Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The makings of a grouse dog.

About four years ago a doctor friend gave me two orange-ticked male setter puppies with the express purpose of developing one of them into a field trial prospect. If it worked out the best of the two would compete in the grouse and woodcock field trial circuit and the other would be sold as a gundog or pet. I registered one as Orange Pop (though I called him Casey) because of his choppy, animated, reckless way of charging and darting through the woods which can be very attractive to a field trial judge. The other is Jack Sparrow, named for his swashbuckling clownish attitude. Right from the start I believed Casey would be the trial dog. I ran Casey and Jack in several American Field puppy and derby stakes and both did well enough, but Casey soon lived up to my expectations and when he turned two years he was qualified to enter Championship stakes. My situation changed and I was unwilling to commit to the travel required to run a dog in major trials, so the decision was made to sell Casey to a friend of mine who would enter him in the major events. And I decided to keep Jack because his personality had won me over, though he lagged far behind his brother as a bird dog.

Though he did OK during summer training, there were times when I was frustrated by Jack's lack of desire, it seemed he became bored and was too lazy to hit the cover, often returning to walk along side me rather than hunt. I wondered if he would ever find a wild bird, but the light finally seemed to come on for him in a woodcock cover near Bigfork. From there he started to come on, but he often backslid and reverted to his puppy ways. He never tried to do wrong or upset me, of course, he just couldn't help clowning around. And when he did he always seemed to have a smile on his face, and if he could I'm sure I would have heard him laughing out loud at his own antics. He was definately my second string dog and one of the slowest to develop that I'd seen. But that is changing. My older setter, Ty, is my 'go-to' dog and has won some trials and has a reputation as a bird finder in the woods and on the prairies. When Ty is on the ground everyone expects action. But Ty is laid up with an eye ailment this season and has only been out hunting once (and a good day it was, with 14 grouse finds). That leaves Jack to carry the load.

Jack and I have been hunting nearly every day, now. We would be hunting right now if not for the pouring rain that's falling. I've hunted in the rain often, but... well, not today. Jack was finding late summer grouse broods during training and handling them well, but when the season started I would hear or see birds in the air coming from his vicinity. And he would come in panting looking for water partly because the earliest cover was stifling near the ground even on cool days, and partly because he was not in top condition. As the days passed I would go in to find him pointing at grouse in trees. This happens sometimes, but I've never seen it so often with one dog. I suspect he was getting too close and flushing the bird, and sometimes the grouse would jump up to a tree above. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but I wonder how many were flushed that didn't stop overhead? Also, I shoot at grouse flying, and a tree flush is one of the toughest targets there is -- especially with all the leaves still on the branches. And then there were a couple of occasions when I saw him point and then move up to flush the bird. Thinking he was seeing the bird on the ground and unable to resist the temptation, I spent a morning at home having him point and watch wing-shackled pigeons hop and flutter all around him. So far, this has seemed to help.

There's nothing like daily hunting to get a dog in shape, and Jack's middle is slimmer and his hindquarters are muscled. While Ty is eager and cannot understand why he is left home, Jack jumps in the truck and is ready to do business. His confidence level is high, and my confidence in him grows daily. Yesterday we worked two good looking, but barren covers for woodcock to no avail. These are the first covers I've hunted this year without moving a bird. Then we headed for another spot that I had in mind but have never hunted. Jack was pointing minutes out of the truck and this grouse fell in a shower of leaves. A good start to any cover. We hunted this place in one direction for an hour. Jack had a grouse nailed about every ten minutes. It was tough shooting, it's seldom easy, and I didn't hit every bird I shot at, but I hit enough to enjoy Jack's enthusiastic retrieves. And we found grouse on our way back. I even flushed a pair of wood ducks from a puddle that would have offered a pretty fair shot. It was great! Sometimes it was hard to find him in all the color, sometimes it was impossible to hear his bell. It was often hard to get much of a look at the grouse rocketing in to a stiff wind through red and yellow foliage, but that's what makes grouse hunting what it is.

I think it was Burton Spiller who said it takes 500 grouse to make a grouse dog. Jack is still shy of that mark, but he's on his way.

This afternoon I'll travel to the Eau Claire county forest where the Wisconsin Coverdog (meaning dogs that hunt the cover, rather than open country)Championship will commence tomorrow. I've been invited down to see some friends from out east, and one of the first dogs running is a grand-daughter of my grouse champion Molly. My friend Lance B. from Pennsylvania is running her and I'm eager to see her perform.

This is a big time of year for those who participate in the wild bird trials. When the Wisconsin Championship is over the MN Grouse Dog Championship will start in the Rum River Forest. Then the National Amateur Grouse Championship will take place back in WS. From there the dedicated move east to Michigan, PA, and out to N.Y. and New England. I've been there and I miss it, but I sure love hunting the home cover with a good grouse dog.
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