Every bird dog hunter has his or her own reasons for remaining loyal to a breed. Maybe they grew up with a certain breed, or maybe a certain dog fits their and their family’s lifestyle at home and afield. While some hunters remain content to run flushers their entire life, others prefer pointers or diehard retrievers. It typically comes down to a matter of personal preference—what and where are you hunting, and how do you want to approach the game.
Yet, on occasion, bird hunters may question their seemingly well-established puppy predilection. Perhaps sharing the field with a new friend and his or her dog sparked an appreciation for a previously overlooked breed. When such a quandary occurs, what is a bird dog hunter to do? Below, a few hunters provide their reasons for making a shift from one type of bird dog to another and how converting further enriched their love of the sport.
Flusher to Pointer
George Eberle, 70, from South Dakota, owned and hunted over Springers and a Lab for his first 22 years as a bird hunter. In 1996, he purchased his first Brittany and never looked back. He is now on his fourth Brittany and though there have been times when he has considering picking up a different pointing breed, he always returns to the Brittany.
In South Dakota, Eberle hunts sharp-tailed grouse but pheasant is his main passion. “I hunt a lot of time by myself or with just one or two other guys,” he said. “I am not a fan of group-hunting dogs. In a half section of CRP, I can let my dog go. I keep track of it, and if the dog goes on point, I can get there. I know wild roosters will run, but we wouldn’t have found that bird without that dog to start with.”
Eberle’s third Brittany, Elle (pronounced “Ellie”), was a National Shoot to Retrieve Association field trial champion. Elle would point a rooster and remain on point, even if the rooster ran, until Eberle caught up, then the two together would start tracking until Elle put the bird up for a shot. Sadly, at 8 years old, Elle had a tumor growing on her spine, invading her vertebrae and putting pressure on nerves. Eberle had to put her down winter of last year. “She was a once-in-a-lifetime dog—exceptional in every way. She could figure out those pheasants and was a great house dog. To lose her at that age—I thought I would have her around for another 4 or more years.”
This coming season, Eberle will introduce a new Brittany, his fourth, to the pheasant fields of South Dakota. “For me, I guess it is just about the point,” he said, “Though it is different for everybody. There is just something about when a dog locks up on point and a big old rooster flushes in front of its nose. I can’t cover as much ground as I used to, so why not let the dog do it,” Eberle said. “If they find a bird and go and point over there, I can still get there, as long as it is good enough at holding point. That is my thinking, but kind of probably opposite to what you might hear [in regard to older gentlemen]. “It is different than a flushing dog, certainly, and I had my fun with flushing dogs, but for 20-plus years, I have been having fun behind Brittanys.”
Pointer to Flusher
Before John Larson, owner of Larson Field Labs in Willcox, Arizona, started breeding American field Labs, he owned a German Shorthaired Pointer, along with his first female Lab, “Nellie.” “I had my Lab first,” Larson said, “Though I intended to get a pointer first, partly because I had a buddy who had a pointer—had raised them his whole life—so were able to train together and help each other out.”
At that time, Larson lived with his family in Yuma, Arizona, where he and his friend would trap pigeons in old warehouses and later plant the birds in nearby fields in order to train their dogs. “I took my pointer out for pheasant once, got to see him work them versus labs,” Larson said, “It’s fun. I love the pointer game. There was a couple times when he got real solid points on couple roosters.” However, as a father of six, Larson felt he wasn’t able to devote as much time to his pointer as the dog required.
Additionally, after moving from Yuma to southern Arizona, a difference in terrain also affected how the birds reacted, and, in turn, how Larson’s German Shorthair responded. “He was a big runner. Birds were running a lot more, and they were in open terrain, which made it tricky for my pointer. He had instincts—he wanted to go instead of holding point. It required more maintenance work to keep him on a good point.”
On the other hand, Larson’s Labs hunted very close and produced close shots for quail in southern Arizona. “A lot of it is the strategy you use, how you view contours of land,” Larson said. “I absolutely loved hunting with pointers, but most of the issue was maintenance training. It is a fact Labs become part of the family so quickly and can stay in house and don’t take extra time. You can still be a busy person and have dogs that work for you.”
As Larson became busier and busier with family and work, his German Shorthair start to behave adversely, acting out by chewing through kennel wire mesh or jumping fences, chasing neighbors’ chickens, even at one point breeding with Larson’s female Lab in heat. “People loved those pets and wanted me to do them again,” Larson said. “He let her out and I didn’t know he was able to breed her. She had a mixed litter—most from him and one from a chow, it seemed. I couldn’t tell if that is what they were, but later I found out they pointed and stalked animals, but had a body like a lab. Some people were like, ‘They do everything,’ but I said that isn’t going to happen every time.” For the benefit of his pointer, Larson gave him to an owner who could devote more time to the dog and provide the necessary attention the dog deserved.
Still, Larson one day hopes to get back into pointers. “I love how active they are,” he said. “The game is what you’re in it for—to send the dog out to find birds, and they hit real hard, then you can get everyone in group on that bird.”
From Pointer To Flusher And Retriever To Setter
A Brittany was the first dog Tom Barnes hunted over, when he was just 7 or 8 years old, carrying a BB gun alongside his father. For over 40 years, Barnes has enjoying running Brittanys—his dad’s, and then four of his own. Originally from northeast Indiana, Barnes has admittedly been biased toward Brittanys his entire life. Their versatility served him and his family well when chasing roosters in northern Indiana and during their trips to Iowa and South Dakota. They were also a perfect fit at home for his wife and two kids. “First and foremost, my dogs are family members,” Barnes said. “They stay inside each night, and Brittanys are the perfect size, because they are not overly big, or small, for that matter. All my Brittanys have been good water retrievers. From my bird hunter’s perspective, they’re the best dog out there.”
But when Barnes moved to Michigan and saw all the ample waterfowl opportunities available, he thought, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” so he picked up a Labrador Retriever from a pointing stock and indulged in frequent goose and duck excursions. His Lab also worked well in the thick cover of Iowa’s pheasant range. “Because Brittanys are not that tall, the brush beat them up,” he said, “so I thought it would be good to have a lab and a pointer together.” Then when his wife completed her bachelor’s degree, he bought her a yellow lab—a dog she had always wanted—as a graduation gift.
“The only downfall with labs is their size,” Barnes said. “They’re just bigger dogs, and I was not used to having longer tails—it may sound weird, but that took some getting used to. But as far as temperament and patience and being gentle with kids and other dogs, you can’t beat labs. I was amazed at how puppies attack labs and they just take it.
“When a lab picks up a scent, there is this huge drive, and you can tell the difference,” Barnes said. “They are going to get the bird up regardless of cover or where they have to go. I think they just have a great disposition. When they figure the game out, they are really good at what they do.”
Still, Barnes greatly admires the sight of a pointer running full-bore, only to hit a scent and go directly on point. “That is greatest feeling in world,” he said. “You don’t get that with labs. They follow scent and get birds up, but it is not as exciting or as graceful as a pointer. Seeing a brace of dogs back each other—there is a gentlemaness to it.”
At 49, Barnes now spends less time pursuing waterfowl and more days in the woods, stalking grouse and woodcock. Additionally, he recently started guiding for forest birds through his own business, Timberdoodle Adventures, LLC. “I decided to buy an English setter,” he said. “I have always liked the breed, and grouse and setters go together like peanut butter and jelly.”
Now, whenever Barnes takes clients out hunting for grouse and woodcock, he brings all dogs and provides his clients with the option: pointer or Lab. “Typically clients prefer hunting over a pointer,” Barnes said. “It depends on age of clientele and their athletic ability. If that Lab gets birdy, your pace picks up. Most of the time, they want the Brittany. Maybe 5 percent of the time, they ask for a Lab.”
Still, in Barnes’ opinion, choosing a breed comes down to personality and individual preferences—a dog that meets your style, your lifestyle and your family’s. “The breed selects you and that is what you end up staying with,” he said. “I haven’t met a hunting breed I wouldn’t want to own. I just prefer to stick with Brittanys and setters.”
A Dog For Every Situation
Steve Snell, president of Gun Dog Supply, owns 13 English Pointers, 1 Labrador Retriever, 1 German Shorthaired Pointer, 1 Brittany, 1 English Cocker Spaniel and 1 German Sheppard. Needless to say, when it comes to hunting birds, Snell has a lot of options. “I’ve hunted a lot of different breeds in different places,” Snell said. “A lot of it is what you like. I am a big fan of hunting behind what you enjoy because you are going to spend a lot of time looking at them.”
Snell tends to hunt in warmer climates, as opposed to extreme cold weather. “I’m mainly a pointer guy,” he said. “Huns and quail are my main thing. As a general rule, my hunting tends to be on the hotter side than the colder side. Having dogs able to deal with heat is a bigger deal to me.”
Still, Snell believes there is always more than one strategy to bird hunting, and a lot of it comes down to personal preference. “I’m not that guy who says, ‘This is the only way to do it.’ So much depends on your situation,” he said, “How many dogs you can have, how many you want to have. I am lucky because I have a bunch of different dogs and try different things. It depends on how you spend your time.”
But when it comes to pheasant, Snell is a self-professed “flusher guy.” “If I am trying to hunt pheasant, I would rather have my Lab,” he said. “I think my Lab enjoys it more than I do. Pheasants and Labs are just built to go together—that strategy just goes together. With me and two to three other people, and two to three flushers, we don’t do any blocking, so a lot of that ground game pheasants like to play fits a Lab very well. I know lots of people who hunt pheasant with pointing dogs but I would prefer a Lab.”
At heart, Snell remains a pointer guy, as he says they tend to fit his personality well. While his Lab typically serves as his sidekick during duck and pheasant hunting, he admits if he had to choose one dog, it would be a German Shorthaired Pointer. “Because I wouldn’t duck hunt with a Pointer—they’re just not built for it,” he said. “Shorthairs could do most anything.”
Story by Jack Hennessy
Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
Images: Pheasants Forever file photo