Todd Robins recalls clearly and poignantly the first time his eldest son, 12 years old at the time, hunted birds with him in the Sweet Grass Hills along the Hi-Line. The story illuminates the almost magical synergy that ripples through handler and dog, man and best friend — or work colleague, in this case.
Their English setter, Shania, stood on point, signaling the likely presence of an upland game bird. Robins’ son uncertainly shuffled forward, glancing back at his father with “wide-open” eyes and back at the dog, his heart racing.
“It was just so exciting,” Robins remembers. “The dog was on point. We knew the bird was there.”
Then the moment of glory: the shot.
“He missed it by a mile,” Robins said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We can do this again. We’ll have experiences like that all day long.’ It’s just the process I love.”
Pets create memories and connections in any household, but a working gun dog, while doubling as a domestic buddy, opens avenues to shared experiences that can’t be replicated in the backyard. The uncanny relationship formed between handler and dog is difficult to explain to anybody who hasn’t experienced it.
In the Flathead Valley, despite its relative dearth of upland bird opportunities compared to central or eastern Montana and the Midwest U.S., a community of hunting-dog enthusiasts can’t imagine life without the experience. Many of those diehards make up the Glacier Gun Dog Club, and others are affiliated with the local chapter of Pheasants Forever, or they wear both of those hats, like Robins.
“The reason I’ve stayed involved with the Glacier Gun Dog Club so long is it’s just amazing what we do together,” Robins, who recently retired as a schoolteacher, said. “We help each other train. You watch other people train and say, ‘Wow, that’s possible?’ We all get so much out of it.”
“Yes, it’s about hunting in the fall,” he continued, “but in the end it really is about the fun of doing that stuff together in the meantime.”
Jesse Lasater-Keller, whose father was one of the club’s founders in 1992, grew up within that community and today is the club’s secretary. She said the club is inclusive, welcoming all breeds across the two types of bird dogs: flushers and pointers.
“Some of the bigger clubs are breed specific, but I think what has kept our club around so long is we take all those dogs,” Lasater-Keller said.
Robins, who is a board member, said the intermingling between different hunters and dogs, from English setters to springer spaniels to German shorthairs to Labrador retrievers and beyond, representing both waterfowl and upland hunting, is a foremost benefit of the club.
“Even though we’re different, we all want the same outcome: to have a connection between the handler and the dog so you can control what’s going on out there,” he said.
The club holds fun hunts that offer a chance for members, who number 40 to 75 on average, to socialize and trade tips on training. The club also holds training nights and other events, such as a recent fundraiser sports-clays hunt open to the public, from brand-new to experienced shooters, at a ranch near Olney.
“It was very well attended,” Lasater-Keller said. “I think everyone had a great time.”
The club sponsors a team in the Pheasant Forever kids trap league as well. Robins, who is treasurer of the Flathead chapter of Pheasants Forever, has for years overseen the youth program, which helps kids learn gun safety, improve their accuracy and build a foundation for an outdoors pursuit that could become a lifelong love.
“I think kids get a lot out of that,” he said. “That’s important to me. If we had even more kids every year, it’d be exciting. It’s such a fun program for the kids.”
The wooded mountain areas of Northwest Montana hold ruffed grouse, while ring-necked pheasants roam the valley floors, but opportunities to pursue upland game birds are more limited locally than for waterfowl such as ducks and geese. Upland hunters’ best bets in Flathead County are waterfowl production areas such as Batavia, Blasdel and North Shore, or on private land if they have secured permission.
Just a bit south, the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area — not the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge — is a fruitful option. Otherwise, Robins and others travel to central and eastern Montana, where prospects are plentiful for game birds such as pheasants, Hungarian partridges and sharptail grouse, which are Robins’ favorite.
But the limited chances locally don’t deter bird enthusiasts, who put in countless hours training their dogs. After the death of Shania, Robins got a new English setter, Reba, continuing the country-star theme. When dogs are puppies, Robins says it’s important to train them on a daily basis, even if it’s only a handful of minutes each day.
“They need to get accustomed to what the rules are and how to behave and react,” he said.
Robins says training never stops, although it evolves and grows less consuming as the dogs mature. A well-trained bird dog can quarter and traverse landscapes in precise increments and movements, dutifully following the owners’ every command, either through voice or electronic collar or whistle.
“It’s pretty phenomenal when you see dogs that have been trained well and are working — they’re definitely working dogs,” Lasater-Keller said. “It’s impressive and fun to watch.”
Robins considers himself a conservationist, and one of the primary objectives of Pheasants Forever is conservation, but he said many people don’t realize the role of dogs in furthering that mission, which is one more reason that a good hunting pup will forever captivate him.
“It’s really easy to lose a bird in the field, but with a dog, you almost always find them,” he said. “There’s a conservation portion of having a dog and a handler work together.”