By Tom Huggler
Surrounded by gifts on your birthday, do you open the biggest present last? When the cake comes out, do you save the frosting for the final bite? If you, too, appreciate delayed gratification and are a bird hunter, you might favor a pointing dog over a flushing breed. To me, there is no bigger thrill when hunting pheasants, quail, grouse and woodcock than the anticipation of the flush. Hit or miss, once the bird flies, the game is over.
This is not a knock against flushing dogs. I have owned enough retrievers—goldens and Labs—to appreciate their ability to find, flush and return birds to hand. But I’m older now, and I want a partner that won’t chase birds and leave me in the dust. These days I hunt more methodically, and although some flushing dogs don’t run on eight cylinders, they also don’t hold birds long enough for me to savor the moment.
Yes, I know some Labs point; in fact, I have hunted behind a couple of good ones in South Dakota. In truth, though, practically any bird dog can be trained to hold. One of my own favorite yellows, a female long gone, always hesitated before she pounced. Her quirky behavior offered a brief prologue to the drama about to unfold; but nothing beats watching a pointing dog hit the brakes, turn to stone and become a public-park statue until you make that final step.
Using pen-reared birds, a competent trainer can mold a young pointer—or any pointing breed—to perfection: head up, foreleg cocked, tail straight as a broomstick. Wild birds, of course, rarely stay put long enough for handlers to be so creative, but you still can witness the lip curl, the watering eyes, the tail quivering like a tuning fork whenever a struck-to-stone pointer is sucking up scent. I live for such tension—like a stretched rubber band about to snap.
That said, if you want the best of both worlds, then hunt with both a flusher and a pointer. Many quail-hunting preserves rely on pointers to locate birds, and then call on retrievers to get them aloft. One of the best bobwhite hunts I remember occurred years ago in South Texas when alternating teams of range-lean pointers button-hooked through the brush while we gunners followed in the back of a pickup. The guide, sitting in a scoop bucket attached to the front bumper, shouted, “Point!” and then whipped off his Stetson and held it high. Scrambling out, we loaded guns and approached the immobile dogs.
Satisfied we were in position, the guide hollered, “Sausage!” and a black-and-white springer spaniel leaped from the truck cab and went to work, frantically flushing the covey and dutifully picking up the quail we killed while the pointers remained staunch.
These days I often hunt grouse and woodcock with my setter Ragan and his kennel buddy, a yellow Lab named Butterscotch. “Scotch” walks at heel while Ragan hunts. Whenever his beeper signals “bird,” it’s Scotch’s turn to tremble and salivate until released.
Such fun can make my own eyes water with pleasure.