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Bird Buddies

Ultimately, a good bird dog is one who makes its master happy — and finds birds.

By Henry Chappell

With rare exceptions, I’ll hunt using dogs or not hunt at all. This is not a moral or ethical position. You should do as you please.

Tell me that blue quail are so thick that I don’t need a dog, that I’m better off without one because the birds run like deer in the sparse grass, and I’ll either take my chances with my German shorthair or shrug and let you chase blues through the pasture without me.

Show me a High Plains grainfield where pheasants are hunted most efficiently with a dozen drivers and blockers, and I’d just as soon sit in the truck and drink coffee unless there’ll be a retriever or two quartering just ahead of the drivers or heeling in anticipation of fetching duty.

I cannot remember life without hunting dogs. Mixed with my earliest memories of my parents’ faces and voices are images of whipping tails, liver and lemon ticking, and lolling tongues. My first sharp, permanent image is of a pair of lemon and white pointer puppies in a cardboard box, nosing a ball of hamburger. I remember the cold basement floor and the sweet puppy scent. According to the Field Dog Stud Book enrollment certificate, those two pups were whelped August 5, 1962. (Dad named the pups’ mother, Sarah, after one of his beloved sisters.) I was barely two and a half years old. I never got over it.

I’ve never owned an exceptional bird dog. Mine have all turned out solid, nothing more. Most of the superb dogs I’ve seen were owned and handled by professional guides. A couple of years ago, on a guided bobwhite hunt in Mexico, I watched a fine string of pointers, working two at a time, find and point 42 coveys in a short day. I had never seen such a performance before and I’m unlikely to see anything like it again because given the choice between “the wing-shooting experience of a lifetime” and moving two coveys over my own dogs, I’ll choose the latter.

I’m no expert, just a lifelong lover and observer of hunting dogs. I live with my dogs. I’ve often shared my bed with them. I’ve wept before, during and after those long, one-way trips to the vet. I don’t board them, sell them or trade them. My dogs are not tools; they’re family. Big-time hunters with quail rigs, walking horses, kennels full of dogs, and tens of thousands of acres to hunt won’t need my advice. But if you’re a weekend and holiday hunter and have room in your home and heart for a dog or two, maybe I can help.

To most Texas hunters, “bird dog” means English pointer, or just “pointer.” I have no hard numbers, but my own observations suggest that in serious quail country, pointers far outnumber dogs of all other pointing breeds combined.

Little wonder. Tough, stoic and intelligent, with a superb nose, the pointer has no peer when it comes to speed, style and intensity. While there are a few pointer lines famous among grouse and woodcock hunters in the Northeast and upper Midwest, the breed is most associated with the great plantations of the Deep South and the wide-open rangelands of the southern Great Plains and South Texas. For the past century, pointers have completely dominated open, all-age field trials.

My friend James Collier, a veteran pro trainer and guide based in Decatur, runs pointers almost exclusively, though he trains and admires most of the popular pointing breeds. “A pointer is just more likely to turn out well,” he says. “They almost never wash out and they respond to straightforward, no-nonsense training.”

If I made my living hunting and guiding, I’d run pointers.

However, I don’t make my living hunting. My dogs spend more time lazing in the backyard, lying in my easy chair and smearing nose prints on my truck windows than snorting quail scent. Also, I like my birds retrieved to hand with as little swearing (mine) as possible. Generally, pointers retrieve only because they have to. Most would rather blast off in search of another covey.

There are other excellent breeds.

If the pointer has a close rival in terms of style, stamina and bird-finding ability, it’s the English setter. In my opinion, they have no competition where beauty, grace and sweet temperament are concerned. Setters are more likely than pointers to retrieve naturally and give up nothing in terms of nose and drive. You might think the long coat would be a problem on warm days, but I’ve seen several setters hold up well hunting desert quail in southern Arizona and New Mexico, where December days often reach the low 80s.

Setters usually develop later than pointers, but they’re famous for retaining their lessons and for hunting into old age. Many have soft temperaments and may not thrive under the firm, intense training that works so well with pointers. Setter lovers tend to use patience and gentleness. They’re often rewarded with outstanding dogs. I’ve heard a number of pros say something like, “Well, I’m a pointer man to the core, but I have to admit that the best all-around gun dog I ever saw was a setter.”

At the risk of being bludgeoned with training dummies and check cords, I’ll suggest that the average weekend hunter might be happiest with one of the dock-tailed European breeds, especially the Brittany or German shorthaired pointer. The other European breeds, such as the German wirehaired pointer, Weimaraner and Vizsla, have their enthusiasts, but Texans will have a far easier time finding a talented Brittany or shorthair.

Although field trial breeding can produce big runners, Brittanies and shorthairs typically hunt at modest ranges. Most rarely get out beyond 200 yards, even in wide-open country. Many hunt much closer. In contrast, I’ve often seen pointers make casts of a quarter-mile or more. All well and good, so long as you’re on horseback or riding in a quail rig.

Well-bred Brittanies and shorthairs — the only kind worth considering — usually retrieve naturally and develop early. Although she was still a bungling pup, as likely to point butterflies and field mice as game birds, my shorthair Maggie pointed wild bobwhites when she was nine months old. (Okay, once.) Productive hunters less than two years old are not uncommon. Both breeds possess plenty of drive, though usually not the near-maniacal focus of the English pointer. Hence, most amateur trainers find them easier to handle.

General traits aside, what is a good bird dog? Ultimately, one that pleases his partner. More objectively, one that consistently finds, points and retrieves game while under reasonable control. Successful methods vary depending on the dog, species of game bird and conditions.

Hunting bobwhite quail in open country, the best pointers and setters will out-perform the best shorthairs and Brittanies in terms of birds found and pointed. Day in and day out, my money is on the pointer with the setter close behind. But there are other considerations. In hilly or brushy terrain, it’s much easier to keep track of closer-working dogs. What good is your stylishly pointing dog if you can’t find her? Also, under difficult scenting conditions, deliberate dogs will sometimes outshine the thoroughbreds. Still, except in the case of an elderly or physically challenged hunter who might prefer a very leisurely pace, I can think of no circumstance in which a pointer would be a poor choice for a serious bobwhite hunter.

Some purists hate blue or scaled quail because the birds would rather run than hold for pointing dogs. I love them. James Collier sums up blues this way: “If a dog can handle blues, bobwhites will be a pushover.”

The typical blue quail encounter goes something like this: The dogs get birdy, trail, then point. You move up, and the dogs break, trail and point, then repeat the sequence. Occasionally the birds eventually hold in cover. More likely, they keep running, with birds peeling off left and right. Pushed hard enough the covey will flush. Good dogs will move and point until one or two birds hold. Classic points and covey rises are rare.

Because the blue quail range overlaps the western margin of the bobwhite range, hunters often work them with pointers. Certainly, a lot of big-going bobwhite dogs learn to do a fine job on blues. But if I expect to encounter more blues than bobs, I would opt for a German shorthair or Brittany. The dock-tails are more likely to drop their heads and follow foot scent. They seem more patient and persistent than the long-tails when it comes to sorting out single, running birds.

If you hunt along the Rio Grande drainage in far southwest Texas or plan to head for New Mexico or Arizona, your blue quail dog will have no trouble with Gambel’s quail.

Woodcock call for close workers, whatever the breed. In New England, close-working setters from lovingly developed bloodlines are the classic woodcock dogs. Good, tight-working pointers are out there, but in Texas you’re more likely to find a unicorn. Use your bobwhite dog in a pinch, but if you’re serious about woodcock and want to buy your dog in Texas, look for a Brittany or shorthair.

Pheasants are big, gaudy, irresistible and just about impossible to hunt with a pointing dog. They’ll just run and flush out of shotgun range. As much as it pains this German shorthair snob, I’ll have to recommend that serious pheasant hunters go with a retriever trained to quarter within shotgun range. Each of the common retriever breeds — Labrador, golden and Chesapeake Bay — has its fans. All do similar work, though the Lab is by far the most popular, and good bloodlines are abundant.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, prairie chickens can be hunted successfully with dogs. (If not, why bother?) My old shorthair Molly pointed greater prairie chickens in Kansas and lesser prairie chickens in the Texas Panhandle. Mostly, though, the birds flushed way out of range. Again, I’ll admit that I would’ve pulled out less hair if I’d hunted with a retriever.

I’ll draw the line at chachalacas.

Perhaps I should reconsider my comment about never owning a great bird dog. I asked Brad Carter, my old friend and longtime hunting partner, what he likes in a dog. Brad is a Brittany and setter man, and a fine amateur trainer. He said, “First, I want a dog that I enjoy living with, a dog that’s fun and interesting to be around, a dog with personality, one that’s intelligent and entertaining.”

From that perspective, all of mine have been superb. They’ve found a few birds along the way, too.

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