Rewarding partnership forms between a hunter and his dog

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By Jason Stuart
Special to the News-Argus

Avid bird hunter Tom Shoush poses with his dogs Cazzie, left, and Sally during a hunt in 2014. Shoush feels there is no better choice for a hunting dog than black female Labrador retrievers.

Photo courtesy of Jason Stuart

 

 

 

Man’s best friend can certainly be an upland game bird hunter’s most important tool and companion, but for one Glendive resident, the connection goes far beyond that to a deeply spiritual, symbiotic relationship between man, dog, the birds and the land.

Tom Shoush, a long-time park ranger at Makoshika State Park, talks more passionately and poetically about upland game bird hunting and his relationship with his bird dogs than just about anyone you are ever likely to encounter. 

To Shoush, bird hunting – pheasant hunting in particular – is not a sport or a hobby; it’s a profoundly spiritual, almost religious undertaking. And if he’s made a sort of religion out of bird hunting, then his Labrador retriever bird dogs are his high priestesses in that endeavor.

Shoush swears by Labs – and for specific reasons will only get black females – as the epitome of what a bird dog should be, and goes in for “retrieving” dogs rather than “pointing” dogs, because he much prefers the way they work birds across the landscape. As far as he’s concerned, whatever anyone else may argue, there’s simply no better choice for pheasant hunting than a female black Lab trained as a retriever.

“Labs love to tough it out, and with pheasants, you have to tough it out,” Shoush said. “And [Labs] love it so much they don’t have anything that’s too averse from helping you succeed.”

Shoush is an avid hunter of pretty much every game bird, from mourning doves to grouse to waterfowl, but chasing pheasants across the vast prairies of Eastern Montana with his dogs is where he’s most at home and at his happiest. He said pheasant hunting to him is like “a chess game, where it’s king versus king,” and unlike say, waterfowl hunting, where the hunter strives to trick the birds to coming to them on the hunter’s terms, in pheasant hunting, you’re squarely on the pheasant’s home turf and you’re going to have to outwit the wily bird on his terms.

“To me the epitome of (bird hunting) is pheasant hunting because of the way they move on the land. With pheasants, you’re going after them, and that’s what they want,” Shoush said. “And when that bird’s at your feet, flushed out and cackling, there’s no greater rush in hunting to me. I think everybody has a calling as a hunter, something that speaks to you in all the ways you need to be spoken to, and it’s always been the rooster for me; it’s always been the pheasant.”

Shoush has always been deadly serious when it comes to pheasant hunting, he noted, but he said that in recent years, he’s really become more “reflective” during his hunts and come to a greater appreciation of the relationship between hunter, dog, hunted and the entirety of the natural world.

“You reach a certain point where you realize I’ve accomplished what I sought to accomplish (as a hunter) ... and as you age and you realize you can’t chase that elk up that mountain anymore, you start taking a reflective approach to your hunting experience,” he said. “The reflectiveness become the main driving force in the hunt rather than getting the trophy.”

Shoush noted that coming around to that view of the hunting experience has not been easy for someone who has been such a goal-driven hunter all his life. He added that a certain relationship with a certain hunting partner – and the accomplishment of a major hunting goal of his – has helped him come to terms with it all.

“It’s been a difficult transition for me, but I do find myself when I’m out – it used to be run and gun – now I find myself more embracing and more aware of the totality of the experience,” Shoush said. “I’ve come to appreciate the wholeness of the experience, because I’ve had the focus of the experience so strongly with Sal.”

“Sal” – full name “Sally” – is the oldest of Shoush’s two Labs. Now 11 and retired from the field following a diabetes diagnosis in the spring of 2016, Sal was Shoush’s second hunting dog, coming on after he had to retire his first dog, “Boo,” after she developed cataracts at an early age.

Shoush got Sal from a litter birthed by a Lab that belonged to a friend of his. He said he had the chance to work with her mother some before he took Sal, noting that her mother was a very able and effective hunting dog, and that when he got Sal in the field, it was obvious the apple had not fallen far from the tree.

“She was exactly like her momma ... she had the same unquenchable desire to have something in her mouth, to fetch something and bring it back to her master,” Shoush said.

He added that it didn’t take long with Sal in the field to realize he had hit upon the kind of dog he had always hoped for.

“That first fall I realized this is the relationship I’ve sought my whole life as a pheasant hunter,” Shoush said.

And it was with Sal in the fall of 2015 that Shoush hit a monumental milestone in his hunting career. Since he began hunting pheasants, he has diligently kept track of how many he’s killed, noting he averaged about 93 pheasants per year over the course of 11 years. 

On a hunt with Sal late in that fall of 2015 – the last fall Sal would be in the field before her diabetes diagnosis – Shoush shot and killed his 1,000th rooster.

“It was a very difficult hunt, we went to the last minute of shooting light and we had to chase them into the woods,” Shoush said, noting that when he finally downed that 1,000th bird, Sal was so exhausted he had to wait a while for her to rest before he could even take a photo. “That is no doubt the most significant moment of my life as a bird hunter was that bird with Sal. I cried when that happened.”

It was also momentous because it was the last pheasant Sal would ever retrieve for Shoush. Before the 2016 season rolled around, the diabetes diagnosis came and Sal’s hunting career was over, which was definitely a blow, but in a way, bittersweet.

“And that’s when I realized she would never hunt again, but as sad as I was, the realization that the very last bird she ever got for me was that 1,000th bird tempered some of that sadness,” Shoush said. “No other dog will be able to claim that. It is the culmination of all those desires throughout my hunting career.”

Shoush has another Lab, “Cassadora” (which means “the huntress” in Spanish) who, at over five years old, has been with him for a few years now. Where it was once a dog duo for a few seasons, Shoush is now down to just one working dog. “Cazzie,” as he calls her for short, is still learning to a degree and Shoush is still working to shape her somewhat into the kind of dog he wants her to be. (He noted he found out after he got Cazzie that she was bred as a “pointer” rather than a retriever, much to his chagrin, and that she has a few habits he’s still working to break her of).

Shoush is keen to get a new dog before too long so the new pup can have several good working seasons with Cazzie in the field to learn from, but he admitted he is having difficulty doing so, especially while Sal is still living.

“The relationship (with Sal) was so strong and so important to me I’m going to have to take some time before I get another, but I can’t wait too long,” he said.

No dog, no matter how well trained or talented, will ever be able to replace what Shoush had with Sal, however. He knows that deep down, but he said the cherished memory of all those halcyon days tromping through the thick prairie grass in pursuit of roosters with Sal at his side and the unforgettable achievements he had with her in the field have tempered his lingering sadness over losing her as a field companion, leaving behind the sweet, solemn memory of the best hunting companion he’s ever had.

“I’ll always miss that relationship with Sal, but I’ll always remember what it as like to have that relationship, and it’s helped,” Shoush said.

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