August 18, 2016
A couple decades ago, I had a friendship with an unusual gentleman named Datus Proper. Datus lived about a mile from my house, and since we were both outdoor writers, we struck up a friendship. Some of you may remember his exquisite little book, Pheasants of the Mind.
Datus was a bit of an odd duck. Tall, rail thin and fiercely intelligent, he held strong opinions about hunting over and training bird dogs, as did I (and still do, by God). But one in particular stayed with me: slow down.
We'd be hunting a patch of grass beside a wheat field, and his shorthair Huck would be enthusiastically working in ever-wider circles, puzzling out a covey of Huns. After a few minutes, I'd get impatient and want to move on, convinced the birds weren't there. But Datus counseled patience. "Let the dog work," he said. "He'll let you know when he's finished."
As often as not, allowing Huck a few more minutes would result in a point, a covey rise, and if I was lucky, a bird in the bag. Still, it took a long time before what he was telling me really sank in: slower is better.
That doesn't seem to be a widely held philosophy. Out here in the big wide open where I live and hunt, the general reckoning is you need to step right out to find birds. After all, there's a lot more open country than there are birds and time's a-wastin'.
Here's an example. A few years ago, when my late Brittany, Powder, was still alive, I was hunting in southern Arizona for Mearns quail. I decided to take Powder and Hanna, a setter I still own, to a drainage that held several coveys.
Powder was 13, in the last few months of her life, and I suspected this might be her final hunt. With my season winding down and the prospects of her living until the following fall slim, I badly wanted to get her into a few birds.
At this point, Powder, who had never been much of a ground eater to begin with, was reduced to hunting in flushing-dog range, making casts that were probably no longer than 50 yards to either side of me. Hanna, in contrast, was one of the biggest running and fastest dogs I've ever owned, and the moment I turned her loose, she took off.
I watched her rocket up the drainage we were about to hunt, then disappear into the oaks at the far end. My plan had been to let her find the birds, then lead Powder into a back. I would have been happy with that.
Instead, we ambled up the drainage by ourselves, just Powder and I, moving at a snail's pace, Powder happily poking her ancient nose into every bush and clump of grass along the way. And then, miracle of miracles, she pointed!
When I walked in, a covey rose, and as usual, I missed. But the birds flew back up a hillside and fanned out 75 yards above me.
"We'd be hunting a patch of grass beside a wheat field, and his shorthair Huck would be enthusiastically working in ever-wider circles, puzzling out a covey of Huns. After a few minutes, I'd get impatient and want to move on, convinced the birds weren't there. But Datus counseled patience. "Let the dog work," he said. "He'll let you know when he's finished."
Just about then, Hanna returned for a quick fly-by, her eyes blazing with lust and her sights set on the horizon. Perhaps my original plan was still an option! I figured she'd run up the hill, find a single or two, and hold them until Powder could work herself into position.
Instead, she shot up the hill, gave no indication whatsoever that there were birds anywhere within the same zip code, and disappeared once again. And what did my aging Brittany do? She tottered up behind her, pointed two of the singles that Hanna had missed, and I killed one of them. It was the last bird I ever shot over Powder.
That isn't a precautionary tale against fast running dogs; it's a reminder that allowing dogs of any speed to thoroughly work the cover you're hunting is always good strategy.
I could have followed Hanna, figuring that with her vastly superior speed and considerably better nose she'd find all the birds before my much slower Brittany got within striking distance. And I would have been, as I have been so many times in similar circumstances, proved wrong.
It is entirely possible to walk so quickly that you push your dog past coveys, let alone individual birds, that it might have otherwise found. This can happen no matter how good your dog's nose is. Slowing down, and allowing your pup to thoroughly comb less cover, will usually result in more finds at the end of the day than covering more ground at a greater rate of speed.
At Your Leisure
Let's use me as an example. For a geezer, I'm in good shape. I've been working at working out since, well, a long time before I was a geezer.
I start the season by hunting for blue grouse, which involves carrying a fully-loaded vest up and down mountains for two to three hours at a stretch, four to five days a week. By the time Hun season rolls around, I can, if called upon, cover real estate reasonably quickly.
But I rarely do. If the dogs and I need to make it to an objective, sure. The rest of the time I hunt and walk€¦slowly. An unexpected benefit is that I enjoy my hunting more. At a leisurely pace, I take in more of the world. I notice the color of the sky and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. I watch the ravens chase each other over the prairie and gaze at hawks working the thermals, promising myself for the umpteenth time that someday I'll learn to identify every one of them.
And not least, I watch my dogs. Is there anything more glorious, or more transcendent than the way a finely conditioned bird dog runs? But how would you know if you're so busy eating up the miles that you don't have time to watch him?
I believe the dogs sense it too. Surely the good ones do. They know I'm watching, know I'm enjoying myself, so they settle in to the job at hand, anxious to please, loving what they do.
They find, as often as not, birds that they might have missed. And if they miss a few, or if the two of us don't quite make it as far as I had planned, well, what of it?
What is this whole exercise of hunting over dogs for, anyway? The birds I don't find, I remind myself, are for tomorrow.