Tradition dictates that you hunt certain birds with a certain kind of dog. For example, the aesthetic qualities of a New England grouse and woodcock hunt are amplified tenfold when following a pointer (specifically an elegant English setter).
A Southern quail hunt . . .again pointer. Sea ducks along the Eastern Seaboard; a retriever without question, preferably a big, burly Chesapeake.
But what breed is best for pheasants?
Retrievers are the most popular kind of sporting dogs in America for a host of reasons. One is how they handle pheasants, America's favorite game bird. Labrador, golden, and Chesapeake Bay retrievers are routinely ranked among the top breeds registered with the AKC every year. But let's not forget the spaniels (technically they're regarded as flushing dogs but the way they work a piece of cover is the same).
Here are just a few reasons why retrievers make great pheasant dogs:
Release the Hounds
You may be hunting solo for scattered roosters, just you and the dog, down in some narrow creek bottom or fencerow. Or you may take up position in a skirmish line with other hunters bent on pushing a wide-open field toward a line of standing gunners. Whichever the mode of putting up some birds, a retriever's duty is to work close to the handler's gun.
As often as pheasants run from approaching hunters, they are just as likely to hunker down and let trouble amble by. If you're hunting alone, retrievers and spaniels allow you to work the cover thoroughly, bit by bit. Working close to the gun, means that no clump of sod or tuft of brush along your chosen route ever goes un-sniffed.
When hunting in larger groups, a quartering retriever will rout those birds that otherwise would slip through between hunters bent on maintaining "the line." Further, retrievers are conditioned to put up any birds they happen across without hesitation. Pointers on the other hand require a gunner to walk in and make the flush. When hunting in a group, breaking formation - that is, stepping out of the advancing line to put up a bird - means holding up the progress of the line and exposing a hole in the ranks that retreating birds are prone to escape through.
Hunt 'Em Up
Pheasants are notorious runners, which is brutal on staunch and steady pointing dogs. In fact, most pro trainers recommend that you keep young pointers away from wild roosters in the beginning. Running pheasants promote creeping, among other bad habits. A lot of broken points and wild flushes are usually the result of hunting inexperienced pointers on wild pheasants.
If you hunt in areas where there are a lot of birds, the abundance of bird scent can make dogs hard to control -nearly impossible if the dog is ranging out there as pointers are bred to do.
Those Crazy Pheasants
What makes retrievers so popular among hunters is their versatility. This article shouldn't leave you with the impression that pointers cannot become competent pheasant dogs. I've seen too many stellar performances made by pointers on wild roosters to think such a thing. However, these have been pointers that grew up in the same country wild roosters live. The problem is that too many hunters confuse pen-raised pheasants with "the real thing." Wild roosters are totally different creatures than their short-tailed cousins bred for weekend hunts at the preserve.
If you train a dog on pen-raised roosters then get the opportunity to hunt wild pheasants, the transition for some dogs can eat up a lot of time. With retrievers the adjustment is minor and basically boils down to the handler's control in keeping the dog in range. With pointers, their entire hunting style must be altered because wild pheasants are just so hard to pin down.
You may scratch down a cock pheasant, but don't count it toward the limit until you have the bird in hand. Unlike domestic pheasants, a mature wild rooster can take one heck of a beating, and unless headshot, it can always be expected to run.
This is where a retriever's good nose and desire to fetch is indispensable. You want a pheasant dog that "hunts dead" with the same desire they use when pointing or flushing the bird into the heavens. Any dog that has no interest in finding downed game and retrieving to hand is, frankly, a detriment in the pheasant fields.
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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