One of my favorite hiking seasons ended Monday, leaving ardent bird hunters with freezers full of healthy meat, fond memories of hoofing hard miles with shotguns in hand, and lean, ultrafit dogs wanting more.
While most hikes are guided by maps and trails, bird hunting treks follow my dog’s nose cross-country through the region’s farm fields, canyons, scablands and mountains. On Sept. 1, I tend to swap a day pack for a game vest for the distinctly different four-month “hiking season” in the national forests that starts with the opening of hunting for ruffed, spruce and dusky grouse.
My current dogs are Scout, a senior English setter, and Ranger, a young Brittany. Both are breeds that find, point and retrieve game birds such as pheasants, grouse, quail and partridge. Through the magic of genetics, they key on game scent and pay only fleeting attention to robins, ravens and other nongame birds.
Scout and Ranger aren’t perfect just as hoopster Stephen Curry doesn’t shoot 100 percent from behind the arc. But these dogs – and certainly various bird hunting breeds such as German shorthair pointers and wirehairs as well as Labs, springer spaniels and other flushers – have laser-like focus in the field.
Unleashed for a hunt, a good bird dog will run past fresh cow pies without rolling, jump over deer droppings without eating, race past squirrels without chasing and abstain from any horseplay with farm animals.
Every hunt with a trained bird dog is like teaming with a pro, and being his best buddy.
Hunters with dogs are lured out more often, and that spells better fitness for both members of the team. If a bird dog’s eagerness won’t get you off the couch, you need medical attention. Three of my hunting partners this year are 80 years old and despite the bum knees and the hip replacement, they’re ready to wear out boots to see their dogs work.
Sharing the field with a trained bird dog has shaped the way I hunt. Like a good wife makes me a better man, a good dog makes me a better sportsman.
I don’t dwell on the numbers of pheasants, quail, partridge or grouse I harvest. That’s never been the point in the 40 years I’ve been hunting with pointing dogs. Shooting a limit of birds is not my measure of success.
I prefer to focus on style, routinely letting birds fly away when dog and hunter aren’t in sync. This has value for conservation as well as training, which never ends. If my dog isn’t locked on point when a bird flushes, what am I teaching him if I shoot?
If I flush a bird accidentally while my dog is off in another direction, I let it fly unscathed. Having the dog’s attention when you shoot dramatically reduces the chance of a cripple getting away.
If a hunting partner flushes a quail that crosses in front of me at perfect range, I let it go, mark its landing and take my dog that direction to get him in the game. Serious pointing dog hunters strive for the hunt, not a shoot.
My focus this season has been on grooming Ranger, a young dog who didn’t seem to get it as a pup. The first two years he was prone to busting points as well as balking to retrieve – a fault I was determined to change after he forced me to wade into the Palouse River to fetch a downed pheasant.
“Sometimes the pups that are slow to catch on mature into the best hunting dogs,” retired Wisconsin Brittany breeder Bruce Ristow responded when I lamented Ranger’s early shortcomings. “Don’t give up.”
I committed to short training sessions on nearly a daily basis at home with bumpers and frozen pigeons boosted by frequent workouts on pen-raised birds at Dunfur Kennel near Cheney. The effort has paid off. In his third season, Ranger’s was staunch on point and he’s become one of my best dogs for retrieving and tracking crippled birds.
My bird dogs are family, but they’re also investments worth protecting. We wait to pursue partridge and quail in cooler fall weather, when snakes are less active and the cheatgrass has shed most of its dog-menacing seed “spears.” Still, I routinely vaccinate my dogs for rattlesnake bites and I’ve dramatically curbed our emergency veterinary bills since I started stuffing cotton in their ears for each outing.
Every bird dogger should expect the unexpected in the field. Over the years, we’ve had run-ins with skunks, porcupines, badgers, basalt cliffs, barbed wire, thin ice on creeks and the occasional territorial coyote. Mention of emergency veterinary bills is best avoided at family budget discussions.
But most of the “unexpecteds” are positive experiences with nature, or at least good party stories, like the day a friend’s French Brittany wouldn’t give up a point on a badger hole until his hunter, John, bravely reached in and grabbed – a rooster pheasant!
Then there was the November day my buddy Maury was run over by a berserk steer in the pasture a farm lady said we could hunt. “Just some flesh wounds,” he said, noting that his vizsla, being a trained bird dog, paid no attention to the charging bovine or to Maury as he lay in the dirt.
“You OK, Maury?” his other partner yelled. “I think your dog’s on a bird.”
Ranger was working a thicket of trees and brush ahead of me on a December pheasant hunt when he inadvertently flushed a great horned owl from a tree. I was bent over and moving carefully through the thorny brush in a cattle-made path that happened to be the owl’s chosen escape route. It’s wings stretched totally across the “tunnel” as it soared toward me. In the split second before I fell to my knees to let it fly over my head, I was face to face, wide eyes to wide eyes, with one of nature’s most efficient predators. Unforgettable.
By the time Eastern Washington’s pheasant season opens in late October, sportsmen have a gamut of upland birding opportunities, from chukars in the Snake and Columbia river canyons, to pheasants, quail and Huns from the Palouse through the channeled scablands, to ruffed, spruce and dusky grouse in the mountains.
There’s a case to be made for hunting the season openers, when bird numbers are at their highest. But I’d give up opening days (in fact, I often do) for the rewards of hunting the late seasons. Birds are fewer and the survivors are wilier, but they are fully feathered, gorgeous and a trophy challenge for hunter and dog.
Best of all, there’s little competition as most hunters have put up their shotguns and sequestered their dogs to the house or kennel where they won’t get into mud and thatches of hound’s tongue.
A bird dog that remains clean for more than a few days is neither fulfilled nor totally happy. Ranger won’t win any “best of show” at the end of the season when he looks as though he’d volunteered for the first day at a grooming school. Birds love weeds and therefore so does Ranger. I keep scissors in my pickup for the occasional “field clip” to deal with burr tangles too gnarly for a comb.
The key to successful bird hunting is finding access to places that harbor birds. I hunt a mix of private and public lands and I make a point to avoid exploiting any one area too much or too often. A couple of friends have invited me to some great hunting on private lands. Even then I’m reluctant to take a limit when the opportunity arises. A sportsman should always be thinking ahead to the next hunt or season.
Most of my solo hunting involves quick trips or miles of hiking across public lands. They tend to be thin on birds, but lands accessible to the public are ideal for a bird dogger out for quality rather than quantity.
For example, I’ve pegged a basin where valley quail can be found year after year in a couple of square miles of BLM land. I hiked to the area and found a single covey four times this season, but I shot only when Ranger was perfect. We moved on – Ranger hungry for more but me fulfilled – after bagging a bird or two. It’s a proven tactic in training and even occasionally in the field to call it good when a dog performs a point and retrieve perfectly and leave that memory of success etched in the dog’s mind.
We’ll be back to that BLM basin another day, and so will the birds.
Every now and then, however, there’s a hunter-dog moment when everything comes together – all the training, the birds, the situation.
On Monday, hunting private ranch land on the last day of the season, a friend and I found a huge flock of around 70 quail that flushed far ahead of us and scattered into classic basalt ridges, bowls and sagebrush. An instant later, fog rolled in and reduced visibility to ranges of 50-100 yards.
For shooting safety we separated; my friend and his dog went one direction while Ranger and I went the other, following a fence at first for orientation. I climbed through a rock bluff to higher ground where I realized I had no business directing my dog one way or another because I couldn’t see far enough to distinguish likely cover.
So I activated his beeper collar and turned over the hunt to Ranger.
As the dog melted into the sage and grayness and the beeper sound faded into the distance I would call, “Hey-O!” If he was simply searching, the sound of a beep every 6 seconds would get louder, indicating he was looping back. If the beeps grew fainter, I’d hustle into the fog and through the snow in the direction he was going – because he likely was tracking birds.
Time after time, I would gradually detect a hawk call sound that had replaced the beeps, indicating that Ranger had frozen motionless on point. I’d home in on the sound, sometimes having to bust through brush, scurry down scree or in some cases wallow through hip-deep snow drifts until I could spot his fluorescent orange collar. Invariably, he was looming over tangles of grass, sage or brush that were holding a quail or two or three.
Ranger had more than 20 of these “finds” over the course of three hours. Sometimes the birds evaded me as I approached by squirting out on the opposite side of brush. In a few cases my loads of 7 1/2 shot missed on quick, open opportunities. More often I scored because my buddy was on his game and leading the team in assists.
I held off on shooting doubles because I didn’t want this hunt to end too soon. It was clearly special. Ranger would find, fetch and hand over each bird, spin around without hesitation – no need for treats or pats on the head – and disappear into the fog again. The trust we’d built over the season was paying off. I just followed.
The Britt was retrieving our ninth bird of the day through tall brush when his body snapped sharply to the left as though a hook had snagged his head. His orange and white fur was soaked and tinged sage-green as he stood, docked tail quivering slightly.
The topknotted quail was still in his mouth as he froze onto the scent of another, which soon became No. 10 in the bag. A last-day limit.
Bird seasons end, but the game is never over. Just as Steph Curry didn’t stop practicing after being named the NBA’s MVP, good bird dogs need training and conditioning every year of their careers. Ranger will join me for conditioning during my “other” favorite hiking season. Both of us will look forward to daily retrieving practice. We’ll work with pen-raised birds a dozen times or more before Sept. 1.
Training spells even more quality time with the only buddy I trust enough to follow through the fog and sleep beside my wife.
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