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Flushing Dogs for Grouse and Woodcock

Flushers can be effective for flushing and retrieving grouse and woodcock because of how close they work.

Flushing Dogs for Grouse and Woodcock

Ruffed grouse might run and woodcock may walk away from pointers, giving flushing dogs the advantage to make chase and drive birds to take wing. (Chris Ingram photo)

I am the first to admit that for much of my career I was focused on training, trialing, and judging flushers across the country. That said, I made ends meet by guiding upland hunters on pen-raised birds at the many gun clubs near my home in the Hudson Valley.

When I was a boy, however, there were numerous opportunities to pursue wild grouse and woodcock in my home coverts, and this early relationship with forest birds and flushing dogs developed my aesthetic and my training style. Over the course of my career I also spent ample time with my colleagues at The Orvis Company based in Vermont, right in the heart of grouse and woodcock country. I was fortunate to work with several Orvis employees as they trained flushing spaniels specifically for use in the grouse woods.

Why Pointing is a Challenge

Ruffed grouse and woodcock of the Northeast frequent the most tangled, prickly, unforgiving, and altogether overlooked corners of our region, finding in those places both feed and protection from predators. To hunt grouse and woodcock here is to locate what my friend Pat Berry calls “a piece of woods so thick you’d have trouble throwing a dead cat through it.” Nevertheless, we send our dogs into it, hoping to move a bird or two.

Hunting such cover with a pointing dog can be challenging for a few reasons. First, that pointing dog has to learn quickly that ruffed grouse are rarely willing to sit tight and will flush out of a cover quickly. Ruffs also have an uncanny ability to run, skittering through the understory before flushing at the edge of the cover. These characteristics force a pointing dog to work a cover quickly but carefully, to hold a point from a distance at the first sign of scent, and to re-locate as needed, often without the hunter’s direction. Then, of course, the grouse and the dog must be staunch enough to wait for the hunter to get in position for a shot. All of this proves to be incredibly challenging.

Woodcock hunting over a pointing dog is more forgiving. Woodcock tend to hold tight, rarely running or flushing even when a dog on point is near. That said, they often hold so tight, and are so well camouflaged against the forest floor, that a hunter has to nearly step on them to get them up. The resulting shot is often a mount and snap-shoot scenario in tight cover which can prove quite tricky, even for the seasoned gunner.

A Flusher’s Method

So, how does the pursuit of these birds look different with a flusher? Think first about how a flusher, especially a flushing spaniel, is designed to behave. The flushing spaniel needs to quarter close and check in, making sure that it does not range farther than the gun can reach. Ideally, the dog keeps pace with the hunter, and will not stretch out too far if the hunter is picking through tough terrain. Moreover, a flusher can be “hupped’” as the hunter makes up ground and keeps in step with the dog’s forward progress.

Flushing spaniels are also often more agile in the grouse woods than a long-legged pointer. When a hunter ventures into the grouse woods, he or she can assume that the flushing spaniel will hunt the cover thoroughly and stay within range, working quickly enough to get a grouse to flush rather than run, while not ranging so far as to push wary wild birds.

Woodcock present a slightly different story. Hunting woodcock with a pointer can be a leisurely activity. A hunter can essentially send a pointer off a logging road assured that a dog with a good nose will find and hold birds. Once a point is established, however, the hunter is obligated to find and flush the bird, which can result in some tricky snap shooting through the stems. Hunting woodcock with a flusher presents an interesting alternative. One can, of course, just follow the dog through the cover and take shots at the flushes that arise. This works great in more open field-edges or middle-aged poplar covers. Alternatively, a flushing spaniel worked alone or in a brace can hunt a band of cover while the hunter walks more open ground beside it, enabling that hunter to get a shot at birds flushing into the more open canopy. Perhaps the most fun of all, however, is to work a pointing dog while keeping a flusher at heel, and then sending the flusher in to get the bird aloft while the hunter stands positioned for an open shot.

Labrador Retriever with a woodcock
Hunting thick cover for grouse and woodcock with a flushing dog can be a fast-paced and enjoyable experience. (Jeremy Moore photo)

Reading, Retrieving, and Regal Birds 

Hunting these birds, especially woodcock, over spaniels is a time-honored tradition. The cocker is designed to be just that, a woodcock dog developed to pursue birds in the dense, dark, and wet woodlands of the British Isles. Second, hunting grouse and woodcock over flushing dogs is exciting. Both dogs and birds work fast, and it is the responsibility and the joy of the hunter to really “read” the dog. Shots will happen quickly, and there is rarely a dull moment wasted looking for a dog on a faraway point or hearing the roaring flush of a skittish bird busting well out of gun range.

Finally, by their very design, flushers will get a bird up and then get on the retrieve quickly, ensuring more certain recovery of crippled game. Grouse and woodcock, being wild birds, have a tenacity of life that is impressive. Moreover, they can disappear against a blanket of leaves unlike any bird I have ever seen. A flushing dog will generally have a better propensity for tracking and retrieving downed or crippled game than a pointer, making their use in the grouse and woodcock woods as much a conservation effort as a pleasurable means of hunting.

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