‘That’s a great bird dog: He hunts real close.”
Those two phrases run together in the gun dog world as commonly as closed minds and cranked up E-collars.
Let’s be clear upfront: I enjoy following any good working dog that excels at what it’s bred to do, whether it’s a pointing German shorthair, a flushing springer spaniel, a water-loving Lab, a brush-rooting beagle or a sheep-herding border collie.
For the past 27 years, however, I’ve owned Brittanys and English setters that tend to get up and go. I consider their noses a ticket to adventure.
They are not in the league of get-on-your-horse-to-keep-up field trial dogs.
On the other hand, they’re not for hunters who are challenged by fitness – or faith.
After hearing plenty of reviews on mine and other leggy pointing breeds, it’s become clear that the most misunderstood sporting dogs in the country are pointers with the talent to do the bulk of their athletic work far out of shooting range.
We’re not talking about wild dogs that chase deer and bunnies and regularly bust Hun coveys in neighboring counties, but rather dogs with the lineage to range far, locate birds and hold a point until the birds depart or the sun burns out.
On several occasions I’ve endured the polite but unwavering bias of men who believe the only good bird dog is one that never gets out of range or out of sight.
Yes, I admit that my 3-year-old setter, Scout, may have earned some skepticism by disappearing for nearly 90 minutes last week at the start of a pheasant hunt in Montana.
It was a clear case of operator error.
We were in a river bottom I’d never explored with the group of four hunters and three dogs. At the suggestion of the host hunter, I committed Error No. 1 by unleashing Scout with the wind at his back into a food plot bustling with dozens of running and wild-flushing ringnecks.
Scout hit high gear tracking a rooster that was sprinting up an open slope nearly 300 yards away.
I reeled him in and instead of putting him on leash until the group circled into the wind, I made Error No. 2 by casting the dog out again only to watch him get his nose down on more running birds and disappear into the river bottom the way a rocket vanishes into the clouds.
Yelling, whistling or even electrical stimulation would be futile at that point.
I told my companions to carry on while I searched for my dog.
God only knows where he’d been, but when I found Scout, he was locked tight on point. A rooster flushed as I walked up and we had our first bird. Scout brought it back and resumed hunting as though it were a routine morning.
A few hundred yards up the river in an area the other hunters had already covered with a yellow Lab and a good Brittany, Scout went on point again and held another rooster for me to shoot.
Going into the wind and rejoining the others, the little 35-pound setter had three more staunch points on hens as well as on a running group of birds that eventually flushed out of range as I moved up 30 yards in front of where Scout held firm.
He did his job, despite my bungling, yet none of the three other hunters would have given a can of Alpo for him because he left the planned course of the hunt on two occasions.
“I don’t even argue with guys who don’t get it,” said Dan Hoke, a Medical Lake bird-dog trainer and German shorthair breeder I console on canine conundrums.
“Those guys are sure they are right and you’re not going to change their mind, because they’re never going to follow you for a day to see what your dog does.”
Hoke’s Dunfur Kennel produces dogs for close-in hunters as well asnumerous national champs that stand out in the crowd by getting out of Dodge.
One of his best dogs was named Where You Ben?
“Most times Ben was awesome; occasionally he was gone,” Hoke said. “There’s always a bit of a gamble involved.”
The payoff: Ben found more birds than the other dogs to become a champion.
“We can bring a dog like that in and make him hunt close, but the dogs that range out are the ones that win field trials, and they’re great in most field situations.
“We trust them to go out and do their job as opposed to being control freaks with Robo Dogs.”
A big-runner is not a good fit for hunters who consider it an inconvenience when a dog finds birds outside their intended course.
“Some guys want a dog that finds birds where they want them to be instead of going out and finding the birds you never would have known were there,” Hoke said.
A hunter walking alone in good cover might find nearly as many birds as a hunter with a very close-working dog. However, Hoke points out that even so-so close-working dogs often earn their keep just by finding downed birds a dogless hunter would likely lose.
Owners of close-working dogs contend they find more birds because their dogs are more thorough and always in the game with their hunter.
Sometimes that holds true. Indeed, a beautifully trained springer spaniel has out-performed pointers in two consecutive shoot-to-retrieve-type contests sponsored by the Spokane Bird Dog Association.
Controlled dogs sometimes outperform bigger-running dogs, especially in controlled situations, Hoke said.
But there was nothing controlling the birds I was hunting in Montana last week.
At the end of one day, a group of hunters with close-working dogs said they had seen numerous pheasants, Huns and sharptails, but virtually every bird or covey flushed wild.
However, nearby that same day, a hunting partner and I had three excellent long-range finds by Scout and my other English setter, Dickens, who pinned down the flighty birds in sparse prairie cover for as long as five minutes before we could come in for the flush and the shot.
In one other case, Dickens had coursed 300 yards higher in a grassy draw when he locked up and shifted me and my friend, Hal, out of a good conversation and into high gear with our thumbs on the safeties of our shotguns.
Hal took time to get into position and I moved in for the flush, walking out 10 yards in front of the unflinching dog anticipating a blur of feathers to erupt from brush at the edge of the stubble field.
“Porcupine!” I called. Hal relaxed. Dickens still held firm.
We regrouped, pointed Dickens in another direction and thanked the lineage that produced a dog of such speed, range and poise.