Up to your eyes in aspens, you hear your hunting partner yell, "Point!" The dog materializes before you - head low, foot cocked, tail high. The bird could be a grouse. But this time of year, in this type of cover, it could also be a woodcock. Your buddy kindly gives you the go-ahead to walk in and take the shot. But how?
There is a certain set of rules when hunting with bird dogs, be they of the pointing or flushing persuasion. Unfortunately, this is one chapter Emily Post left out of Miss Manners.
It's important to be aware of the basics - such as how to properly walk in on point. Applying what you know in the field will ultimately result in a more enjoyable time, perhaps more birds. Proper etiquette around somebody else's bird dogs will also get you invited to come back again.
To the Point
Part of the answer to the first question is to never walk directly in behind a dog on point, which tends to make them nervous. Don't pussyfoot around looking for the bird on the ground when you're walking in either. Walk in, gun at ready, anticipating the flush. If the bird is reluctant to fly, you may have to kick around a bit.
So, come into the point either perpendicular to the dog or head on. Consider your surroundings, too, and where the bird will fly. Grouse and pheasants will try to fly toward heavy cover; woodcock tend to fly toward clearings or the light. One of the beauties of hunting with a pointing dog is that the shooting tends to be more controlled. You can often set up your best shot - whether it's a straightaway or a left-to-right crosser - provided the dog is staunch, you know your cover and birds, and you come in correctly on the point.
Often birds will flush wild while hunting with a pointer. Some handlers don't like shooting at anything that hasn't been held first with a good, solid point. This is especially true with younger dogs that are just learning the game. So clear this issue up before hand.
Whereas a pointing dog ranges far, points, and holds game for the hunter, a flushing dog's job is to work close to the gun and put any birds it finds into the air. This group of bird dogs includes all the retrieving breeds - Labs, goldens, and Chesapeakes among them - and all the spaniels.
When hunting with a dog for the first time, it's a good idea to ask about a dog's steadiness. This is also true when hunting around pointers, most of which will usually give chase after the flush, which may put them in the line of fire. It's the same with flushers. A few may be trained to stop at the flush of a bird - called "broke to flush." Fewer still are trained to hold until they hear the shot - called "broke to shot."
Realistically, most flushing dogs never get trained to this advance degree. After the bird gets airborne, they keep after it until it falls from the sky or they're called off.
Every year, dogs get wounded, and sometimes killed, because the shooter wasn't mindful of the dog's position when the trigger was pulled. Not surprisingly, most accidents happen in the wide-open pheasant fields. Unlike grouse and woodcock, which fly up fast, a pheasant (especially preserve birds) sometimes has a hard time getting off the ground. Dogs are great leapers. This makes it a good idea to hold off shooting until you can see blue sky all the way around the bird.
If you scratch a bird down, don't expect the dog to fetch it to you. And don't try to coax the dog into coming to you either. Dogs are trained to return downed birds to their handler. In fact, never give somebody else's dog a command in the field. It only confuses the situation and is likewise a tremendous breech of etiquette.
It's best not to talk to the dog at all when hunting. Too much chatter in the field only spooks birds anyway - especially pheasants. Talk too much and the dog will just tune out, which causes problems when the real commands are given.
When walking behind a bird dog, walk always with your gun pointed at the sky, never down at the ground. The dog lives down there. And finally, remember that these are bird dogs not beagles. That is to say, don't ever shoot at anything on the ground. This goes for rabbits and any runners - birds trying to hotfoot it away instead of taking wing.
By following these simple rules of gun dog etiquette, you'll have a successful hunt, your hunting buddy will be happier, and most importantly; you'll get invited to hunt over his dogs again.
Before turning to freelancing fulltime, Bob Butz was the managing editor for The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal. He writes lifestyle, interview, and sporting articles for numerous publications. Just recently, his by-line has appeared in such publications as Sports Afield, GQ, New York Times, BOOK Magazine, and Land Rover Journal. He teamed up with photographer Lee Kjos to complete the book -- Season's Belle: A Labrador Retriever's First Year -- due out in May 2002 from Silver Quill Press.
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