Connecting with your bird dog is about so much more than birds in the gamebag
Story and Photos by Nancy Anisfield
From the time they are puppies, our bird dogs and their world offer us sensory input that ripens and feeds our souls.
For many bird hunters, the ashy metallic gunpowder smell from a spent shell is better than a whiff of new car upholstery or spring lilacs. Imagine worn leather – the memory-infused, pliable smoothness of a favorite pair of gloves. Or the heart-stopping thunder of a northwoods grouse dog tearing through thick brush sounding exactly like a bird flushing.
The sensory impressions that strike us most differ from hunter to hunter. Moving from my mind’s picks – the silky warmth of a puppy belly, the audible zing of a woodcock’s ascent, the breathy steam from my dog’s nose on a frosty morning – I asked some NAVHDA hunters what particular sights, smells, or sounds come to mind that are special to them.
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“Of course, the first thing that pops to mind is the smell of gunpowder on a cool, fall morning. Thinking about it a little more, there are other things that I think are more special,” said Brian Pike from Maine.
“The sound of her bell as she makes her way through cover. The fast wagging of her tail when she is looking up at me after finishing a retrieve. That small downy feather stuck to her nose as I tell her she is a good girl. The quivering of her body in anticipation as I get ready to send her back out to hunt.”
Brian summed it up well, adding, “It really centers around the dog for me, and the feeling of the connection I have with her.”
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Desiree Stormont from Wisconsin also picked dog-related sensory impressions. “My favorite sensory imagery would be the sound of the dogs pounding through the thick cover,” she said.
“Feet hitting the ground, when all you can see is the grasses moving along their trail, with their noses snorting the cool air as they hit that scent cone and then that quick silence, when all is still and they’ve locked on point. That silence, the rush of adrenaline as you find that dog in the cover, locked on point!”
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Nebraska’s Colby Kerber picked an early morning duck hunt as the best of sensory moments.
“After being up for hours getting the decoy spread set, there’s a brief period when you can sit back and relax,” he said. “The calmness of the sunrise and the warmth of the sky consumes you as it changes colors over the horizon. It’s at this unique point in time when the dog’s heightened senses boil over with anticipation. They intently scan the sky as if one with nature. Before you even get a glimpse of the first flying ducks, you know the day has been successful.”
Colby added, “This calm before the storm perfectly encapsulates what we seek in our fascination with waterfowl hunting. It all comes to this… that one moment where preparation, determination and tranquility all intersect.”
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Dori Hollingsworth answered with a vivid catalog of Alaskan sensory images from the landscape to the dogs to reflection and renewal.
“The crisp air of autumn,” she began. “Fireweed changing from pink flowers to fluff as it moves up the mountains. The red of the tundra. The smoke from the campfire. Blueberries. The buzz of the Pro 550 Plus alerting to a dog on point.”
Continuing with a list of favorite moments, Dori added, “The search for the dog, which even with the GPS can be difficult if the dog is deep in the willows. The flush of a hundred ptarmigan getting up, which is so magnificent and tumultuous that one sometimes forgets to shoot, but stands in awe as the birds fly away. The crunch of a Kind bar to re-energize. Aching muscles and tired dogs. The thrill of seeing your hard work of training come to fruition in the field.”
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Although Rick Affuso lives in New York, he hunts and guides in different regions around the country. His strongest sensory impression is the same wherever he hunts. Rick believes there is another sense – not sight, smell, sound, or touch – between you and your dog.
“There is a constant that makes me aware of how strong a connection my dogs bring to our relationship,” he said. “I open the tailgate of my truck and see the intensity in the eyes of my four Brittanys. There’s a routine, just a few moments, but with each dog it’s the same.”
“It starts when I lift the lid of the tailgate. It smells like dog back there – depending on where they’ve been, in the pond, in my vineyard smelling like grapes … I open a crate then the dog sits while I put on their collar. I know they know it’s time. When I set the dog on the ground, whether it be upland preserves, wild birds or waterfowl guiding or hunting, the stare of intensity for what’s to come is the same with each of them, along with the shaking and trembling of their bodies. Their muscles tense, nostrils flare, eyes open up. This is more than an observation. I can absolutely feel them. I can feel their intensity and anticipation as they’re anxiously waiting for their release and scenting the air of game that lies ahead.”
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Chris Hairie from Georgia picked the sight of his dog locked on point as his first sensory choice.
“For me it is the sight of seeing my dog on point and the intensity of him shaking while he is on point,” Chris said. “To know that he has a grouse somewhere in front of him and to see him get so excited to know that his hard work could be rewarded. To me that is the best thing to see in a hunting dog.”
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Focusing on what we bird hunters might call aromatherapy, T.J. McKenzie picked the smells of his Wisconsin autumn as the sensory input that jazzes him the most.
“For me, the true sign of bird season is the smell of the woods after we get a couple of good frosts,” he said. “Something about the frosty nights and sunny days of October brings a sweetness to the air. I’ve been told it is caused by the breakdown of organic matter, but I’m not really sure what causes the sweet odor.”
“What I can say is that I’ve never encountered anything else like it anywhere other than in the grouse woods,” T.J. continued. “That sweet smell, more than anything else, tells me we are in the heart of grouse season and the woodcock flight is either here or on its way. I wish we could bottle that smell and have it available all year long.”
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Although home for Jennifer Broome is Connecticut, she travels around the country to hunt and also chooses the smell of fall as her favorite. “For me, it’s not the sensory moment that sends me afield, but rather it’s the olfactory that identifies when I am finally there!” she said.
“I had a profound example of that this year in Wisconsin,” Jennifer added. “I was hunting a spot new to me, hunting alone with my dog pack. I pulled into beautiful public land, and the moment I entered the woods the smell was there, that ‘woodland bouquet’... the detritus, the pines, the hardwoods, the moss.”
“I wait all year for hunting season,” Jennifer added. “I’m obsessed with grouse and woodcock. I walked into the woods, smelled the earthy smell of fall and had the most beautiful sense of comfort. My nose almost knew right away it was a great cover. The aroma proved to be victorious! I love the beautiful quietness of the woods with it, when you hear the leaves crunching as they break down into the earth. The smell of swamp muck, too. Sometimes, after covering exhaustive miles with my dogs, I make a nest in the lichen and moss and just lay down to watch the clouds billow above.”
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Mindfulness, a heightened awareness of the moment, is unavoidable for bird and waterfowl hunters. We rely on our senses to know where our dogs are, how to lead a flushing bird, when it’s safe to take a shot. At the same time, ironically, the hyper focus of those fleeting moments makes lasting impressions. These, in turn, propel us back into the field with our dogs again and again, to revel in the sensory delights of the hunt once more.
This story first appeared in Versatile Hunting Dog Magazine, September 2022.
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