When I was a boy, almost everyone had a bird dog. On weekends during November and December, it was common to see a pickup with a dog box and to hear gunfire from the fields.
Today, with plummeting game bird populations caused by habitat loss and weather extremes, it is not so common. It is even less common to find a young person who has trained his or her own dog to hunt upland birds.
One of the greatest joys of bird hunting for me is to watch the dogs work. There are times when I may not go home with a bird in hand, but I have a smile on my face and dog-pointing memories to carry me through the years. My kids often wonder why I didn’t take an opportunity to shoot, and my answer is always, “I was watching the dog!” (Maybe I am getting slow, too?)
Taking a long walk behind a dog that is slow enough for me to watch is what it is all about. Some breeds of bird dogs will range far and wide during a hunt, lock up on point, and wait for you to arrive for the flush. For my taste, a dog breed that works closer is a lot more fun to hunt behind. Especially when the birds are flushing wild, a close-working dog will not send them out of shooting range. And the extra steps I need to follow close-ranging dogs surely must be good for me.
I also prefer a bird dog with a lot of pointing style, like my German wire-haired pointer, Heidi. When she goes on point the front of her body is tilted down and she almost always raises a front paw. And when she catches scent of a bird off to her side or behind her, she locks up on point with her nose nearly touching her tail. Heidi is not the perfect bird dog, which is the fault of her trainer and not her. However, some of her best hunting performances will be forever etched in my mind.
Boys and Their Dogs
My grandfather and uncle taught me to hunt when I was in high school. Following in their footsteps, I have tried to pass the hunting heritage on to my kids, and I hope they share it with my grandkids, too.
Those early hunts with my kids paid off, and now they continue to hunt as young adults. Two of my four boys enjoyed the sport of quail hunting enough to make the commitment to get a dog and train it. I think watching Heidi hunt was a big part of their inspiration to join the bird dog world.
Almost four years ago, a family friend found my youngest son, Tony, a Hungarian vizsla in need of adoption. This breed of dog is very people-oriented, so it is a pet as well as a hunting companion. They were originally bred to be hunting and companion dogs for Hungarian royalty. (And Tony definitely treats his vizsla like he is royalty!)
The vizsla pup was named Jake, and Tony trained him from start to finish, with some advice and encouragement from other hunters and dog trainers. Tony has captured pigeons and raised quail to aide in that training. In shop class he built a dog box for his pickup. The same friend who found Tony his vizsla found a 2-year-old Deutsch drahthaar in need of adoption for my son Andrew. Drahthaars watching. He impressed us further when he retrieved a long-distance bird from the tall grass on the first try. We couldn’t see it, but Jake knew where to go.
The Quail Hunt of a Lifetime
Both Andrew and Tony experienced quail hunts of a lifetime in early 2013 as a snowstorm closed in on us in northwest Missouri. The private land we hunted on was managed with fire, edge feathering, and food plots — a dreamscape for quail. The boys had their dogs and I had my 18-month-old German shorthair, Trapper, along for the hunt. In two hours, we never seemed to run out of birds. Then the snowstorm got so bad we had trouble seeing well enough to shoot. While we were chasing singles from one covey, another covey would get up, and this continued until we had to leave the field. At one point, all three dogs were pointing different birds and Tony saw other birds running around in the grass between the dogs and us.
Tony and Andrew decided it was the best quail hunt ever, and it is definitely one of my top five hunts of all time. To top it off, on the way back, we had to stop for a covey of quail crossing the road in the middle of the snowstorm.
A hunt of this magnitude is still possible in an era of declining quail habitat and cataclysmic weather events. It was the perfect scenario for some new dogs needing to get into a lot of birds. All it takes is a little effort with a match, a chainsaw, and a little herbicide. With help from good friends, giving dog trainers, and a patient father, the boys and their first bird dogs are off to a great start. A bird dog takes an investment of time in train-ing, and few young people have undertaken the responsibility. I hope my boys have many more long walks behind slow dogs to share with each other and pass it on like their father and his grandfather did. You can learn more about hunting for game birds at mdc.mo.gov/node/3798. For upland game bird regulations, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/3615.