GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. -- We were driving into the rising sun, humming along an Itasca County back road toward a patch of young aspens Tom Engel knew about.
He figured some grouse and woodcock lived there.
In the bed of Engel's pickup, curled up on some fresh hay, lay Cody, an 8-year-old German short-hair pointer. It was Cody whom Engel was talking about as he drove east.
"He makes me take him every day," Engel, 38, said. "It's his fault."
Engel was talking about grouse and woodcock hunting. For Engel, a forest wildlife coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, grouse and woodcock hunting is something of an addiction.
The symptoms appear annually, emerging Sept. 1 when woodcock season opens, intensifying in mid-September when grouse season opens, and reaching untreatable proportions in early October, when most of the leaves have come off the aspen and birches.
"I'm out just about every day," Engel said. "I missed yesterday. I took the day off -- from hunting."
Before you begin railing about the DNR and about Engel never being in the office, it should be pointed out that he doesn't hunt many whole days. Or even a lot of half-days. But if he can squeeze in a couple of hours at the end of the day, he'll have Cody in the pickup and the 20-gauge double-barrel in its case and a few shells in his hunting coat pocket.
He'll be heading for some young aspen with an old dog to see if they can move a few birds.
Cody was moving ahead of us now, through a patch of Itasca County land where some logging had happened about eight or 10 years before. The aspens were about wrist-thick and shoulder-width apart -- just the kind of cover in which grouse and woodcock feel safe from the talons of hawks.
That Engel hunts over a pointing dog puts him in the minority among his fellow hunters. Most North Country hunters who use dogs prefer to hunt behind Labrador retrievers. Golden retrievers also are popular, as are springer spaniels. All are flushing dogs, which is to say that when their nostrils are filled with the scent of game birds, the dogs pick up their pace until they eventually frighten the bird into flying.
If you hunt behind those dogs, you'd better be ready to shoot because the dog isn't going to look back to make sure you're set.
Hunting over a pointing dog like Cody is something else altogether. When he smells a bird, he slows down. He works deliberately until his nose tells him the bird is close -- usually no more than 3 to 5 feet away. There he freezes, sometimes in mid-stride, and locks his nose in the direction of the bird. Engel walks in, flushes the bird and shoots.
Cody's tiny cowbell was tinkling away as he glided among the trees. The bell was an essential part of the system.
L "When the bell stops, you'd better go find him," Engel said.
It had stopped now, and Engel hustled through the trees in the direction he'd last heard from Cody. The dog wasn't far away.
"He's on point," Engel said.
He moved in behind Cody.
"Easy," Engel said, calming the dog, reassuring Cody that his master was on the way and all was well.
Engel readied his double-barrel, the one he'd bought for his 4 1/2 -year-old son, Nathan, when he was 1. It's a sweet little gun, an over-under style double with 22-inch barrels. Engel borrows it regularly.
He was near Cody when suddenly the air was atwitter with the flapping of a woodcock. The bird helicoptered up in typical woodcock fashion, which is to say it moved like a major-league knuckle-ball. Only when it leveled off above the treetops did Engel attempt to track the bird with his shotgun.
Cody saw the whole scenario unfold, and came trotting back to Engel with the dead bird held gently in his jaws. Engel took the bird, praised Cody and smiled.
"That," Engel said, "is why I hunt with a pointer."
It was all so -- pretty.
You couldn't watch without being reminded of stories you have read about quail hunting on southern plantations, where hunters ride on horse-drawn wagons until the dogs point a covey of quail. Then the hunters get off the wagon and move into the field to flush the birds.
It was a pleasure to watch Cody work. He's a big, rangy dog with a classic pointer head -- square and high, with eyes full of intensity. His colors, in pointer terminology, are liver and white. The liver is a bit darker than the chocolate of a chocolate Labrador. On Cody, it comes in large patches across his back and chocolate chips down his underside and legs. He is white almost nowhere, so when he ranges through the woods he appears to be almost a shadow.
His tail is bobbed in shorthair style and extends only about 3 inches from his hindquarters. When he is into strong bird scent, that little stub quivers like a speedometer needle hitched to high voltage. When Cody locks into a point, the stub stops at dead center in mid-quiver, aligning perfectly with Cody's backbone. The rest of his body takes on about a 20-degree incline, slanting from his hind-quarters down to his nose.