Training Retrievers for Pheasant Hunting
Teach your dog the ways of the wild rooster this summer
There is a lot I love in the outdoors, but nothing tops wild roosters for me. The same goes for my Lab, Luna. She’ll hunt anything, but when we step into the CRP or a late-season cattail slough, she’s into it in a way that is tangible. Knowing that we’d chase ringnecks every chance we could, I worked quite a bit on training her for the pheasant fields.
If you’re a rooster junkie with a young dog, you should too, because there are some things a pheasant will do that most game birds won’t. Just as they’ll live in very specific cover that won’t harbor any other game birds.
If you’ve got your dog dialed with basic obedience, then it’s time to work on pheasant-specific drills. This necessitates the right kind of cover, and will usually start with short grass. Remember, keep drills doable and easy at first, and only ramp up the difficulty when your dog has each step nailed.
Short grass retrieves and trailing drills will lead to taller grass, possibly with some sparse cover. This eventual ramp up in difficulty will start to more closely mimic the places that wild roosters will live, which not coincidentally is where you’ll hunt them. Eventually, you’ll want to locate several training environments that include the true types of cover you’ll be hunting. For me, that includes plenty of cattail work, tall grass with plum thickets, and any brushy areas. Scout training locations and make sure you plan around varying your training spots.
Sitters vs Sprinters
I have no idea why this is, but even public-land, late-season roosters can be divided into two categories - sitters and sprinters. Some birds hide and will let you work past, just like a mature whitetail buck will if he has the cover on his side. Other roosters are runners of Olympic caliber.
This means you’ll need to stash dummies that have been scented up with pheasant scent in various environments depending on your dog’s abilities. A dog that learns to ‘hunt up’ roosters where they live, even if it’s as simple as finding a dummy in the tall grass at first, will start to learn what he’s supposed to look for on an actual hunt. It seems elementary, and is - that’s the point.
Personally, I try to keep my scent to a minimum when I’m working these drills. I don’t want my dog to just follow my scent trail or key off of my hand scent to find the dummy. I want her to get a whiff of pheasant and then a reward.
This goes for trailing drills too, which will serve a dual purpose. The first is that your dog will realize that the scent of pheasants can come in the form of a trail that they have to suss out. This happens with runners, obviously, but also wounded birds that lose their flight abilities but have their legs under them.
You can start out with a no-scent-control approach so that your dog will find success every time you drag a dummy through the grass but eventually knee-high rubber boots and a scent-control regimen from the bowhunting world should come into play. This, again, is so your dog can follow the scent trail you drag with your dummy versus just following your personal scent trail. It’s not perfect, but it’s closer to the real thing than you can usually get.
With the trailing drills, it’s best to start really easy. Straight-line drags that end in a quick reward are best. Eventually you can ramp up the difficulty with some 90-degree turns and heavier cover, but pay attention to your dog. If he shows any hesitation or confusion with the easy drills, don’t ramp it up. Your job is to teach your retriever what a pheasant might do, not trick him.
This is the part where most folks would recommend hitting up the nearby game farm for some real bird work. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to do, and it can certainly benefit a young dog.
If you don’t want to (or for some reason can’t) go that route, consider your first pheasant hunts as a solo mission with your dog. Leave the buddies and the big hunting parties at home and just let your dog work. I can’t stress how beneficial this can be for a young dog.
There will be no pressure to keep moving and walk past birds, and it’ll let him work at his own pace. He’ll get to figure out things as he learns, and the distraction level will be as low as it can be. If you add in one other hunter, or a hunter and a dog, everything changes.
This strategy also allows you to gauge the dog’s progress. If you’re walking past roosters that suddenly flush behind you, then you know your dog needs to work on that aspect of his game. The goal is to let the dog take his lessons during training and put it to field work. Your goal is to see what he’s missing, and keep training to shore up those holes in his game all while having the best chance for success in the field and at home.
Do you plan to hunt pheasants that have spent their lives on the landscape evading predators and other hunters? Than plan to train your dog for those birds. There are plenty of ways to do it, and plenty of opportunities to allow your retriever to grow into his role as a rooster-flushing phenom.