Another Look At Vizslas
May 27, 2011
"My aunt's husband was a doctor, and he get from the patient a puppy, but they did not like dogs, so they give it to me."
John Mester was 10 or 11, and it was his first vizsla. Even after 50 years in the United States, he still speaks in the heavy Hungarian accent of the old country.
"I get that dog; we did everything," he says softly. "And I could not forget that dog."
Escape to the States
Hungary was a different world in the 1950s, and auto mechanics like Mester had few opportunities to hunt. But it wasn't the hunting that brought him to the States.
"In Hungary, we did not like the regime of the Russians, is taking everything, you know?" he continues. "You always have that fear'¦they come at midnight and take you, you not have to do something wrong. You say something against the regime, you in trouble, you know?"
In 1961, Mester immigrated to the United States. The economy was slow, and immigrants were, then as now, looked upon as competition for scarce American jobs. To make matters worse, he couldn't speak a word of English. He was 23.
"We walked many miles," he recalls. "We say, 'Oh, it's not too far--is 10 blocks, 20 blocks.' We trying to save some money."
Eventually, he did land a job as an auto mechanic at a Mercedes dealership. He saved his money, and in time he would buy a car dealership of his own. But he never forgot his vizslas.
On Two Wheels
Today he has five, including a litter of puppies on the ground. Enter Corbel, still a puppy himself at age two.
Corbel and I were properly introduced in the parking lot of the local Safeway, where Mester and I met for a morning of Hun hunting, a coincidence not lost on either of us. Corbel was indeed a handsome lad, named for a famous Hungarian painter.
Corbel was also accustomed to Mester's driving. I wasn't.
Mester crawled out of the parking lot, painstakingly checking for traffic in both directions before edging slowly into the eastbound lane that fronted the store. He ignored the turnoff to the interstate and instead elected to drive slowly through town, adding minutes to our short trip.
Once past town, however, he kicked it into overdrive, chatting amiably while the speedometer crept past 85, then 90, then kissed 95. We hit the top of the pass weightless in our seats and then returned to earth and the wet pavement beyond, as though the Russian KGB were hot on our trail. I couldn't take it anymore.
"It's, um, a little slick up here, John," I squeaked through clenched teeth.
"Is no problem, Dave," he told me. "Is holding pretty good."
Turns out Mester was a five-city motorcycle road-racing champion in his salad days. That would explain our taking corners on two wheels, I guess.
Fifteen years ago, the ranch we planned to hunt was one of my better spots. I could usually count on finding several coveys of Huns and a flock or two of sharptails every time I hunted the place. Then the cropland was put in CRP, and as the wheat stubble disappeared and the rank cover plantings took over, the birds began to thin out.
Pheasants were stocked but never really took. Even so, the place always has a covey or two of Huns, and on some days the sharptail hunting is still pretty good. And every once in a while, a wild pheasant will blow up out of the sage, fire-eyed and cackling into the Montana wind, a mutant throwback to the largely clueless, pen-raised birds dumped in the ranch's coulees a half-dozen years ago.
Corbel knew none of this, of course. Not that it would have mattered. From the moment Mester put him down, he hunted like there was a bird behind every snowberry bush, and if not there, then surely behind that clump of crested wheat grass just beyond, and certainly in the coulee beyond that. During the course of our nearly two-hour hunt, he never stopped hunting, his nose to the wet earth and his long tail whipping furiously back and forth.
"You see him?" Mester would ask periodically. (I did.) "You see him? He never get tired."
And so it was. About the only time Corbel raised his head from the ground--and from the rich tapestry of scents we pathetic humans will never know--was to check to see where his master was. Let me tell you something: After two decades of hunting over pointing dogs that are as often as not running out of sight over the next hill, it was refreshing to relax and watch a dog work in plain view.
There is and always has been some controversy, or certainly conflicting opinions, on how a dog is "supposed" to hunt. I have those opinions like everybody else. But the controversy, in my mind, is largely unnecessary.
Corbel hunted extremely close--rarely more than 50 yards out--and with a low head. Like most of the handful of vizslas I've seen, he was scouring the ground for foot scent, not coursing into the wind with a high head, casting for body scent.
Either way works; one may work better for some birds and not so well for others. Corbel was being true to his breed, which is known for close-working.
Even so, there was nothing pedestrian about his style. He worked the cover thoroughly, alternating between a happy, animated trot and an equally animated gallop, his enthusiasm and delight evident in every flick of his tail. Now and then Mester would call him in, whoa him and give him a hug.
"I love this dog," he said.
In my experience, Corbel's ground race is typical of the European versatile breeds, who are much closer-working and more methodical than American bird dogs.
A vizsla is not, perhaps, the best choice for the wide-open Huns and sharptails we were hunting that day. But for a host of other birds, including pheasants, bobwhite and Mearns quail, ruffed grouse, woodcock and probably several other species I can't think of, a hard-working, close-running pointer like Corbel is just what the doctor ordered. It is, in fact, what most American bird hunters tell me they want.
My early experiences with vizslas, however, convinced me that few Americans would want anything to do with them. The handful of vizslas I'd seen at field trials were slow, apathetic boot polishers, bred for their considerable looks, not their drive.
That perception was summarily retired this summer when I was asked to gun one of the local pointing dog trials (a request that came my way, I suspect, when it was discovered that everyone who could actually shoot was out of town). Among the dozens of entrants were a half-dozen vizslas.
I was looking forward to watching them hunt, if only to confirm my already-low opinion of the breed. A few hours later, I shot a planted quail over a dog handled by a young woman from Denver who forever changed my thinking. Not only could her dog hunt, but he did it with style and drive far beyond anything I'd ever seen from a vizsla. The second of her two dogs was just as impressive. Later that day, a mutual friend introduced me to Mester and his wife, Agnes, and two months later he and I were on a real hunt behind a real vizsla.
Had the birds cooperated, this story would have had a fairy tale ending. But that's never how it works in the real world.
In the real world, when a thorough evaluation of a dog for a leading bird dog publication is riding on how well the dog handles birds, the birds find a way to remove themselves from the equation. It never fails.
When we finally did find a covey, Corbel was over the hill on one of his rare--perhaps only--forays beyond 50 yards, and I walked up the covey myself. Corbel returned just in time to watch them go. Much to Mester's credit as a trainer, Corbel stood stock-still and didn't give chase.
Later, he pointed a tweety bird, tail straight back like the pointers of yore, with plenty of intensity. Yeah, it was a tweety, but still.
That's when Mester told me that this was Corbel's first hunt, ever. Two years old, and he'd never been on a wild bird hunt.
"You brought a dog that's never been on a real hunt for a profile in Gun Dog magazine?" I asked incredulously.
Mester smiled. "This dog, I know which is good," he said.
That's the kind of confidence that keeps Mester returning to Hungary to bring back dogs to the States. This is not an inexpensive undertaking, but Mester isn't happy with the American vizslas he's seen, which he considers too nervous for his tastes. Training, he told me repeatedly, is not his strong suit (although I've seen worse), so he buys dogs from the best breeders he can find, long tails and all.
The Tails "The story about the tail," Mester said. "The vizsla before the World War II'¦the dog is mostly the noble's dog, because they have the territory to hunt, time and money. High-society dog, most times. In Hungary those days is lot of cane. So when they doing hunting, the cane is too sharp, you know? So the cane cut the tails, is bleeding. So that why they decide to cut [dock] the tails."
It didn't last, though.
"Later, they left the tail long because there's not much game left, they use up the games. And now, the Humane Society came in Europe, and any dog they cut, they have to leave it long."
So now you know. My take is that the long tail is hardly a detriment to the breed. Corbel was a strikingly handsome animal--photos simply don't do justice to the subtle beauty of these dogs--and the long tail added to, rather than subtracted from, his looks.
On the other hand, I don't have problems with short tails, either. Corbel would have been a fine-looking pointer either way. This is an animal that wouldn't look out of place in evening attire.
The breed's friendly personality is what won over one former dog disliker, Mester's wife, Agnes.
"They asking for love all the time, these dogs," he told me. "My wife is all the time, these dogs. She's feeding, she's walking, I hardly do anything anymore."
And then we're back at the car. Just in case I haven't already noticed, Mester whoas Corbel once again, putting the lie to his claim that he's not a good trainer. Then he bends over and wraps his arms around Corbel's neck.
"I love this dog," he says.