A Young Pointer’s First Season

After a long wait, I finally brought Chief home this spring from HiFive Kennels.  He is my latest addition to the team.  I had been on the waiting list for a pup since last August and due to some (mostly) unavoidable circumstances, that wait was a little longer than I had anticipated.  When he arrived at our little farm in Clinton County, he adjusted quickly.  Mostly, he adjusted the little farm into his kingdom; or so he thought.

On par with every male bird dog pup I have had, he was pretty convinced that it was go time, all the time.  Run, jump, bite, chew, run, slide, run, and finally a little sleep had become his expertise in just a couple of short days.  Annoying my seven year old english pointer, Chopper had also become his expertise.  What the two don’t know is, they are half brothers and as puppies acted exactly alike.

Currently, Chief is approximately 8.5 months.  As of the beginning of grouse season he had been through a pretty intense yard training seminar this summer.  I brought him h0me at about four months and gave him a month to get acclimated to his new environment.  During this time I gave him some latitude and let him think he was king of the castle.  This world would not come crashing down on him, but he would learn very quickly that there was a pecking order in our pack and he did not just fall in at the top.  Of course, during his month of total puppy time he realized that there were rules.  He learned commands like; kennel, here, outside, inside, and of course, treats.  Without him knowing it I started to teach him what whoa meant.  I would usually do it when he was waiting to go inside or outside while he was waiting at the door, or while he was visiting momentarily for some positive attention.  I would stroke his belly and chin encouraging him to stand tall, and style him up a little, the whole time telling him “whoa” and “good boy, Chief”.

His “training seminar” this summer has been fairly routine for a pup his age.  I tried to keep it fun without putting too much pressure on him.  We worked on whoa and heel.  He is doing very well on both, but he is the most consistent with the whoa work.  I should add, that at no time during this puppy training did Chief get introduced to liberated birds.  I wanted his initial contact with game birds to be those of the wild variety.

The other focal point of his training was handling.  I am fortunate enough to have sixteen acres of my own and the Maple River State Game Area just down the road from me.  His first handling test was not much of a test.  We went to a large prairie area  at the state game area, he was off check cord and running free.  He didn’t run far (25-50 yards), but doing a good job of investigating and testing his own boundaries.  While on this run he hit an area that was thick with autumn olive and had visibly made game.  Being unsure of what kind of game he had up his nose I made my way over to his focus area.  Just as I headed that way, a wild hen pheasant blew out of the cover with little Chief in her prop wash.  I fired the 209 starter pistol and he never missed a beat.  Mission number one had been accomplished.

A couple of weeks had passed after the run in pheasant country and I took him to the woods Up North, where he would be spending a majority of his time afield.  The first cover I put him down in was always a training cover for me when I lived in Northern Michigan as it always seemed to have at least one brood of grouse in it every year.  This year, there were two.  Chopper made the first run, getting two grouse pointed after bumping two.  Then I put Chief down.  He was motoring about and getting used to his new legs that had started to grow like sunflower shoots when he clearly made game again.  Only this time we were in the woods…where it matters.  His tail was going like a windshield wiper during an April rainstorm and I could see that his mind was going faster.  In a matter of seconds he found himself in the middle of a brood of young, hungry grouse, under a big old oak tree.  When the first one flushed it started a chain reaction that reminded me of popcorn.  Up came 6 grouse right around Chief; you would have thought he was in heaven.  He was so excited he went deaf.  At least it appeared that way when I was praising him up and having a party of my own out of suprise and pride.  I must have yelled “good boy!” about 15 times until he realized that I was there to witness the whole thing.  Chief had found grouse and that was my main concern.  I knew better than to expect him to point grouse right out of the whelping box.  He had simply found a gang of unsuspecting grouse; mission number two accomplished.

After a few training runs this summer with more of the same results, I had developed some very high hopes for the youngster.  However, being a grouse hunter I knew that high hopes should be met with low expectations.  If there is one game bird that can make the sharpest of pointing dogs perform like a complete rookie it’s the ruffed grouse.

My opening day ended abruptly due to an act of ignorance on my part.  I was in a new area, on a road I was unfamiliar with, and it was getting narrow very fast.  Needless to say, I found myself very stuck in short order.  That was a Sunday and I would head home without spending any time to speak of on the ground.  Well, except for the muddy ground surrounding my Jeep that was buried to the frame.

The following weekend I would leave for familiar coverts with both dogs in tow.  After stopping at a couple of places on the way up and trying to wait out rain showers and humidity, I finally pushed forward to my final destination.  I headed west of town to the same small cover that Chief had contacted his first grouse.  After approximately thirty minutes on the ground, I called Chief to me as I stood on a two track and gave him a drink out of a water bottle that I carry in my game pouch.  He drank as much as I would give him and he turned and headed on his way.  He made it about 20 yards down the trail when he slammed on his brakes.  With his tail high and his body twisted directly toward a blow down, he was frozen.  As I admired how handsome my little pointer was doing his job, I realized there was a grouse blasting off, out of the opposite end of the blow down and it was my job to kill it.  I was carrying an old Franchi AL 48 20 gauge that I had gotten from my dad and older brother for Christmas 26 years ago; so the gun and I were familiar.  Before I could think about it, Chief was running back to me with a dead grouse in his mouth and I was as excited as he was, and that’s saying something.  I praised him up as long as he would let me before he took off hunting to find another bird.  I let him run it off for a minute and got him out of there, ending on a positive note.  My third and final mission for the season was accomplished in just a few hours of the first day.

The next spot was a bit farther to the west of town in an old covert that my friend Fritz and I have called “The Motel” since the first season we hunted together.  My old german shorthaired pointer, Max, may he rest in peace, found his first porcupine there after we moved north.  Unfortunately, he found it twice…in three days.  That second day would mark the end of his porcupine hunting career.  From that day forward he would point them and growl.  I have also had some of my very best hunts in this spot.  It’s a relatively easy covert to navigate, contains some different types of cover within one long walk, plenty of food, and it takes me back to the beginning of my grouse hunting career.

It wasn’t long and the veteran, Chopper, had pointed about six woodcock.  He went on point again and I walked in quite unconcerned, as it was not yet woodcock season and a nice ruff blasted out of the edge of a young cut and presented me with a decent look.  I was again carrying my old 20 gauge and cracked off another kill shot.  The bird hit the ground as fast as it left it.  It was becoming increasingly apparent that there were great forces at work here.  I had fired two shots and killed two grouse to start my 2013 season.  Was there something afoot that I need to be concerned with or was I just finally having one of those days that I always hope for.  I knew that I had better end it there and head into town to visit my friend George.  I packed up, scratched my two pointers behind their ears and headed in.

My great friend George and I sat and caught up.  We had not seen one another in quite a long time, so it was a visit that had been long overdue.  Neither of us are big fans of phone conversations, so we had plenty to talk about.  Mostly, we talked about his menu for the evening.  It includeded two NY strips, two sirloins, four sausage stuffed pork chops, and some Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey.  This large carnivorous meal was for the two of us.  We sat outdoors as the evening cooled and the city quieted.  It was a typical friday night that you would find in many Lake Michigan towns.  It was getting late and I was fading fast.  I was tired from hunting, full from the ridiculous amount of beef and pork I had recently ingested, and a little numb from the whiskey.  It was a splendid way to end my first real hunting day of the season and I have George to thank for that.

Saturday would bring a cool and very wet morning.  I attacked Saturday with a very inlfated confidence and I would soon be reminded of how humbling a day of grouse hunting can be.  I missed my next two grouse and didn’t get a look at the few woodcock that my older dog would get pointed.  As the day wore on the sky broke and it finally dried out.  My young dog Chief had fumbled a couple of gimme woodcock and was not finding grouse.  I was intentionally staying out of woodcock rich areas but still finding the random mudbat.  I am not of the camp that woodcock are great training aids for young grouse dogs.  Grouse are great training aids for young grouse dogs.

On my way out of my last cover with the Chopper, I was driving down a very familiar road and thinking of a bird that I had shot over my friend’s oldest lab; a true meat dog.  As I drove by the exact spot we had parked that day, I looked at it remembering having my picture taken with one of my very first, truly fine birds.  It was a large, male, gray phase and I still remember how obvious the size of the bird was as it flushed.   Just about the time I looked back to the road I saw a grouse hop into the ferns on the side of the road.

I slowly stopped, reversed my vehicle, and as I was creeping out of the door I saw a beatiful red phase flush to the same side of the road the other bird had just entered.  I grabbed my vest, shotgun, and my young pointer Chief.  He no more than hit the ground and knew why we were there.  He pointed his cylinder choked nostrils into the wind and followed them.  He bumped the first grouse and I saw that it was a smallish bird.  This verified my thought that we had just surprised a brood of birds feeding on the oak ridge where I had parked a few years before.  I proceeded to walk up a nice red phase bird and with Chief just 30-40 yards away watching it and quickly chasing it I let it fly.  After about five minutes of walking around, there was another bird knocked by young Chief and I figured that it was time to go.  Just about that time Chief’s bell stopped and I assumed that he was listening for me as we had not made contact for a bit.  I called to him, nothing.  I called again, still nothing.  It was at that moment that my own voice entered my head and said, “He’s on point”.  So I made my way to him about 50 yard away, and as I rounded a small white pine tree there he was.  All four feet planted firmly on the ground, head high, and his tail at twelve o’clock.  I took a second to admire how staunch and proud he looked and then flushed the bird for him.  He held through the flush, and was in full chase when the bird came crashing to the ground in front of him.  This time I didn’t give him much of a chance to retrieve the bird.  I was so excited that I ran over to him as he was trying to pick it up and started cheering him on.  He got about a hundred attaboys, some pats on the side, and a bunch of scratches behind his ears.

This last bird has a couple of significant memories for me.  While the first bird was great, Chief held this bird as I called to him twice, then continued to hold the bird for the flush.  I was also carrying my wedding present that I had just gotten back from my gunsmith, D.C. Whitman.  With a little added cast, my new Caesar Guerini Magnus fit just right.  Thanks Chelsea.  I love it.

That marked the end of a great weekend afield.  As I drove home that night my wife could tell how happy I was with my hunt, my new shotgun, and the dog work, and that made her happy.  I got home and she met her bird dogs and husband at the door with a smile as big as mine.

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