If it wasn’t for GPS collars, a length of climbing rope, and the help of two friends, New Mexico bird hunter Tyler Sladen would have lost his youngest bird dog Sunday night. While he was chasing Montezuma quail on U.S. Forest Service land this weekend, Sladen’s pup, an English Setter, fell down an abandoned mineshaft. After finally locating her, the three hunters pulled off a successful rope rescue, and the dog walked away without an injury.
“Tillo, she’s only seven months old and she fell down a 35-foot mineshaft … and there was nothing wrong with her,” Sladen tells Outdoor Life. “She’s back to 100 percent, and she did a 15-mile run last night at a normal pace. You would have never known it happened.”
A diehard uplander who prefers raptors over shotguns, Sladen was joined on Oct. 22 by two of his buddies from Alaska, Elijah and Brianna Barbour. Around 5 p.m. that evening, one of the dogs went on point and the group flushed a covey. Sladen’s goshawk, Jimmy, caught one of the birds, and Sladen figured he’d get his youngest dog, Tillo, into the mix. The last time he checked his GPS, the setter was only 100 yards away. But when he looked at his unit again, Tillo’s collar had disconnected.
“These collars only disconnect for two reasons: Either the dog is out of line of sight—i.e. down a well or over a rocky ridge—or the collar’s broken,” Sladen explains. “But when we walked toward the last signal, the Garmin reconnected, and that became even weirder.”
As he followed his handheld GPS unit, it showed Tillo was 50 yards away, then 30 yards, then 20. Eventually they got to within eight feet and the dog was still nowhere to be seen.
“I’m looking around and it’s wide open and I don’t see the dog. Then I looked behind a bush and saw an old mineshaft, and my heart just sank.”
Sladen called the local police but was told that since it was a dog and not a human, the hunters were on their own. Fortunately, he had a length of climbing rope in his truck along with the know-how to use it. (Sladen owns a nuisance wildlife removal company and has years of experience repelling.) He fashioned a makeshift harness known as a “swiss seat” and they walked back to the mineshaft, where Brianna, the lightest hunter in the group, volunteered to be lowered down.
“We sent her down wearing an upland vest, and when she kicked some rocks while climbing down, the dog picked up its head,” Sladen says. “Up until then the dog hadn’t moved and I was already telling myself we’re recovering a dead dog.”
When she reached the bottom of the 35-foot mineshaft, Brianna put Tillo in the bird bag, and they were pulled back up by the two men at the top. As soon as they cleared the sandy hole, the pup hopped out and started wagging her tail.
Sladen spoke with the Forest Service after the incident and shared coordinates for the old mineshaft, which the agency plans on covering. He says in the seven-plus years he’s hunted the area, he’s come across hundreds of abandoned mine shafts, but that most of those are covered up, filled in, or fenced off. He’s also pretty sure he’s walked within 15 yards of this particular shaft numerous times over the years. It’s just another reminder that there are plenty of ways for a bird dog to get hurt or trapped, and it pays to be prepared.
“It really stresses the importance of GPS collars. We would have been looking around for her like she ran off, and you could’ve had a hundred people out there and never found her,” Sladen says. “It’s also a reminder that it never hurts to have a couple extra ropes in your truck. They don’t take up much space.”