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Old Bean by Michael Mieszczak
photos courtesy the author

My wife, Nancy, joined a fancy golf club carved from a rural area loaded with pheasants, rabbits, ducks and geese. Since "Yes, Dear" acknowledges the inevitable so painlessly, I agreed to swap our house in the city for a tidy ranch near the course. Maybe I was sandbagging just a little. But I swear I didn’t know that woodcock sky danced in the redbush meadows a five iron from the back door.

"Two things swiftly became crystal clear. Bean was really good at flushing woodcock. But the little 28 bore was not going to help polish his retrieving."

Some homework followed to identify an all-purpose dog that would help me fill our table from the teeming venatic pantry I’d dithered into. After reading seductive reports from the breed's cheerleaders in Wisconsin, I decided that an American water spaniel was just what I needed.

By the time we'd driven our seven week old pup home from the airport in May, 1994, Bean had already bonded with Nancy, leaving her with a smile on her face and a puddle in her lap. His house breaking also moved quickly along. He figured out what the pet door was for right after we shared our first sandwich at lunch. He sure learned fast. Watching how proudly Bean paraded around with my socks and Nancy's unmentionables, I figured he was ready to start yard work with a dummy. Bean was delighted to start working with me, too.
Young Bean gives a canvas bumper a wary sniff

We were on a walk late in August when I got an encouraging peek into our future. Bean had stopped on a trail leading past a little trickle out back and, just for a second, intently studied the scent leaking from the dogwood on his right. When his nose wrote a check that his paws seem compelled to cash, he charged into the tangle. Fifteen yards later, he’d flushed his first woodcock. I’m not sure who was most surprised: the woodcock, who whistled bug-eyed past my ear, or Bean or me. But two out of us three knew right off that we liked it a lot.

By Labor Day weekend, Bean seemed ready for his first practice putting it all together, so we were off to a local preserve. I was not surprised when he caught on well, working his ground between the wing gunners and easily finding downed birds. Of course, there were some initial retrieving problems, but Bean corrected them pretty quickly.
Bean ponders remedies for a reluctant retrieve - My water entry
eventually got a lot better. Hey, give me a break. I was pretty green!

My typical performance with a scattergun is flaccidly mediocre, highlighted occasionally with flashes of dullness. So it was with a groundless optimism that I selected my new 28 gauge over and under then rushed out the back yard gate after work on our first opening day. Two things swiftly became crystal clear. Bean was really good at flushing woodcock. But the little 28 bore was not going to help polish his retrieving. So after two days of filling my vest with spent shells instead of feathers, I switched to my old faithful 20 gauge.

Shooting the suddenly treacherous 20 added two more days but no birds to our bag. Getting real serious, I finally grabbed an open choked 12 gauge and with a set to my jaw marched out the back gate. We hunted familiar dogwood until the meadow ended in old rows of towering white pines. Beyond this edge a hillside sloped gently down to a lazy creek. All at once Bean did a two-step across the gentle breeze and flushed the day’s first bird which made its way in slow motion up through an expansive redbush. An eyeblink after it transitioned into outbound flight, I finally centered our first woodcock. We sure were a couple of proud partners.

"Somehow that curly brown head knew these were the tough birds that I needed a spaniel for, and he did fine work on them."

Bean occasionally retrieved woodcock with gusto. Whenever a bird fell into any water at all, he’d reliably go get it. He was just as good when a woodcock fell deep in the thick stuff and out of my sight. Somehow that curly brown head knew these were the tough birds that I needed a spaniel for, and he did fine work on them.

To a water spaniel, however, it’s only reasonable that if some birds were clearly "his", then other birds must be "mine". Such canine logic impelled Bean to trot out to birds that fell on sparsely covered ground right under my nose and squat placidly behind them. There he would sit with infinite patience until I held up my end of the bargain.

If he was sometimes an opinionated curmudgeon, Bean could also be quite a joker. On one memorable day, my cousin Richard and I were hunting woodcock in a familiar covert. Bean flushed a bird which buzzed Rick’s head like a low-house eight in a stiff cross wind. Richard reflexively ducked, then whirled around and made a good shot to fringe the bird with his well-worn Model 97. The little bird disappeared in a prickly thicket of hawthorn. Bean went smartly after the bird. But after a moment’s search, he returned only about half way back to us, empty-handed. Then he just lay down on the thicket’s edge with his hind paws tucked beneath him, his forepaws extended and his head held high, like some fuzzy sphinx with Alfalfa’s top knot.

Rick and I stomped past the hopelessly addled dog and began scratching through the thicket looking for the bird. The thicket scratched back quite effectively. With sweat stinging my lacerated head and arms, I stomped over to give a good tongue lashing to Bean, who remained in serene repose in a comfortable clearing. He wouldn't even look at me. But I swear he was grinning when I found the woodcock hidden under his meaty forepaw. He’d somehow had it squirreled away there all along.
Old Bean

Like the woodcock, the seasons whistled quickly by. Before I knew it, my promising but ditzy puppy had matured into an accomplished but ditzy adult. Too soon, Bean discovered he’d picked the right owners but the wrong parents. One day he was doctoring for one illness, then for two, and finally three. By 2004, we pretty much left our beloved woodcocking to others and pursued a preserve pheasant or two on the better groomed sections of a nearby club. I told Bean I was getting old and sore and needed the change, but I’m not sure he bought it.

Bean left us on a beautiful sunny day in September, 2005. When I returned home from errands late in the afternoon, I found a note from Nancy mentioning that Bean had gone out for a nap just before she’d left the house. After I’d thumbed through the mail, I went outside to wake my buddy who I could see snoozing peacefully on the warm blanket of grass. It was just like the old bugger to fool me one more time. He always enjoyed it when he had the last laugh.

It took a year before I was ready to scatter Bean's ashes. As the upland seasons began, I set him free to roam in three coverts that were always special to us. Now that the woodcock are returning again with the first warm hints of Spring, it's time to let him go by sharing the joy in his story.

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Spaniel Journal - your source for flushing spaniel training, hunt test, field trial & hunting information