Bird hunting in the classic style

Abbey creeps on point when pheasants run. It took her a couple years to learn this, but she's really good at it now.

Abbey creeps on point when pheasants run. Took her a year to learn this; she’s really good at it now.

More than seventy-five years ago William Harnden Foster, the laureate of ruffed grouse hunting and a principal in the development of grouse dog field trials in New England, observed that trials for quail dogs had become “races,” so specialized in the demands placed upon the pointer’s performance (range, speed, boldness, desire, staunchness to wing and shot) that the competition was only tangentially related to actual bird hunting, even for quail much less grouse or pheasant. A field-trials pointer, he wisely advised, is not well-suited to a foot-hunter’s days afield.

Bird hunting in the classic style

Pheasants have made Abbey what she is: a pointing dog that most field trials handlers would criticize as “lacking in classic style and form.” They would be right. Because she hunts ringnecked pheasants, and pheasants do not behave in “classic style” as do bobwhite quail, those well-manner birds beloved (and rightly so) by all bird hunters and their dogs. So neither does Abbey. Nor do I want her to.

Abbey breaks point without being released. She creeps on point, carefully following the trail of a running pheasant. When she works bird scent in heavy cover she stands tall on her back legs every few minutes to keep track of me, and when she spots me she uses her body language to direct my movements. When a bird holds, she drops low on point with her tail horizontal. She is steady to wing and shot on woodcock, but not on pheasants and grouse, which she chases madly when they flush.

All these bird hunting techniques and traits would be considered grievous flaws in a field trial competition and would count heavily against her score, but they are the desired and intended goal of our three years of cooperative training (me training her, her training me) for the types of birds and the types of habitat we hunt. We have developed an intricate and dynamic teamwork that provides us great enjoyment and satisfaction over the course of a day’s hunt, and often results in gamebirds in the vest.

If a professional dog handler saw us in action, however, he would be appalled by our terrible habits and my slipshod training.

Abbey does not lack the talent or intelligence to be trained to meet the standards of field trials, but the wild pheasants (and to some extent the prairie grouse) that we hunt have a completely different set of standards than the bobwhite quail that are the centerpiece of field trials. Quail, especially pen-raised quail, cluster together in coveys, hunker down, depend on concealment as their foremost defensive maneuver, and most often hold tight under a dog’s point.

Bobwhites do not usually run far, scatter wide, creep, circle, skulk, double-back, or flush wild when close-pointed. Pheasants use all of these escape tactics to befuddle a pointing dog. So if your dog is creeping, trailing, circling, pussy-footing, and doing zig-zig relocations in birdy cover, he isn’t failing to meet the standards of the “quail game,” he is scoring straight A’s in the standards of the “pheasant game.”

The rules of those two games are completely different.

A pointing dog has to use its intelligence, its memory and its powers of reasoning and deduction, to hunt pheasants with consistent success. That is not to say that a French spaniel, for example, is more intrinsically intelligent than an English pointer, for example, but the dog whose hunting aptitude has been honed by outwitting the survival strategies of the wild pheasant has been forced to use its intelligence in ways that the hunting of bobwhite quail or woodcock does not demand.

The successful quail dog, whether hunting in the piney woods of a Southern plantation or competing in a field trial, will cover as much ground as possible in the shortest time possible, searching for the coveys that are clustered in prime cover. The dog does not waste time or energy searching for quail where they ain’t.

A good pheasant dog learns to hunt the most promising cover, too, but “most promising” has a different definition in the weedy fields that are the ringneck’s habitat. The birds can be damned near anywhere and are often where you would least expect them. Hunting them requires the dog to develop strategies and tactics different than the quail game.

We no longer hunt quail in the North Country, since modern farming methods have destroyed their habitat and eradicated them, but we can employ “quail standards” those days we hunt the woodcock coverts of northern Minnesota. Abbey knows her duties are to cover as much ground as possible within the range I give her, find the birds, and hold solid on point until I arrive. She is beautiful to watch in those woodlands and we have had many great hunts, but those quail standards are not so good when pheasant season opens in late October.

Hunting ringnecks in a cattail slough or a hundred acres of weedy CRP ground, Abbey’s first trace of bird scent reminds her to stand, locate me, tell me “we’re on one here,” and instruct me to do my part in the intricate teamwork of locate, stalk, relocate, cut-off, narrow-down, and finally pin or flush the rooster to the gun. As in baseball, each “game situation” is fluid and ever-changing depending on how the play develops; there are no “always do this” answers to the problems the pheasant presents to us.

Virtually all breeds of American pointing dogs have been selectively bred to hunt in a manner and style that specifically matches the behavioral characteristics of the quail and its habitat. If you have not been in the gallery of a pointing dog field trial or on the wagon box of a plantation hunt, I urge you to do so. To witness these exhibitions of the ultimate achievement in bird dog breeding and training is a revelation; the bird hunting fanaticism of trials-bred pointers is beyond description. They are the height of perfection in the quail shooting game. At that level, the dogs are as specialized and precisely designed and engineered as a Formula I race car. I say that with the utmost respect and a touch of nostalgia; I once desired to own and hunts dogs of that caliber, but I no longer do.

So I do not intend to diminish the beauty and the value of the field trial, its dogs and its people when I say that type of bird hunting is ritualistic now. It is a game: autonomous, self-sufficient, with its own strict and rules and protocols, not to be confused with hunting. Quail-standards bird hunting no longer exists in the wild, unless you consider as “wild” the hunting plantations where bobwhites are hatched and nurtured on grounds cultivated for their survival, to be hunted by paying customers who can afford hundreds of dollars per day for an Old South bird shoot. Even on the open grounds of Texas, where quail leases are expensive but somewhat more within the reach of middle-income bird hunters, the number of on-foot-hunters is far greater than those who hunt from horseback or even from the jarring seats of an ATV four-wheeler or land rover.

The pointing dogs that compete in Grand National-type field trials are living icons of a bygone era, like Tennessee walking horses or Shropshire sheep. These Olympian canine athletes are incredible to watch race across the bird fields, tails high and well-muscled bodies hurtling through a steeplechase course with unlimited power and stamina and bird-finding skills. But except for the carefully kept and guarded estates that offer “living history” hunts, their era has passed.

More than seventy-five years ago William Harnden Foster, the laureate of ruffed grouse hunting and a principal in the development of grouse dog field trials in New England, observed that trials for quail dogs had become “races,” so specialized in the demands placed upon the pointer’s performance (range, speed, boldness, desire, staunchness to wing and shot) that the competition was only tangentially related to actual bird hunting, even for quail much less grouse or pheasant. A field-trials pointer, he wisely advised, is not well-suited to a foot-hunter’s days afield.

Because of the vast changes in pheasant habitat over the last few decades, the same might be said of the flushing breeds — and the retrievers that are trained to hunt in the style of the flushing breeds. For than twenty-five years my bird dogs were English springer spaniels, a joyful flushing breed that was the preeminent pheasant dog in day of the weedy corn stubble field, the brush-choked roadside ditch, the broad cattail marsh, the woodlot with matted undergrowth, and field corners tangled with thickets of wild plum trees and raspberry vines. Those features of the farming landscape are long gone, replaced by the thousand-acre monoculture field of corn and soybeans, its soil lifeless and barren and weedless, and its margins mowed or sprayed to resemble the rough of an urban golf course.

I still insist that “back then” we brought more pheasants to bag hunting with my springer spaniels than we would have with a pointing dog, but a crucial factor in the equation for success may have been me, not the dog. Much stronger, faster, quicker and more focused during days afield when we were young, I performed my role in the teamwork between gunner and dog far better than I have done since those attributes faded away with the passing of youth and vigor. Also, bagging a limit of birds seemed more important to me then; in my senior years that is a matter of small moment.

Given the new standard of bird hunting, the rules of the game based on the ringnecked pheasant instead of the bobwhite quail, I have grown to appreciate the methods of a talented, experienced, close-working pointing dog in the field and have ruefully ended my fascination with the wide-sweeping pointing dog and the hyperactive flushing dog. I will give you a valuable hint about finding such a dog: contact your local chapter of NAVHDA – the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association.

That’s how I found Abbey. So I’ll remember to give NAVHDA a tip of the hat this fall when we’re hunting a hundred-acre stand of prairie grass and she stands on her back legs and gestures for me to range out to my left. When I’m moving into position, she drop will down and begin her unfailing stop-and-go, stop-and-go stalk, flash pointing and breaking point without being released, creeping cautiously into a solid point, dropping low with her tail horizontal, cheerfully responding to my call “put him up” when I’ve kicked and stomped around without getting the bird to wing, chasing the rooster madly after it flushes, and pouncing onto it seconds after it hits the ground.

Not classic pointing dog work? Well, you have your definition of “classic” and I have mine.

_____________________________________________________

More stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, and bird guns are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition throughIndieBound independent bookstores.

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About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
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