Our little Snowball was born February 17, 1995 at Milford Haven Kennels in Mathews, Virginia. On April 7, he was flown to Florida and became part of our family. Even before we got him there was some debate in the house over whether or not "Snowball" was a fitting name for a boy, but I was insistent. He was given the full name of Blue Ridge Snowball, which might sound a little more masculine. The name wasn't chosen at random, although it has no ancestral significance to him. I named him after a dog pictured in an early 20th century photo I have from a local plantation. That dog was Farmwood Snowball. Over the years our Snowball was given a number of nicknames and he responded to all of them.
Snowball was not only my first experience with a bird dog, he was the first dog either Janet or I have had since childhood. My mind was made up about getting a dog before I mentioned it to Janet, and I knew it would be an English Setter. I had never actually seen one in person but I had read enough books and magazines on upland bird hunting to know what I wanted. Other than that I was going into this blindly.
No Setters were being bred locally but we got a recommendation from a local kennel and decided to trust them. I called the breeder and while he described the pups to us over the phone we narrowed our selection down to two, a male with black facial patches or a female with orange markings. I don't know if it was sheer luck or a blessing from God but we could not have made a better choice.
With a couple of weeks left before our boy would arrive I started making plans. He needed a home and I needed to start preparing to train him. My first plan was a kennel that would connect to the back of the house. It was to be a 6' x 10' concrete slab with 6' chain link fencing. I never really planned what I was going to do for a roof or if I was going to put a dog house in it. That plan was scrapped before the first item was bought. Instead we decided to close in the backyard with a 5' chain link fence. I thought that was much better. Not only would it allow him plenty of room to play but we already had an enclosed porch on the back where he could seek refuge when the weather got bad.
At seven weeks of age we couldn't just put him out in the yard and let him fend for himself. He would need to sleep inside in a crate for a while. Being with us all the time would also help him adjust to human interaction and develop him socially. Looking back it seems like he was potty trained within a couple of days. That was something we were fortunate with and because he did so well his outside time was limited to when we were playing or training, or when he needed to go to the bathroom. So, his little crate became his home but he was quickly outgrowing it. Within a month he had traded up to a large, stainless steel pen. It was the type that can be folded up and taken on trips. He spent most of his first four years in that pen when neither of us were home. Anytime someone was home Snowball was out of his pen. At night he was free to roam around the house and sleep wherever he wanted to, including our bed.
By this time we had also started training. Now, I already mentioned that Snowball was my first bird dog so I was as green as he was, and considering the advantage he had genetically he was off to a better start than I was. The book I used is Gun Dog, by Richard A. Wolters. I found that book easy to follow and whether it was Snowball, the book, or both, the results were a pup that knew what he was supposed to do from the first day. One of the earliest pictures I have of our little boy was taken when he was locked up on point behind a quail wing on a string. He would have been between 10 and 14 weeks old. Based on what I had read some pointing dogs are reluctant to retrieve. Snowball loved to fetch and to give him better exercise I would take him to the lake and throw tennis balls out so he could swim while working on retrieving. He always hated a bath but he'd take to water on his own any chance he could. Snowball also went to school for etiquette (His Mama's idea). Obedience never was an issue but it gave him a chance to interact with other dogs and their owners and it was educational for Janet and me. What I thought it did most was cause the other owners to be jealous, but that's just the perspective from a proud papa.
I couldn't wait to get Snowball out in the field and according to the game register that first happened October 1, 1996. We hunted dove on some timber land east of town. Dove hunting is something I have never been overly successful at but we managed to bring one home that day. There are times when one bird means more than twenty would on another day. That was one of those days. But the reason I got Snowball was to hunt bobwhites and he got his first taste of quail on November 3, 1996. We hunted them in the same general area as where we did our dove hunting. We managed to bring home three quail that day. Two weeks later we went back out with Janet and on that day when we loaded up and headed for home my game bag held five quail.
So, when did Snowball go on his first snipe hunt? That wouldn't be until January 20, 1997, which was my last snipe hunt of the season. The book says we brought home four birds. I'd like to give explicit details about the day but I don't remember them. I know which lake we hunted and even the section but that is all. My memory of those quail hunts a couple of months earlier is much more vivid. I never intended to use Snowball often on snipe because in the relatively open habitat I have always hunted a pointing dog is more of a liability than an asset. On top of that the risk of catastrophe to a dog is far greater on the marsh than it is in the uplands. As time went on and our baby became a greater part of the family unit my willingness to subject him to that risk became less and less.
Between the close of that season and the opening of the next one the timber land that I had hunted all my life was posted. There was one other time when the land was posted for a year or two but it was only temporary the first time and I expected it to be temporary this time also. Unfortunately the second time the timber company decided to lease the land in sections. Hunting leases or plantation hunts have never been in our budget and almost as soon as Snowball's quail hunting began it was over. That meant more snipe hunting for me and I shot over three times as many during the 1997-98 season as I did the previous one. Unfortunately that didn't include Snowball. It was a trend that would continue. Also, from that point on my hunting turned from being a snipe and duck hunter to being a snipe hunter almost exclusively. I always hoped things would change and upland hunting opportunities would return but that never happened.
It was when Snowball was nine years old that I began to accept the fact that the hunting life I had planned for him was not to be. On one hand I felt sorry for him because of that but he was as content as any dog could be with the role he played as the family baby. Due to local conditions the snipe hunting was as good as ever and each time I would go snipe hunting Snowball got to participate. When I got home I would take some of the snipe I had shot and hide them in the yard. He was always eager to find the birds. He would bring one to me and then he'd be off to look for another. Sometimes we'd hide them each several times and I'd let him "hunt" until he looked like he was starting to tire or lose interest. Not only did we do this with snipe but we also did it with dove, ducks, soras, and moorhens.
I decided in January of 2006 that I needed to take Snowball snipe hunting again. It was just a month before his eleventh birthday and I knew he had far more life behind him than in front of him. I chose a day that was overcast and cool. The walk to the mud flat where I was hunting was approximately a half mile from where I parked the truck. I kept him on a leash until we were close to the area we were going to hunt. I wanted him to reserve most of his energy but I also needed to turn him loose a couple of minutes before we got to the flat so he could burn off the initial excitement and be easier to control. While we were hunting I didn't let him range out too far and I brought him back in to me frequently for a drink of water. He couldn't tell me how important it was to him that we got a snipe but I know it was. It was of utmost importance to me. We did take a bird home that day and two weeks later the weather allowed me to take him back out and again we brought a snipe home with us.
But my most memorable hunt with Snowball will always be the last time we went snipe hunting. It was February 12, 2009, five days before his fourteenth birthday. His ability to run was about gone. So was his hearing and the function of several of his organs. It was only because he was a blessing from God that he was still with us. The season was only three days from ending and I knew that just getting him out to the lake was something I had to do. After pounding that small piece of hunting ground hard for over three months the birds were getting scarce. I might say that bringing a bird home that day wasn't important but it was. At that point it probably meant more for me than it did for him but for "us" it was important.
We were in no hurry to get to the lake. It was a few minutes after 10:00 when the little duck boat pulled away from the landing. We would check the floating mats first since I thought our chances of flushing a bird on one or more of them was reasonable. Between trying to watch the dog and the birds being skittish I wasn't as confident of success once we started walking the shoreline. My hunch paid off and we nailed one as it flushed from one of the floating grass mats. As we stepped out of the boat to start down the shore I could feel those four ounces of snipe in my game bag. I would estimate we walked four hundred yards of shoreline before getting to a point where we would either have to cross thigh deep water to an island or go back to the boat. After a short deliberation we were making our way back down the shoreline toward the boat. We had walked roughly one hundred yards when I saw a snipe dropping into an area of good cover another hundred yards ahead of us. I told Snowball to sit, a command which he complied with. His hearing being what it was I was in the habit of not only giving a verbal "sit" but also a finger pointed down, a signal he learned very early in life. That was followed up with a verbal "stay" along with the accompanying signal of an extended arm and outward palm. Twice I turned back to look at him. I was both reluctant and curious. I was reluctant because normally if I was calling him ahead I would turn around and I didn't want him to mistake my action for that. I was curious because he was tired, starting to get warm, and I didn't know whether or not he'd broken from his position. When I was sixty to seventy yards away from him and getting close to the approximate area where the snipe landed I took one last peek out of the corner of my eye. Snowball was still sitting where I left him.
With each advancing step the anticipation of the flush was building. I knew I was close as I walked out onto the small peninsula but I didn't know if the bird was to my left, right, or ahead. I was thinking that if it was to my right and flushed going away to the right I couldn't shoot because that was back toward the dog. Thankfully the bird was in front of me and flushed straight away but as it did there was a little bit of pandemonium. I remember some shooting and some splashing. As I tracked the snipe I caught a glimpse of a second bird flushing in my periphery to the left. At the same time Snowball came running past me about two yards to my left. I don't know if he sensed a change in my approach as I neared where I thought the bird landed or if it was something else but one thing that is certain is he reached the limit of time he was willing to stay where I had him sit. After my first shot I took my eyes off that bird which was now falling back to the ground. I swung and let off a prayer of a shot at the second bird just as it was getting to the edge of effective range. Snowball was splashing as he ran with whatever energy he had left through the six inch deep water toward the fleeing bird. Within an instant that bird was making a splash as my second shot knocked it out of the sky. There could be no better end to our hunting lives together and there are memories from that day that I hope stay with me for the rest of my life.
On May 20, 2010 Snowball was laid to rest in the shade of four oak trees in our backyard. Our hearts have been broken but that is a testament to how great and lovable a companion he was and the impact he had on our lives. There was not a person that ever came in contact with him that didn't love him nor was there one he didn't love. He was as loyal as any canine friend could be and more loyal than any human friend could be. Janet and I still miss him greatly but God has a way of healing hearts over time and as we go forward we will be left with warmth and fond memories of fifteen wonderful years with our baby.