Late this spring, my seven year old pointer, Fin, came home after her second winter in Alabama hunting quail at Mazie and Colvin’s Davis Quail Hunts. Colvin claimed her as their best singles dog. The previous March, while down for the Alabama Open Shooting Dog Championship, I watched Fin point over 40 coveys and singles in the course of a +70 degree morning hunt that lasted three hours. After five winters of hunting Texas quail, she was in her element! I hoped to have her home in time to compete in a few spring trials but it was the fall championships and the coming grouse hunting season that I was looking forward to. She arrived home just in time to compete in the last local spring trial of the season. She placed third in the Bernie Murray Amateur Shooting Dog Classic. That night her breathing became labored and alarmed me. I took her to my vet the next day. Within a week, suspicions were confirmed by an ultrasound — cancer, in her lungs, liver…about everywhere. Three weeks later and two days after pointing a hen grouse and her brood, my tough little bird dog with no quit in her died peacefully in my arms. Fin left me with indelible memories forever etched in my heart. Sadly, I only ever hunted her once when she was just a year old.
Fin pointing quail, May
This fall, for the first time, I had all three of my dogs at home. I ran them in a few wild bird championships in northern New England. Though they did not win, several of their performances made me proud. As in other field trials, the number of grouse and woodcock pointed does not determine the winners under good judgement but dogs with acceptable ground performances that can dig up and handle wild birds where others fail make their way to the winner’s circle more often than not. Ruffed grouse, particularly those which inhabit trial grounds, are difficult to handle and notorious at escaping for which they are so renown. Many, if not most amateur grouse trialers who reside in the northern states of Minnesota eastward to Maine and the Maritime province of New Brunswick spend time in the fall hunting their grouse trial dogs.
Those of us who live or spend time in areas of the country where there are still wild birds and have access to the land game birds inhabit are indeed fortunate. A mild winter and reports of good hatches similar to 2011 had me optimistic that my dogs would have many opportunities to handle grouse. Glued to my computer for the better part of this year, a respite was long overdue. And so I spent much of October and November enjoying my dogs in grouse covers throughout Downeast and northern Maine, from Aroostock county to the North Maine Woods to the beautiful Western Mountain region (northern end of the Appalachian Trial).
How gratifying to reap the benefits of countless hours of training as well as the breeding choices that have been made over generations to produce the fine pointers, setters and other bird dog breeds we have today. Every devotee of American pointer and setter history knows that field trials, as imperfect as they may be, have played the pivotal role in the development of our dogs. Hunters, many who have little or no interest in field trials, are the happy recipients of those who have devoted much of their lives to the breeding, training and critical analysis of field trial dogs.
All three of my female pointers come from generations of proven wild bird dogs. Like many other field trial bird dogs, their pedigrees are full of champions, National champions and Hall of Fame dogs. But knowledgeable breeders and trainers will rightfully scoff at those who make too much of a dog’s “paper”. They are aware that the breeding decisions made with each subsequent generation determines whether the characteristics of those great champions are retained, enhanced or lost. This is what field trials are meant to inform us about.
If you are honest with yourself (all bird hunters are prone to exaggeration), a fall of hunting your field trial dogs on wild birds can teach you much about their talents as well as their failings.
I was inclined to believe that the best grouse dogs are somewhat cautious around game. My eight-year old female, Libby, was born and bred in Texas and like her half-sister, Fin, has had thousands of quail shot over her at Davis Quail Hunts. Though I had seen her point wild quail in Texas and chickens on the prairie countless times, she had less experience on ruffed grouse. At the start of our season, I thought her natural boldness around game would pressure grouse to flush. I was wrong. She pointed dozens of them, always pinning them within close distance.
The first time she did it, I found her in a deep gully buried in thick brambles. As I got closer, four grouse lifted, one after another, from all around her — none more than ten feet away. I recall her having only one stop to flush this fall and never had an unproductive point. She taught me that intelligent bird dogs get tough birds like grouse pointed in a variety of different ways. A characteristic I assumed necessary for a dog to be better than average around grouse was disproved to me. And her lack of experience on ruffed grouse was not near as significant as the many quail she found, pointed and had shot over her the previous two winters.
Libby nails a grouse in Dixmont, Maine
All three dogs show considerable improvement in their ability to find and handle grouse. Even my shooting improved a little.
The pleasures of upland bird hunting are known to thousands who look forward to each year’s seasons on wild game birds around the country. Some field trialers never hunt their dogs. Their trial season gets in the way or maybe they would have to travel too great a distance at too much expense to go wild bird hunting. Some feel that shooting birds for dogs is unnecessary. I side with the old timers.
Aside from the obvious enjoyment, hunting field trial dogs provides priceless opportunities to observe and learn about them and the expectations we have of them. There is no better way to gain knowledge about the habitat and behavior of wild birds than spending countless hours in their pursuit. In my humble opinion, both make us better able to fairly assess our own dogs as well as those we are asked to judge and report about in field trials.
For more photos of Strideaway pointer “Fin”, visit photo Gallery: Pal O’ Mine
For more photos of my Maine grouse hunting adventures, visit photo Gallery: Gone Huntin’