The Virtue of Patience

Bird hunting isn’t the topic on the lips of most folks as they navigate the slush

By Rob Breeding

I may be crazy, but late January seems like the perfect time to be thinking about bird hunting.

Sure, the snow is now being plowed into epic piles across the Flathead, piles that may linger well into spring. Bird hunting isn’t the topic on the lips of most folks as they navigate the slush. Snowpack is a good thing, we all understand. But unless you’re skiing — or you’ve got a secret stash of mousies in your ice fishing shack — the snowpack-making season is no fun.

So I reserve a part of my brain to remain permanently fixed on the fall, either the one just concluded or the one to come.

As to the season past, it was a critical time. My English setter Doll turned the corner, demonstrating an inner bird dog that apparently had to fight through persistent puppyhood to express itself.

Her progress came intermittently through the fall. Brilliant moments like the day she caught a hint of scent in the wind and methodically led me to a covey of chukar a couple hundred yards away — this at a time when I was still wondering if her nose even worked. Moments like those were often followed by fits of distraction, however, as when she’d lose focus, forget about birds and instead chase rabbits.

There was a bigger problem. Somewhere along the line Doll got it into her head that it was OK to flush birds on her own. She pointed, at least some of the time. But I caught her more than once, off in the distance, nosing up on a covey until she had it in the air, then bounding in frantic circles until every bird in the zip code was flying for its life.

This is about as bad as it gets for a bird dog. Setters run big. That’s one of the traits I like most about the breed. I love to watch them move through the country and I’m convinced a big running setter with a good nose will find more birds than the tighter working breeds. Still, a big running dog works only if it goes tight on point when it finds birds and waits for you, no matter how long that takes.

My old setter Jack was that kind of dog. Once he figured out what a real bird was, that dog pointed so consistently I never bothered to “whoa” train him. I didn’t see the point.

Once, while hunting quail with a friend with a personality better suited for a close-working breed, we lost Jack and he didn’t respond to calls. After about 10 minutes of listening to my friend grumble about dogs who hunt for themselves, we went looking for Jack and found him about 100 yards away locked up on point. My friend was in better position so he stepped in for the flush. That grumbling may have messed with his karma, however, as he missed. Never speak ill of a bird dog I say.

Some want a dog that’s always in sight, but I enjoy it when I have to go looking for a solidly pointing bird dog. That meant Doll’s flushing habit needed to be broken, so I reluctantly resorted to a shock collar for the fix.

Many trainers use collars to “whoa” break bird dogs. They eventually so associate a light tickle with birds that they get fired up simply at the sight of an e-collar. But you have to be careful, especially with prima donna breeds like setters. Hit it too hard too often and instead of helping a bird dog understand its job, you instead teach it to associate birds with an unpleasant sensation around its neck.

Apparently, I gave Doll just the right amount of guidance. Once we made it to Arizona and the home of tight holding Mearns’ quail, she pointed like a champ. I left the collar on as I can use it to “whoa” her from distance when that’s occasionally necessary, but I rarely needed it on that trip.

As to the seasons of the future, well, it looks like a puppy is in order. There’s been only one dog around the house for far too long.

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