A Tribute to an Old Hunting Mate
by Chris Phillips
Printed with permission
I want to tell you a story or two about an old hunting mate of mine that I spent fourteen odd years growing up with. She was probably my closest and most devoted friend. I was married for a short period of time and when it came to showing affection and loyalty the mate won hands down, plus the wife never did quite get the drop on tracking deer.
When we think back over the years some of our experiences and our recollections of them can be quite vague, but there will always be something in one’s life that will remain “clear as a bell”. Our meeting was one of those times.
I had taken time off one shooting job to pursue another. My base camp was at Piano Flat, a place with abundant ridges and gullies covered with 10,000 hectares of beautiful beech forest. The only ungulate dweller of this forest was the old Red deer and that was the reason I was there. I had been camped out on the tops for nearly a week and had just returned home. I was having a brew with an old ‘possumer friend who was also in residence at the time when I spied an advert in his slightly dated paper. The ad read, “pure bred German Shorthaired Pointer pups for sale..” Look out.
I jumped into my old Land Rover and scampered off down the road to the nearest ‘phone some 10-15km away and promptly organised an inspection of the pups. Once I had things sorted out we headed for Invercargill.
After a laborious trip of nearly two hours we pulled up outside the breeder’s house. I went to the door then I was kindly directed over to a penned area with nine German shorthaired pointer pups playing in it. I was then told I could take my pick. It took me quite some time before I had picked out a beautiful wee liver and white ticked bitch. It was from this moment on that my life would never really be quite the same again.
I headed back to Piano Flat stopping at my parent’s home in Gore on the way to show off my new hunting mate. “Trixie” was to be her name. To say we met with a mixed reaction would be an understatement but I guess the idea would settle on them in time.
Once back at Piano Flat I carried on as normal, out shooting morning and evening. I had to carry this silly looking, overweight, under legged, large footed, over skinned out of balance pup of a dog everywhere I went.
She would peer out from inside of my Swanni occasionally having the .270 fired over her head. This probably didn’t do much for the pup’s hearing but it sure got her focused on deer early in life – you could say right from 6 weeks old. Her legs grew quite rapidly and it wasn’t long before she became totally mobile, no longer needing to be carried every few hundred metres. Trix pointed her first deer at four months old. We had just broken out of the bush onto a large clearing some five hundred yards or more long when she froze, pointing toward the far side of the clearing. I carefully raised my rifle and searched the bus edge with my scope. It wasn’t long before I found a young stag feeding, quite unaware of our presence. I decided we would close the gap up a bit before I would try for a shot. We slowly edged forward stopping every few yards to check the animal hadn’t noticed us. We had a good breeze in our favour and Trixie was sucking in deer fumes by the bucket as we moved forward. The scent was becoming stronger; you could visually see her getting tenser by the minute. I had horrid visions of her snapping like a rubber band and pinging all around the clearing. Fortunately I got a chance for a shot pretty soon. Once I shot the deer I noticed the dog still pointing, her eyes bulging out of her head, straining to see where the deer had gone. We trotted over to the animal lying there raking its leg as the last life drained from its body. Trix just sat back for a moment or two, tilted her head one way looking at it then tilted it the other. She slowly walked up to it and emitted the fiercest bark she could muster then went back to her seat. Such were the events of her first deer.
As the months passed Trix grew bigger and stronger, her endurance becoming a very notable feature. We hunted on the tops and in the bush. We constantly hunted every chance we got, about three days a week, every week. At that time of our lives we lived for hunting.
Over the years we were to have a few misunderstandings like one night when I was spotlighting a friends place. I shot a deer way up on a step scrub covered face. At the precise moment I fired the shot exit one GSP through the Land Rover driver’s window taking with her the spot light cord. (She probably figured she’d need the light if she was expected to find the deer in the dark). Pretty bright are these GSP’s. When I finally got the light operational and looked up the face and all I could see was scrub. I had neither torch nor portable light. There was no moon and the country was that rough and steep with drop offs, there was nothing I could do but wait the short time ‘till day break. When I arrived back at the scene my darling dog, who was there resting with the deer, looked up with a look as if to say, she was pleased with her deer but annoyed with me for jumping out he window and what the hell took me so long to get there anyway?
Her early growing up, and later on too for that matter, was marred with a list of accidents; badly twisted leg from running over a cattle stop at high speed with eyes closed, jumping up into a fallen tree and getting caught in a ‘possum trap then jumping down and hanging from the tree (note: if a dog’s in severe pain don’t be offended if it bites you, it’s nothing personal), toes chewed off in the front sprocket of motor bike, falling down a 35 foot mine shaft (a real interesting one), ripped flank open on barbed wire, run over by a car - 1, Land Rover – 1, and motor bike twice, impale oneself on concrete reinforcing rod, open up nose and cheek trying to bury food on broken glass, etc. etc.
I mentioned dogs in pain lashing out at whoever is handy; this brings to mind a ‘posturing trip with a friend who hadn’t had too much to do with the great outdoors. We were heading into the hunt and we were running a bit late. We had the spot light going and were getting a few possums. The dog was quite young and silly, about as silly as the idiot sitting next to me, anyway she races ahead and grabs this possum, or was it the possum grabbed her..a good possum but a bad grip, so my mate decides to assist the dog who by this stage is having her ear used for a dental mould.
The events that took place are a bit hazy but the dog was trying to howl with a mouthful of possum, which in turn had a mouthful of ear. My mate in his infinite wisdom tried to remove the offending possum by pulling on its tail but that only seemed to encourage it to bite harder. I think the dog may have worked this out before he did, so she turned around and gave him a bit of a stir up so then he too added a bit of his noise to this hilarious party. I just sat back in the rover seat and laughed. I think we all learnt something from that episode, the dog certainly did, she developed a new method of holding. She would stalk around them as they would sit on their haunches and follow her ‘round, but they could only they could only twist so far before having to switch their head to the other side, so presenting the perfect opportunity to grab the back of the neck. She would just stand there holding continually increasing the pressure and crush them to death. This method was great if you want to recover the skins, just a few small puncture marks around the neck and head. Some nights I would lay in the bunk with the hut door open and hear the gurgling sound of the dog dispatching one around the hut. She would then just drop it by the door and go off looking for another live one. I always expected to get up one morning and find 20 or 30 possums in a heap by the door, but I guess she needed her sleep too; the best she did unassisted was I think, four.
The GSP’s devotion and love for their companion (I don’t like to use the word Master, I don’t think it’s apt) is incomparable. When it comes to hunting I think these dogs forget far more than we ever learn, all we have to do is try and understand what they tried to say to us. So really if anyone should carry the Master title, it should be them.
Anyway, getting back to the love and devotion/protection thing. I recall my, or should I say our, first date with a girl – unsuspecting victim. I pulled up outside her house to pick her up, she just about went back inside when she saw what we were travelling in (a mud covered old rag top Land Rover), let alone what was asleep on the front seat. I finally coaxed her into the passenger seat and I climbed back into the driver seat. The dog spent the trip there and home sitting leaning right into my side just staring at our passenger who was jammed up hard against her door (had enough room for another two or three people in front). I think our date felt more than a little uncomfortable, apparent by the way she dived out just as we were pulling up to her house, never could see the reasoning in it myself. I looked at my dog who was staring out the window watching our guest whom had just made quite a rude exit. “Bit of a funny breed these girls aren’t they pup? Can’t see what was exciting, breath taking and exhilarating over that lot, let’s head back to the bush”.
When Trix was six we spent some time shooting for what was then the South Canterbury Wallaby Board. A great experience for both of us.
The country on the Wallaby Board was very barren, just mostly rock and tussock, scree slopes and Matagouri except for the Hunter Hills which is covered in bush. It was a great source of entertainment dogging the Wallabies. We had about five dogs each, which would usually hunt as a group. But Trix wouldn’t hunt with the other dogs, not even my other four, she was too used to hunting by herself and that was the way it was going to stay. It was quite handy because I always had two areas to watch over, the main group of dogs and then Trix working by herself. An incident I recall; one day I was sitting observing the point of a ridge directly opposite, there was a track right around the base of it and my group of dogs were chasing a very young but fast Wallaby along it, from the other direction out of nowhere came Trix. She rounded the corner to what I thought would be an almighty collision, she just opened her mouth and ran straight into the Wallaby not even altering her course or stride, a short struggle, a severe shaking and I had another Wallaby on my tally for the day.
When we worked the foothills on the Hunter Hills we were quite often in bush or scattered bush gullies, these always seemed to provide the best shooting. My old girl loved the bush and she would just work all day putting up Wallabies for me and quite often passing into the next gully and putting them up for the next shooter as well. Our stay there was only brief; six months, then I returned South.
By this stage the dog was becoming quite a veteran hunter, she never ceased to amaze me with the tricks she used to pull off. One trick she perfected which had me baffled as to what she was doing the first time she did it was, I had just shot a deer and wounded another on the edge of the bush, she took off flat stick down the edge of the bush and out of sight. I thought “oh well, she’s finally lost her lolly and gone right around the twist”. I took off into the bush after the wounded deer and didn’t have to track far before I could see the deer standing twenty yards in front of me unable to go anywhere as the dog had circled around and cut off its retreat. A bit of a cunning plan I would say My Lord.
I think once Trixie had organised her style and how she would hunt, my biggest problem was believing in her, because she knew what she was doing and I just had to gain confidence to feel comfortable with her in control. When I started thinking I knew more than she did, that’s when the problems started.
I recall hunting up a ridge on morning and ascending to a large outcrop of rocks which fell away on the backside of two large basins running into the bush. One there was always deer in and the other side very rarely. Anyway, this was the side the dog opted to go despite my severe encouragement, she was determined to go left but I wanted to go right. I ended up almost having to carry her over to where I wanted to go, only to find an empty basin. I conceded to cross over into the other basin where she’d wanted to go to find standing there one large stag. How do you apologise to a dog?
Although the pointer is probably not renowned as a holding dog I have witnessed extreme strength and aggression from Trixie in her younger years.
It was early one morning, we were hunting along this face when Trix started pointing far below us, she had winded two large deer running through head high Manuka. I shot one with my first shot and fired another at the head of the second deer, but it continued to run. No longer visible I gave it up as a miss for the mean time and we descended the 150 yards down the hill pushing our way through the heavy Manuka ‘til we came to the deer lying where it had been shot. I walked a little way from the deer in the direction the other animal had gone and found the spot where I had taken the shot. Off the ground I picked up a length of bone about 75mm long belonging to the lower leg of the other deer, the bullet must have ricochet off the Manuka. That deer had shown no sign of being hit, a three legged deer can run just as well as a four legged deer as I have witnessed on another horrid occasion.
With an absolute minimum to nil blood trail I set the dog off tracking it thinking it would possibly be a waste of time, as I returned to quickly gut the dead deer. Once completed I headed in the direction the dog had gone. When I entered the bush I could hear one hell of a commotion coming from a distance through the bush. I started running and could hear Trixie screaming and growling, there was thumping and splashing all a the same time. I hit he edge of the creek and ran a few yards around the corner and there was my dog holding this deer by the neck not letting it up the far side bank, and boy that deer was not happy. They were taking turns to see who could drown who; the dog was finding it hard going because the deer was trying to move to deeper water which was making her lose her purchase. I realised it was a no win situation but he experience was good for Trix, she was using every ounce of strength to win that deer over but I entered the water and cut the deer’s throat. I didn’t want my dog knocked around. When I grabbed the deer it was all I could do to manoeuvre it into a position to dispatch it. This was a very strong animal and I think Trix pulled off a pretty amazing feat for holding it for as long as she did. It was a pretty gruesome scene when I finally dispatched the animal. The creek turned instantly red like a scene from Friday the 13th, the dog gulping up the water as she swam around me. I ferried the deer out on my motorbike, Trixie riding in triumphant glory on the tank.
It was a great feeling watching the old girl working the ground ‘till we came to a vantage point, I would rest, she would just pace from one side of me to the other in about a twenty foot area testing the air and intently concentrating on the edge of the bush. She would never rest while we were out in the scrub. Our evening camps were a different story, when we came through the door at night she would make a bee line for my sleeping bag, curl up, and just stare at me as I prepared tea for us both, only occasionally her eyes would become too heavy to keep open. If she realised she’d closed her eyes for a moment it would mean she would have to lift her head and have a good look around to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. I really can’t see how a man can improve on a lifestyle like that, the hills, the bush, open tussocks, the birds and streams, plenty of food running around the bush, fish in the creek and a warm dry hut. Maybe not everyone’s idea of top accommodation but it sure was to us. Important is the company you keep while you’re living in the hills and mine was first class company.
On my last trip with the old dog we hunted off the side of a ridge and the dog then pointed down the half open, half bush ridge. I sat down with my binoculars and searched for ages for a sign of a deer but I could not see one. I tried to get Trix to move on but she wouldn’t, still persisting to point down the ridge so I glassed the area over again. This time at about 350 yards I picked up a movement in the long grass. At first I thought it was a hare but it turned out to be the ear and top of a deer’s head as it was standing in a depression. A short time after that we had our first deer for the day. It would be interesting to know how many deer people walk past that don’t have dogs. Myself now, I can’t stand trying to hunt without a good dog; it’s just like wandering around blind.
My old dog spent her later years drifting in and out of good health. Her ill periods eventually lasting longer than when she was well. In May of ’02 I had to have her put down, her illness had just become too much for her. All her life I remember her as a strong happy noble animal, this had now been taken from her. The decision to do what I did was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my life but I could not keep her alive for my sake. I think a lot of people have been and will be put in this same situation, you must remember you can’t put the animal you love through pain and suffering for the sake of your own fears of living without them. I really believe part of them never leaves you. The effect they have on your life, the joys they bring you and the memories they leave behind are always with you.
Updated 24th Auguest 2003