Learning to trust your bird dog takes time and experience for both dog and owner. But when it all comes together it’s a partnership made in upland heaven.
Upland bird hunting has its share of clichés.
One is that dogs give dirty looks to their owners when they miss a bird. Not my dogs — they are apparently accustomed to me missing.
Another common adage is to always trust your bird dog. This is one that I can fully embrace. A recent example best illustrates this.
As the 2016 ruffed grouse season waned, the typically solitary grouse were grouping up at dwindling food sources. They do this for a short period before snow and ice force them up into the poplar trees at dusk to gobble down buds.
My almost 6-year-old Springer spaniel, Cash, and I were hunting a small cover that conceals a few wild apple trees. We worked our way through the bony woods towards any fruit still clinging to branches or drops that the deer hadn’t eaten.
Cash wasn’t having any of that and despite whistle toots and hand signals he wanted to skirt the hotspots. I trusted him and followed. He flushed a bird at the fringe and I took a snap shot at a blur, missed, and waited before reloading.
I knocked down the second bird, and reloaded. Cash was bringing in that bird when a third and a fourth bird lost their nerve and went up on their own. I was caught flat-footed, but recovered in time to swing on a right-to-left crosser. It was a long shot and I thought I saw the grouse shudder, but it kept trucking and was swallowed up by the cover.
Don’t try to out-think your dog’s nose.
I broke a branch over my head to mark my shot spot and put Cash at heel and we headed in a straight line to where the bird flew. I soon let Cash off heel and prompted him with, “Fetch, dead bird!”
He immediately hunted sharply off to the side, which wasn’t unusual since grouse bank to one side or another when landing, but he was angling back towards where we had come.
In my younger years I would have hacked him back to where I thought the bird may have gone down. It’s unnerving for flushing dog hunters to lose sight of their dogs for any length of time, especially in open late season covers, but I trusted him. After what seemed like ages he appeared with that grouse, unceremoniously gave it to me, and, as though he was just having another day at the office, went back to hunting.
We should remember that although a dog’s brain is one-tenth the size of a human’s brain, the part that controls smell is 40 times bigger. A human has 5 million or so scent receptors, whereas dogs have 220 million or more.
And our sporting breed partners are on the high end of that scale. It’s no wonder Cash knew where the birds were and was able to find that winged grouse.
Of course, a puppy can’t be trusted right out of the whelping box.
They need to mature and be exposed to all the sights and smells of the upland bird world. They need the necessary training to harness all their amazing skills.
In time you will learn to trust your dog when he points a bird and refuses to budge despite kicking every blade of grass in front of him. You will learn to trust your dog knows where the birds are better than you do.
I’ve probably swung on as many woodcock in mature pine groves as I have in muddy alder thickets, because although pines didn’t look to me like where we should be hunting, they were where my dog wanted to go.
You will learn to wait for your dog to unravel the scent of a winged and running bird. There isn’t a prouder moment then seeing your dog weave back to you with a bird you thought was lost.