Photo by Seth Cassell.
Grouse hunters are known for their reverence for tradition when it comes to the pursuit of the “grandest of game birds.” The quintessential grouse hunter takes to the field with a waxed cotton vest and leather-trimmed shirt, a vintage side-by-side and, of course, a well-trained pointing dog.
While I, too, enjoy the classical aesthetics of the sport, I must part from this arrangement in only one aspect. When I take to my favorite coverts, I prefer to do so with a well-trained flushing dog.
My journey to grouse hunting with a flushing dog didn’t happen intentionally. I was just out of college and had never owned a “hunting” dog. I spent a lot of time sneaking into remote beaver ponds for wood ducks or paddling into marshes for teal, mallards and geese.
Where I lived, such opportunities were abundant, so it made sense for me to get a good retriever. I decided on a Labrador retriever — Jack. He was to be a waterfowl dog, and together we would take charge of the small waters near my home. If I wanted to take him grouse or pheasant hunting, maybe he could at least help me find the birds after I downed them.
When I finished my graduate work, we left behind our favorite puddle duck haunts, but our new home abounded with hunting opportunities. While we didn’t find as many waterfowling opportunities, we did find plenty of grouse in the creek bottoms and regenerating clearcuts in the thousands of acres of public land in our back yard.
I quickly learned just how good a partner Jack could be in the uplands. He showed me that he could do much more than just retrieve downed birds.
With some species-specific training and a few minutes of practice every day, I found that Jack could help me find birds and retrieve them –indispensable skills in upland coverts.
Once we matured as a team, we were able to find grouse in places many locals overlooked and experienced flush rates significantly higher than average.
Soon, Jack was no longer a duck dog that hunted the uplands on occasion. He had evolved into a full-fledged grouse dog that happened to spend a couple of days a year on the water.
Along the way, hunting with Jack and training him as a flushing dog, I learned a few things that may help you train and hunt with your Labrador retriever, golden retriever, Springer spaniel, cocker spaniel, Boykin spaniel or any of the many breeds that are adept at flushing grouse (and woodcock) in the uplands.
QUARTERING IS KEY
The ability to “quarter,” or effectively work the cover at close range in a zigzag fashion, is a fundamental skill for any upland flushing dog. Even in prime coverts, 1.5 or two grouse flushed per hour is considered a good average. Obviously, there’s a lot of cover between flushes, and you want your dog to explore it thoroughly. Many dogs work thick cover well instinctively, but you can teach them to do it more effectively.
I started my exercises with Jack in a small, narrow field. When I wanted him to change direction, I gave two pips on the whistle and motioned with my hand in the new direction. After several sessions, he made the associations with my signal and whistle.
We then moved to an overgrown field setting, where I would strategically plant training dummies doused in grouse scent. (You can also use last year’s grouse wings if you have them available.) This exercise made Jack realize that there was a point to working the cover, that there was something important to find if he just looked hard enough.
At each session, he hunted the cover more purposefully. Like most Labs, he wanted to find his prize! Looking back on our time in training, this was our most important exercise. It set the foundation for his becoming a thorough, leave-no-stone-unturned upland bird dog.
The finest of flushing dogs will do you no good if it flushes birds out of shotgun range. Hunting close is perhaps the greatest challenge for up-and-coming flushers, especially big, fast dogs like Labs.
Hunting close is especially important where the cover is thick and shots are often fleeting at best. It does you no good to have your dog bumping birds far ahead of you.
The finest of flushing dogs will do you no good if he flushes birds out of shotgun range.
In open cover, you might be able to afford having your flusher working at 25 or 30 yards. In the mired greenbrier and thick laurel stream bottoms that I often hunt, 10 yards sometimes seems too far.
Jack has always been good at working close, or at least responding to my range corrections. I attribute this mostly to experience and good whistle training.
As a pup, I taught him a whistle command for “come.” When he would range too far, I would whistle him back. I repeat this until he figures out that I’ll recall him when he pushes the envelope.
Flushing dogs are frisky, enthusiastic hunters, and when Jack would push the boundaries and refuse to settle down, I would make him walk at heel for a few minutes. In good cover, this is near torture to a good grouse dog!
Heeling serves as a means to “reset” his behavior, or, to put it in human terms, a chance to think about what he was doing wrong.
Different techniques will work on different dogs, but if your flushing dog ranges too far, you need to nip that behavior in the bud. Otherwise, you’re better off leaving him in the crate.
READ YOUR DOG’S BODY LANGUAGE
Pointing dogs give hunters unambiguous warning when they detect the presence of a bird. The best practically lock on point while in midair, a memorable sight to see! Flushers, however, are subtle in their announcement. It’s the hunter’s job to learn the nuances of his dog’s state of “birdiness.”
When a flushing dog is on a bird, sometimes the signals are demonstrable. The dog will rapidly change direction as if it had been yanked aside by some invisible check cord. It
will lower its nose to the ground and rapidly draw air. Its tail will wag with unbridled enthusiasm. Its movements will be filled with zeal, its senses on high alert, as it moves toward the source of the scent.
Not all of the dog’s cues will be so obvious. For some dogs, it’s a certain wag of the tail, or the way its hair stands up on its back. It may even glance back at you to alert you of an impending flush. Pay attention and learn your dog’s pre-flush nuances. They are a signal for you to raise and shoot and can save you valuable seconds at the flush.
Take advantage of the advance warning. Bring your gun to the ready position. Side step or short-step through the cover in a way that doesn’t allow a tree or other obstacle to get between you and your quarry. (Not an easy task in good grouse cover!)
When a flush is imminent, some flushing dogs will stop dead in their tracks for a few seconds. At this point, the grouse is in front of the dog. When this happens, the flush is only moments away.
Try to anticipate where a grouse may flush in relation to your dog and position yourself in a place where you can make a shot. This is where the art of grouse hunting with a flushing dog comes in. It’s a certain feel gained only after spending many hours in pursuit of grouse. It helps to focus above the ground and mount your gun as soon as you hear the bird take wing. He’ll be gone in less than two seconds, so find your target and shoot (using a slight lead) with a quick snap shot.
WORK AS A TEAM
Working with a flushing dog in grouse cover is the ultimate upland partnership. Your dog becomes a teammate or partner. Your flushing techniques will evolve and grow as you gain experience together.
Your flusher will make many mistakes, as will you, so be patient. Work together as a team and you’ll be on your way to forming an effective grouse hunting partnership that should last for a decade or more.
These basic techniques are enough to get your flushing dog started in the grouse woods. Jack and I spent 10 successful seasons in the uplands, and on his last hunt he will surely be flushing grouse in a local creek bottoms or clearcut.
His nose and feet are gray now, and it’s hard for him to spend more than a few hours in the uplands, but I’m sure we have many more flushes ahead of us. He can’t give it up and neither can I!