On the Run

9079eda2-ae9f-4a20-a180-854e9f0b05b6 By Tom Davis

It was a pretty piece of hunting. Tina, my orange-speckled setter, flitted up a South Dakota sidehill, bent right when she reached the fence, then proceeded to weave her way back through a ribbon of rippling prairie grass.
We watched the whole show without moving an inch.

“She saves a lot of walking,” one of my partners observed.
“Until she goes on point,” I laughed.

As if on cue, Tina popped out of the cover about 60 yards away, moving left-to-right…and reflexed onto point so instantaneously it was as if a chain was attached to her collar and she’d taken all the slack out of it. The grass there had been mowed for hay, and in the time it took to blink she slewed 90 degrees clockwise and, with the exception of her head and tail, landed virtually flattened on the carpet.

“Ohhh!” I exclaimed, sounding not unlike a British soccer fan when his team scores a goal. When I’d regained a measure of composure, I turned to my hunting companions and said “That, gentlemen, is what’s known as ‘hitting scent hard.’ Now let’s see if we can kill the bird for her.”

As is typically the case, however, the rooster had something else in mind. After kicking around in the taller grass to no avail I released Tina to relocate. She worked back up the slope in the direction she’d just come, not hurrying but not pussy-footing, either, staying in touch with the bird but not pushing the envelope and triggering a wild flush.

Which, of course, is the whole idea. Dueling a running bird (or birds) reminds me of playing a heavy fish on light tackle. The “line” is the thread of scent, and a savvy dog knows when to reel it in, when to let it out, and how much pressure can be applied without breaking off. Some dogs are born with a better feel for this than others—they ain’t all got rhythm—but the only way they can learn and improve is through experience.

Or, to frame it a little more precisely, by being allowed to make mistakes.

In any event Tina did a masterful job. She trailed the cockbird almost back to the fence, then stayed in contact with him when he veered off into a finger of heavier grass that dead-ended at another swatch of mowed ground. The end game was in sight, and with the rooster rapidly running out of room Tina throttled back, zeroed in and, when she finally had him right where she wanted him, drew herself up on a proud, positive, take-it-to-the-bank point.

With back-ups on my left and right, I stepped in to flush. The bird vaulted skyward—and somehow found a flight path that forced me to take a hurried, off-balance shot and left my back-ups either blinded by the sun or with no chance whatsoever.

And thus was defeat snatched, once again, from the jaws of victory. At least Tina had performed brilliantly….

In fact, it had been a best-of-both-worlds encounter: a breathtaking, highlight-reel point followed by a deftly executed relocation. On the bird hunting landscape of 21st century America, this scenario or some variation thereof is increasingly the order of the day.

To put it as simply as possible, on most of the birds we hunt and in most of the places we hunt them, the initial point is rarely the productive point.

As much as we love to see a rock-solid, don’t-move-a-muscle, birds-right-there point, it’s becoming less common (and in a sense less valuable) than what might be called the “serial relocation”: the dog moving with the birds, often catwalking or “roading,” establishing provisional points as necessary until his nose, and his experience, tell him not to risk another step. The last few times I’ve hunted bobs in West Texas, this has been by far the most common sequence of events; in fact, it’s hard for me to remember any coveys that didn’t run, at least a little, before they flushed.

This tends to put an added premium on one’s wingshooting ability, which in my case is stretched to the limit by Texas quail under even the best of circumstances.

Oh, and since we’re on the subject, let’s cut any lingering you-know-what and stipulate that the “Gentleman Bob” stereotype propagated by Nash Buckingham, Havilah Babcock, and other early- and mid-20th century writers has gone the way of leaded gasoline. Today’s bobwhites run, period, although it’s true that the further west you find them the more inclined they are to do so. On the bright side, even at their worst they’re not as bad to run as blue quail, which will absolutely wear a dog out.
 
For the record, ruffed grouse also run a lot more than they used to, and I don’t know any serious grouse hunter who disputes that. Pretty much the only upland gamebirds that don’t run to any significant degree—at least the ones that I’m aware of—are woodcock and Mearns’ quail. Although, having said that, I don’t think prairie chickens and sharptails run, as we generally understand the term, so much as they just sort of amble away (when they’re not flushing impossibly wild, that is). Not that this distinction matters to your dog, or should.

As alluded to earlier, some dogs have more genetic ability to cope with running birds than others. It falls beneath the overarching umbrella called “bird sense.” And because it does have a strong genetic component, it’s critically important, whether you’re shopping for a puppy or sourcing broodstock, to look for lines that have consistently proven themselves on wild birds. Time was that the ranks of field trial winners filled this need, but with so few trials these days contested on wild birds—desperately few in the case of wild quail—you really have to drill down and do your homework.

The best way to get the kind of pup you want is still the same as it’s always been: Look at a lot of dogs, identify one you like, and find out where he came from. After that, learning to handle running birds is a matter of time and experience. The best thing you can do is stay out of your dog’s way and, again, let him make mistakes. Don’t shoot birds he knocks—that reinforces behavior you want to discourage—but when he does it right and gets the birds pointed do your damnedest to kill one.

And whatever you do, don’t get into the habit of hollering “whoa” every time your dog goes on point. If the birds move, he should be allowed to move with them, and by constantly telling him to whoa you’re at best sending him mixed signals and at worst conditioning him to ignore the hell out of you.

The legendary Ben Williams, whose Brittanys and pointers are as accomplished at handling running birds as any dogs on the planet, doesn’t even teach the whoa command.
“I could,” he shrugged when I asked him about it, “but there’s really no reason to.”

His point being, of course, that the birds do a far better job of teaching his dogs when to stop than he ever could.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal. To subscribe and get five issues of the only magazine out there devoted to the conservation of our native quail and quail-hunting culture and traditions, join Quail Forever today