Joy of Hunting
bruce's blog &
Vio(let), our nine-year-old yellow Lab, is patiently helping bring on Reacher, our Brittany pup. He is almost seven months now, and precocious. I have been mixing hunt time with puppy time…perhaps pushing Reacher towards the hunt because of my lack of a dog, as Sam, my female Lab left us last year. But Reacher’s reality is that playtime is anytime. And I'm being trained too,
coming off Sam and a lifetime of Labrador. My sense is the American version of Brittany, well trained, is an awesome dog. This is borne out by numerous experiences in watching hunters with their terrific variety of canines…Labs, Britts and other spaniels, German Shorthairs and other pointers, setters, vizslas, and even Labradoodles, as they come through the Shepherd hunting preserve that doubles the length of bird-hunting season.
But training a Britt has been a humbling experience for me. Two days ago exemplified this fact. It reminded me of the fuzzy connection between luck and drive, between fate and chance, between ambition and reality.
We rose well before light, trudging onto a berm looking down on a triticale field lost to hail back in August. All the grain was still there, excepting what the whitetail, muleys and pheasants had already consumed by this time in December. It had been winter triticale, planted the previous fall, and with a wet year was really impressive, standing four-feet tall. But now it was lodged over, with tons of volunteer plants greening up the bottom. The combination provided food, security cover, and thermal mass, all of which is what you want going into a Montana winter if you’re a pheasant. Another terrific feature is that the deer have worked a web of access trails across and through the field, making walking through it reasonable.
Birds roost in this field. They also stage in it, coming off serious cattail security cover on either side, as they make their way to an adjacent deep draw where they spend the day amidst Russian Olive and nearly impenetrable plum, pin cherry and juniper thickets. It’s not unusual for a hundred birds to pass over the berm we were sitting on within a half hour of dawn. Shooting them this way is challenging. The birds know we are there with the first shot, and for them speed and “safety in numbers" is their survival strategy. Except for some, who trust in their ability to hide in the dense lodged over triticale. When it’s all said and done, the birds are right more often than we are. Nearly all escape to the draw without being shot at. And even the ones being shot at aren’t in too much danger at that cold, dusky time of day. That was how we started this particular morning.
We’d waited until a full half hour after legal, then sent the dogs into the field, while we held back and waited. The melee that followed was incredibly exciting! Birds zipped by at head level. I swear you could feel the breeze as they swept by, with no safe shot opportunity much of the time unless you were willing to lift your gun over adjacent hunters, and take a radical going away shot…not good! Not appropriate. So only the occasional bird, in front of the guns, was shot at.
We did get warmed up…at least. And the half hour of sitting still had left me with a sense of where other birds were in what we call the Spiral wetland, so I had a direction in which to point Reacher after that first explosive episode. I could have asked Anne to bring expert retriever Vio in our direction, but my hubris and desire to push Reacher made me want to let him solo. There is also a tension between Labs and pointers…Vio flushes birds, while Reacher is able to slow down and lock into a point. So keeping Vio out of Reacher’s potential point scenarios was my goal for that morning.
The American Brittany is a long-legged dog that will gladly range. In Reacher’s case, think three hundred yards…in seconds. In serious pheasant cover, you can lose your Britt in a flash. GPS and related technology help, but pups need some support. When they get a snootful of bird, they can push too hard too fast, especially on pheasant, which are only grudgingly point steady. Not like huns, or sharptail. And when they lock onto a point, it may take five minutes to catch up. Pheasants are not famous for waiting that long. So the birds frequently blow out, and the dog is uncertain…does it chase the sky-borne bird, or look for another. In any case, the dog is essentially hunting for itself, and not experiencing the big reward…mouthful of pheasant. Keeping Reacher within range, my range, seemed like me fighting his in-bred conditioning to range. Maybe I should have gone with a French Brittany, a closer ranging dog. But Reacher and I are stuck with each other. We have to figure out a compromise…and that had me living on my audible tone and buzzer to keep Puppy at a workable distance.
We approached a dense patch of cattail, and for once, Reacher was just thirty yards out. There’d been a lot of pre-dawn cackling originating from this area, so it looked really good. Sure enough, Reacher locks up, partially. His stub of a tail is wagging furiously, but is straight out instead of straight up. False point, but evolving towards a true point.
Then everything goes South. Birds start getting up, in several directions. I pick one, maybe fifteen yards in front of Reacher and quartering away, but the cloudy morning contributes to my less than impeccable shot. The bird falters, then goes down, but not in a cloud of feathers. It lights in sedge on the outside of the cattails, and Reacher, who is truly distracted by all the birds, does not appear to have marked it.
So here I am on the audible, trying to bring Reacher to heel so I can give him a line on the downed bird. He is not at the point where I can hand signal him into the bird any other way, and again, remember that I’m a fledgling pointer trainer. So for now, bringing Reacher to heel, giving him a line, is my method. It works, sort of of. Excited Reacher is very willing to sprint after flying birds, but in truth he is also learning that it doesn’t work. He comes to heel, in about two minutes or so.
How far can a crippled rooster with sound legs run in a minute or so? Maybe it’s not a runner? Maybe it’s stone dead? But the scenario is further complicated by more birds, late birds, still getting up. Yes, I could shoot again, and further confuse the scene. But I defer. My intention is to collect the bird that was hit. Reacher had heard the shot, and I’m reasonably sure he has made the connection between noise of shot, and the big reward of bird-in-mouth, and least the occasional connection! So he comes to heel…and I give him a line on where the bird went down, just twenty-five yards out.
He takes the line, then turns and angles off to the right, without ever quite getting to the spot I’d marked. A slight breeze makes me think that maybe he did smell the bird, that it’s a runner, and he’s on it. No real way for me to be sure. So while Reacher is zig zagging across the field of vetch, I pull off my vest and drop it, to mark the spot, and set off to follow in Reacher’s wake.
A hundred and twenty yards later Reacher is looking super birdy, tail going a hundred miles an hour, when a rooster goes airborne right in front of him! I watch it. No sign of it being crippled at all. So now I bring Reacher back to heel, and return to the vest. Give him another line, urging him to hunt the marked spot where the bird went down. He does, sort of, but then is off again in a direct line towards where the cripple had been flying before it went down.
This gives me pause. Do I buzz him back, to make sure my bird isn’t stone dead and lying right there hidden in the dense sedge? Or do I trust this puppy to have gotten it right?
Hands off the buzzer. And I’m wishing that Anne and Vio were here…zen masters of bird retrieval. Handy-dandy wrist phone…so I call Anne and ask for some Labrador support. In the meantime, Reacher has made it to the most dense patch of cattail in the Spiral…about three acres of seven foot high cover. I see birds getting up, probably marking his progress. Then I catch sight of cattail movement towards the far side. That’s where he is. And right in front of him a rooster blows out.
Oh Shit! He’d just been after another bird. He hadn’t smelled blood.
But then just a moment later, I hear the squeal, like a high pitched cackle, marking bird in mouth of dog. The cattails had stopped moving too.
For the next ten minutes I progress towards the direction of the sound. No GPS help today either, and I’m just trusting on my last visual of the cattail movement. Anne and Vio are five minutes away.
I call Reacher’s name. I press the three tone audio, his signal to turn my way. Nothing. Am I competing with bird in mouth? Reacher doesn’t know the fetch command yet, at least not well. Of the two dozen birds that have been shot over him so far, he has brought six back. I’m hoping this is number seven.
Anne and Vio appear on the south end of the cattails, and I’m on the north when I spot Reacher, outside of cattails plucking a rooster. The bird is still alive, barely. Reacher won’t bring the bird to hand for me, from twenty feet away. I scoot back while calling him, but no deal. He is willing to come, but without the bird. Not perfect, but the bird isn’t going anywhere and I ultimately pick it up and bag it.
Reacher had not marked the bird, and did not necessarily associate it with the shot. He just new that he’d caught it and I wanted to take it away from him. Not fair, from his perspective.
I remember one Britt that would find a bird and head away from it’s hunter to pluck and even bury the bird. Not every time, but particularly when the dog felt it had done most of the work. Something about Britts.
The breed seems to be on the wild side, as if they are closer to their wild lineage than say, Labs. In this case, my shot had broken the bird's wing. Just one or two BBs had connected. Reacher had done his part, and then some. He’d found the bird. All the other birds contributed to the confusion. But we’d been ultimately able to work it out.
Are puppy noses more sensitive and receptive than the noses of older dogs? Had Reacher smelled that bit of blood on the bird’s wing? He had staying with it, and finally caught it. Vio is famous for this. She lives for blind retrieves. Her level of trust with a “line” is legendary. Can we have that in a Brittany?
I think Reacher’s coming on. It’s his trainer that needs work!
Bruce knows and loves the pheasant like no other hunter / landowner, and he writes with humor and expertise about this glorious bird. His stories are full of wisdom and insight and are fun to read! Eventually they will be published - working title "Pheasant Book".