Rio is fresh off her first wild bird hunt in Nebraska. It seemed like a good opportunity to start over with an absolutely clean slate, discovering the North Woods together. The way I look at it the same thing that applies to hunters applies to the young Jornada Llewellin setter; get exposure to as many different birds in as many varied situations as possible and become better bird hunters.
I had heard lots of stories of the impenetrable cover, inability to see the dogs, and fleeting shooting opportunities. Because Rio is so young, I am nervous. I’m throwing her in the deep end where even experienced dogs sometimes have difficulties. But these challenges drive me and is exactly what we need.
Rio is a sporty little dog and has shown she will point almost anything from the smallest bug to the neighbor’s cat. But we’re about to enter the big leagues of bird hunting and in this brush there is no way to put a lead on the dog. After the lack of birds in our earlier Nebraska hunt, Rio still hasn’t made the connection that holding point eventually nets a bird in the mouth. My top concern is that there will be so much bird scent and new stimuli that she’s just going to run wild. I expect a young dog to bust some birds, that’s a normal part of the learning process. But the problem arises if they find so much joy in flushing they decide that’s the mission.
Maybe Rio senses my anxiety. Once I turn her loose she immediately starts hunting. And she points. And points. And points as if to say ”don’t worry boss, I’ve got this pointing stuff down.” I just laugh out loud the entire time. Anyone within earshot of this had to be thinking who let the lunatic out? I can see the wheels turning in this little setter’s head. She’s pointing old scent. In Nebraska we had difficulty finding any birds due to the earlier drought. But here there have been so many flights of Woodcock through the area, sign is everywhere. The false points don’t worry me at all because I know Rio is soaking up both scent and knowledge like a sponge.
As Rio holds I give an occasional “whoa” and lots of positive reinforcement . I watch her lock up again and again. And when I approach I can see her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. At times I walk over and touch her head to release her with an “ok”. I know eventually she will mark an actual bird and I will need to do my job.
Unlike hunting behind the flushing lab Wyatt where I have to be ready to gun at any moment, there is a calm that comes with hunting behind a pointer. I’m not shooting any of the wild flushes which in this thick cover are very common. This is one of the best ways to reinforce staunch points. Follow this rule with a young dog and it will payoff down the road. And because I fully intend to hunt Rio with Wyatt later this year, I need her to understand that a different set of rules applies to her.
Eventually Rio slams on the brakes just to my right and a Ruffed grouse erupts from her glare. I raise the gun, snap the shot and walk through the feathers cascading among the trees like a ticker tape parade. It’s Rio’s first wild bird and my first gray phase Ruff. I want to sit and soak in the moment in the late morning sun. But Rio insists that there’s more hunting to be done. I hope every bird we take together from here on feels as sweet.
Over the next few days of hunting in Wisconsin, we move our share of birds which are mostly wild flushes. Rio gets a number of solid points on Woodcock, but I can’t seem to bring one down. Slowly we’re solving the mysteries of North Woods hunting. The birds will be in the cuts and thickest of cover, and you certainly can fly them from there. But this cover also makes for some supremely difficult shooting. Often there is no room to even swing the shotgun, just pick a window between a couple of saplings and hope you can connect.
There is so much more to learn but Michigan calls. I meet up with the Saltville crew of Ultimate Uplanders who’ve hunted these Upper Peninsula forests for years. I’m excited to see how Rio hunts with the other dogs. Johnnie, Robbie and their friends have brought a pack of Brittanys and my old buddy Boomer, the English Setter. These guys are the engineers of my first ever Ruffed Grouse, so when they hear I haven’t been able to connect on Woodcock yet, they take it as a personal challenge. Of course it comes with a large serving of ribbing about my lack of shooting skills. I know regardless the weather or any other factor, I will have to shoot a Woodcock because they have made it their mission.
Boomer is a lock down dog; there is no other way to put it. He’s found a pace which allows him to hunt infinitely. Rio could certainly use this lesson, but instead she takes off like a rocket. Luckily Robbie had a spare GPS collar that he strapped to Rio, and I’m thankful because apparently Boomer’s presence has given her confidence to extend to crazy new ranges. The cover here in Michigan is thicker than what we’ve been hunting in Wisconsin and though we’ve seen Rio pointing, she also quickly gets separated from us and out of earshot. The GPS collar is just an assurance that we’ll be able to eventually locate her. There are thousands of contiguous acres up here and an inexperienced dog can easily get lost. Removing the stress of losing a dog is well worth the expense, so I’m convinced of the benefits and will be getting a SportDog TEK for our Kansas hunt later this season.
We eventually reign in Rio and decide to hunt from some two tracks so that we can keep a better eye on her. Boomer even seems to like this idea after busting heavy cover all week. We don’t walk far before he’s frozen on a bird to the right of the path. The later it gets in the season the more jumpy these grouse get. This bird flushes, breaks hard to cover and Robbie swings and fires twice. Unsure of the result we wait for Boomer’s ruling. He eventually tracks down this grouse and brings it up minus some tail feathers.
We hunt on and not to be outdone, Rio wheels and locks up on the path ahead allowing Robbie to down another Ruff. About this same time a storm rolls in and the drenching begins. We have yet to flush a Woodcock to the dismay of the Saltville crew as we head back to the truck to grab a snack and talk over the options. Frigid rain is one of the most miserable bird hunting conditions to try and hunt. The upside is that birds typically don’t like flying in this weather either and they will hold for dogs.
I’m pretty certain the Virginia boys like to test my mettle. But they should know from last season when we hunted in an Old Dominion deluge that a little rain isn’t gonna pull me from the pursuit. And I know damn well it isn’t gonna stop them either. Still the question of quitting is fielded in the hopes that someone will accept resignation thereby becoming the target of intense mocking.
Instead we go rustle up Johnnie and head to a different area where the Woodcock have been frequenting. Straight out of the truck one of the experienced Brittany goes on point. And once I get Rio headed in the right direction she locks down on the same spot. Apparently this Timberdoodle had wormed out behind us and it back flushes offering no shot. But what an amazing sight to see those two dogs rock solid together.
Robbie and I head the direction of the escapee as the rain intensifies. The only way to stay warm in these conditions is to walk faster or push through thicker cover. Rio has run herself silly by this point in the day and has little left in the tank. Luckily Boomer just keeps plodding along with the same consistent pace and confidence. And just like that he locates a bird. The initial flush is screened to me, but as it flashes into a small opening I shoot and watch it fold.
According to Robbie, normally fast on the trigger, he had waited an extra second to give me a chance at my first Woodcock. I’ll be paying for that extra second for many years I’m sure. It is certainly worth it to spend quality time with good people in pursuit of birds.