By Tom Davis
If you can walk and you can shoot, you can kill pheasants. How many depends on your ability to recognize cover, hunt it efficiently, and be in the right place at the right time when that rooster hammers out.
In other words, a dog isn’t required. Plenty of roosters are killed by hunters who consider a dog at best an unnecessary luxury, at worst an outright encumbrance (and make no mistake, a disobedient, poorly trained dog is worse than no dog at all—by far). If you’re in this camp, you can safely stop here and move on to the next article. However, if you’re in the camp that subscribes to the oft-repeated adage, “If I couldn’t hunt with a dog I wouldn’t hunt at all,” you may want to keep reading.
A dog that really knows his business is the best friend a pheasant hunter ever had—the biggest asset you can take to the field and the single most influential factor in upping your chances for success. A bird-wise dog brings at least a couple things to the party. On the “production” side, he shows you birds that you wouldn’t find on your own, meaning that you’ll have more opportunities to pull the trigger.
On the “recovery” side, he tracks down at least some percentage of the crippled birds that, if left to your own devices, you’d never see again. In addition to compensating for your deficiencies as a wingshot, this is simply good conservation.
Beyond the purely functional stuff, though, there’s a long list of intangibles that a dog brings to a day afield. Energy, excitement, drama; a deeper level of engagement and connection: all these things, and more, help explain why, for a lot of us, hunting without a dog isn’t an option.
With this in mind, let’s raise a glass to 15 breeds that not only help us fill our gamebags, but, even more importantly, nourish our hungry hunters’ souls.
The German Shorthaired Pointer.
Reliability personified, the German shorthair is the 4-by-4 pick-up truck of pointing dogs. Give a GSP a job, and he gets it done—efficiently, professionally, and with a minimum of fuss. Most GSPs are remarkably low-maintenance as well, retaining their training from year-to-year with only an occasional tune-up. Other breeds may be flashier and more stylish, but if you want to kill roosters consistently with a pointing dog there’s no better choice than the GSP. They’re typically outstanding retrievers, too, and excellent (if underrated) family dogs.
The Labrador Retriever.
The closest thing in the gun dog world to a Swiss Army Knife, the Lab can pretty much do it all. Some of them even point! Little wonder someone once quipped that about the only task a Lab can’t perform is cleaning birds. Intelligent, trainable, and eager-to-please, the Lab’s never a bad pheasant hunting choice and often a very good one, especially in the kind of mega-heavy cover (sloughgrass, switchgrass, koschia) that lesser dogs simply won’t bust. Hunting in warm weather can be tough on Labs, blacks and chocolates in particular, making it all the more important that you maintain your Lab at a healthy weight and give him the benefit of a meaningful pre-season conditioning program.
While I’ve seen a few Brittanies that ran as if jet-propelled, the Britt that’s endeared itself to pheasant hunters over the years is a dog of moderate pace, medium range, and industrious application—the prototypical all day hunter. “Busy” is a word that’s often used to describe the way a Brittany goes about its work, scampering here, there, and everywhere, leaving no stone unturned in its search for a skulking rooster. The Britt’s compact size and affectionate personality are additional selling points, but what really tips the scales in the breed’s favor is how little formal training it requires to be an effective hunting companion. Remember the R. Crumb cartoon character Mr. Natural? That’s the Brittany.
The English Springer Spaniel.
If there’s one gun dog breed that was developed expressly for pheasant hunting, it’s the springer. And more than any other breed it was the springer, which first came to these shores from its British homeland roughly a century ago, that demonstrated to American sportsmen just how effective—and how exciting—hunting ringnecks with a flushing dog can be. Bouncy, energetic, and with animation to burn, the typical springer is a joy to hunt over—and about as sure a bet to elevate your heart rate as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
The English Setter.
I’ve long argued that no breed is as resistant to generalizations as the English setter. There are 30-pound setters so nondescript in appearance that you wouldn’t swear they are setters, and 80-pound setters so regally handsome they look like they stepped out of a fashion shoot. I’d argue, too, that casting your lot with setters—and becoming that most haunted and dogmatic of people, a Setter Man—is as much an aesthetic choice as it is a functional one. When style is your primary criterion, setters rule. And when you’ve had a truly fine setter, you’re pretty much ruined for any other dog. Trust me: I know.
The German Wirehaired Pointer/Drahthaar.
I’m “lumping” here: While owners of AKC-registered German wirehaired pointers have no problem with their dogs being referred to as Drahthaars (which, after all, is German for “wirehaired pointer”), owners of Drahthaars registered with the VDD (the German breed organization) bristle when they hear their dogs referred to as German wirehairs. Me, I just call the whole tribe Bearded Ones, and try not to confuse them with ZZ Top. All kidding aside, they’re perhaps the most broadly versatile of the pointing breeds—many pull double duty as waterfowl dogs and upland dogs—and in my experience they’re unmatched at tracking, and recovering, lightly hit roosters that are running like scalded cats. Some of the German-bred Drahths can get a little owly around dogs they’re not familiar with, so just keep that in mind if you find yourself in their proximity.
I once wrote that there are two kinds of people: Those who are scared to death of pointers—and those who think no other breed is worth feeding. No breed has the drive, the desire, or the white-hot intensity that the pointer does; no breed is as spectacularly athletic; no breed can run so fast for so long. All that having been said, however, unless you’re a pretty experienced dog person a pointer’s probably going to be too high-powered for you—“too much dog,” as they say. The pointer’s a dog you work up to, not one you start out with. They don’t handle cold weather very well, either; I’ve seen three dogs go down from hypothermia while pheasant hunting, and every one of them was a pointer.
The Golden Retriever.
Outgoing and fun-loving, the golden’s the original party animal. Make no mistake, though: As eager as the golden is to sniff out a good time, it’s even more eager to sniff out a skulking rooster. Indeed, the golden’s partisans will tell you that it’s the best pheasant dog of all the retrieving breeds, hands down, and I’m not so sure I don’t agree with them. It quarters naturally, searches diligently, and does it all with eye-catching animation and joie de vivre. Something else my experience bears out is that goldens typically have outstanding noses. The golden’s lustrous coat requires a fair bit of maintenance—can you say “burr magnet?”—but it’s a price that its fans are only too happy to pay.
The English Cocker Spaniel.
I’m not even going to pretend to be objective here: I love these little guys. Hunting over a cocker is so much fun you find yourself looking over your shoulder to see if the cops are coming. They do everything at warp speed. Their legs are a blur, their stub tails don’t wag so much as they vibrate, when they hit scent they light up like the White House Christmas tree. And if you think a rooster pheasant’s a lot for a cocker to carry, you don’t know cockers. Hell, they’ll retrieve a Canada goose, even if they have to grab it by the neck and drag it in backwards. A cocker will test you—they can be willful little cusses—but if you’re firm, patient, and consistent in your training you’ll end up with a dog that’ll put a spring in your step for seasons to come.
The Irish Setter/Red Setter.
Why the Irish setter isn’t more popular, not just among pheasant hunters but among upland bird hunters in general, is a mystery to me. It’s been a long, long time since those dark days when finding a red dog that could hunt was tantamount to finding a leprechaun; the renaissance that began in the 1950s has culminated in the establishment of a number of bloodlines that consistently produce top-notch gun dogs—strong, stylish bird-finders that perform beautifully in the field and are easy on the eyes at home, too. Important to note is the Red setter/Irish setter split, which distinguishes field-designed dogs (Field Dog Stud Book-registered bloodlines) from the show-oriented Irish (solely AKC-registered bloodlines). While still registered as Irish Setters, those with two eyes can distinguish Red setters from Irish setters: Overall body color is lighter than most Irish, and they often sport white hair on their chests and feet.
There’s been a lot of interest recently—and not a little controversy—over so-called “designer dogs.” You know the ones I’m talking about: Labradoodles, goldendoodles, puggles, etc. The thing is, you can make a good argument that all the recognized breeds are designer dogs, or at least that they started out that way. Take the pudelpointer. Wanting to combine the best qualities of the pointer with the best qualities of the hunting poodle, certain 19th century German gamekeepers crossed and re-crossed until they got what they wanted: an intelligent, affectionate, medium-sized pointer-retriever that can do a creditable job on land or in the water—and whose dense, weatherproof coat sheds very little.
The French Brittany.
Having only gotten traction here in the last 30 years, the French Brittany, or Epagneul Breton (EB, for short), is essentially the Brittany as it existed when the first importations occurred in the 1910s and ‘20s: a compactly but strongly built all-purpose gun dog for the “everyman” bird hunter. Or, as its fans describe it, “a demon in the field and an angel at home.” EBs typically have boxier bodies, higher-set ears, shorter and more uptilted muzzles, and a more abrupt stop between muzzle and skull than the “American” Brittany; they also come in a wider variety of colors, including white-and-black and tri-colored. Most EBs in this country are registered not with the AKC but with the United Kennel Club, which recognized it as a distinct breed in 2003.
The Gordon Setter.
It’s ironic that during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when pheasants were exploding across the American landscape, the Gordon setter would have been exactly what a lot of sportsmen were looking for: an intelligent and uncommonly handsome dog that handled easily, pointed strongly, retrieved naturally, and had a ton of bird sense. Indeed, the Gordon was a favorite of 19th century market hunters, a fact that speaks volumes about its ability to put birds in the bag. By the mid-20th century, however, good hunting Gordons were only slightly less rare than unicorns, their breeding having been almost totally co-opted by show interests. Well, I’m happy to report that the “black-and-tan” is back, with several proven field lines producing dogs that would make the breed’s father, the Duke of Gordon, proud.
The Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.
By reputation the closest-working and most methodical of all the pointing breeds, the griffon (pronounced grif-fawn) is a great choice for hunting pheasants in heavy cover and in any situation where birds are holding very tightly. It’s also ideally suited for sportsmen who simply prefer to hunt at a slower pace. Often (and easily) confused with the Drahthaar, the griff tends to be more compactly built and to have a shaggier-looking coat. If it reminds you a little of an English sheepdog, it’s probably a griff. It has a bit of the sheepdog’s clownish personality, too, and it’s a shameless attention-seeker. A kennel dog it ain’t, in other words.
As befitting a breed originally developed to partner with falcons on the Magyar Plains of Hungary, there’s something undeniably elegant about the Viszla. Also reflecting its original purpose, the Viszla’s more of a bird-hunting specialist than the other Continental breeds—meaning that while it’s a dandy dog for pheasants and other upland game, it’s probably not the best choice if you expect your dog to retrieve waterfowl, too. It isn’t that Viszlas aren’t fine retrievers (they are); it’s that their coats aren’t designed to shed water, or to keep them warm in bitter cold. If you’re going to hunt late-season roosters with a Viszla, do it a favor and outfit it with a neoprene vest of some kind.