American Field

The Day I Became a Purist

By Gerry MacKenzie | Apr 11, 2018

I killed my very first bird over a pointing dog’s solid stand on November 11, 1963. It was a gaudy pheasant rooster that my ten-month-old pointer male, which was the very first bird dog I ever owned, pinned next to the remnant of an old fenceline in a corn field that was a part of the old homestead I was renting at the time. The house place was located on the road that separated Ford and Livingston Counties, just two miles west of Route 26 between Chatsworth and Piper City, Illinois. The experience ignited within me a fever that never subsided, although in keeping with the title of this piece it took on a different flavor as the years passed by.

The above described area was teeming with pheasants in those days. I had purchased the aforementioned pointer, which I named Abner, from Herb Holmes’ Gunsmoke Kennels when he was but three months old. I was impatient with the rate of his progress, as I was very naïve about what was involved insofar as a pointing dog’s development.

Due to my impatience, I purchased a pointer female from the same kennel. Her name was Nig, and since she was approaching two years of age, she was a bit more capable as a gun dog than Abner. However, with the plentitude of pheasants in that area, both dogs improved considerably as the season progressed.

I offer the above vignette as evidence that my career with bird dogs began no differently than the average, every day bird hunter’s did. Also, I’m certain that my basic philosophy regarding the sport was no different than most bird hunters I have been in contact with over the years — my degree of success at the end of each day afield was in direct proportion to the weight in my game pouch, and whether or not I had harvested my “limit”.

I took great pleasure in hunting with my dogs, but experienced an equal degree of displeasure when their errant behavior messed up the opportunity for a good shot. I guess I expected them to be perfect in their deportment, whereas it was OK for me to blow an easy shot every now and then, and in those days it was just as much now as then. The bottom line was success was equated to the bottom line — how many birds I was able to kill.

In 1964 I moved to Divernon, Illinois. There were many bird dog fanciers who lived in that general area. However, not only did they enjoy bird hunting, but most of them also competed in bird dog field trials.

I became acquainted with many of them, and proudly showed off my prized bird dogs for their scrutiny. They were not impressed. My dogs did not possess that intangible quality called “style”. I begrudgingly came to realize that this was so, and began a search for dogs that were more esthetically pleasing and that I could compete with in field trials with some success.

I managed to do so, and for a beginner I had a fairly successful field trial season. I came to realize that the quality of the bird work was as gratifying as the quantity, and since birds weren’t killed during the trials, I began to understand the truism you can have more fun with a live bird than with a dead one.


In 1966 a series of circumstances saw me move to Portland, Oregon. Prior to that move I had acquired a bird dog, through a series of trades, that everyone in that central Illinois locale coveted. She was an extremely classy pointer female that her original owner had christened “Smoky”.

Smoky was a daughter of triple Champion Gunsmoke ex a female registered as Peregrine’s Dianah. She was about fifteen months old when I got her, but extremely precocious, and from the onset was about as accomplished a bird-finder as one could ever hope for. She was a natural retriever, and a darned good one to boot. In short, I learned more about bird dog performance from Smoky than I ever taught her.

Smoky was the only dog I kept when I made the move west. I did not know what to expect insofar as upland bird hunting was concerned, but Smoky had become a cherished pet as well as a hunting companion, and thus made the trip with me.

Early during that first bird season I hunted exclusively in the Willamette Valley, which had a decent population of pheasants and Valley Quail, but still was a far cry from what I had experienced in the Ford and Livingston County area in Illinois. About midway through the season a customer on my industrial laundry supply route suggested I try the Vale-Ontario area in extreme eastern Oregon. It was about 340 miles to that area from Portland, but with no speed limit on Interstate 80, I was able to make the trip in my Dodge Charger 440 Magnum in a little less than four hours. So, on a long weekend Smoky and I headed east to explore new territory. I could not believe what I encountered in what was known as the Treasure Valley.

The area teemed with pheasants and Valley Quail, and one would encounter an occasional bevy of bobwhites or Huns, and a bit higher in the foothills a goodly number of chukars. Not only that, the limit on pheasants was four, and one of them could be a hen. The limit on Valleys was ten, with a possession limit of 20. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, or at least to “happy hunting ground”.

Although I had had some success field trialing before I left Illinois, the plentitude of game to harvest in this new territory reversed my priorities to a degree, and even though I missed the competition, this absolute abundance of game to harvest became a viable replacement for it.

The old saying “there’s nothing like birds to make a bird dog” was so true as far as Smoky was concerned. She rapidly reached the pinnacle of her

potential, and it was a lofty one to say the least. In addition to being able to sate my desire for a bulging game pouch, she treated me to a plethora of quality bird work that was performed with aplomb.


Sadly, all good things must come to an end. As you are probably aware, wildlife populations are often cyclic, with numbers subject to peaks and valleys. For some unknown reason, the bird populations in the Treasure Valley suffered a marked decline, almost to the point where the lengthy drive from Portland became impractical.

In discussing this situation with a fellow bird hunter one day he suggested that I give the area around Milton-Freewater a try. Milton-Free-water is just a bit northeast of Pendleton, Oregon, and but a few miles directly south of Walla Walla, Washington. He explained that this was almost entirely wheat country, and that the stubble fields, what with their draws and waterways, was decent pheasant habitat. It was about 100 miles closer to Portland, and thus I decided to make the trip one Saturday and give it a try.

Now, when I say wheat country, I mean WHEAT COUNTRY, as the stubble fields are so vast as to resemble a golden ocean. Although as one scans their breadth they look flat, the ground undulates slightly not unlike the waves on the ocean itself.

The great bird hunting I had experienced for the past two seasons had dulled my yen for field trialing, which was beneficial since the sport had become almost an obsession. Hopefully this new venue would continue to provide all of the thrills with a bird dog that I could hope for. It was on a crystal clear Saturday morning with but a light breeze rippling the wheat stubble and weedy growth therein, and the temperature —  in the mid 40s — was ideal, that I turned Smoky loose at the edge of a wheat stubble field that seemed to stretch to infinity at about 10:00 a. m.

With the gentle breeze blowing directly into her face, Smoky wasted no time but set sail directly into it, casting far ahead into the vastness of the sea of golden stubble. With no defined objective to alter her path she soon disappeared from sight far into the van. I broke into a trot to try to keep her in view, as each time the undulating ground lowered in front of me I lost sight of her. Soon it seemed that a tiny white dot appeared as I topped a crest in the ground. Because of the shimmering wheat stubble creating a mirage-like effect I could not be sure that it was she.

As I drew closer, however, I could see that she was unmoving at the top of a slight swell in the ground. I then realized she was frozen on a solid point. If a pheasant was her quarry, odds were that it would never be there when I finally reached her, so I quickened my pace to tilt the odds in my favor. I got within 30 yards of her, pausing slightly to admire her lofty stance and unwavering intensity. Nearly breathless I closed the distance between us and when but within 15 feet of her stand, the gaudiest, most raucous cock pheasant erupted from the wheat stubble and at the top of his ascent caught the breeze and flew right back over me. I whirled and my Ithica model 37, 20 gauge pump’s report drowned out the rooster’s cackling and it fell with a thud. Smoky was on him in an instant, and marched proudly to me with the bird clasped gently but firmly in her jaws. I took the bird from her and tucked it into my game pouch, then paused for a moment to decide which direction to take from there. Then the realization struck me that we could be there for a week and it wasn’t going to get any better than what we had just shared. I snapped Smoky’s lead to her collar and said, “C’mon, girl, let’s go home. We’ve just set the bar as high as it can go.”

After many times standing on the threshold, I had finally become a purist.

P. S. Smoky’s registered name was Smokette. Soon after the above described experience, I decided to try my hand as a professional bird dog trainer and handler. I named my kennel “Smokette Kennels” in her honor. I bred her to a pair of prominent pointer males, and her offspring provided me with a good bit of talent with which to develop a string of competitive dogs. She was buried under the stand of oaks at the back portion of the property.

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