A trio of new shotguns and some "hybrid retrievers" prove to be winning combination.
I have never purchased a winning lottery ticket but I consider myself lucky beyond any reasonable expectation by virtue of the fact that last fall I was invited to revisit R&R Pheasant Hunting, a large family-operated farm and ranch with 6,000 acres set aside for hunting near Seneca, South Dakota. It is, without question, one of my favorite upland bird hunting destinations on the planet.
The purpose of my most recent visit, along with several other outdoor scribes, was to field test three new shotgun models from Browning and Winchester, in three different gauges, along with a variety of Winchester and Browning ammunition.
On a previous visit to R&R several years ago, I hunted mainly with Labs. They were great dogs — seasoned pros, really — but R&R owner Sal Roseland had a surprise for us this time. On hand were several so-called "hybrid retrievers," the offspring of Labs and German shorthaired pointers. While they more closely resembled Labs, they were a bit leaner and a little more nimble than either Labs or shorthairs. More importantly, they displayed some of the finer characteristics of each breed.
Over three action-filled days of hunting, these mixed-breed dogs pointed, flushed and retrieved with aplomb. They were, as Roseland calls them, the complete package.
"We have always had a problem with early season hunting and the heat," he explains. "We have had shorthairs, but they didn't retrieve the hardest. We have had Labs that couldn't handle the heat. We had heard of these crosses before and had a guide who brought one out, so I got a couple the first year and now have seven.
"Labs are the best retrievers, and shorthairs have the best noses. When it's hot and the Labs are normally tired and breathing out of their mouths, these crosses are still going strong."
Roseland obtains started dogs from Pheasant City Lodge, which began its hybrid breeding program 20 years ago by mating a yellow Lab with a German shorthair. Today, all of the adult breeding dogs must hunt, retrieve and track a downed bird with no formal training, and that natural ability, from what I saw, was clearly passed on to the pups. Roseland says the dogs are obedience trained when he gets them, but they typically have had limited bird work.
"You can't afford to pay a trainer for the experience we can give a dog," he says, and that's reflected in his patient approach to training. "For us, it's more a matter of just getting them in the field with our older dogs and letting them run. You can't put a lot of pressure on them with collars as pups. I think that is a common mistake for most people. Then you end up with a timid dog."
Dogs at R&R are, however, equipped with beeper collars in order to locate the dogs in the fields of corn and milo and keep them hunting close. I have always been impressed by the disciplined ability of the dogs at R&R to hunt tight and refrain from chasing and flushing birds out of range. There was very little of that during my recent visit, even with a couple of young dogs, including one pup on his very first hunt.
Of course, there are those stodgy characters among us who might turn up their noses at the concept of hybrid retrievers, but I'm not one of them. A great dog is a great dog, and as a hunter, I couldn't care less about a dog's pedigree if it performs well in the field.
There is also the possibility, at least theoretically, of avoiding problems caused by inbreeding, and these South Dakota hybrids are said to be as well-behaved in the house as they are in the field.
Three Super Shotguns
I spent the entire first day of the hunt wringing out Winchester's new SX4 12 gauge semiauto shotgun, stoked with Browning's new BXD (upland extra distance) shotshell and Winchester's XR long-distance load and Super Pheasant load. All were loaded with No. 6 shot, and all performed admirably in some high-volume shooting.
The SX4 is mechanically similar to its predecessor, the SX3, and uses the Active Valve gas system to automatically adjust to everything from light field loads to heavy magnum loads. The big changes in the SX4 are in the gun's ergonomics and handling characteristics. It's a few ounces lighter, and weight has been shifted forward.
All controls have been enlarged and improved for better, faster handling of this very fast-cycling shotgun. The gun comes with back-bored, chrome-plated 26- or 28-inch barrels, with a choice of wood or synthetic stocks, and Invector-Plus choke tubes.
The second day of the hunt found me toting the newest version of the Browning Citori 725 over-and-under in 28 gauge. I immediately fell in love with this trim little shotgun with its light weight and low-profile receiver. It balances well, points well and has little noticeable recoil thanks in part to its Inflex recoil pad. It's available with 26- or 28-inch barrels and comes with mechanical triggers and flush-fit Invector choke tubes.
For the final day of the hunt, I switched to the new Browning A5 Sweet 16 semiauto. This was the most coveted shotgun on the hunt, as only two were available and everyone wanted to spend time with this resurrected beauty from the past.
Production of the classic A5 ceased in 1998, but Browning brought the A5 back in 2013, initially in 12 gauge, in much-changed form. The long-recoil system has been replaced with a highly reliable, inertia-driven system, and the new 16-gauge version weighs just 5 lbs., 13 oz. with a 28 in. barrel, and even less with a 26 in. barrel.
Despite its light weight, the gun pointed quickly, swung smoothly and painted birds from the sky for me. Before the day was over, I knew I would have to own one. Others in our party were similarly inclined.
Dakota Puts on a Show
On the first drive of our first day of hunting, before the weather warmed up, we hunted with yellow Labs Jack and Dolly, and they performed the usual great job I had come to expect from the dogs at R&R. We had eight shooters on line as drivers, flanker and blockers, and 20 roosters fell on that drive alone.
On the second drive, we were accompanied by a five-year old black Lab, Soldier, and Dakota, a two-year-old hybrid retriever. He quickly impressed us by making a long retrieve on a cagey old rooster that got up behind us and turned downwind, but not before being tagged with a few pellets sent downrange by writer Bob Matthews and myself. Dakota caught our eye that day, working the field efficiently, constantly checking the wind for scent, yet refraining from working too far out in front when he caught hot scent.
We hunted with the same dogs the following day, and on the first drive of the morning, we weren't very far into a field of tall corn when a rooster flushed into my shooting lane, crossing right to left at about 30 yards. I swung on the bird with the Citori and he folded cleanly in an explosion of feathers, becoming the first pheasant I've ever taken with a 28-gauge shotgun.
Later that day, Jimmy Wilson of Olin Corp., the manufacturer of Winchester and Browning ammunition, made the shot of the trip, downing a rooster at a distance we all estimated to be well in excess of 60 yards with the SX4 and a Winchester Rooster XR 12 gauge load of No. 6 shot.
The Labs, Jack, Dolly and Soldier, did great work, but I kept my eye on Dakota as the day wore on. While the morning was cool, the temperature climbed into sweat-inducing territory in the afternoon but Dakota worked tirelessly, making an impressive 200-yard retrieve on a winged bird at one point.
Sweet Pups, Sweet 16
The final day, Army, a six-month-old chocolate Lab and shorthair mix, took to the field for his very first hunt. As we began a drive, I couldn't suppress a smile as he ran out to my position and danced a few circles around me, in joyous celebration, before plunging back into the field. He soon made his first retrieve at 50 yards.
I shot the first rooster that got up in front of me on that drive with the Sweet 16, and suddenly realized that I had connected on the first bird I had shot at on all three days, with three different shotguns in three different gauges, completing a hat trick of sorts. Regrettably, not all of my shooting was that consistent, but R&R saved its best for last.
The next drive was one I'll not soon forget. Bob Matthews, clutching the other Sweet 16 shotgun, walked the field inside of my flanking position, and it seemed as through every rooster that flushed came our way. I think only one bird evaded us, thanks to Browning's lethal BXD 16 gauge loads with 1-1/8 oz. of No. 6 shot. Before the drive ended, Olin representative Brad Criner dubbed us the "16 Dream Team."
On the following drive, Army's hybrid sister, six-month old Dessy, came out to work and did a fine job for such a young dog. I took a blocking position at the end of a row of corn, next to Gun Dog editor Rick Van Etten, and dropped a couple of birds in quick succession. Then a rooster ran out of the field, saw me and altered course. The bird charged directly toward Rick before launching into the air, giving me an opportunity to tease Rick about shooting birds in self-defense.
All too soon, our hunt was over, but no one was in a hurry to leave. I'm sure we all shared the unspoken sentiment that, in a perfect world, there would be no time limit on hunting roosters with good shotguns, good company and great dogs.