Sam, our host for a day of shooting, opens the trunk door of his classic Land Rover. His black Labrador retriever, Scarlett, leaps expertly into the cargo area and finds her spot to settle down. Her eyes shine with expectation for the task ahead. The rest of us hop in the car and set out toward the Mashomack Fish and Game Preserve for the pheasant shoot. I glance back at Scarlett, whose head is rested on her paws, her eyes looking up in Sam’s direction. She has a job to do today and she seems to know she will be the star of the show.
Sam takes us through the bucolic backroads from Millbrook to the Mashomack Preserve Club. As we approach, I see club members are arriving, like us, for the big shoot. Some people are outfitted in English-style hunting attire: wellies for the deep grass, men in woolen sports jackets with white shirt and tie, women in hunting dress clothes. Older participants look sleek with their polished boots and high-top stockings. Sam points out an Olympian shooter, a young woman with her personal guide. 2000 birds are to be released today. There are only a couple dozen shooters. The polo fields are empty as are the horse stalls. The club pool is closed for the season. Yet there is a palpable buzz in the air. Opening day for the pheasant shoot reminds me of the start of the spring trout season—filled with the excitement and promise of outdoor adventure.
We find our enclosures and wait. Scarlett is at Sam’s feet, ready and anxious to do her job. She is one of several retrievers who will work today, clearing the field of the fallen birds. Sam and I are not participating, we are there as Scarlett’s minders. The horn sounds and the birds are released from a tower on the hill behind us. Shotgun barrels protrude from inside the enclosures all along the perimeter of the field. Birds fly overhead high and fast. Shots are fired. Birds fall to the ground. For those who have only one gun loaded they have to fire fast and reload. Some shooters have several guns at the ready and are able to get multiple shoots off as the birds fly over gaining height and hopefully for them another day to roost in the fields.
Scarlett stands purposefully at Sam’s side, waiting for him to point her in the direction of a fallen bird. She will not retrieve unless Sam shouts her name. Finally, he orders her to go. Scarlett bounds out of the enclosure, finds her quarry and returns with a full-bodied male pheasant, ready to drop at Sam’s feet. She does not release the bird until Sam directs her to. Her mouth is full of feathers, but she does not complain. He orders her to drop the bird then gives her praise. He speaks gently to her, like the affectionate lifelong companion that she is–they have been inseparable at home and in the fields for 10 years. Sam knows his dog’s habits and needs and undoubtedly she knows many of his.
Scarlett is panting. It has been 30 minutes of shooting and she is overheated from retrieving some 50 birds. Sam continually empties water bottles into a bowl and Scarlett gulps the water down between outings. The birds keep falling from the sky as shooters perfect their hand eye coordination. Scarlett is still panting but constantly ready for more action.
It has been a successful shoot. Sam turns to me and suggests we quit and head to the club for lunch with our girls-Patti and Caroline. I am ready. I am tired just watching Scarlett work. The birds that were shot go to a butcher who prepares them for the club kitchen. Pheasant will soon be on the menu. Sam motions to Scarlett that we are leaving. She doesn’t move and is readying for another bird to drop from the sky. Sam whistles. She stays, sitting like a statue next to the pile of dead birds. A second whistle. I am surprised she is not responding to Sam’s command, but she is trained to guard the precious quarry piled up next to our bench. Finally, torn between guarding the birds and her loyalty to Sam, she grabs the last bird she retrieved and runs to the Land Rover. She is obedient to the end. Sam takes the bird from her. Exhausted, Scarlett jumps into the rover and settles back in. She is done for now. A hard day’s work has ended well.