BEYOND THE BENCH

Eternal Companion

Bird dogs have been an integral part of upland game hunting for centuries. In 17th century Britain, where the English Springer Spaniel breed was originally developed, these eager, tough, and cunning hunting dogs worked tirelessly day after day, hunting in tandem with their owners, flushing birds from tall grass or dense brush and retrieving downed fowl. In fact, the breed’s name, “springer,” means to spring or flush birds from cover. Unlike other working animals at the time, Springer Spaniels were brought home after the hunt to spend time with the family, sharing the warmth of the fire and a portion of the meal.

Fast-forward 400 years, the interwoven relationship and deep camaraderie between the upland game hunter and bird dog remains steadfast.

Family man and upland game hunter Adam Tangsrud has carried on this time-honored tradition, hunting his secret stomping grounds in the Dakotas with his three Springer Spaniels: Kona, the patriarch of the pack, four-year-old Loki, and his mischievous puppy, Aksel.

As winter set in this year, Adam was gearing up for one of his and Kona’s most challenging and meaningful hunts. For 13-year-old Kona, this would likely be his last hunt; the last time these two smart and savvy hunters would take in the smell of the wind blowing through the tall grass, hear the sound of feathery wings beating furiously to alight into the sky, and feel that instinctual bond that’s been a lifetime in the making.

Born and raised near Denver, Colorado, Adam grew up with two playful Springer Spaniels nipping at his heels for attention and affection. He remembers hunting with his father as a young boy—walking through corn fields while the family Spaniels rummaged back and forth, in and out of view. He remembers the flush of birds in front of him and the surprise and excitement of watching the dogs work. His childhood experiences with his dogs left an indelible mark on his soul. Not only did he develop a penchant for hunting and outdoor adventure, but he also felt a connection to his canine companions and respect for their ingrained hunting prowess.

In 2009, before his two children were born, Adam and his wife decided to add a family dog to their family for companionship, settling on a Springer Spaniel for their easy and fun-loving disposition with people and knack for bird hunting. While vacationing on the island of Hawaii in January of 2010, they received word from the breeder that their baby Springer was born. They named him Kona to mark the occasion.

Back home in Colorado, Adam immediately got to work nose training Kona, a fun-loving puppy with a brown and white coat and curly-haired floppy ears. In the field, the cattails and high grass are filled with wildlife, such as skunks, porcupines, and coyotes, so he taught Kona to differentiate the smell of pheasant from other pungent odors by hiding pheasant wings in strong-smelling places like his ice hockey gear bag.

From that foundation, he transitioned to field training Kona, hiding dead birds for him to find, getting him used to the loud crack of his shotgun, and keeping him close by and in range as they tracked back and forth in search of pheasant. Adam admits that it took a great deal of effort, patience, and dedication to train Kona, but that time in the field was critical to form an unspoken bond and learn how to hunt together effectively as a unit.

“I love hunting, but I enjoy upland hunting the most, the reason being hunting with the dogs,” Adam says. “There’s a saying within the upland hunting community: we do it for the dogs. I think the dogs deserve it. They deserve to get out and do something they were bred to do. It’s in their blood. They need to go on vacation from being a house dog.”

Over the years, Adam and Kona have had their share of successful hunts and unwanted adversity. Kona has been cut by barbed wire fencing and sprayed at close range by a skunk. He has hunted in sub-zero temperatures and with Adam, Adam’s father, and his son—three generations of hunters supported by their trusting and dedicated bird dogs. “Out in the field, these dogs are running a marathon for you every single day, and they will not stop, and they won’t complain, even when their nose is bleeding or their paws are cut up,” Adam says. “They’ll keep going and going, and it’s up to you to make the dogs rest.”

While Kona’s reward is simply a wild pheasant in his mouth, Adam shows his respect for the dog’s hard work post-hunt by massaging his muscles and feet with ample petting time after dinner. “Kona, to me, is that dog. He’s everything you want—from being there for the family to being in your lap to teaching the other dogs,” Adam says. “And then when it’s time to hunt, he gives you everything he has. He’s one of those dogs that will be a legend in my mind, and it will be hard for any other dog to bring what he’s brought.”

“These dogs are family, first and foremost,” Adam says. “Since these dogs are here for us nine months of the year, we can make sure that three months out of the year, they can go hunt and be a dog and do what they are naturally supposed to do. The Dakotas are epic. It’s world-class upland hunting grounds, and Kona deserves one more world-class hunt.”

At 13 years old and in declining health, Kona had lived a full life, but, unfortunately for Adam and his family, it would not be long enough. Kona passed away just before the new year, and sadly, he didn’t make it to that final epic hunt with Adam. While Kona’s passing was painful, heightened by the sting of not getting to take him hunting on their favorite grounds one last time, Adam was relieved that Kona was no longer in pain, and the mark he left on the Tangsrud family is eternal.

A few weeks after Kona’s passing, Adam took young Loki and Aksel on a pheasant hunt. The boys did good, and they have Kona’s guidance to thank for it. “His only fault was that he didn’t live long enough. I am forever thankful to have been allowed the opportunity to be part of his life. He gave me more than I ever deserved.”

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