Where I live in Michigan there are two kinds of grouse dogs: English setters and all the rest.
Oh, I exaggerate. But only a bit. There are plenty of good Brittanys and shorthairs and pointers around, many of which are top-notch bird-finders. I've hunted with lots of them. But when I think of the fellows who've attained somewhat legendary status as grouse hunters in my neck of the woods — past and present — they're setter guys.
Despite that — and the fact that I own a setter myself — over the last decade or so I've been hunting a couple of days a year with a couple of men who, despite their relative youth, are quickly approaching legendary status in the grouse hunting fraternity. They hunt with Labrador retrievers.
Frederick (who goes by Fritz) Heller and his younger brother Ric (who goes by Junior) are grouse hunting fools. Born downstate, where grouse are as rare as honest politicians, both settled near Traverse City (or "Up North," which describes anywhere above mid-way in the Lower Peninsula) because that's where the grouse are. They work in the hospitality industry, jobs that allow them to juggle their schedules and maximize their time in the young woodlots.
Fact is, I first met up with them when both lived in southern Michigan, when a handful of us bird-hunting aficionados were campaigning to extend Michigan's then notoriously short pheasant season into December.
We struck up a friendship and have spent many a fine day in the aspen stands and alder thickets of northern Michigan since. (And, just for the record, pheasant season now extends until Jan.1 in much of the state's prime longtail country.)
Well, the Heller brothers grew up with Labs, so it was natural that they went that way. But Fritz is quick to point out their Labs are not the kind of dogs his dad owned.
"His Labradors are a lot different than ours," he said. "They were big, strong, 85-pound dogs. My first Lab, Harry, was almost like a different species than what I'd seen — small, 50 to 55 pounds.
"The more I grouse hunted, the more I learned it's an obstacle course. If I lived out west, maybe I'd have a lankier dog, but in the grouse woods, you want a defensive back, not a lineman."
The Hellers, who own three Labs each, prefer dogs in the 50-pound range. They think they're more agile, faster, have more stamina and are more heat-tolerant than the bigger specimens.
"When I really started concentrating on grouse, I thought I was going to switch breeds," Fritz said. "I didn't know how to hunt grouse and I thought in order to hunt grouse you needed a pointer.
"I hunted behind every pointing dog I could; I think I hunted over 19 or 20 different pointing dogs of all breeds one year, and at the end of the season, my statistics were just as good, and in many cases, better. So I decided to stay with a Lab."
The Hellers' dogs are extremely well trained. They have three different whistle commands; a single whistle means "turn," two whistles mean "sit," and multiple blasts mean "return." When you watch them in action, they direct their dogs where they want them.
"We keep them in the best cover all of the time," Fritz said. "Our dogs range 10 to 50 yards. We're taking our dogs to the birds."
If they see their dogs getting birdy too far ahead of them, they whoa them until they catch up. But that's rarely an issue as they move through the woods at about three miles an hour (you can check their GPSs if you don't believe them) so they're usually not far behind.
Livin' on the Edge
The pair — they hunt together often — concentrate on linear coverts and that's one place where flushing breeds especially shine. If they're working, say, an alder-choked creek bottom, they can stay on the fringes, let the dogs get in the thick stuff, and then they don't have to get up on the dog to flush the bird. When it comes out of the alders, one of them can usually get a poke at it.
"Obviously we don't hunt 400-acre clear-cuts," Fritz said. "We hunt creek bottoms, or stay on the edge.
"If you want to compare it to pheasant hunting, it's like hunting filter strips in the grouse woods instead of hunting CRP fields. And I think there's a higher concentration of birds in that linear cover. Edges. We never leave the edge. Ever. That's our whole concentration."
The brothers are convinced that not only do they find more birds; their dogs often produce more shooting opportunities when birds are flushed.
"When a dog goes on point, the hunter has to step up in front of the dog and flush the bird," Junior said. "That bird's concentration is all on avoiding the hunter. When a dog flushes the bird, that bird's concentration is all on avoiding the dog."
Adds Fritz: "Take the hunter out of the equation and the bird acts more natural. Birds that go up in front of a flushing dog fly differently. They fly higher. Birds that go up, die. The birds that stay low€¦well, the hardest shot in the grouse woods is low and straight away."
Because they don't spend a lot of time following up on big-running pointing dogs, they say they spend more time actively grouse hunting.
"If you've got a setter on point 100 or 150 yards away, first you have to catch up to him and then, when you get there, it's often a woodcock (the pair doesn't shoot timberdoodles unless they've got young dogs who simply need some birds killed over them) and you've wasted 15 minutes when you could have been finding grouse," Junior said.
Maximizing your time in the woods is one of the Hellers' themes. And that's where their retrievers really shine, they say.
"We don't waste any time looking for dead birds because our Labs find them quickly," Fritz said. "The more time you spend hunting in the best cover, the more birds you flush, the more shots you get. Retrieving is really important. There are a lot times when a guy I'm hunting with can't find a bird and he'll say, 'Bring the Labs.'"
I can attest. Twice in the last two seasons when I was hunting with the Hellers, I crippled birds over points that my setter couldn't find. Both times Junior brought his Lab over to the area and the dog quickly found the bird.
"We don't lose many," Junior said. "And sometimes we find birds that sail we think we'll never find. We don't find them all, but anyone who says he's never lost a grouse is either lying or he hasn't shot many birds."
The guys attribute their Labs' tendencies to follow ground scent as to why they shine in retrieving — as well as finding birds.
"Dogs trailing and ground-scenting birds — working those birds — pays off," Fritz said. "It's very important. It may not win you field trials, but it will find you grouse."
(While he may not win field trials, Fritz has won the state grouse hunting championship — staged with chukars — three times with two different dogs. The hunters are awarded points for finds, retrieves, how they handle, etc.)
Higher Flush Rates
There's no need to get into how many birds these guys kill; you may not believe the numbers, anyway. But even in years when the population cycle is down, their flush rates are higher than most (well over the state average as reported by the Department of Natural Resources' grouse cooperators survey) and the number of birds they kill per flush is way higher than you'd expect, too.
Part of it, of course, is that they are both most adept with a shotgun. But the Hellers say the fact that they keep their dogs in the best cover and the birds flush where they can shoot them certainly helps.
They'd be good hunters behind any dogs and would kill their share even without dogs. They hunt hard, covering more miles than an avid long-distance runner. Fritz said it's not unusual for him to lose 15 pounds over the course of a grouse season. Most bird hunters can't keep up with them. I can't and I'm in better shape than most guys my age.
The Hellers have identified more than 200 different grouse covers in the seven counties they hunt — the bountiful public lands in Michigan make it easy for them to continue to find new covers all the time — and they have a pattern approach (similar to the way bass fishermen establish patterns) so when they find birds in a particular habitat, they know where to go to find more of the same.
They also pay a lot of attention to details, like the make-up of the ground cover. If they're killing birds in aspen with goldenrod on the ground, you can bet the next cover they go to will not be covered by bracken ferns.
"The most important variable in the equation is who's driving the truck," Fritz said. "You can have the best dog in the world, but if you don't know where to park it, it doesn't matter."
Their basic rule of thumb is to hunt thermal cover in the mornings, food sources in the afternoons. And if they find the birds around a particular food source, like autumn olives or dogwoods, they'll continue to hunt that particular food source until it fails to produce.
Both guys spent a lot of time with their dogs, in and out of grouse season.
"It doesn't take any less time for a Labrador to get good at it than it does for a pointing dog, but if you do your due diligence and train hard, Labs seem to really retain a lot of their training," Fritz said. "I really believe that the average weekend hunter who hunts six to 10 days a year would be better suited with a Labrador retriever than any other dog. I don't think you can take a pointing dog out that few times a year and expect it to work grouse properly.
"And Labs are tough. They don't seem to get hurt, so you're not out of business when they get beat up. We both have three dogs right now, but if you hunt a lot, you need dogs that will withstand the pounding that you're going to give them."
Although both guys are now getting their puppies from their own litters, they say finding a good line of Labs for grouse hunting isn't as hard as all that.
"The greatest thing about Labrador retrievers is there's a right dog for everyone," Fritz said. "The breed is popular enough that there are dogs out there that are going to fit your needs. If you need a grouse dog, just find someone who hunts like you, ask them where they got their dog, and go from there."