As bird dogs go, my Gabby may not be the best I've ever seen but now on our sixth season we know each other pretty well. She finds and points birds as best she can and I try to shoot them as best I can. She hunts hard and I've never seen a dog that takes more delight in the hunt. If she could I believe she'd be laughing as she darts in and out of the cover. Now days it's become common to buckle expensive GPS locating collars on bird dogs, even those claimed to be grouse and woodcock dogs. No need for that with Gabby because though she's not always working close, I'm able to keep track of her with only the bell on her collar which seems right for a grouse dog. If time could be backed up I think I would have enjoyed developing a line of easy-handling English setters for grouse hunters.
I recently re-read George Bird Grinnell's article Woodcock Shooting. In it he describes the ideal grouse and woodcock dog to be close ranging – never beyond a gunshot – nor desirable to work at high speed – to know thoroughly the best manner of working to the gun – as silently as possible, though a small bell can be useful in thick cover. I like the phrase “best manner of working to the gun” but I fear today's gunners have no use for any of Grinnell's opinion. Of course when that article was published in 1910 bird hunting was much different than today and I have to believe grouse and woodcock were far more plentiful as Grinnell recounts day's total kills that modern gunners would be lucky to match in a lifetime.
Grinnell would be disappointed in my Gabby's range, within gunshot is a flushing dogs job, but he might have appreciated her change in style when she's working game. She'll often slow her pace and strike a point, then move a bit, creeping forward or sometimes to the side until she is convinced the bird is located. Two days ago I watched her work scent from a distance and when she finally locked up I pushed ahead to flush and kill one of the largest ruffed grouse I've ever seen. When it works like that it's something to see. Then yesterday I saw her skid to a point when she found scent and never twitched while I flushed the grouse ahead of her. After that I stood and watched her for a long minute as she stop-started a semi circle around a blowdown that looked good for grouse but on my approach a woodcock surprised me and offered an easy shot. You can never be sure of how it will happen and I've come to appreciate Gabby's method of making game – sometimes it's the best part of the sport.
I would have liked gunning in Grinnell's day. Today's gear is certainly more high-tech, maybe even more comfortable but I like the idea of wool and canvas shooting clothes, and felt hats. A compass and paper map and brass bell worn by intelligent setters pointing more and running less, Give me a pair of high lace-up boots and a solid hand finished double gun. No need for electronics.
A cold rain is falling this morning and it looks to be an all-dayer. We'll not be in the woods today but the rain is welcome in what's been a very dry Autumn. We'll be at it again, soon. The grouse are flyin' and we're shootin' pretty good!