Points North: It’s All About the Dog

Hunter with his dog
Hunter with his dog

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Back in the early 1980s, a Minnesota outdoor writer named Steve Grooms wrote a book with the somewhat presumptuous title of “Modern Pheasant Hunting.” While Midwesterners had been hunting pheasants, which were introduced from Asia, for about 50 years, a changing agricultural landscape was also changing pheasant habitat and hunting.

Clean farming techniques left little cover for the birds. Nesting and winter habitat, vital to pheasant survival, were in short supply. Suburban sprawl gobbled up lands once open to hunting. In many traditional pheasant hunting states--Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and even Minnesota--pheasant populations plummeted. Bird numbers reached new lows even in the pheasant-rich Dakotas.

Gone were the days when a gang of hunters could get together and march through the corn toward others who waited for flocks of pheasants to flush from the end of the field. With less habitat and fewer birds available, gaining access to private land became difficult--especially for large hunting parties. Out of necessity, many hunters began hunting what public hunting land was available--grass ditches and rights-of-way along farm roads or public hunting areas primarily intended to protect potholes for waterfowl. You could find and flush roosters in such places, but it wasn't easy.

The key to success was a good dog, likely a flusher, that hunted close and was willing to muscle through cattails and impossibly dense cover where roosters lurked. Hunting pheasants and other game birds with dogs wasn't new, but what Grooms called modern pheasant hunting stepped up the game. And pheasant hunting, once a social event for people, became a predatory partnership between man and dog.

Modern pheasant hunting is all about the dog, because without one, you won’t shoot many pheasants. A rooster pheasant would rather run than flush and can hide just about anywhere. You need a dog with a good nose to find the birds and force them to fly. The breed of dog doesn’t really matter—I’ve met mutts who were experts at the game—but retrieving and flushing breeds like Labs, Chesapeakes and springer spaniels are preferred. Judging by their enthusiasm for the hunt, it appears many dogs find pheasant hunting to be just plain fun.

In fact, they find it to be so much fun they’ll hunt until they are completely tuckered out. Dogs need plenty of water and breaks from hunting, especially during the heat of the day. While you can push ‘em hard for a one-day hunt or even a weekend, on a longer trip you risk wearing out the dog before you are ready to go home. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, alas more than once. A few years ago, my two dogs, both older in dog years and wiser than me, mutinied on a hot afternoon when I attempted to make one more push through the cover. They laid in the grass near the truck and refused to go anywhere.

This year, my poor judgment wore my physically fit yellow Lab to a frazzle on day three of a five-day South Dakota hunt. The first two days were the kind of pheasant hunting you dream about. Pheasants were numerous and flushed close enough that my friend and I made clean kills using steel shot, which is required on the public lands we typically hunt. Only twice did Tanner have to chase wounded birds.

A rooster pheasant with a broken wing always takes evasive actions to avoid the dog and remain at large. Our two wounded birds were no different. The dog was able to quickly find, chase and capture the first one. The second, hiding in a patch of heavy cover no larger than your living room, managed to evade the dog for at least 10 minutes. The weather was hot and dry, so the bird was apparently leaving a thin scent trail. Tanner nearly caught the bird and then lost it, even though I could see the grass moving just a few feet ahead of him. He circled around and crossed back and forth through the cover trying to find the scent again.

Eventually, he did. He froze into position, staring intently at heavy grass, a canine gesture that said, “It’s right here!” Then he firmly slapped the grass with a front paw, causing the rooster to flutter up in front of him. After a fast flurry of action between dog and pheasant, Tanner captured the bird. He made a proud retrieve, but it was evident from his expression that finding the rooster had worn him out. It was a cue I ignored.

We went back to the truck a couple of birds short of our two-man limit. There we met up with a friend who had seen few pheasants while hunting with his dog that morning and only bagged one. We took a break for lunch, drove to another location, pointed our friend toward a place sure to harbor roosters and then headed off in the other direction. The afternoon temperatures were creeping over 70 degrees, but it didn’t take long to finish our daily hunt in grand style, with each of us killing a rooster from a double flush. Tanner was clearly tired as we walked back to the truck, but he detoured a couple of time to flush pheasants for the fun of it.

A smart hunter would have given his dog a big drink of water and an extra treat, then let him snooze away the afternoon. But back at the truck we learned our friend still wasn’t having any luck. So we decided to pitch in and help him get his birds. Three of us and two dogs—one, the bone-tired Tanner—headed out in the heat of the afternoon. Not only did we violate a cardinal rule of dog care, we also violated the basic tenet of modern pheasant hunting. Instead of hunting the dog and using that predatory partnership to approach and flush the birds, we became three guys and two dogs noisily marching across the field. Our success went to heck. Throughout the rest of day we never fired a shot. And Tanner was one tired puppy that evening.

They say the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. The next morning, we began the three-man march again. By mid-afternoon we’d seen few pheasants and only shot two, although we’d missed a couple of easy ones. We gave up on the insane march and returned to the strategy that had worked so well the first two days, but it was too late for Tanner. The long, hot walks had completely sapped his energy.

On the fourth morning we hoped to take it easy on the dog and get in a couple of hours of hunting before the afternoon heat. Instead we made a tactical error and got stuck in a cattail slough. Both dog and hunters were worse for wear when we emerged from the cattails. We walked for another hour, but Tanner, limping on one hind leg and favoring a front shoulder, was wiped out. We spent the remainder of the day exploring new country and left the dog in the truck when we made a couple of short hunts. Hunting without my canine partner was absolutely no fun.

The final morning of the hunt was cool and overcast. We had just a couple of hours to hunt before beginning the long drive home. We picked a couple of small covers, places easy to hunt that the dog knew well. Rested up somewhat from the previous day and invigorated by the cool temperature, Tanner had some spring in his step—as well as a limp. We killed a couple of roosters and Tanner put up a couple of others out of range after they led him on merry chases. However, a couple of hours were more than enough for him. A stiff, sore and thoroughly exhausted yellow Lab slept hard for most of the 13-hour ride home. And his master, at the expense of his canine partner, learned once again that modern pheasant hunting is all about the dog.

Airdate: November 4, 2011

Photo courtesy of Reno Tahoe via Flickr.

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