A rainstorm pelted the truck as Kevin drove to our hunting area along the shores of Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota.
The rain was letting up as we approached the Wildlife Management Area and started our pheasant hunt. Kevin had his 12-year-old black Lab, Kota, to go with my Lab, Kiri. Kevin and Jen adopted Kota a couple years ago, when his previous owner couldn’t take Kota on a move.
After severe drought, the lake level is dramatically lower than in previous years. There are wide expanses of muddy beaches, plus thick cover that grows strong and tall on the old lakebed. That cover is head-high and tough to walk through, but pheasants love it. It wasn’t our plan to hunt in this jungle, but the dogs said, “It smells like pheasants,” so we followed the dogs.
A month into hunting season, the pheasants are wary and wild. We’re seeing pheasants, but mostly a long way out. We’re working our way out of the jungle to have a lunch break when I finally got a good shot on a pheasant and dropped it into some thick cover. I find the bird, but then Kevin said, “I lost track of Kota.” He added, “He was right here, but then he disappeared when I was stumbling in the driftwood.” A high-water mark of a few years ago is marked by a long line of driftwood from stands of trees that grew up in previous low-water cycles.
We postponed lunch as we called and whistled for Kota. After no response we took a break and then headed back into the cover, as we shared thoughts of, “I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
During our afternoon hunt, we both did some shooting. I connected on another pheasant and we both took wild shots at a covey of Hungarian partridge. We hoped Kota might come to the sound of gunfire, though Kota likely has some hearing loss, as well as selective hearing loss, especially if he’s on an interesting scent.
Looking at the rank growth that goes on for miles, it looked hopeless. We had to get back to Minot, so we left a water dish and one of Kevin’s jackets where we’d parked the truck. We also stopped at a local farm, reporting the lost dog, and asking them to keep an eye out for Kota.
We returned the next day and widened the scope of the area we hunted. Again, we had no response to calling or whistling for Kota. There was no indication that Kota had visited the jacket or water dish. After a day’s hunt we had to get back to Minot. We were devastated by Kota’s disappearance. We speculated that Kota possibly ran himself into exhaustion and died out in the cover. It wouldn’t be a bad way for an old bird dog to go, but we hated the thought of not knowing what happened.
Kevin had printed some “lost dog” flyers the night before and he posted them at a couple WMA access points. He also left another flyer at the truck stop in the nearest town.
We were about halfway back to Minot when Kevin got a call from a hunter saying, “I saw your dog trotting along the road. I thought it might have been an oilfield worker’s dog, but then I saw your flyer at the WMA access.”
We did an immediate turn-around and headed back to the hunting area. Then we got another call, this time from the farmer’s wife, who said, “We’ve got your dog. He just walked into our yard.”
We had a huge sense of relief as we drove into the farm for a happy reunion. It was a much happier drive home than we had anticipated an hour earlier.
Kota seemed none the worse for his night out in the field. The next day we stayed in to watch football and, several times, I asked Kota, “Tell me about your adventure.” Kota declined to share any stories with us. What happened in the pheasant fields stays in the pheasant fields.
This week, many of us will be gathering with friends and family for a festive Thanksgiving dinner. If the conversation drifts around to “What are we thankful for this year,” I just happen to have a dog story with a happy ending.
This is a most Happy Thanksgiving.