For my money the best “how-to” bird hunting book ever written is New England Grouse Shooting by William Harnden Foster. First published in 1941, it’s as relevant today as it was then; indeed, it’s extremely rare (if not completely unknown) for those of us who write about ruffed grouse hunting to say anything important or meaningful that Foster didn’t say over 75 years ago.
Here, for example, is his definition of the perfect grouse gun: “An ideal grouse gun may be defined broadly as the one that a certain hunter will find most pleasant to carry to the spot where a grouse is to be shot at, and there prove most efficient when the shot is made.”
Well, it seems to me that with only slight modifications this could serve as a pretty good definition of what most of us are looking for in a pheasant dog. Try this on for size: “An ideal pheasant dog may be defined broadly as the one that a certain hunter will find most pleasant to follow to the spot where a pheasant is to be found, and there prove most efficient at producing it for the gun.”
Of course we all have our own ideas about what makes pheasant dogs pleasant and efficient — but one of the following 10 breeds ought to fill your bill.
WIREHAIRED POINTING GRIFFON
Someone once described the griff as “the four-wheel drive truck of the bird dog fleet,” a description that strikes griffon enthusiast Greg Septon of Muskego, Wisconsin, as spot-on.
“They’re especially good at rooting pheasants out of heavy cover,” Septon notes, “and they don’t give up. They may not be as flashy as some of the other pointing breeds, but they get the job done and help put birds in the bag.” Adds Septon, “They’ll bend over backwards to please you. They really want and need to be part of their human family; in a kennel setting they languish. They’re playful and some would say comical. They’ll make sure they get your attention when they want it — even if it means bringing you a dirty sock or a pair of underwear from the laundry room! They’re very affectionate, too, and remarkably patient. I used to pass shoot prairie chickens with my griff Briar, and he’d sit for an hour or more just watching and waiting.”
“Plus,” says Septon, “they ride well in the front of my truck.”
Years ago I saw a sign near the first tee of a golf coursethat had a phrase in Latin inscribed above its translation in English. I don’t remember the Latin, but the translation read, “In the middle is best.”
Now, it’s obvious how that relates to the game of golf,
but it strikes me as a pretty good summation of what the German shorthaired pointer brings to the party, too. It’s not the fastest dog, but it’s not the slowest; it’s not the widest-ranging, but it’s not the closest-working; it’s not the flashiest, but it’s not the most methodical; it’s not the highest-strung, but it’s not the most laid-back. In just about every respect you can think of, the GSP is the “happy medium” of bird dogs, a fact that speaks volumes about its enduring popularity with pheasant hunters.
There’s one category, though, in which the GSP leads the pack. In my experience, it’s the lowest-maintenance of all the gun dog breeds, meaning that once a German shorthair learns his trade, he never backslides. As a friend of mine once quipped, “Owning a good German shorthair is like owning a reliable car. No matter how long it sits in the garage, when you turn the key it starts right up.”
ENGLISH COCKER SPANIEL
We all know what it means when we say that a dog “gets birdy.” It’s as if every bone, nerve and muscle in his body goes into overdrive.
The thing about English cockers is, overdrive is their default mode. When these canine dynamos get birdy, you half-expect parts of them to shear off. You feel as if you’re following a live grenade, which is not a bad thing assuming you’re in good standing with your cardiologist. This hunting business is supposed to be exciting, after all, and there’s no more exciting dog to hunt over, flusher or pointer, than an English cocker.
Don’t think for a second that these rascals can’t handle heavy cover, either. A couple Novembers ago I had the pleasure of hunting in North Dakota with Tom Ness, one of the top cocker breeders and trainers in the country. Cattail marshes, brush-choked shelterbelts, plum thickets: The cockers shredded it all, their body language fairly shouting Is that all you got? Whoever dubbed these guys “little big dogs” knew what the hell he was talking about.
I keep looking for something not to like about English cockers, and I keep coming up with nothing.
Not long ago someone sent me a link to one of the damnedest video clips I’ve ever seen. There’s a wounded rooster sort of hung up in the branches of a tree limb…and as the camera rolls a golden retriever scrabbles up the trunk of the tree, tightwalks
out on the limb and does what golden retrievers are born and bred to do. (To see it for yourself google “pixie out on limb vimeo.”)
Of the “Big Three” retriever breeds, the golden is clearly the one with the largest percentage of its design and engineering devoted to upland work. And I’d wager that out of the universe of goldens used for hunting, the majority are primarily (if not exclusively) pheasant dogs. This only makes sense, of course, when you consider that the golden’s family tree includes some rootstock from the setter-spaniel clan. They come by their pheasant-flushing prowess naturally.
Unfortunately the golden’s immense popularity has served to water down the gene pool, so if you’re looking for a hunter it’s vitally important to source your pup from proven field lines. As a very general rule of thumb, you don’t want the kind of goldens that look like they just stepped out of a mansion in Beverly Hills or a penthouse on Park Avenue. You want their country cousins.
DEUTHSCH DRAHTHAAR/GERMAN WIREHAIRED POINTER
The Bearded Ones, as I call them, are really two breeds with similar characteristics — separate branches of the same root —and because it would take too long to explain the difference I’m not even going to try. I’ll say this, though: In terms of sheer efficiency, the Deutsch Drahthaars owned by my friend Lynda Krull of Harrold, South
Dakota, are the standard by which I’ve come to judge all pheasant dogs. Her Drahths bring a combination of surgical precision and Special Forces relentlessness to their work that’s breathtaking to behold. It’s the rare rooster that outsmarts them, and any bird that falls is as good as in the bag. I honestly can’t remember them ever losing a cripple.
One day I asked Lynda what she loves about hunting with Drahthaars. “The enjoyment of watching them work is the primary reason I hunt,” she replied. “It’s like a ballet — a beautiful and intricate dance. They use their noses, they use their ears, they use their eyes and they use their intelligence. Most importantly, though, they use their hearts. They have a passion for our partnership, and when I shoot a bird, it’s not for me. It’s for them.”
It occurs to me that there’s a lesson there for all of us, whether our dogs wear beards or not.
First, imagine a checklist under the heading “Desirable Qualities in a Hunting Dog.” Second, imagine how the traditional flushing-retrieving Lab would fill that bill. Intelligence? Check. Trainability? Check. Eagerness to please?
Check. High prey drive? Check. Weather-resistant, low-maintenance coat? Check (or double check). Willingness to bust heavy cover? Check. Rugged athleticism and robustly functional conformation? Check.
And on and on and on. The Lab epitomizes versatility; if you want a dog that will effectively hunt pheasants with a minimum of training — “Right out of the box,” as they say — the Lab’s got your name written all over it. Ditto if in the grand scheme of things you’re less concerned about producing pheasants to shoot at than you are about recovering the ones you do shoot. Not that a Lab won’t do a splendid job of flushing roosters for you — he most emphatically will — just that he’ll do an even better job of retrieving them.
I always come back to a statement Steve Smith, the eminent outdoor writer and editor, made a few years ago. “If I needed to kill a pheasant to feed my family,” Steve said, “the dog I’d want would be a flushing Lab.”
If you asked me to name my favorite outdoor writer my choice would be the late Charley Waterman. He wrote from an “Everyman” perspective and while he could spin an affecting yarn about any aspect of the outdoors, I suspect that the one closest to his heart was upland bird hunting. In particular, upland bird hunting with his Brittany, Kelly.
One of Charley’s most poignant stories, “Going Up Under the Mountains,” is a tribute to Kelly woven around the dog’s last pheasant hunt. Noting that Kelly “made his living” on other birds, Charley mused, “Pheasant hunting was his hobby, a pursuit requiring a different approach — part trailing, part pointing, part stealth and even a bit of flushing. About pheasants Kelly had his own procedures, methods he had researched and which were unrelated to the procedures of dog-training manuals.”
In other words, whatever works — which strikes me as a good synopsis of the way a lot of Brittanies operate. As befitting the traditional companions of French poachers (seriously), Britts don’t stand on ceremony…and Kelly sure didn’t. Here, again, is Charley: “Then, from some page of his pheasant notebook, Kelly drew one of his special tricks. He jumped high in the air three times right beside me, and Kelly’s last pheasant left from 20 feet away, startled by the orange and white explosion.”
Whatever works, indeed.
There are two things that are important to know about the English setter. One is that it’s by far the hardest gun dog breed to generalize about. Many breeds have a significant “split” between field lines and show lines, but in the English setter the field linesalone are all over the place. You could stand a short-coupled 35-pound setter with just a wispy fringe of feathering next to a tall, silky-coated 70-pounder, and they’d resemble one another about as much as a Dead End Kid resembles a member of the Royal Family.The notion that they both sprung from the same gene pool seems laughable.
It’s the same with the way setters perform in the field. There are reckless horizon-busters, cautious close-workers and everything in-between.
The point being that if you’re interested in getting a setter, you’d better have a good idea of exactly what kind of setter.
The second thing you need to know about setters is this: A good one will spoil you for any other breed. I’ve been blessed to own two that fit this description: Emmylou, whose heyday was in the 1990s, and Tina, whose heyday has been the 2010s. (As for the years in-between, well, let’s just say I made do.) Emmy was tri-colored, Tina is white-and-orange; Emmy was the stronger retriever, Tina is more adept at handling running birds — but beyond that you’d need a scalpel to split the difference.
ENGLISH SPRINGER SPANIEL
If the German shorthair’s the “happy medium” of the pointing dog set, the breed that fills this role in the flushing dog division is the springer spaniel. Not as hyperkinetic as the cocker, but with more fire, flash and dash than the
Lab or the golden, the springer’s anear-perfect blend of fun and functionality.
It’s worth remembering, too, that the springer is America’s original pheasant specialist. In the 1920s and ’30, wealthy Eastern sportsmen brought over English, Irish and Scottish gamekeepers to manage their estates for pheasant shooting, and these gamekeepers, in turn, brought their springers with them. The breed’s popularity spread — the Chicago area became a particular hotbed of springer activity — and for much of the 20th century the springer was considered the pheasant dog nonpareil. If it’s no longer as pre-eminent in this respect as it used to be, it’s not because the springer’s any less proficient a pheasant-flusher than it ever was, only that there’s a lot more competition out there.
Here’s a telling quote from The Hunting Dogs of America, written by Jeff Griffen and published in 1964: “If I lived north of the Mason-Dixon line and particularly liked to hunt pheasants but also went for grouse, woodcock and even ducks a few times during the season, I would never be without a well-trained Springer Spaniel. He’s just about the finest sporting dog for upland game on the American scene today…”
Times, tastes and fashions may have changed, but it’s still pretty hard to argue with that.
Here’s an observation that may give you pause (paws?), especially in this era when anything that happened more than 15 minutes and a couple of Tweets ago is considered ancient history: Some percentage of the people reading this were born
before the first Viszla ever pointed a rooster on North American soil.
These days we tend to think of the breed as long-established here, but in point of fact it wasn’t until 1950 that the Viszla made its American debut. That’s when a diplomat stationed in Rome sent a pair to a friend in Kansas City. (Shipping dogs overseas was a lot easier then, obviously.) The guy in KC, having never laid eyes on a Viszla before, thought that they were funny-colored Weimaraners and only after consulting with various “experts” was the dogs’ true identity revealed.
A native of Hungary, where dogs described as “yellow pointers” are mentioned in texts dating to the Middle Ages, the Viszla was prized for centuries by the aristocracy, who closely controlled its breeding. The good news is that this allowed an exceptionally high standard to be maintained; the bad news is that with a comparatively small population of dogs in the hands of just a few individuals the first and second World Wars nearly wiped the Viszla from the face of the earth. Thankfully the breed survived, although in another interesting twist the early importations to America were primarily from Czech and Austrian stock.
Brainy, biddable, stylish, and with an aura of refined elegance befitting its aristocratic heritage, the Viszla’s a great choice for the sportsman who wants a pointing dog that’s not only eager to please but easy on the eyes, too.
Story by Tom Davis