“No, I don’t think you understand, he has NO prior hunting experience…only obedience training.” I wrote to Brian, my new upland hunting buddy. The early morning email asking for my young lab and me to attend an upland hunt had caught me by surprise, putting a nice end to a long workweek.
“Kali, it doesn’t matter. This is a training day. Lincoln is coming.”
I smiled to myself and shook my head. My one-year-old, 107-pound silver Labrador, Lincoln, was about to get his first taste of upland hunting…with no experience afield…at all. “This is going to be embarrassing.” I thought to myself.
Meeting Brian by chance at the SHOT Show in January kicked off a friendship with a fellow Ohio-an, and lover of upland hunting. Founder of ultimateupland.com, Brian was a rare acquaintance to meet, but I knew a good one. I had a lot to learn, and he was my best bet.
Passing on the family tradition, my love for bird hunting came early as my Grandpa had no less than 15 English setters at a time, training them for field trials as I grew up. However, high school sports took up most of my time, leaving me no time to learn the art of training a bird dog before my Grandpa passed during my college years.
Lincoln, the young pup who loved nothing more than squeaky toys, playing fetch, and to jump in any water in site, had the obedience training to be a great hunting dog. I just didn’t know where to start. Brian insisted that a hunt was the best place. I wasn’t so sure.
We planned a late March hunt. It was a cold, dreary day, and rain was in the forecast. Warm coffee, and a greasy burger were paramount before we hit the field. Brian and I would be hunting with Brian’s long time friends, Steve and Brian. The fear of ruining these guys’ hunt loomed over my head. I’m going to be THAT girl and never be invited again.
Vests donned, shotguns loaded and dogs done greeting each other, we hit the high grass. Lincoln, thinking he was on the ultimate field trip of his young, 4-legged life, attempted to keep up with Rio, Brian’s Llewellin setter, and Charlie, Steve’s German Shorthair Pointer—both professional upland hunters.
Although athletically built and muscular, Lincoln was no match for keeping up with the wiry bird dogs, and soon stuck close to me, following closely through the thick grass. Each downed bird had Lincoln running frantically behind Charlie, attempting to win the foot race to get to whatever miracle “ball” had fallen from the sky first.
Even when he did beat Charlie (which was rare) his discovery of the feathered covered “ball” only had him in utter confusion. My attempts to show him a rooster I held in my hands to spark his interest only ended in a few sniffs, and turn of the head. My hopes of my dog being an ultimate upland hunter were diminishing before the lunch hour.
The Ohio weather forecast turned out to be off—nothing new—and the sun was peaking through the blue skies as we hit the field after an afternoon break. Then, as if the sun had awakened his hunting senses, things started turning for Lincoln.
A rooster flushed 10 yards in front of us, giving me clear a view to take him down. Watching the action take place, Lincoln saw the bird fall in a cleared path ahead of us and sprung into action. Thinking he would turn away from the bird once he realized it wasn’t a ball, I lowered my head to reload, only to hear Lincoln’s anxious barks. I looked up to see him attempting to put the bird in his mouth!
A few flops of the wings from the bird had Lincoln jump back in surprise, sparking an ongoing pouncing battle and angry barks that this “ball” wasn’t allowing him to pick it up.
Not wanting to waste this breakthrough, Brian grabbed a previously shot bird from his vest and focused Lincoln’s attention, throwing the bird and calling anxiously for him to “fetch it up.”
It was like a light bulb had turned on, and Lincoln grabbed the bird from the grass. The foreign texture of feathers only fazed him for a moment before the taste of bird had him growling in excitement. A command of “fetch it up” from my mouth is all he needed to bring the bird to his proud “mom.”
Lincoln’s demeanor changed after that, and he wanted more. He followed closely to Brian, attempting to get at the birds he held in his vest. Ears perked, tail up, Lincoln was beginning to understand the command “hunt em’ up” and what would follow if he did just that.
Thinking we had made a huge breakthrough for the day, my fear of Lincoln not being interested in hunting slowly began to fade as I watched his nose hit the ground in search of birds.
And then, it all came together in a flash. Nose in the grass, I could see Lincoln moving left to right, hot on the trail of something. When, like clockwork, Brian yelled “bird, bird, get em’ Lincoln!” and I saw my novice flusher leap in the air in an attempt to grab a bird flying out of the tall grass. His first flush!
But he didn’t stop there! Muscles flared, eyes on the prize, Lincoln took off after the downed bird that made it 25 yards before falling. Screams of excitement from all four of us pushed the young hunter on. This time, he won the foot race to the bird, grabbing it in his jaws like he had been doing it all along, and jogged proudly back to us.
My dog, who had never hunted before, had just flushed AND retrieved a bird at 25 yards on his first trip afield. I was ecstatic to say the least. Tears of joy and pride filled my eyes, and I tried not to let my voice crack as I cheered him on as he brought us his first bird. Tail wagging and ears perked, Lincoln looked at us as if to say “let’s do that again” as we all cheered in excitement at the young dogs accomplishment.
But he didn’t stop there; Lincoln went on to flush three more birds that afternoon, retrieving all but one (Charlie winning that race).
Proud is an understatement for how I felt watching things come together for Lincoln. As we hunted until the sun ducked behind the horizon—Lincoln, Rio and Charlie laid down with exhaustion as we cleaned our birds from the day.
I looked at my dog lying next to the tailgate. He was covered in mud, his fur matted, and a small sliver of blood could be seen on his snout from a scrape acquired earlier in the day. We made eye contact and I laughed, causing the ever-famous Lincoln head tilt. “I have myself a bird hunter.” I thought.