Story by Hannah Hays Photos by Benjamin Hale
I can’t take my eyes off Cooper, knowing at any moment he could find his first wild birds.
Time and time again, the seasoned dogs go on point. There’s not much room to be disappointed when wild birds are found, regardless of which dog find them, but there is a small pang in my heart that Cooper doesn’t get there first.
It’s late morning in the Oklahoma sandhills, and it’s been awhile since we had any dog work. I look up, and suddenly see my dog on point. I yell, “COOPER’S ON POINT” to the hunting party – all of which are within 20 yards and do not need to be shouted at. I walk in the direction of Cooper’s nose, my heart pounding in my chest, hands sweating on the stock of my gun, wondering what is going to happen.
When I get close, I can hear them. Bobwhite quail squeaking under the pressure of a canine predator, holding until the last moment. When I hear them, I can’t help but squeal, “THERE’S BIRDS HERE!! HE’S POINTING BIRDS!!”
At that moment, a covey of 20+ birds flush in a direction not ideal for me to shoot. I hear a gunshot and see one quail drop. Cooper is still in the spot he first stopped – I think he is just as surprised as I am that everything fell into place. I send him in for the retrieve and he finds the dead bird.
He did it! We put a bird in the sack that would not have been possible without my dog. MY dog! I am so excited that I can’t think straight. After high fives, smiles all around, and congratulations, we move on. Well, they move on. I hang back to have my moment. My lanky, goofball vizsla pointed his first wild covey. I can’t help but break down in tears.
My boyfriend, recognizing my sniffles, says, “I didn’t realize how much this meant.” I reply, “I didn’t either.”
I’ve always been a wild child. I’m a fourth-generation game hunter and a second-generation wildlife biologist. I grew up eating, sleeping, and living the outdoors. My mom would find frogs in my sippy cups and snake skins under my bed. My dad took me hunting when I was still in diapers. Hunting was a way of life in my household.
I spent many evenings in my dad’s “den” blowing ducks calls and scraping turkey slates and just as many mornings asleep in the truck on the way to the duck/deer/turkey blind. Every day, I am thankful for the way I was raised. Hunting is something that I’ve never lost interest in, even after moving away from home.
Upland hunting is brand new to me, though. I grew up mostly waterfowl hunting. My grandpa was an avid upland hunter but by the time I was old enough to tag along, the quail populations in Indiana had plummeted and grandpa spent his time teaching me to duck hunt and catch fish.
It wasn’t until I bought my first purebred dog that the idea of upland hunting entered my mind. I didn’t choose to purchase a vizsla for hunting. I wanted a vizsla for their personality as a pet and companion.
But when Cooper was 10 weeks old, my boyfriend and I were playing fetch with him. Each throw before he would take off, he would lock up in an uncoordinated, wobbly point. I had never seen a dog point before, so this was just the coolest thing in my mind. I thought to myself, “well if he can point birds, I could probably shoot them”. In that moment, my upland hunting journey began.
I scoured Facebook forums to figure out my first steps. I joined my local NAVHDA group and went to my first meeting, my little 12-week-old goofball in tow. When I say I didn’t know anything about upland hunting, I mean I REALLY didn’t know anything. I remember sitting in on their meeting, just listening, when someone mentioned a dog smelling the bird and pointing. I raised my hand, “dogs will point when they smell a bird?” Of course, everyone in the meeting laughed and kindly educated me.
Now, when I get involved in a new hobby, I don’t just dabble in it – I dive in head-first. The once-a-month NAVHDA meetings were not going to cut it for me. My bird dog was growing too fast and I needed to learn as much as I can. That’s what lead me to my mentor, Mike Stolhand of J&S Kennels. I helped Mike out around his kennel and assisted him in training client dogs. In exchange, he let me follow him around, ask him a million questions, and run Cooper on pigeons. Mike ended up becoming one of my best friends and I looked forward to the days I got to spend in his training field learning all that I could about this new sport, exchanging stories, and picking on each other.
I don’t think anyone else in the world could have tolerated me and only now can I appreciate the patience it must have taken him to watch me train Cooper. You see, I wanted to train my own bird dog. Why would I let a professional bird dog trainer work with my dog when I already read one whole book on the subject? I mean, I have trained dogs to do all sorts of tricks with treats. This shouldn’t be any different… *cue face palm*... Even though Mike saw me make mistake after mistake, he respected my desire to train my own bird dog, gave guidance when I asked, and sat back and watched.
Cooper had incredible natural ability at a young age, and it took little effort on my end to achieve a point, holding through the shot, and retrieve. I did it! I had a bird dog… until Cooper grew up. At about 10 months old, Cooper no longer wanted to point. He just wanted to break and chase. Mike watched as I planted pigeon after pigeon only to have Cooper break over and over and over. When he offered to take Cooper through his program, still I refused. I wanted to train my own bird dog.
The hunting season came around and Mike was kind enough to let Cooper run with his seasoned bird dogs, even though we both knew he would never hold a point. I was unimpressed. He didn’t find any birds on his own, busted a few coveys, and the hunting season was basically glorified walks for him with a few gun shots here and there. Bird numbers in Oklahoma were low and that didn’t help much. He did have some birds shot over him, which was great exposure. I was just happy to have him on wild birds and experience my very first upland hunting season with my first bird dog.
Shortly after, I moved to Austin, Texas and I thought all hope was lost. I was leaving Oklahoma with an unbroke dog. When we got to Texas, I focused all of my efforts on obedience and “whoa.” My motto was, “everywhere we go, we whoa.”
Soon, I could stop him on a verbal command, and he’d stand there until I told him he could move. Better than nothing, right? We visited Mike several months later and put Cooper on pigeons and pen-raised quail. By some miracle, he was solid through the drop. Suddenly, I really did have a bird dog! I was eager for my second hunting season with Cooper.
It was the 2019 quail opening weekend. I joined Mike and his brother, Dave, on their annual tradition of hunting public land in Beaver, Oklahoma.
Once again, I was unimpressed. Living in a city took Cooper’s range out in a big way. He rarely went farther than 50 yards and was super careful, constantly looking towards me for guidance. I was giving him a lot of encouragement and overhandling.
Finally, Mike suggested I just shut up… and then Cooper blossomed. He was ranging out and hunting on his own, watching the other dogs and checking every plum thicket. And when Cooper did finally find that first covey, it sparked a fire in me more than anything in my life.
After my hunt in Oklahoma, I planned more hunts. Lots more hunts...
Last season, Cooper and I hunted in five different states, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Indiana, and South Carolina, with successful finds on each trip. Cooper pointed Bobwhite quail in the sandhills of Oklahoma, scaled and Gambel’s quail in the desert of New Mexico, and Mearns’ quail in the mountains of Arizona. He even got to chase woodcock in the bottomlands of South Carolina, but he preferred chasing those goofy birds rather than pointing them.
Cooper has hunted with both gun hunters and falconers. He has proven himself to be quite an impressive falconry dog – at least in my eyes – and has the natural ability to know which birds to chase and which birds to respect. Cooper has hunted quail under a North American Goshawk and a Finnish Goshawk and flushed ducks under a Peregrine Falcon. I plan to start my falconry journey this year with Cooper playing a vital role of finding game for us.
Cooper is the reason I am so passionate about this sport. Nothing comes close to firing me up about hunting and conservation like watching Cooper run through the desert and sandhills, figuring out new terrain and how to find these elusive birds. I’ve never been good at shooting quail – they are so small and fast! But my shooting is improving, and I’ve learned Cooper is absolutely phenomenal at finding dead birds.
On every single hunt, I think of my grandpa. He and I were close and shared the passion for hunting and fishing. He passed away shortly before I got Cooper and I know he would have loved nothing more than to watch Cooper and me succeed. I often imagine what it would be like sitting on his porch once again, eating apples and talking about the sport he was most proficient in, absorbing every little lesson he had to give. I know he’s watching me, and I know he would be proud.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the time I will be blessed with to hunt behind Cooper. He will surely not be my best bird dog, but he will always be my first bird dog. Cooper has allowed me to make mistake after mistake and continues to do so. He has endured my ignorance and stubbornness, and he still turned out OK.
I know I will have countless stories by the end of his career, and thinking about all the opportunities we will chase together gives me so much excitement. There truly is no sport like upland hunting behind a bird dog.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. Enjoyed it? Join Quail Forever today at the link below.