Each time I post on my blog I send a group email message to about 20 friends with the link to my most recent piece. For the “Best breed of bird dog” posting uploaded March 12 ( the group email message included this  disclaimer:

Robert Service, “The Bard of the Yukon,” was once criticized for writing puerile poetry. “I don’t write poetry,” he said. “I write verse.” This isn’t poetry, it’s verse.

One friend replied: “This piece is neither poetry nor verse.  It is doggerel.”

Well, yeah.



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Best breed of bird dog



Best breed of bird dog

When all the stars are in full display and the Moon shines down upon
The campfire murmuring down to coals and the Jameson whiskey’s gone,
The double guns are cleaned and oiled and the boots propped up to dry,
And the dogs are sleeping in their crates with many a moan and sigh,
Some drowsy fool is apt to spout, “The best bird dog’s the setter!”
And another will take the bait and say, “Except for five that’s better.”

Six dogs in camp, six different breeds, each one of them tried and true,
And claiming that yours is the best of the pack is a risky thing to do.
This business of choosing best bird dog breed dates back ’most fifty year
For each man seated ’round the fire with cigar stub and can of beer.
We all of us settled on the best breed for us a long, long while ago.
We have cast our lot with that tribe and cult, and branded friend and foe.

Five decades afore, the candidates for “best breed of all” were few;
Pointer, setter, Brittany, shorthair, and the Gordon setter, too.
Labradors received some votes, and springer men were always present,
But pointer handlers scoffed and said “They’re just for duck and pheasant.”
It’s gotten complicated since versatile breeds came through the door:
Vizsla, Munsterlander, Weimaraner, Drahthaar, at least a dozen more.

The conversation’s not too contentious, but it’s quite opinionated
With sketchy facts and much anecdote about breeds we’ve loved and hated.
“A versatile breed’s the only choice,” says the man who hunts with Griffons.
Setter man says, “Yes, good at everything and excellent at nothin’.”
“Hunt with a setter, retrieve your own birds,” the Brittany handler smirks.
“I could force train him to fetch if I wanted, but that’s not his type of work.”

“I admit you’ve got a good workin’ Vizsla, but truth is that I’ve found
It just don’t seem right to be shootin’ quail over a redbone hound.”
“Your pointers can cover some country; it’s fun to watch them, of course,
But to shoot a limit of birds with them, you’d need a GPS and a horse.”
“That wirehair ain’t real steady on point, but you know what French dogs say:
German dogs are true sportsmen; give the bird a chance to get away.”

The other man’s dog either runs too big, or else he’s always at your shoes.
But how far out a pointing dog should hunt is a personal point of view.
We’re either “cattlemen” or “shepherds” in “the range wars” bitter fight:
The cattlemen want their dogs running wide, the shepherds keep ’em tight.
“Pointers and setters get out and find birds, not go for a walk in the park!”
“And they tell you ’bout all the birds they found when they come in after dark.”

Well, good bird dogs come in many breeds, and the not-so-good ones, too.
If you want to hunt with the best of the lot, here’s some sound advice for you:
Pick a pup whose sire you’ve seen hunts well, and its dam hunts even better.
That’s step one to a truly great bird dog: retriever, flusher, pointer, setter.
Add days and days of training, and many more days afield hunting birds,
And one day – amazing! A dog that’s become the best beyond words.

Then one night with stars in full display and the Moon shining down upon
The campfire murmuring down to coals and the Jameson whiskey gone,
And your double gun is cleaned and oiled and your boots propped up to dry,
And the dogs are sleeping in their crates with many a moan and sigh,
You can play the role of fool and brag “My French spaniel is the best.”
A couple of friends will agree with you; just ignore that jibes of the rest.


More stories about bird hunting, bird dogs. and life in the North Country are published in my five  collections of essays, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at  Jerry Johnson Author Page at, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

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Strange birds

rabbit and deer

You know it has been a long, cold, snow-covered North Country winter when…   Each day we fill the bird feeder in the south yard with sunflower seed for the eight or nine species of song birds that flock around the farm house in the winter months, and the squirrels get their share, too, but it is a rare morning when the cottontails and whitetails partake of the feast together, 30 feet from the kitchen windows. This doe was one of six in the yard the morning after the most recent snowstorm. All of them appeared healthy and strong (and pregnant) and in good condition to survive the last weeks of this hard winter.  The rabbits are almost daily visitors. This one seems annoyed by the interloper but doesn’t quite know how to shoo her away.  (Photo by Patti Johnson)






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Old stories never grow old

Photo Album Cover





Old stories
never grow old





Stop me if I’ve told you this one,” he says,
though he knows he has, and knows I never will.
Each telling of the story from sixty years ago
reveals another background image in the faded
photographs filed in the album of my imagination,
exposes more details in the slightly out-of-focus
and fading-to-sepia pictures captured on grainy film,
shot with an old Imperial twin-lens reflex camera,
the burst of light from a blue-white flashbulb
widening eyes, washing out faces, bleaching colors.

One curling photo, crisp in my mind as in wizened hand,
now shows he was wearing a hat, a red wool Stormy Kromer
with the ear flaps tied under his chin and the bill pulled low,
his eyes glinting from the crescent shadow across his face.
The cracked glaze softens as I hear again the story of
his father’s first rifle hunt for deer, statewide season in ’61,
on family land where he’d hunted all his young life until
he went off to war: rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, grouse, quail.
There were no deer in the ’20s or ’30s, whitetails or mulies,
so this deer hunting business was altogether different.

Pictures? Never clicked the shutter in all the excitement.
But a dozen or more fill oft-opened pages of my album
(although they change with each recounting of the tale,
and I have to look at them with a new eye each season).
The hat is different, but the rifle is the same: a .30-06,
Winchester Model 70 Featherweight with iron sights,
a scope is a decade in the past’s future, when eyes dimmed.
He could shoot that rifle, don’t let nobody tell you different,
worked the bolt smooth and fast, four shots in five seconds.
He shot it twice this day, dead on, six-pointer at 200 yards.

In the photo it seems like 100 to me, but I’m looking from
a long ways off, a whole lifetime later, so what do I know?
Throwing the gun to his shoulder as the buck trotted out from
the south side of the shelter belt and paused, one foreleg lifted,
looking at him curiously, never having been hunted before,
and the hunter staring back, never having shot a deer before.
Shooting too fast, off-hand, and in the heat of a buck fever
that he never admitted to, his bullet hit high, broke the spine
above the buck’s shoulders and it went down over a log,
dead as a mackerel, a doornail, yesterday’s newspaper.

Crossing the fence and making the long walk into the field
where the whitetail lay waiting to be a hundred-year trophy
he was slinging the rifle over his shoulder when lo-and-behold
the deer jumped up from behind the log, unhurt and unfazed,
sunlight reflecting bright ivory-gold from all six antler tines,
neck arched in a “You’ll have to shoot better than that!” dare.
And so he did. Taking a finer bead and putting the big bullet
through the buck’s heart and flipping him over the log again.
And that was that, except for the immortal part of the story.
He stepped over the log and looked down and shouted “Damn!”

Did’ya get him?” his hunting buddy hollered from the road.
“Yes! Both of them!”  “What!?”  “I shot a double.”
Sweet Mary and Martha don’t let the game warden come by!
Side-by-side. Twin six-pointers. Bodies steaming in the cold.

Open the album a hundred times; that picture stays the same.



Posted in Deer Hunting, Hunting, Hunting Memories, Hunting Poems | Tagged , , | 1 Comment



Photo by Rob Hanson – Hershey – Chocolate Lab, CC BY 2.0,



Climb into the boat dripping wet and shake off,
hand him a mangled duck covered in marsh mud,
and he gives you half his braunschweiger sandwich,
treats you like a gift from the Celtic god Nodens.

But come into the kitchen, coat bone dry and feet clean,
and offer him a perfectly good frozen cow pie,
chunks of ground corn and clover hay still fresh,
he kicks you out the door, hollers “Bad, bad dog!”

What the hell? It’s all retrieving, sharing the bounty.
A fishy, bottom-feeder duck better than a corned cow pie
that you can eat half and roll in the rest when it thaws?
What’s the standard here? Let me in on the secret.

Next year I’m going to say, “Lousy shot! Bad, bad man!”
A broken-winged cripple in the cattails. Scaup. A diver.
“Cocoa – fetch!” Ice floes in the river. Five-knot current.
Remember the cow pie? Fetch your own damned duck!

(In memory of Cocoa, a long-departed chocolate Labrador retriever who had his own ideas about retrieving and sharing the bounty.)



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In the grip of the Vortex

Snow shoe tracks

At times on a snowshoe walk you look back and wonder, “Wow, did I really come that far?” Your legs answer, “Yes!”

Bright sunshine promised a warm morning for snowshoeing. But the thermometer said the Sun was a deceiver: the temperature was 7 degrees below zero.

Sub-zero days have been commonplace this winter. The coldest day in our part of the North Country was -37, with gusts of 20-mile-per-hour winds that made the windchill temperature something like 60 below zero. By comparison, winter temperatures at ground level at the North Pole range from -30 to -45, so it is no exaggeration to claim we are experiencing some winter days that are literally as cold as the Arctic regions.

We are in the grip of the Polar Vortex. The Vortex, a 600-700 mile diameter area of cold, low pressure air that surrounds the North Pole, is a whirling mass that normally flows clockwise around the Pole as a contained atmospheric cap at the very top of the Earth. But occasionally the Vortex becomes unstable and expands, sending its frigid air southward across the Northern Hemisphere, carried by the winds of the jet stream.

The word Vortex is defined as a whirlpool of fluid (air is in fact a fluid), but to me the name calls to mind some cruel Dr. Seuss creature that brings misery and suffering to peaceful communities. And so the Polar Vortex does to our North Country homes. (There is a similar Vortex at the South Pole, but obviously it affects the Southern Hemisphere and does not extend its malevolence to our part of the Earth.)

The bitter winter cold caused by an “escaped” Polar Vortex is not a recent phenomenon. It has happened for millennia and has been known to humankind for hundreds of years. The term “Polar Vortex” was first coined by scientists in the 1850s. It certainly is not a symptom of, nor has it necessarily been exacerbated by, the Earth’s current climate change. Continue reading

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Sport hunting

IMG_0192 (2)“Hunting,” the Old Man said, “is the noblest sport yet devised by the hand of man. There were mighty hunters in the Bible, and all the caves where the cave men lived are full of carvings of assorted game the head of the house drug home. If you hunt to eat, or hunt for sport for something fine, something that will make you proud, and make you remember every single detail of the day you found him and shot him, that is good too. But if there’s one thing I despise is a killer, some blood crazed idiot that just goes around bam-bamming at everything he sees. A man that takes pleasure in death just for death’s sake is rotten somewhere inside…”

 From The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark

SPORT HUNTING has been taking an awful beating from the politically correct denizens of the social media universe of late. The bashing of hunters elicits much empathy from urban dwellers who are among the ever-increasing part of the population that is divorced from the land and the harsh realities of nature in the wild, and those of us who pursue the blood sports would do well to take heed of some of the reasons for their ire.

If we take a moment to smooth our feathers and step back from the knee-jerk response we have to anti-hunter rants, we should concede one point of the argument: not all of us are “sportsmen.” Somewhere in the development of the creed of sport hunting a noble concept was introduced: hunters are caretakers and guardians of game animals they pursue. That is a virtuous goal for the hunting fraternity and an admirable image, but 50-plus years observing hunters has revealed to me that it just ain’t so.

Continue reading

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