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I doubt he knows the difference.

I doubt he knows the difference.

Why do you hunt?

“Being able to watch your young dog come into his own.”

“My Springer Bonnie. It’s not a day in the field without her.”

In my viewer surveys virtually all of you said something similar. Dogs rule, and we hunt so we can watch them perform magic in the field.

So why condemn pen-raised birds?

One reason might be our own biases. I’m not judging your leanings, mine are probably similar. But if we’re honest about the pre-eminence of dog work to our experience, why aren’t well-raised planted birds just as valuable?

Do dogs ignore the scent of a liberated bird, while pointing a wild bird? Show me the evidence. For that matter, can you distinguish a well-raised planted bird from a wild bird without looking at the peeper hole in the beak?

Does your dog’s tail droop when pointing planted birds? At a preserve, does he trot instead of gallop, boot-lick rather than range? When you command “fetch,” does he spit out planters?

“Watching a setter work in a beautiful field on a gorgeous day is always the best day.”

Maybe it’s all in our heads, and I get that. We love wild places, untrammeled ground, off-the-grid coverts. But that’s not what we’re talking about (or is it?). Unless a covert resembles something from a Mad Max movie, I wonder if your dog cares whether it is aesthetically pleasing or simply a bird-holding environment.

But how wild is wild? Beyond the quails and grouses, virtually every upland bird we shoot at was planted at some point. Do you shun chukar hunters because their birds were planted in Nevada in the thirties? Wild pheasants are simply descendants birds Judge Owen Denny “released” on his Oregon farm in the 1880’s, or similar, later efforts in Redfield, South Dakota, etc. Gotta problem with that?

“Wild hatched” might be a better description of the birds some cherish more than their domestically-reared cousins. But why can’t we value a released bird that acts just like its wild counterpart, much as our dogs do.

“Seeing the dogs do what they were born to do.”

We’ve all encountered bad planted birds, bad apples that spoiled entire barrels of good introduced birds. They flounder instead of flushing, our dogs catch them on the ground, and nobody’s happy, especially the birds. But many of us have also encountered released birds that thunder, tower and jink just like wild birds.

My dogs don’t seem to know the difference and truth be told, I’ll bet yours don’t either.

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He's on "whoa" so I can get a photo

He’s on “whoa” so I can get a photo

Terms from the world of training, trials and hunt tests …

Viszla: Shorthaired versatile breed from Hungary.

Wachtelhund: German spaniel originally bred to hunt quail.

Weimaraner: Shorthaired versatile breed from Germany.

Whoa: Command word to stop a dog and have him remain motionless.

Whoa barrel: Metal or plastic barrel laid horizontally on the ground on which trainers place dogs to encourage steadiness to the whoa command and to birds.

Whoa post: Metal or wooden post in the ground around which a checkcord is looped to stop a dog’s forward movement.

Whoa table: Another term for training table, typically a low platform trainers put a dog on to teach or enforce commands, often including the “whoa” command.

Wild flush: Bird that flies before the hunter or dog purposely flushes it.

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A well-deserved drink.

The weather girl had it right for a change: winter was starting right on time. So did we. Here in South Dakota you can’t start hunting until 10 a.m., to me and my crew, a most civilized statute. Departing Ringneck Retreat, we were in the truck and rolling a few minutes before the appointed hour, down a bumpy farm road past a feedlot and into the boondocks.

A light snow coated round bales and thistle blooms, adding magic to the morning – Tinkerbelle’s sprinkling of pixie dust – to our adventure. Gray skies weren’t enough to darken our spirits – a breeze from the west beckoned canine noses and human feet.

Buddy and Manny got the nod today. After too many miles in their Owens boxes they trembled with anticipation. Park – guns out – cameras rolling – rattle open the door. At the timber patch that was our starting line, Manny rocketed over logs, shimmied under bushes, snaked around the ancient elms’ alligator-skin trunks. The thick grass underfoot yielded not a bird.

Once out of the timber, he was on point within seconds. Bird up! And quickly down. The young wirehair had hit his stride, galloping toward the crumpled rooster, he snuffled it into his grip. A short race back and he relinquished it gently to hand. Fifty yards later, another lock-up, cackling flush and bird crashing into the ditch. Right-left-middle he coursed until the enticing aroma of birds arrested his forward progress. One got away clean. Another was warned with a surprise early shot then grounded with the top barrel. The last rooster in the strip jinked hard right, soaring over our blocker. The shot string from his first barrel drew feathers, but the rooster reversed field and soared three hundred yards over cut soybeans before rolling as he hit the ground.

Manny was off like a drag racer at the green light, quickly outdistancing the young Labrador stationed at heel with another blocker. Scooped up and trundled 900 feet back to me and the camera, the ringneck was relinquished from the tender grasp of a bearded muzzle. Maybe it was the pixie dust, a smidgen of fairy tale. Whatever the cause, it was an enchanting day.

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Petroglyphs up there - one of the lessons to learn.

Petroglyphs up there – one of the lessons to learn.

In another life I must have been an historian. I love the past, reading about it, talking about it, and especially the dazzle of discovery. Besides being with dogs, the chance to span the decades (even centuries) is high on my list of reasons to go hunting. Cresting a ridge to find everyday stuff lost or discarded by those who walked the same path brings dusty books and mind-numbing lectures to life.

I’ve stumbled over sheepherder stoves and peeked (not too far) into abandoned gold mines, camped in willow corrals and counted bullet holes in a Buick abandoned after a foiled bank robbery. Man-made artifacts, each with a tale to tell those lucky enough to walk a bit farther.

A ranch driveway bears a faded sales pitch for an insurance agent, painted on a boulder when the rutted gravel was the only road into town. Pictographs and petroglyphs are a regular discovery in the tumbles of lava that define chukar country. Rock cairns called “stoneboys” by Basque sheepherders, were piled to counter the boredom of minding a flock. Stories from different ages, for differing reasons.

Wagon wheels, lead-soldered cans piled among shattered crockery, square nails from abandoned homesteads, all tie this life to past lives. Everyday junk joins us to predecessors.

Why did someone leave that wooden bucket on this ridge? Who knapped arrowheads, leaving a pile of obsidian chips glittering at the base of this rock? Was that intact spear point dropped in the heat of a chase? A clean miss? What – or who – was the target?

That’s why I love this stuff, the stories. Do you have any?

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This is how you welcome a newcomer, according to Buddy.

This is how you welcome a newcomer, according to the master of the method, Buddy.

The Grandfather and I conspired, I admit. Whose dog would best deliver a bird so that the Grandson had a controlled, safe shot at his first pheasant? He’d broken a ton of clay targets, but never a feathered one, and deserved the best possible introduction to our passion.

I lobbied for Grandfather’s Lab. What a great story that would make! But at his insistence, my wirehair Buddy got the nod. A point, not a flush, would give us more time to safely get the gun to the shoulder, feet pointed in the right direction, staying aware of the other hunters.

The field of head-high grass held promise, and once we entered, a full measure of adrenaline. Three adults, one 12-year-old, and my reliable dog. Bird up! And my veterinarian had the hard left crosser on the ground. Buddy leapt the rushing creek, tracked expertly, jumped the creek again with his feathered burden, and delivered to me waiting on the other side. Good boy.

Grandson was clearly psyched up from the flush, and I had to keep one eye on the uneven ground, one on Buddy, and a hand on his shoulder to keep things in control. A slog or two later, Grandfather called “point,” and we high-stepped our way through the clinging vegetation. Ready.

The rest is a blur. Someone walked in to flush. I kept one hand on Grandson’s shoulder for safety. Veterinarian watched from a distance. Buddy trembled in anticipation of a mouthful of feathers. Brrrrrr! Bang! Bird down!

Another track, a leap across the creek and back, and delivery, then fist bumps and high fives. Grandson’s first pheasant, a pleasant weight in his game bag. Photos all around.

Welcome to the fraternity, WM.

(If you want to take a kid hunting, enter my contest here and maybe you’ll be joining us on the shoot.)

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And then, there was thawing out in Alabama at Dream Ranch.

And then, there was thawing out in Alabama at Dream Ranch.

It’s all over but the shouting. If one shouts at the end of bird season, that is.

Several thousand road miles, a lot of new friends, some new country and a ton of birds … tired dogs and a bunch of oil changes in unfamiliar towns. Every day was an adventure and gratifying in its own way (after all, it was hunting). While you’re reading about some of my peak experiences, re-live your own.

A pair of doubles on Huns in Montana with 6X Outfitters’ Al Gadoury. The dynamic is markedly different when you hunt without TV cameras. Both good, but different. Considering how I shot, I kinda wish there was a crew there.

Passing on the only ringneck anyone saw on opening day at a nearby wildlife refuge because I mis-read the regulations. Aaagh!

Hunting generally northward while a stranger hunted generally southward – toward me. When it turned out to be a training/hunting buddy, all was well in the world … again.

Hunting what can only be described as an American Serengeti at South Dakota’s Warne Ranches. Waves of birds rising from the grass, and on camera!

A chance – after 25 years – to share a field with my dogs’ veterinarian, and have both Manny and Buddy make epic retrieves across fields and raging creeks.

The coldest night I’ve ever spent in chukar country, minus 12 degrees. Warm enough during the day to enjoy, along with bighorns and a great friend. And the realization that for 72 hours we hadn’t heard a train, plane, truck or other hunter.

Horseback hunting with some great kids and their mom, out west for the first time. The wonder of the wide open spaces was clear on their faces. Introducing them to our sport was incredible.

Anyway, you get the idea. Now, what about yours?

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Approach birds from anywhere but alongside your dog. You’ll see steadier points and birds that are more likely to fly than run.

I was again reminded of how working with our dogs, thinking like they think, can produce better shooting from us. In South Dakota, a companion got so nervous (or was he dazzled at Buddy’s performance?) the bird had ample opportunity to fly wild or scoot out from under Buddy’s point.

Luckily the bird held and the outcome was fatal for him. And the lesson will definitely be in my upcoming book. You can preview it here:

First, ensure a solid point and a bird that holds still rather than a scampering off unscathed. Start by being punctual. Once your dog stands the bird, walk in with alacrity. The longer you dawdle, or admire his stunning good looks, or take photos, then the greater the chance a bird will flush wild, run off or the dog will do the flushing for you.

Then, assert yourself. Over many years in many fields one thing is clear: both birds and dogs hold better when the gunner moves with confidence. Once your dog shows you the bird, stride right in and everyone will likely do what’s expected of them. No sneaking, mincing or doubt … this is the time to show you are in charge.

Choose your route with care. Swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of the bird’s escape routes. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt-holes for a cunning rooster more inclined sprint than fly.

Flanking your dog also minimizes his chance of breaking point. “Allelomimetic behavior” is a highfalutin’ word for the actions of that flock of birds that jinks in unison, or pair of wolves on the hunt, trotting in parallel. Sauntering close alongside a pointing dog is an invitation to follow you into the flush – that’s how we teach “heel,” after all.

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