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It’s kinda like Disneyland for bird hunters. And like the breathlessness and overwhelmed-by-it-all sensory overload of that theme park, Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic (I shorthand it “P-Fest) can overwhelm attendees (and, exhibitors like me!). It’s a once-a-year opportunity to learn, earn, burn and churn, so plan ahead and consider these suggestions:

SAVE some dough: Often there are discounts on admission fees (check here) and in years past, even on Groupon. Many lodges and hunting preserves offer show discounts … as do those selling gear. Be prepared to pay cash for the best price, and if you can bring a few friends on the trip, the chance of a discount is even higher. Take the family, because kids probably get in cheaper too.

LEARN from the experts: Attend the seminars by folks you usually only read about in the magazines. Pick the brains of professionals exhibiting on the show floor. Get up close with gear you’re interested in. Booths can get crowded with many vying for the attention of exhibitors, so be assertive but polite. Simply joining an ongoing conversation is a good way to make known your interest, and ask your question.

GET OUT OF THE WAY: The aisles are like roads. If you’re stopping or slowing to get a closer look at something, move off the road. And please, please, try to keep up with “traffic” and dawdle in the booths not the aisles. Finally, like our roads, stay on the right side for best traffic flow.

BE DAZZLED: Often, the new guns that debuted last month at the private SHOT Show are making their first public appearance at P-Fest. Try them out. Same for innovative gear of all types, from dog crates to apparel.

SAMPLE THE BOUNTY: Try the tasty tidbits, drop brochures and dog food samples into your tote. Test-drive gear. Even if for just a few minutes, sit down in the back row of a seminar (speakers and audience appreciate the courtesy of not being a visual distraction in the middle of a show).

MEET & GREET: Technical experts in everything from shooting to electronic training collars are in residence and ready for your toughest questions. So are legends from the Smith cousins to culinary pro Hank Shaw.

PLAN YOUR WORK: Then, work your plan. Get the most up-to-date directory of exhibitors right at the front door of the show. Scan for your “go-to” destinations and hit them early, before the crowds surge. Hint: most people enter, then go to the right. They then slowly work from front to back of the hall. ‘Nuff said. Once you’ve hit your must-see booths and people, work the aisles methodically because you will inevitably be glad you covered it all.

MOST IMPORTANT: Dogs. Lots of dogs. A source for your next pup, rescue, or training. Uncommon breeds from Airedales (yup) to Deutsch Langhaars. Take pictures and collect business cards. And finally, bring your checkbook and upgrade or start your PF or QF membership.

Safe travels. Enjoy yourself. See you there.

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So, maybe you’ve had the same problem. Often, we blame it on “planted” birds, and that much is true. But if your goal is a dog that stands a bird from a distance the moment it hits the scent cone, you can train it with “planted” birds.

There are at least two critical considerations: sight, and timing.

Timing: The advantage (usually) to wild birds is they will not hang around waiting for a young dog to slide in, relocate, nose around, get closer. They will flush. Hopefully, the dog learns from it. That’s the joy of wild birds, but if you don’t have them, what can you do? Don’t we all wish we could open the gate and find wild practice birds all year? That, or winning lottery numbers – I’ll take either one.

So save up your cans and bottles (or quit drinking so much!) Buy a remote launcher – or borrow your club’s launcher (you are a member of the local NSTRA/NAVHDA/NAHRA chapter, right?). A dog that cheats the scent cone just to watch a wild bobwhite fly off can learn the same thing with a pigeon: get too close and the bird goes away. No passing go, no collecting $200. And certainly no retrieve. The trainer needs to be ruthless, and willing to throw away a few birds. But simulating the uncompromising behavior of wild birds is possible, and the rewards are life-long.

Now, the other end of the equation: sight. If you didn’t buy a launcher and are simply hard-planting birds or using a harness, you’ve got another challenge. Birds won’t flush “wild,” so a dog can creep in when he hits scent, ultimately getting within inches of the restrained bird, if not actually picking it up.

Higgins Gun Dogs got me thinking about this. He uses the “Magic Brush Pile,” but as far as I can tell, in slightly different ways. It works, and more power to him. My brush pile’s “magic” is making the launcher or bird harness invisible. My dogs, trained without a launcher, quickly learned to hit the scent cone then search for the bird. When they saw it, they would point. Worse yet, sometimes they would simply go in and catch the bird.

Flick seldom sees a remote launcher, except on a shelf in the shop. They are now well hidden among the sage and bitterbrush so the only clue that there is a bird nearby is the scent. A well bred dog, brought into the scent cone from a 90-degree angle, will be startled into an immediate point. A tug on the check cord will help.

A strong breeze doesn’t hurt either. Enhancing your success with bottled scent does too. Put the bird/launcher out sooner, let that scent “marinate” and build up a goodly cloud in a wide downwind arc. Check-cord the novice into that scent cone and voila! Hit the launcher remote, and boom, you’ve got a “wild” bird scenario.

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… as long as the “old dog” is a human.

Every day, Flick trains me as I train him. Two overarching principles are now indelibly etched in my fore-brain:

  1. Even at 18 months old, he’s still a puppy.
  2. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively, of course).

As to #1: I’ve hunted with a goodly number of women dog handlers, some highly respected to the point where they judged European gun dog tests. They and their protege’s had one characteristic in common: they were the most upbeat, positive, encouraging handlers I’ve shared a field with. Squeaky mommy voices, clapping hands, over-the-top praise all melded to motivate and mold incredible gun dogs.

Working Flick a few weeks ago, a few of those actions fell into my own routine and boy howdy what a difference. Which also reminded me of some reading years ago that strongly suggested the only reason humans could domesticate wolves was by arresting their development at the puppy stage.

Give it some thought.

Related to that, is #2, especially when applied to “force breaking.” If you watch the TV show, you know what a rock star Manny was in this department. On land, water, blind and marked I’d put him up against any field-trial Lab. I had help from his breeder on him, and mainly used the traditional ear-pinch method.

Flick’s matriculation to retrieving is different. He’s a lot softer dog, so the risks of using pain are very real. More importantly, he probably doesn’t need it. Think about it: we use pain to get a dog to howl and open his mouth so we can jam a bumper in. If we can get the mouth open with painless methods, why not try it? With this guy, it was as simple as an index finger between his teeth while giving the “fetch” command. Following on, the usual techniques seem to work: move the held bumper, move him to it, on to the ground, etc.

Sure, he disobeys at times. We go back a few steps, put the finger in the mouth and work through it. Once he truly understands what “fetch” means, it’s about reinforcing – and rewarding – obedience to that command. And yes, high-value food treats work (I know some of you will cringe at that, but it works for us). Hot dog bits and chicken skin are the go-to positive reinforcers in my yard.

Yeah, the jury is still out. But as best I can tell, Flick is as far along or farther than most dogs training with the other methods. I’ll keep you posted, and appreciate your feedback.

 

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Now the fun begins, right? Hold it just a minute.
Reconnoiter the area as you approach your dog and there’s a better chance your feet and gun will be pointed in the right direction when your adrenaline flows and wings whir. Flushed, frightened birds often head for a ridge, point, or high spot of some sort, frantically trying to put that topographical barrier between them and the danger you pose. In their absence even ground-dwellers like chukars might bolt for a cover of trees or tall shrubs. Face it as you walk in on the point.
You should be in a slightly better position when the flush startles you and the dog … and we need all the help we can get!

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And now what?

By any calendar, in any state, bird season is over. Now, the wait begins.

But between now and the next opening day, we have time. Time to reflect, remember, gather in all the sights and sounds, the smells … how was your season? How many times have you showed someone a photo, re-told a story, bragged on your dog. Did you take credit for that easy bird that flew unscathed?

What’s on the docket for the off-season? Got a goal? What is it?

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Just finished a fun interview for the Project Upland podcast. Enjoyed every minute because host Nick Larson let me spout off on multiple subjects at length! Cheaper than therapy, podcasts may be the new Primal Scream.

One topic we discussed and I’ve done speeches on before is (as I’ve been told) a little politically incorrect. But now that “R3” is all the rage (recruit, retain, re-activate) and we are trying to save our sport it deserves more attention, again. I won’t go into the reasons we should be boosting hunter numbers – that’s a subject for another day. But who we recruit deserves scrutiny.

I’m not against trying to turn urban dwellers, youth, Millennials, minorities, women, single-parent households or anyone else into hunters. More power to those making that effort. Every dollar they spend on gear begets excise taxes that pay for habitat and wildlife management. Good on ’em.

But sheesh, folks, the lowest-hanging fruit is ready to drop on our unsuspecting heads like Newton’s apple: people just like us.

Think about the barriers to hunting that every outlying demographic has: tough to get to hunting areas, lack of disposable income, little free time, prevalent anti-gun/anti hunting culture, no dog, little knowledge and nobody to introduce let alone sustain a pro-hunting effort with them – a “coach.” Imagine trying to drag a Millennial from his parents’ basement, confiscate his phone, put a gun in his hands, make him walk ten miles and kill something. The odds are not in your favor, are they?

Instead, think about your neighbor, co-worker, the guy who sits next to you in church, a fellow Rotarian.

Same values, similar age and income, more free time (empty nest), and as your friend he’s (she’s) interested in many of the same things you are. For all I know, he’s asked about your hunting trips, your dog, what quail tastes like.

Bada boom, bada bing.

Take the hints. Offer a hunting trip (or an observational opportunity sans shooting). You’ve got the dog, the gun, the ammo, the spot. You two already get along. Chat about all the things you have in common on the drive, plus safety, how dogs work, what to expect, how you’ll cook anything you actually hit.

What are you waiting for?

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My annual survey of viewers asks your opinion on what needs changing to preserve and grow our sport. The number-one need is access to huntable ground. The funny thing is, there is a lot more land open to hunting than you may think.

Virtually every state has a program that pays landowners (usually with your license/fee/surcharge/tax dollars) who unlock their gates and let you in. It has a different name in each state, and the rules and procedures also differ. But the fact is, some sleuthing on the Internet, a drive here and there, a little bit of boot leather, and you’re in. Literally. While most seasons are over or winding down, it’s a good time to start laying plans for next year … on private land open to hunting.

Start here, in Kansas. Or Google “walk in hunting areas (state)” and good luck!

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