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Posts Tagged ‘upland bird hunting’

I’m on the left. The ones on the right deserve all the credit … or dog treats.

Time to address the 800-pound gorilla once and for all. Please bear with me while I drill down on an issue important to all of us: where we hunt on Wingshooting USA. Thanks for reading the entire essay before commenting. Shouldn’t take but five minutes, once you find your reading glasses 🙂

I hunt over 30 days per year on public land, walk-in areas, etc. for wild birds. On private ground, another 20 or so. Add in the places we go to make the TV show and you’ve got another 20 or so, about half wild and half liberated/early release/pen raised birds. Given the chance, you might do much the same. Why?

Because if I’m to believe what you tell me in the annual Upland Index survey, it’s all about the dog work. All other things being equal (including hard-flying birds no matter where the eggs came from), we live for a quivering, tail-stiffening point or hard flush by a perky spaniel. Incredible scenery, excitement, and camaraderie are right up there, but hands-down …

… it’s about the dog.

So, no birds, no TV show. If you tell us you’re willing to watch 21-1/2 minutes of guys walking around not shooting at birds, with all due respect, you’re a liar. I won’t insult your intelligence. I’ll take the financial hit and pay for more days in the field in hopes of finding a few birds.

Yep, I’m a lucky S.O.B. Wined and dined, guided and shown the good spots at world-class lodges. And some, not-so-world class. But they are a part of our sport, and deriding “white collar” hunts simply because you can’t/won’t go is a reflection of your worldview, not the people who go there. “Those people,” whomever they are, have more in common with us than they don’t have. (I know, there are exceptions, and I’ve shared a table or two with them! It explains my fondness for Scotch.)

But who among us doesn’t relish the dazzling display of a fired-up four-legged hunter living his dream? It’s not the thread count on the lodge’s sheets that defines our passion.

That said, here are some harsh realities of TV hunting:

TV is like sausage. If you like it, don’t watch it being made – or paid for.

Time is money: I choose the best camera operators because you deserve it. Watch all the bird hunting shows and decide for yourself, but I think it’s worth it to have two shooters who understand what we’re there for: your benefit. Excellent camera angles, lots of dog-level footage, drone shots … and a lot of other things my guys do that others don’t. I’m happy to send them a big check at the end of a trip.

My crew is paid by the day, whether they’re hunting, driving, flying, watching the rain fall. The longer we have to hunt, the more expensive that episode becomes. Others may do it differently, but you can probably see the difference when you watch. You are worth the extra expense.

Knowing there are birds, even if I can’t hit them, is a producer’s security blanket. You may not see many retrieves when I shoot, but you’ll be able to watch the dogs.

As producer, I pay for all that other stuff, too: flights, meals, lodging enroute, editors, rental cars, background music, fuel, advertising sales trips, the other editors who make the commercial spots, even the voice talent in those spots! Ditto for social media, sportsmen’s show booths, writing, promotion, office rent, etc. Nobody (except me) works for free.

I am glad to reach for my wallet, because the talent of all those folks is what gets Wingshooting USA on the big networks and into your home. No matter who your daddy is, you can’t simply write a check and be on Discovery, NBC Sports, Destination America or the other major networks. The bigger the network, the stricter their production standards, or all those other guys would be there.

Then I gotta buy the air time on the networks … in advance … hoping to find sponsors who send enough checks to cover my overhead and maybe chip in a little profit for my 401K. Nobody gets rich in our cottage industry, and two out of three years are break-even or worse. Many producers have taken out second mortgages, cashed in pensions, quit their day jobs, burned through their inheritance, bought a jacked-up truck, put their logo on it, and failed.

(Mythbuster: there are very few producers who actually get paid by the outdoors networks any more. I was lucky enough to be one of them early in my career, but that model evaporated when network boards were re-populated by bean counters and lawyers instead of sportsmen.)

Enough pathos. Wouldn’t you rather watch great (and even my not-great) dogs finding birds?

This is the place.

Beautiful, eh? Take a number and pull out your wallet if you want to shoot here.

Red tape. What is your impression of your motor vehicles department? Post office? That’s what we’re up against trying to make a show on public land. To hunt where the birds are on Bureau of Land Management, National Parks, and most state-owned land I must buy a permit.

Ironic, isn’t it? I gotta pay to hunt on land owned by you and me … if someone with a camera is walking alongside me. And it’s not cheap. On a recent shoot, for me and two cameras (no tripods – that’s extra) the daily cost of a permit was the same as George Lucas would pay to shoot the next Star Wars installment. On a recent shoot, I spent 37 hours working on the permit. When I was making a fly fishing show, the bureaucrat wanted me to put an “X” on every spot we might set up and make a few casts … on a 20-mile float trip. What’s your time worth?

And if you think the post office is slow, try this: sometimes, the bureaucrats who hold your financial fate in their hands often wait until you’re on the plane (and my well-paid camera operators are on their second drink!) before they actually issue the permit. Is that how you’d expect someone to treat paying customers like you?

Does every TV show follow the rules and get permits? Not my problem. I do, so most of Wingshooting USA’s episodes will be on private ground.

Hey, I’m just like you. Long for wild places. Crave the challenges of finding wild birds. Can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a 10-gauge semi-auto with the plug pulled out. Love the dogs even more. I’ll wager you do, too.

I’m not asking for your sympathy – I’m a big boy, and understand the risks. I’m just asking you to look at the whole picture.

And enjoy the dog work.

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Nom nom nom. Good dog!

Whether this works for you, you’ll have to decide. If a more experienced trainer has an opinion, I’m sure I’ll hear via Facebook. But at least one of those, pro trainer George Hickox, thought enough to bring it up in a recent conversation:

1. Dogs work for themselves, not us. If they choose to cooperate with us, “obeying” our commands, it is a means to an end.

2. The end is quite often food (especially in young dogs) or prey (in our situation, usually birds).

Makes sense to me. Think about it for a couple days as you train, and see what you think.

So, how do we adjust our training philosophy and practice in light of those observations? I’m using the prospect of holding a dead bird as a much more frequent reward with Flick than with past dogs. So far, so good.

In steadiness training, when he slams on the brakes the moment he scents birds, he gets to retrieve one. Almost every time at first, and as quickly as practicable after a flush/shot. Then, he learns to wait a while from point to flush to fall to retrieve command.

In a gentle version of force fetch training I’m testing, a variation. Obviously, he “gets” the bird when he’s sent to retrieve it. But – and I’ve seen this countless times on the TV show and at training days – the moment a dog arrives at the human, the bird is yanked from his mouth.

Not Flick. He gets a moment or two to savor it. Maybe more, if he doesn’t start chewing! I’ll often heel him back to the yard or training table as he carries the bird – that’s a lot of savoring! And once he releases on command, he gets another chance to snort-sniff-lick it while I hold it.

A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush. But a bird in the mouth is worth two hundred in the bag … if Flick can enjoy it for a bit.

I’ll keep you posted.

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This is Manny, in a long-ago image combining the Smiths’ “half hitch” with Bob Farris’ “belly hitch.”

I’m working pretty hard on steadiness with Flick. Here, that means hitting the scent cone and slamming on the brakes, holding through the flush, shot and fall. Maybe you are faced with some of the same challenges on that one!

But another dimension of steadiness is “sight pointing.” Derided by some as cheating by a dog that should have whiffed bird scent prior to seeing the bird, it is a fact of hunting life. A dog can approach from upwind, birds can run from cover, and here in chukar country they can be seen skylined on a ridgetop, skitter across a rock field, or otherwise vex a dog. And that’s not counting the valley quail perched on a fencepost for all the world (and Flick) to see. Eventually, Flick will also screech to a halt on the sound of a flush – I hope!

It’s pretty simple: you either expect nothing from your dog and he chases/flushes them wild; or, you want the same performance as if he’d scented the bird/covey. I prefer the latter. We get more shots, the process is virtually the same for the dog so he gets the same reward, it’s safer, and if there are more birds around they aren’t accidentally flushed.

Easy to say, hard to train.

I am spending a lot of time secreting birds in my vest and surprising Flick with them as he roams the yard and field. It’s not the same as rounding a corner and finding one pecking on the ground, but it’s a start. A stop-to-sight is rewarded with a “flush” and a retrieve of the dead bird I also hide in my vest. A few good versions, and next time I put the bird on the ground after the “point.” Sometimes, when I’m confident of his steadiness I will dizzy a bird and let it waddle around a bit until it gains its senses and flies off. Next is anchoring birds out of sight, then bringing Flick around a corner to see them and lock up.

We are making progress – are you doing anything like this?

The peaks are often accompanied by a valley or two – Flick will crash in on the unsuspecting bird and we head back immediately to Square One: on the training table, belly hitch/checkcord are my retrograde training tactics for steadiness. I am a real believer in the flank-pressure method pioneered by Delmar Smith and taken to the next level by son Rick and nephew Ronnie. (Bob Farris has a more “portable” version, illustrated above, that has a detachable dragging cord if you like, but it’s only effective if you’ve already used the cord and the Smith’s “whoa post” method with the cord through the dog’s back legs to the post.)

Ronnie recently explained some basics about pressure/contact/”Silent Command” that resonate (hope I get them right – if not, someone please comment): neck pressure is used to get a dog to move, go forward, change direction … all motion-inducing commands. Flank pressure is to stop a dog, or keep him still once stopped.

The revelation is, a checkcord going to the collar will certainly yank a dog if he breaks a point. But it will not really have a lasting effect. E-collar on the neck, ditto, which is why you often seen field trialers’s photos (especially) of a collar on the dog’s waist. Per Rick and Ronnie, “stop” comes with flank pressure: half-hitch, e-collar, even a hand tap.

I’ll keep you posted.

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I had an enlightening conversation with well-known trainer George Hickox recently, and he’ll certainly be a guest on the upcoming (debut, August) Upland Nation podcast. Of the many topics we discussed, George reminded me of a phenomenon I’ll call “reward deflation.”

We’re all guilty.

We encourage and praise our puppies, and they are quite motivated by anything that resembles positive feedback. Food treats, squeaky voices, a scratch here and pat there … all work with young dogs. We provide these reinforcements frequently and at length for anything the pup does right. But we don’t often throttle it back, or not enough, as he matures.

At some point, George reminded me, a smart dog only wants two things: food when it’s hungry, and birds. That is inextricably linked to another observation: dogs don’t work for us any more than they have to, in pursuit of what they want. Obviously, that could be food, or birds, or to get outdside and find one or both of those. But remembering that a dog’s highest priority is his own wellbeing is worth its weight in kibble.

We can and should use this knowledge strategically, to teach desired behaviors. But …

Back to the deflation: It’s not a boy crying wolf over and over until nobody pays attention when a real canis lupus actually appears, but close. We are the culprits. Dog walks in, doesn’t surf the kitchen counter, gets a “good boy.” We race past on the way out the door, and out of habit utter “good dog.” A dog is sitting, staying out of trouble, gets a cookie tossed his way. Pretty soon, the treats and words have no meaning, because they were awarded for well, nothing. We hadn’t asked/commanded the dog, he simply existed and got what George calls a “paycheck.”

Kinda like unemployment compensation. Sit around. Watch TV. Taxpayer dollars show up in your mailbox. It doesn’t motivate recipients to go work and it won’t motivate your dog, either.

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About 4,000 per month. That’s how many questions I get from Facebook, Instagram, email, and when you enter my Take Your Friend Hunting contest here. Some are just too good to leave alone – they beg for a little embellishment, just for fun. If any of these questions look familiar, please know it is merely coincidental.

[Editor’s note: no dogs were harmed in the making of this blog post, though a few egos may be slightly bruised.]

Q: Do you ever hunt without a dog? Thanks, Kat Luver.

A: Why?

Q: My children want to help with dog training, but they are not very disciplined themselves, i.e., dirty rooms, lost homework, bad manners. Thanks, Terry Bulldad.

A: Try an electronic training collar. They are nowhere near as inhumane as they used to be, and speed up the learning process when used correctly. The vibration and tone features also give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to behavioral change. Start with a very low stimulation, and work up as necessary. I would take the collars off before you drop them at school, though.

Q: Help! My dog won’t come to me when called. Signed, Star Tinghout.

A: He doesn’t come when I call him, either. Try making a sound like a filet mignon and see what happens.

Q: How long does it take to train a dog? Thanks, E.Z. Wayout.

A: A year should be sufficient for me to tell you how long it will take to train a dog.

Q: My dog is in a constant state of shedding both in the house and truck. Can I do anything about it? Signed, Harry Holmes.

A: Despite the claims by some “doodle-type” or shorthair breeders, all dogs shed. A good diet and regular grooming will help, but the real solution is to own furniture, carpets and truck upholstery that match the color of your dog. If your dog is ticked, spotted, checked or striped, buy two homes and two trucks.

Q: How can I get to go hunting with you? Thanks, Nita Friend.

A: Thanks! I’m always looking for guest hosts on the show, especially if they shoot well and let me take credit. Please send me a detailed letter, written in the margins of as many $50 bills as you need to draft a detailed, lengthy, convincing proposal.

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Two steps forward, one back. It’s a familiar cliche’ in the dog-training lexicon. Actually, I’ll bet if you think about your own life, your teachers moved you both directions as needed: guitar lessons, typing, overhauling a carb, driving that car after the overhaul was done – again.

Plateaus are a nice resting point on a chukar hunt, a chance to take a breather. But in dog training, they are misleading. You think you’ve mastered a skill with your dog … until you slide off the edge. Worse than a backward step, hopefully not too damaging to your bones or your ego. A humbling learning experience.

Peaks are what we strive for, our aspiration. Sometimes simple (he actually came to the whistle!), other times monumental (passed his Utility Test), each is a chance to be grateful … for your own teaching abilities but more importantly for your dog’s incredible talent (and patience, with you).

Valleys are the dog-training equivalent of a baseball player’s slump. The walls are steep, we are all alone at the bottom. Our dog has either lost most of his brain cells or suddenly can’t understand the English language. It’s when we contemplate switching dog breeds, or buy a fly rod.

In almost all cases, we are the culprit. Sure, the dog might be a co-conspirator, but if you think long and hard about your challenge-du-jour, honestly, it’s about you.

It could be shortcuts you’ve taken, inconsistent language/word choice, laziness, not being observant (“thinking like a dog”) … but in most dog-human relationships the human has got to do most of the thinking and sometimes, well, we just don’t.

Here’s your assignment: What’s your dog training project this weekend? If you’re training any skill, be aware, think ahead, consider your dog’s point of view and analyze what’s really slowing or stopping your progress. Be brutally honest with yourself. Go back, experiment, and see if it helps. I will if you will.

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Actions speak louder than words, and don't spook birds, either.

Actions speak louder than words, and don’t spook birds, either.

At its most fundamental level the idea is to shoot birds over your shorthair’s point or within gun range of your lunging Springer. Maybe it’s putting a sneak on feeding mallards or decoying honkers to your pit. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll seldom get a decent shot.

Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (though late-season sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. Just ask yourself why so many game birds roost in the thick, crackly vegetation, or why pheasant hunters don’t slam truck doors. So it behooves we apex predators to “stuff a sock in it,” so to speak.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully, ghosting my way through brush instead of bulldozing it. I try to make my footfalls more like an elk hunter than a linebacker. Light steps on scree minimize rattling, deliberate wading, delicate paddling … all get you closer to a killing shot.

Even rattling whistles or duck calls, sloshing water bottles, or a ringing cell phone will put the kybosh on a stealthy approach to pressured birds. Reaching for that coffee mug (let alone dropping it) in an aluminum boat can resemble a clanging fire alarm to pintails dabbling around the next bend.

I often go a step further, taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. One of those riveted identification plates starts to make even more sense in the grouse woods. I own a half-dozen e-collars with beepers and an assortment of bells, but many times I’ll go unplugged.

Spoken, rather than shouted, directions are heard plenty well by most dogs. When possible, use hand commands instead of a voice or whistle. Just like any other skill, retrievers can be taught to sit still and quit whining in a blind. It might take a bag full of treats and many weeks, but all of it pays off when wings cup and landing gear deploy.

Oh, and here’s another good reason: while I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I see and enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery … and to me, that’s almost as much fun as nice, close shots.

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