September 23, 2010
Nuisance or necessity, more hunters are using them.
The author turned reluctantly to the beeper collar--even for use with his close-working Brittany.
Imagine, if you will, a garbage truck backing through your favorite grouse covert or pheasant swale. Now you have a fair impression of how I envisioned beeper collars.
Bells, I would argue, were something else entirely. There is romance in a bell's tinkle as it is carried afield on the neck of a kindly handling gun dog: an autumn melody celebrated by reams of gunning literature, singing sweetest when it's silent.
Of course, there were once traditionalists who saw the introduction of bells to their coverts as a technological aberration: drowning out the pleasing patter of dog coursing forest duff, jangling the nerves of man and bird, and driving both game and tranquillity from the land with their incessant racket. A man ought to have sense enough to hunt a close working dog and not be too lazy or absent minded to keep track of it without the help of some infernal noise maker. The fact is, the first dog I belled was a grouse-bred Brittany that seldom ventured far enough from my course to warrant one. Briar hustled, but 80 yards was a big open country cast in his book. In thicker stuff he tightened up considerably. The sleigh bell he wore jingled accompaniment to his rustling through the underbrush but was more a nod to tradition than a real asset.
With experience came the belief that a bigger running dog would find more birds and enjoy a better chance of making them stick than my close worker with a human entourage bumbling along on his heels and I wouldn't have to hike and climb within gunshot of likely tangles to enjoy a dog's expert opinion on their contents. Duffy, a Belton setter with a flowing gait as handsome as he confirmed these perceptions and taught me a bell's worth.
But it took more than the tinkling jingle of a sleigh bell, or even two, to follow Duff's swift sweeps through the woods and bird fields. A turn-of-the-century goat bell matched our agreed upon maximum range and became as much a part of our success as the little double gun. That old bell clanged more than jingled, but through association its off-key chant became music to the two of us: singing of the smell of autumn air, the freedom of the field, and the promise of moments so filled with life that the deaths that follow stand in contrast like the light of day and dark of night, yet seem as natural. A gun dog's bell rings sweet to the gunner's ear because it is a gun dog's bell.
The note we most long to hear, of course, is none whatever. Few moments are more delicious than that when we notice the silence. Then, if you are like me, panic is apt to set in. Often as not when the bell stops, my mind is on some odd fungi I've noticed or pondering the skeletal remains of an upright piano discovered in an old cellar hole atop some gosh-awful steep ridge: love labored fiercely to make that place a home for the woman who left it behind. All thought of such oddities or desperate lives is then lost in a desperation of my own to remember where I last heard the bell. Hunting a predominantly white dog aids in the finding, and if such a dog is lost against a backdrop of snow, it can usually be tracked.
The tinkling of the traditional bell is sweet music to many bird hunters.
Patchy snow? Now, there's a rub, as is hunting a dog of any description under seven feet tall in grown-up CRP fields. And all the while we are searching for the dog, the clock is ticking on set birds' time bomb nerves, and as sprinters cover ground.
Once again, technology stepped forward to offer assistance--this time with beepers. Once again, traditionalists were horrified by the intrusion of "progress" (spoken like "taxes") on holy turf. What could be more sacrilegious than strapping an obnoxious bleating electronic loudspeaker on a fine dog's neck? When such new wave philistines crossed our path like boom box toting teens, we turned our heads away in disapproval and to spare their poor, afflicted animals further embarrassment.
Then it happened. Years of guiding waterfowlers without wearing hearing protection did exactly what those who had trod that trail before said it would. I found that even the wind's whisper could prevent my hearing the goat bell at anything near the range I wished my latest young charge to explore. Hanging my graying head in shame, I ordered a beeper. In fact, having nil faith in such gizmos, and praying one might prove less offensive than the other, I ordered two.
Good thinking, that. One did, indeed, sound far less rude. Two seasons later, I feel qualified to offer some informed observations on beepers. Actually, I feel qualified to sing their praises, but lets cover the not-so-good stuff first.
Like most things (even my beloved goat bell once required a clapper transplant,) beepers sometimes fail, and being more complex, beepers are more failure prone than bells. Several beeper users I've queried have experienced problems with their units, but most were promptly replaced by their manufacturers. Other users have experienced years of trouble-free service. What has become my favorite of the three makes I've tried not only died on its maiden run, as mentioned, but its replacement fell silent and was itself quickly replaced near the end of its one-year warranty period.
Snow cover hides white dogs, necessitating the use of a bell or beeper.
Another model went swimming with my current Brittany and drowned. Clearly warranty service and waterproofing are important considerations, as are battery type and availability. Folks with magnetically activated units should keep a spare magnet handy with their extra batteries.
And how about that awful sounding "beep?" Some beeper tones are, to my ear, pretty offensive. Still, there are folks who dote on Mahler and others who prefer Aerosmith, so it's hard to predict how other hunters might react to my pick of the litter. I'm pleased to report, however, that it has, on occasion, drawn whistles from important critics, and it's tough to fault a tone bobwhites have mistaken for kin.
That beeper obviously didn't scare those birds, but some users set theirs on "point only" mode, because they believe the "running" mode beep may frighten birds. My take on the iss
ue is that, while I have yet to witness what I believe was a beeper bumped bird, I would be surprised if beepers did not run some game off.
Many birds flee from everything they have learned to associate with man. Pheasants are a notorious example, but an Auburn University study titled "The Albany Area Quail Management Project" comes to mind. By employing radio telemetry, these researchers monitored over 800 encounters between hunters and radio-tagged coveys and learned that fully 42 percent of the coveys ran (frequently over 100 yards) and/or flushed wild as hunting parties approached. If "Gentleman Bob" gives us the slip so often, imagine what the real sprinters are doing.
The bottom line is that some birds are going to head out when they hear the truck grind to a stop on gravel, and others will opt to hide from danger. If there is a real danger of beepers spooking birds that wouldn't move at the approach of other sounds associated with dogs and men, it probably comes when units set to remain silent while the dog runs suddenly kick into beep mode on point. Yet, many users prefer this silent running "point-only" mode, and others, perhaps clinging to tradition, run their dogs with bells and point-only beepers to take over when the bell stops.
One of my units offers remote on/off capability from an electronic collar transmitter, and since I'm not especially keen on this beeper's tone, I sometimes turn it off when e-collar days find us in open country. The young Britt that wears it has the wheels and independence to move out when birdy objectives are sparse, but he can also be depended on to check in at comfortable intervals. When he fails to do so, it's a good bet birds are involved. My fear, in these instances, is that activating the collar will startle his birds and leave the poor pup holding an empty bag. I feel the trepidation of a bomb squader who's unsure he's cutting the right wire when I press the locator button. To date, however, I've triggered no explosion of wings I'm aware of. But on occasions when the point proves unproductive, I think of the Albany Study track stars and wonder if the sudden new sound broke the little dog's spell and spurred an exodus.
Grouse woods call for some type of sound device--particularly places with heavy understory like this.
In truth, I'd remain sold on beepers even if conclusive evidence that they posed a substantial handicap were produced tomorrow. Having tasted the freedom and peace of mind a beeper affords, I can't imagine going back to attempting to stay continually focused on dog or bell and the attendant anxiety of losing touch. The ability to tune the dog in and out at will, as attention wanders to conversation with a friend, or passing tortoise, is a priceless luxury to one who no longer goes afield just for the gunning, or even the dog work. Compared to that, the additional range it allows the Britt to enjoy and my conviction that the beeper does add birds to our bag are what my Cajun friends call "lagniappe"--a little something extra.
Before I shared field time with my own, I would have thought tuning out such a blatant distraction as a beeper to be impossible. Now I find my favorite's chirp, and even the bleat of others, tends to fade into the backdrop of a hunt, just as the goat bell once did. Much of the time, unless called to the fore, their high-tech beat flits in and out of my subconscious gathering rich associations from days afield, just as that bell once did.
Of course, the sound of a stranger's beeper in "my" covert is still glaringly intrusive, but so, too, is a stranger's bell or voice. The only time my own beeper still forces itself upon me is when it cries, "Point!" I find myself counting the beeps, each one another second lost, as I'm urged to their ever-so-delicately balanced source. It seems my heart keeps time with the beeps, as well. Then, when I sight the trembling Brittany, my count is forgotten and the pulse fades into the subconscious, perhaps soaking up the scene to add still greater drama to future points.
I can't say the sound of even my favorite beeper sings as sweetly to this uplander's soul as the old goat bell, but I'm beginning to hear some harmony.