Planted Prey

The debate over whether preserve hunts have a role in training bird dogs

By Rob Breeding

Other than spring turkey, or depredation hunts for geese, bird hunting won’t be a thing again until fall.

I don’t hunt waterfowl often, and have doubts about my English setter Doll’s willingness to sit patiently, waiting for birds to come to us. I’ve read a few interesting recipes lately, however, which has me pondering goose breast pastrami. Spring turkey also offers some attractive culinary options, though, like waterfowl, doesn’t give my dog much to do.

By the way, some states are so desperate to cull geese flocks they allow electronic calls, unplugged shotguns and limitless limits.

The other off-season option is a preserve hunt. Pheasant preserves are open through the end of March in Montana, which seems the common end date in other states.

There was a bit of a dustup in one of the Facebook groups I’ve joined, one dedicated to hunting “wild” birds. As wild bird hunting season closed, one dude in the group started posting photos of his dog taken during preserve hunts. We knew the photos were of preserve birds, rather than leftovers from recently concluded wild bird hunts, because he included that information in his posts, along with the disclaimer, “I hunt preserves and I don’t care if you don’t like it!” or something to that effect.

I’ve heard of “Owning the Libs” but “Owning the Wild Bird Hunters” is a new one for me.

Reactions ran the gamut. There was outrage: “How dare you post that blasphemy here!” And there was cultish affirmation: “Yeah, now let’s build a bonfire with their tweedy hunting jackets!”

I exaggerate, but just a little.

A few of the outraged announced they were leaving the group. The blasphemers said, “good riddance.”

Since I’m an outdoor writer and a communication educator, I consider scrolling through otherwise pointless online debates a type of research, research that continues to confirm that social media debates almost always result in no one changing their mind, and everyone being angry.

Debate away I suppose, if that’s your thing.

The intentions of the preserve hunter provocateur aside, the conversation resulted in some interesting reflections by some. A few proclaimed nothing ruins a bird dog more completely than hunting them on stocked birds. Others suggested planted birds have some role in training, especially with young bird dogs.

I stayed out of the fray, but the latter is where I land on the issue. I’ve seen what planted birds can teach young dogs and their inexperienced handlers, though I believe you need to train primarily on wild birds to develop a great bird dog.

I lived in Idaho when my first setter, Jack, turned a year old. Idaho plants pheasants on state hunting areas, including a spot not too far from where we lived. Jack and I spent a bit of time there when he was young, once walking out into the field just as the stocking truck was pulling away. The driver gave me a look that suggested the happenstance of my timing was some form of cheating.

The assurance of birds in front of us was exactly what young Jack and I needed, however. He soon went on point, a hard point he held for the minute or so it took me to catch up. As I came up behind I saw a pair of birds, statuesque as well, but otherwise completely exposed on bare ground.

Jack learned a big part of the game on those birds, and I learned to trust Jack. If those had been wild pheasant they would have been long gone, and I wouldn’t have learned so quickly that when that dog went on point, I needed to be ready.

We hunted those planted birds just a lone season, but the education they provided paid off the rest of Jack’s life.

The rest of a bird dog’s life dedicated to wild birds.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.