|Remembering Mr. Jupe|
A force of nature meets a force of nature in the birdy coverts of Wisconsin.
In the Bible, the Ninth Commandment admonishes us against coveting our neighbor’s wife, servants, ox, or donkey, but it doesn’t specifically mention anything about his bird dog. Or so I’ve told myself for the past 12 years, because every time I’ve gunned over Dave Seabury’s big English setter I’ve been stricken with more than a twinge of jealousy when I recall that glorious, long-ago autumn when we briefly belonged to one another.
The first time I laid eyes on Jupe he took my breath away. It was a crisp October morning in northern Wisconsin, and the big tricolored Belton regarded me solemnly as he sat by himself ignoring the raucous yipping and barking of his kennel mates. He possessed a patrician reserve that disdained such histrionics, and the most intelligent, expressive eyes I’d ever looked into. I had no doubt, then or now, that he knew I was there to take him away from the crowded kennel. Not quite a year old, he was tall and gangling with his deep chest just beginning to feather out, his chiseled head and heavy jowls ticked with orange, and a black patch over his left eye that gave him a perpetually quizzical expression, like an aristocrat raising an eyebrow at the bourgeois behavior of involuntary associates.
“He’s certainly handsome,” I said, understating the obvious.
“He is that” his owner admitted, “but like I told you on the phone, he’s a knothead, this dog, and he don’t mind me worth a damn.”
I frowned and feigned disapproval, knowing from long acquaintance that this man insisted his pointing dogs work within flushing range and cared little whether the birds were bumped or not just so long as he could kill them. He did a lot of his upland gunning over close-working Labs, and over the years many of us wondered why he even bothered with setters. His anger and frustration when a bird was flushed out of range soon discouraged a sensitive setter from exercising the natural bird sense and independent initiative that mark a first-rate grouse dog. Dogs most discerning gunners would consider potterers were praised lavishly and bragged on while less obsequious prospects who ignored his constant imprecations to “Work CLOSE in here, CLOSE in here!!” were summarily rejected as knotheads and culled from his string as soon as he could find a buyer.
An even worse fate awaited some of his aging dogs, callously traded to shooting preserves for a day’s hunt when he decided their best years were behind them. Although I knew all this, the game called for a certain amount of subterfuge, so I pretended to commiserate. “Does he at least come when you call him?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” he shrugged, “if he’s in the mood. His name’s Jupe, by the way, for all it matters.”
I’d been admiring the big setter, and at the sound of his name his ears perked up and then quickly flattened back down. This revealed much about their relationship. “Your friend can call him any damn thing he wants for all this dog cares.” I liked the name and asked, “Short for Jupiter?”
“Nope, just Jupe. Named him for Jupe Svenson, that old boy traps and carves decoys down on Amacoy Lake. Called him that ’cause he’s just as hardheaded as old man Svenson.”
I knew and admired that crusty woodsman: a good namesake. “Well,” I chose my words carefully, “my friend Dave hunts mostly Huns, sharptails, and pheasants back in Montana. He probably wouldn’t mind if this dog goes a little wider than you like them to here.” My diplomacy elicited the desired response.
“Hell yes. This is the dog for him all right. You say he’s a young fella? Well, he’d better be if he figures to keep up with this sonofabitch. Best if he carries a full-choke duck gun, too,” he added with a smirk.
It was a glorious fall day and I was anxious to be off to the coverts, but when he realized I intended taking Jupe along I was immediately offered the choice of the kennels. “Hell, you’ve only got a few days, and I want to see you get some birds. Leave ol’ knothead here and take Brandy or Blue or one of the Labs.”
I declined as politely as possible, telling him that my friend Dave had specifically instructed me to shoot over the dog before handing over the check. He reluctantly agreed, clearly worried that a session with the knotheaded setter might queer the deal.
I loaded Jupe into the rented station wagon, where he occupied the passenger seat with the air of one to the manor born. I rolled his window down, and he strained against the door, eagerly inhaling the fragrant autumnal air while I stroked his silky coat and spoke reassuringly. His dignified demeanor seemed to demand a patronymic, and I began addressing him as “Mister Jupe”; had I realized then that I was in the company of pointing-dog nobility, I would have called him “Sir.”
We eased down the rutted two-track to the alder bottoms along Broken Arrow Creek, and as soon as I opened the door Jupe pranced happily around the clearing. He quickly satisfied himself that there were no birds in the tiny glade and disappeared into the tag alders, feathered tail waving merrily. I had neglected to slip the bell collar on him, so I stuffed it into my pocket with a handful of low-base 8s and quickly assembled my gun. I gave a long blast on the whistle, calling his name as I locked the car.
I blew the whistle until I was blue in the face, but heard only the rustle of the last yellow leaves clinging to the aspens. Cursing myself for spurning the electric collar I’d been urged to bring, I plunged into the tangled alders. Fifteen minutes later, hoarse from yelling and bleeding from a raspberry jungle, I emerged on the two-track, concerned I’d lost a valuable dog that wasn’t even mine.
Unloading my gun, I jogged back toward the car, thinking to drive around and look for him along the road. Just before I reached the clearing, I caught a flash of white from the corner of my eye. Twenty yards off the trail was Jupe, stretched out in a glorious point. I reloaded and floundered through the alders, softly calling whoa. I needn’t have bothered; he’d probably been on point 10 minutes already. Without turning his head, he rolled his eyes back to watch me as I walked in from the side, but nothing else moved but the feathering on his tail in the breeze.
The woodcock went out low, zigzagging around a tamarack. My first shot hit only golden needles, but the left barrel overtook the bird, and Jupe gently retrieved a plump hen as though he’d been doing it for years.
I knelt down and made a great fuss over him before accepting the bird and sliding it into my vest. Slipping the bell collar over his head, I waved him on up the creek for an afternoon of sport that marked the debut of one of the finest gun dogs I’ve been privileged to shoot over.
We quickly dropped two more woodcock, then the bell told me he was still moving when a woodcock came from his general direction and fluttered down nearby. I blew a single long blast on the whistle, and he turned and swung downwind to find me. I took a few steps toward where I’d marked the bird down and gestured. “In here, Jupe, bird in here!”
Normally I wouldn’t bother a tired flight bird, but this was too good an opportunity to imbue the dog with an illusion of my omniscience and perhaps raise the low opinion of people he’d acquired hunting with his previous master.
Something clicked in that lovely head when he hit the scent, and he almost ran over the bird in his zeal. He tried to pull back, but only succeeded in raising his hindquarters and lowering his chest to the ground in a point that would have been comical but for its intensity.
I stepped in and the woodcock twittered up, topping out over the alders before folding at the shot. It fell into heavy brush, but Jupe was there before the last feathers floated to earth, delivering it to me with what I took to be a look of new respect: Perhaps they have a sense of smell after all.
After that he began to turn on a soft trill of the whistle and eagerly investigated every corner of cover in which I evidenced interest. We collected the last bird of our limit long before reaching the head of the run, and I shot a few shells into the air to honor his points, thinking this a small price to pay for his enthusiasm.
Upstream the creek narrowed, and I stretched out on a tiny sandy beach crisscrossed with raccoon tracks. I offered Jupe a bite of my sandwich; ever the gentleman, he accepted each morsel delicately and gratefully. When the last crumb was gone he excavated a shallow depression and curled up for a nap against my leg. Stroking his head and replaying the events of the morning’s hunt, I realized that I very much wanted to keep this dog for my own.
A cruel double quirk of fate had robbed me of my orange-blue brace, Heather and Sam, a few months before, and for the first time in 30 years I faced hunting season without at least one finished gun dog. I had brought Sam’s orange Belton double grandson home before leaving on this trip, but at 12 weeks young Briar was still pointing wings on the end of a fishing rod. At my age, wasting a bird season fooling with a pup was out of the question, and the thought of gunning over borrowed dogs held little appeal, whereas keeping Jupe would be the perfect solution to my predicament. He could help me train Briar, and they would make a handsome brace as well. Dave was primarily a big-game hunter who did a little bird hunting on the side, and I rationalized that I could easily find him another dog and keep this big setter for myself.
On the ridge above the creek the tag alders and tamaracks gave way to scattered birches and aspens interspersed with patches of spruce and hemlock. Jupe was working beautifully, casting out farther than he had in the bottoms but checking in regularly and never out of earshot. The small bell he wore had marked Heather’s progress through this same cover for 13 seasons, and I realized we were near the moss-covered drumming log where last year I’d photographed her with the grouse neither of us could have known would be her last. A big chestnut cockbird, its tail fan sat beneath her portrait over my desk at home.
I snapped out of my reverie when her old bell went silent on the hillside above. I found Jupe locked up at the edge of an old right-of-way paralleling a dense stand of red pine. I was still 10 yards behind him when the grouse blew out and bored for the safety of the conifers. It was a bit far for the right barrel; just as the bird disappeared I slapped the rear trigger and had the satisfaction of seeing the pattern strike the pine boughs all around the opening he’d flown through. Jupe emerged shortly with a large gray-phase bird, and as he pranced proudly around me in circles, loath to surrender his prize, it struck me as an eerie coincidence that he should point and retrieve his first grouse in almost the same spot as Heather had her last, picking up, as it were, where she left off.
October days are short in northern Wisconsin, and shadows were lengthening as I checked my compass and headed toward the car. Jupe pointed two more grouse on the way, only one of which gave me a shot—one I missed with both barrels as the grouse planed into a swamp.
It was getting late and there was a chill in the air when Jupe froze for a moment and then began moving forward in a series of mobile points. He gave me a tentative glance when I urged him on, and I wondered how many times he’d been called off a running bird in situations like this. Confidently but cautiously, he led me through the darkening woods, never doubting his nose as he sorted out the trail with his head held high, disdaining to sniff for ground scent as a lesser dog might do.
The path led through a dense stand of young popples bordering a small glade overgrown with raspberries, and there he stopped, dilated nostrils billowing steam, his bird finally pinned. The grouse climbed for the treetops as I stepped into the clearing, and I pulled the trigger as soon as the gun touched my shoulder. Jupe was on it in seconds. Emerging with his nose and muzzle bleeding from the thorns, he reared up with the grouse in his mouth and put his paws on my chest to deliver, as caught up in the moment as I was. Hugging him to my chest, I knew I held a grouse prodigy. His classic good looks and sweet disposition were like the lace on a bridal nightgown, and I vowed to make him mine.
That day was the opening act in a memorable weeklong performance. A cold front moved down from Canada blowing the last of the woodcock flights south across Lake Superior, and our coverts were simply stiff with birds. Despite the intermittent rain and fog, the temperature remained in the low 40s and scenting conditions were ideal. Jupe went unerringly from point to point, nailing his birds with the aplomb of a seasoned veteran. Dale Spartas, the photographer, was my guest for a few days, and even he was mightily impressed. Dale has hunted all over the country, and has gunned over some great dogs in the course of his travels. Nonetheless, after a few days of following Jupe he was soon as smitten as I was. One afternoon, when three of us took our 15 woodcock in a brief period between rain showers, he consulted his clicker and tapped his watch incredulously. “Forty-one woodcock and two grouse in an hour and a half! Unbelievable!” Jupe just grinned and wagged his tail, wondering why we were quitting so soon.
Our final day dawned clear and cold, the woods austere, stripped of their last remaining leaves by fierce northerly winds. We gathered in a brace of lingering woodcock, but it was quickly apparent that the birds had headed for warmer climes. The grouse were out and about, however, and I botched an easy chance on a bird that Jupe nailed beneath a fallen oak still holding on to its rusty leaves. Later I redeemed myself on a big red-brown cockbird that Jupe followed for more than a hundred yards before pinning it at the edge of an old beaver swamp. He proved himself to be quite a ham, holding his grouse and posing proudly while Dale shot. Those photos have appeared in several of his books, including Just Setters and To the Point as well as making the covers of three different hunting magazines. In these pictures I’m the happy hunter in worn Filson tin pants and vest hugging the big tricolor setter I expected to share my coverts with for the next decade. I would have been weeping instead had I known that not only was this not to be, but that Jupe would never again set foot in the grouse and woodcock country he’d been born to hunt.
Back home in Montana, the confrontation with Dave was one episode in a long friendship I would rather forget. My mistake, if honesty can be considered as such, was in being candid about the dog’s natural abilities. My arguments that a dog with Jupe’s innate grouse sense deserved to be consecrated to that bird fell on deaf ears, as did my offer to procure another setter in his stead. When I pointed out that big-game season was approaching and that he would be off hunting antelope, deer, and elk, Dave said his brothers would take Jupe bird hunting when he couldn’t. He was sympathetic about my lack of a dog for that season, and assured me I could borrow Jupe when his brothers weren’t hunting him.
Unlike the legendary Pilgrim maiden, Priscilla, Jupe couldn’t express his preferences, and I found myself in the role of a crestfallen John Alden, unable to shake the resolve of an obstinate Miles Standish in a bitter vignette of my own making. Tossing me a bone, Dave promised he and Jupe would join me in Wisconsin for grouse and woodcock, but this never came to pass, although they did join us for some classic Southern quail shooting one year in Tennessee. An architect, Dave takes little time off, and his vacations are scheduled around fishing and elk hunting. But close friends are even rarer than great grouse dogs, and I knew my position was untenable. I watched them drive away with a lump in my throat, comforted that Jupe was at least going to the best of homes, for the Seaburys spoil their dogs even worse than I do, if such a thing is possible.
I felt a tug on my shoes and looked down to see young Briar, growling with mock ferocity, chewing on my rawhide shoelaces. At that age they mature fast, and he had grown appreciably in my absence. He climbed up onto the couch and nuzzled me with his sweet puppy breath, licking my
face in his joy to have me home. Maybe, I decided, regarding him in a new light, working this youngster might not be a bad way to spend the fall after all. Why, I knew of a place
to get some pen-raised quail to start him on, and Huns and pheasants were open through December. By that time he’d be nearly six months old and ready, perhaps, for a trip to southern Georgia, where he could give Mr. Norman’s pointers a lesson in Yankee style and manners!
Affixing a fresh grouse wing to the line on an old fiberglass fly rod, I went out into the field near the house, Briar yipping and dancing about my heels, overjoyed to resume his favorite game. By the time he’d settled down and stalked to within a few feet of the
wing, with his little foreleg raised in a precocious puppy point, I’d almost succeeded in putting Jupe out of my mind.
A light snow was falling when I got up to start the coffee this morning, a cold, gray day that matched my gloomy mood. Dave and Mister Jupe arrived as I was pouring my first
cup, and Briar rose stiffly from his bed by the stove to greet his old comrade-in-arms.
Dysplasia has been taking its toll the last few years, and his once-muscular thighs have withered pathetically of late, but his aged bracemate, alas, is
in far worse shape. Jupe’s health has been failing seriously for the last few months, his vital organs shutting down one after another. Dave, God bless him, has spent a small fortune on the best veterinary care money can buy, but to no avail, and this is to be our last visit before his final trip to the clinic. Making Jupe comfortable on a folded sleeping bag, we sipped coffee and reminisced about his illustrious career.
Though he never made it back to the grouse and woodcock coverts of his youth, Jupe took to the western prairies as though born to them. I often thought, watching him quartering the wheat stubble, of the setters the British officers of “Kipling’s Army” brought with them to Africa, India, and other far-flung reaches of empire. Surveying the strange surroundings, they got right down to work, pointing the unfamiliar indigenous species, reasoning, with English pragmatism, that gamebirds are gamebirds, wherever they’re found.
Jupe epitomized this attitude, and as his fame rose in Montana bird-hunting circles, the Wisconsin breeder was astonished (and delighted) to find himself besieged with requests for setters of Jupe’s line. I often wondered, though, watching him nail a covey of Huns, if he remembered the woodcock swales where he began his hunting days with the same wistful homesickness that the Victorians often expressed for their native heath and moors.
The hour passed quickly, and all too soon it was time for Dave and Jupe to leave. I walked out to the car harboring a similar but much deeper sense of loss than I had 12 years before. Dave lifted Jupe into his bed in the back of the old Bronco and left the tailgate down to give me a chance to say good-bye. As I bent over to hug him, old Jupe, bless his soul, was more concerned with my obvious distress than with his own
travail. He licked my salty cheeks and thumped his tail with what I took to be British sangfroid, for, despite what anyone tells you: they know.
The flurries had built into a full-blown Montana blizzard, and I shivered with more than the cold at the thought that it was just such a day when John Taintor Foote’s “Dumbbell of Brookfield” was “ordered on.”
“I’ll see you in a few years, Jupe, back in Tinkhamtown.” The old trooper thumped his tail as I closed the tailgate, and Dave, shoulders hunched and shaking, drove off into the blowing snow. n
Roger Keckeissen grew up in New Jersey, had a trap line along the Pleasant River, and shot his first mallard with a longbow. He was the quintessential sportsman and an insatiable reader of sporting literature who could quote passages he’d read 20 years before. Some think Roger’s was a misspent life. But Roger lived life on his terms, and did everything with gusto and passion. —Dale Spartas