Throughout much of the country, hunting opportunities start to disappear as Christmas passes and the New Year rolls in. When it does, a lot of us resign ourselves to the nine-month off-season. But we don’t have to.
Although our local seasons might be ending, there are opportunities out there to extend our hunts and keep our dogs working for an few extra months. In other words, while you might believe that you’ve got about 90 days to make all of your fall bird-hunting magic happen, you might actually have double that if you’re willing to suss out a few new opportunities.
Not only is that good for us as hunters, considering we might get to hunt a few extra weekends and not have to think so much about how winter isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s good for our dogs, too. Really good.
This goes for older, mature dogs that just love to be outside and do their thing, of course. When it comes to younger dogs that might be in their first or second season, the value of extending hunting time and finding new opportunities cannot be overstated. It’s huge.
Even if your young retriever only gets 25 percent more hunting in than he would during a normal season, that equates to more experience in new environments, and more chances to enjoy success in the field. While obedience and training are the cornerstones of a good dog, that coupled with in-field experience is what rounds out a good hunting dog.
Here are several options to consider.
It’s more common than ever to hear about hunters taking a road trip to a new state to experience bird hunting. This is due, no doubt, to the availability of information. We can do a quick search on our phones to find states that are open further into the winter than our own, and even find tracts of public land to go hunt once we get there.
If you live in a state that closes in December or early January, consider a winter road trip. There are Midwest rooster options available throughout the month of January, or if you’re interested in quail, you can head further south and try your luck.
Some of those Southern states will let you hunt until deep into February, which means that not only can you escape the clutches of deep winter, you can do it in a place that will offer good bird hunting when good bird hunting is pretty far in the rearview mirror where you live.
If your retriever is not opposed to it, you can also check out whether your prospective destination offers any open waterfowl seasons. Many do, and that can make for an interesting combo hunt. There are lots of options out there that only require a little research and planning, but remember to take the time to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations for wherever you’re traveling. It’s common to assume hunting laws are similar from state to state, but they rarely are, so brush up on the regs long before you load up the truck.
Maybe putting an extra 1,000 miles on your pickup isn’t too appealing, or you can’t get the time off of work to make a road trip to Oklahoma or Arizona for quail. It happens, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep your dog in hunting shape.
Game farms or shooting preserves are a viable option for most upland hunters. Now, I realize that there are plenty of hunters who are opposed to the idea on principle, which is just fine. But, if you’re running a young dog with limited experience or an older dog, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option to expose your dog to a controlled hunting situation that comes complete with guaranteed success.
Your dog won’t know he’s nosing up pen-raised birds, and the opportunity to spend a few hours working specific cover for specific birds can do wonders for a dog’s confidence when you do eventually get him back into the spots where the roosters are wild.
The focus on shed dogs comes largely from the deer-hunting world, for obvious reasons. But anyone who owns a retriever can take part in this rapidly growing sport. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that it takes place from January through April—and it’s a ton of fun.
Plus, you can shed hunt in a lot of places where you can’t hunt, which means you’ve probably got more options close to home than you would imagine. I’ve got a good buddy who lives in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, and he finds sheds every year in the local parks and green spaces with his Lab. He could never hunt the deer that frequent those types of spots, but he and his dog can shed hunt them all winter long—and they do.
A lot of folks get nervous about the shed antler thing, because they think it will somehow change their bird dogs. It won’t. A good bird dog will never choose a bone over a live grouse or pheasant, and this is an easy thing to train for and to tack on to your dog’s skillset. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun to see your retriever come bounding out of a plum thicket with an antler clutched in his teeth, believe me.
Don’t bemoan the end of the traditional bird-hunting season in your neck of the woods. Think of it as a chance to expand your hunting worldview to include new opportunities both close to home, and perhaps a day’s drive down the interstate. There are good ways to keep the fire burning for several months of the new year, you’ve just got to find the right opportunities for you and your dog.