Growing Together

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Photo by Marissa Jensen

A hunter and her first bird dog embark on their shared upland journey

By Renee Tomala

While I am no stranger to upland bird hunting, I went into last season as a complete rookie. I was seeing everything in a new light thanks to Quill, my German wirehaired pointer that was 10 months old when bird seasons began.

This is my first endeavor into the world of pointing dogs, and an adventure it has been.

Quill is a German male dog to a T: stubborn, big running with a large motor, and more giddy-up and go than even he knows what to do with. He may be too much dog for a first-time handler, but I welcome the challenge and take comfort in knowing that he will continue to develop into what will likely be my dog of a lifetime.

Renee and Quill
Photo by Sarah Babinchak

Training Days

If you think I cursed us both by his namesake, his breed leaves little room for fur-redemption anyways. I prepared for this new adventure the way that most others do: studying dog-eared training books; spending countless hours watching videos; and most vitally, leaning on my local North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) chapter, Central Dakota, who took me under their wing and helped me put good knowledge into play.

Quill and I seized every training session we could, and it was there that my inklings were confirmed: I had a young dog that would sight point utility flags and bobolinks, but was hard-pressed to point a gamebird. Even better, I found that he liked to run in on launchers to pick the whole thing up, pigeon and all, and run. Yep, I had “that” dog!

With a natural ability test and some bird work behind us, I welcomed the hunting season even more enthusiastically than normal. I felt the pressures and stringent guidelines of training start to lift. This would be our time to just let Quill’s instincts and our pre-work really unfold on wild birds.

Quill
Photos by Renee Tomala

Sharptail Time

The first bird of the upland seasons in North Dakota, the sharp-tailed grouse, brought Quill and I to the field for our first wild bird hunts. I aimed to get him as many bird contacts as I could, knowing full well that it would take some time for him to put it all together.

Shotgun over my shoulder and expectations tempered, we set boot and paw on pieces of PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) land in our home state. Non-feathered points and pausing for a few too many seconds tested my heart function, and the coveys we did find had this brown blur known as Quill streaking through them.

A novice handler may not want to cut their teeth on a species of bird that freely throws laughs at you when they’re chased off into the horizon, but we were nevertheless unfazed and anxious to hunt.

Renee and Travis
Photo by Travis Frank

We hunted grouse all opening weekend, then into the week, with no bird in hand as we kept playing for team flusher. I would only shoot at birds over Quill’s point. That was the deal I made with him: We would not reward with retrieves on any flushes wild or by him. The theme of our hunting season would be “bide my time, bite my tongue,” but I knew my hard-charging dog had it in him.

A week into the September season I turned Quill out on another piece of PLOTS land that had been grazed but was redeemed by its rolling hills. This was our last stop before shooting hours ended. Not 50 yards from the truck, Quill locked into a point that I was certain would again be false.

I dutifully snapped my over/under closed to walk in front of him, my way of letting him know we were in this together and that I was following his lead. A covey of grouse noisily came to life out of nowhere and I picked out one, then another. Two grouse had fallen!

As Quill fetched a bird, I stood in absolute disbelief at what had just unfolded. The setting sun typically urges me to get to the next good piece of cover before time runs out, but I felt no need to go further. I watched the shortgrass prairie go still before I bundled up a keepsake bouquet of prairie grass and dried wildflower stalk from the place we took Quill’s first wild birds.

Renee and Quill
Photo by Aaron Black-Schmidt

To the Woods

We chased our fair share of prairie grouse well into November, even after pivoting to the pheasant season. A visit home to Minnesota’s northwoods allowed us to try our hand at ruffed grouse, and I’m still trying to make sense of how Quill flawlessly pinned down multiple birds in thick cover and snow, right out of the gate.

My dad, who had raised me on Labs, took Quill’s second species over the first point he got to see from this strange pointing dog, and that was sweet. It sure felt a lot like things were coming full circle: My father’s once-apprentice hunter was able to provide birds over a dog she had trained on her own.

I had hoped that the birds bagged over those solid ruffed grouse points would affirm what I needed to see from Quill, but roosters would prove to be our most elusive bird. And not for lack of encounters.

Kissing Quill
Photo by Marissa Jensen

Roosters and Friends

Eventually Quill would steady on pheasant hens that held, but the roosters did not want to sit still and Quill would pounce. We didn’t contribute a pointed bird on Rooster Road Trip, and as pheasant season went on, we steadily chalked up the rooster-less miles. But I left each and every hunt entirely fulfilled and grateful for the chance.

When Quill’s first rooster was taken, I was alongside chapter volunteers-turned-friends in prime habitat that they put sweat equity into: much more than I could have asked for. Another connection was made, but Quill continued to weave between flushing and pointing, so I continued cheering him on under my breath while simultaneously cursing at him.

I often hear about the “lightbulb” turning on or “switch” flipping for a young bird dog. Quill’s epiphany came on a pheasant trip to southwestern North Dakota in December as we filmed for an episode of The Flush. These were hunts that I was very reluctant to let such an unreliable Quill partake in, but I am forever grateful that the group encouraged me to let him run.

Quill
Photo by Joe Fladeland

Day two of this trip found us in an exceptionally beautiful piece of habitat, a slice of pheasant heaven that was no doubt holding birds. I heard my favorite words — “Quill’s on point!” — called out by Travis Frank.

Sure enough, there was a rooster tucked into the tall native grass just off Quill’s nose. The bird flushed the way only an old rooster can, in a loud explosion, and I watched it fold upon the shot of another now lifelong friend.

To have it finally come together, for friends to enjoy everything Quill and I had worked toward, filled me with emotion as tears filled my eyes. Quill kept doing those grown-up bird dog things the rest of season, all the way through late January in South Dakota.

Dad and Quill
Photo by Renee Tomala
 

Journey Together

There isn’t much in life that holds a candle to the journey that you take with a new bird dog.

Quill’s first season will always be a vivid series playing in my head every time I close my eyes. I experienced, endured, and in many cases enjoyed, every feeling imaginable. I have undoubtedly grown in who I am as a hunter and a human. I owe it all to an adventure with my first pointing dog.

Here’s to many more seasons with Quill, each better than the last.



 

Renee Tomala is Senior Field Representative for Pheasants Forever in North Dakota, serious upland hunter and, now, the successful trainer and handler of a real-thing bird dog.

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!