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Gone Johnson

Gone Johnson

Losing a bird should be a reality check: What went wrong?

Birds in the hand are always cause for celebration...but sometimes things don't work out the way they're supposed to.
Photo by Dave Carty.

The bird folded and dropped the moment I shot. Hanna had found a small covey of Mearns quail a few feet up a dry wash, pinning them in the duff under the scraggly branches of a mesquite tree, her nose just a foot or two from the tightly clustered group of three.

It had been an easy shot. Two birds peeled away and flew into the manzanita and scrubby mesquite up the wash, but the bird I shot--my bird--flew almost directly away from me. I raised my gun, centered it, and fired. I distinctly remember thinking: That is a dead bird.

The little cock fell on an open patch of sandy soil, the kind of dry, Arizona red dirt that can sandpaper away the pads on a tough dog's feet. Hanna, as she had been trained, remained steady. I held her there for a few moments, and then with a sharp "Fetch!" sent her in for the retrieve. And that's when the whole picture-perfect episode began to unravel.

The bird wasn't where I thought it would be. I'd lost Mearns quail before--too many on this trip already--but even so, I wasn't that concerned when Hanna and her Brittany kennelmate, Powder, weren't able to come up with the bird right away. The cock had fallen on a slope that pitched down into thick grass lining the wash. I was sure it had rolled down there.

But it hadn't. Powder, who is by far the best retriever of my three dogs, made several runs through the wash (admittedly at my insistence) but never gave any sign that she'd cut scent. Hanna had disappeared, having rocketed up over the far bank a few seconds after I'd released her.

And then I remembered: I'd seen a bird scamper up that way moments after my shot. I'd assumed then that it was a bird from the original covey that had decided to run rather than fly, something Mearns occasionally do. Had that been my bird? I really didn't know. I still don't. I spent the next several minutes calling my dogs back (with no fresh scent for them to work, both were bored and anxious to continue hunting) and forcing them to re-search the area. But my bird was gone. Fifteen minutes later, angry and frustrated with myself, I reluctantly gave up and sent the dogs on.

I'd like to be able to say that that was an isolated incident, but it wasn't. When you hunt as much as I do, lost birds are a sad fact of life. But that is small consolation, and over the years, losing wounded birds has become harder for me to justify, not easier. I've found birds that other hunters have shot but not killed days and perhaps weeks after the fact, scrawny, feeble little things that were undoubtedly in pain, and I don't like being the responsible party. Don't remind me of the harsh realities of the wild and that death in nature is rarely gentle; I know all about that. It doesn't change things.

So, since losing birds is never something I'm going to be comfortable with, what, you have every reason to ask, have I done to prevent it?

The first is that I've tried to become a better shot. I could write a Greek tragedy about my failings as a wing shooter, but I will say this: at least I'm not as bad as I used to be. What progress I've made is due entirely to my practice on skeet and sporting clays courses and an occasional (and not particularly cheap) lesson from a touring pro. Good shooting, I've discovered, is not a skill you're born with; it is something you have to learn. I'm still learning. But this is a dog column, and from here on out I'll be talking about the canine end of the equation.

Retrievers are usually better than pointing dogs at both marking and recovering downed game.
Photo by Dave Carty.

Years ago, when I owned a spaniel and hunted over mine and others frequently, I rarely lost shot birds no matter how lightly they were hit. I was an even worse shot then than I am now (that may be hard for some of my friends to believe, but there you go), but it mattered little to my plucky springer; he was just as happy fetching birds as he was rousting them out of the grass. His diligence made all the difference.

I doubt if his nose was any better than the noses on the setters and Brittanys I've owned since then, but his drive to retrieve made all the difference. He'd search an area endlessly, puzzling out stale scent until he finally found the bird, even if it took half an hour. Hunting with a friend and his springers a couple years ago, I remember watching in amazement as one of his dogs chased down a ringneck I'd wing tipped, the hyperkinetic little dog scrambling all over several acres of dense brush, deadfalls, and weeds, until she finally nabbed the bird in a free-for-all under a deadfall. I'd forgotten just how good spaniels could be.

More recently, I've spent some time with another friend (and a lot better shot than me, thank God) who literally owns some of the top competitive springers in the country — high point Canadian and American champions. We pair his spaniels with my pointers and hunt them together€¦and again, rarely if ever lose a bird (I'll be writing more about that approach in an upcoming issue).

But most pointing dogs, with the possible exception of the wirehaired versatile breeds and the odd GSP, would rather hunt than fetch birds, and simply will never have the chops of a spaniel, much less a Labrador. Certainly there are exceptions; the pointer or setter or Brit who will spend a half hour puzzling out a lukewarm trail, but those dogs, at least in my experience, are rare and wonderful exceptions.

Knowing all this, it might be tempting to give up on making a decent fetcher out of your pointing dog. Why put up with substandard retrieving? My answer to that is that any kind of retrieve is better than nothing, and the best way to turn a non-retrieving pointer into a reliable retriever is to force break him.

Force breaking is a difficult process, and I'm not going to go into the specifics today. It is also a technique that has engendered more than its share of myths, foremost among them the notion that force breaking a dog will somehow "ruin" his desire to retrieve.

In my experience, I've never force broken a dog of my own or for someone else that hasn't emerged with more desire to retrieve than it had going in.

There's a tipping point in the process where the dog can go either way, and many people, I suspect, give up just when a few more days of training would have brought their dog around.

It also says something that almost every pro retriever trainer in the country force breaks his Labs and/or Chessies, which are the hardest driving natural retrievers in the world. (To be fair, though, most spaniel trainers don't force break their dogs.) Many of these guys train more dogs in a month than I'll train in a lifetime, and if it's good enough for them, it's plenty good enough for me.

But force breaking, for all its advantages, won't perform miracles. Although it should, if done correctly, noticeably increase your pointer's drive to retrieve, it will never put him on par with a spaniel or Lab. Let's use my dogs as an example. All three have been force broken, which means that all three will reliably retrieve any bird I send them for (if they don't, they know they'll be hearing from me in short order). But here's the downside: in order for any of the three to make a prompt retrieve, they have to mark the bird's fall.

That's something I've learned I can't take for granted. Given a choice of watching a departing covey or marking a falling bird, my dogs, unlike real retrievers, will watch the covey every time. So when I send my dogs to make a retrieve, at least half the time they're probably not aware there's a bird out there for them to pick up. I'm counting on them hitting the scent cone of the shot bird, at which point their training kicks in and they'll scoop it up and bring it back to me.

In fact, that's usually what happens. If they don't, then I collar their wayward little butts and make them search the area again, although they make it abundantly clear they'd much rather be looking for live birds.

That's how the dogs and I found ourselves searching for the lost Mearns I mentioned at the beginning of this story. More often than not, the dogs come up with the shot bird on the second or third swing.

Most pointer owners learn to help their dogs find wounded birds any way they can, something that I suspect would horrify the owner of a topnotch spaniel or Lab. Knowing that my dogs' ability to mark falling birds is limited, I try to mark them myself as best I can. Since I train my dogs to be steady to shot, I'll release them quickly if I think I've made a poor hit.

That, of course, begs the question of why I steady my dogs at all. The short answer is that I do it because I simply enjoy hunting over steady dogs.

I'm not convinced, as some are, that a steady pointer marks fallen birds better; but I'm also not convinced that a non-steady dog finds birds more quickly, given that most of the pointing breeds don't seem to be particularly good at marking downed game either way.

I also try to save myself and my dogs pointless aggravation by passing on marginal shots--decisions I constantly second guess. Still, I'd rather be a conscientious neurotic than a loser who sprays shot at everything that flies.

And I keep searching. A number of years ago, Bill Buckley and I walked in on a covey of Huns my last Brittany, Fancy, had pinned on the side of a coulee, hard by a clump of chokecherry trees. The birds went up in a squeaking, chirping roar, and Bill, who rarely misses anything, much less Huns at point blank range, wing-tipped a bird that fluttered down and disappeared.

Fancy was on the spot in seconds (unlike my current crop of dogs, she wasn't force broken), and then, to my intense anger, immediately abandoned the search and ran off after the departing covey.

I angrily whistled her back, forcing her to search where I'd seen the bird fall. She went through the motions for a few minutes (imagine the canine equivalent of the game Charades), and then bolted again.

That really set me off. I damn near bit through my whistle calling her back, only to have her listen to my lecture, her ears drooping, before skulking off after the covey once more. Seething, I finally gave up and let her go. Bill and I searched the area by ourselves for another 10 minutes.

You know how this story ends. When Fancy came walking back with the still kicking Hun in her mouth 15 minutes later, I was astonished--despite the fact that this very thing had happened to me dozens of times before. To this day, I still mistakenly call my dogs off wounded birds that, in hindsight, it should have been obvious to me they were tracking. Apparently, I'm no better at learning from my mistakes than my dogs are at marking birds.

Ultimately, there will come a moment when you'll have to decide to continue searching or give up and move on. Read your dog; see what he's telling you, then make the decision.

I don't know how much searching is enough. For me, leaving a wounded bird behind is never easy. I hope it never is.

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