretched in opposite directions. I’ve shot upland behind plenty of retrievers—mostly Labs, and some damn good ones—and the electric moment when the dog gets birdy (tail circling furiously, nose hyperventilating scent) is followed by an often frantic effort to remain within gun range of the crazed beast. Retrievers, by genetic rule, cannot stop until the bird is in the air, and sometimes not even then. It’s often joked that “Goddammitgetyerassbackherenow!” (or some close variant) is the most common name for an upland retriever.
Walking up behind a locked-up pointer is, by contrast, a lesson in deranged physics. As you approach the dog your steps become slow and deliberate, all noise and peripheral vision disappear, and time expands like it does in a good suspense movie when all hell is about to break loose. Your eyes follow a line from the dog’s nose into the thick tangle, searching for any hint of the explosion to come. And when it does come, when a careful step pushes the edge of the bird’s personal space and it rockets out of the grass as loudly as a flat tire at high speed, time compresses in black-hole fashion.