Written by: Zach Matthews
The wind was ripping right along, so fast that if I’d been on the water, the whitecaps would have been tearing off the tops of the waves. However—unusually for me—I wasn’t standing on the front deck of a flats skiff, or plying the oars as my drift boat plunged through a run. In fact, I wasn’t anywhere near water, unless you count the small creek babbling on the edge of the mountain valley I found myself in. I had come to the foothills of the Appalachians in North Georgia, to a quail field, where I’d asked a local to put out a few birds. It was just me, my shotgun, and the candidate: Gretchen, my three-and-a-half-year-old Wirehaired Pointing Griffin. It was time to find out what she was made of.
Three and a half years old is pretty late, really, to be training as a bird dog. I originally bought Gretch with all the right intentions. She was trained to point a wing on a string as a puppy, and made to suffer pots and pans banging over her head as she ate, so as to dissuade her from becoming gun shy. I trained her myself, working my way through gun dog books in the process, in all the standard ways: she learned to come, to fetch, to sit, and to wait. From an ordinary pet-training perspective, she was in pretty good shape, but I had no idea whether she would actually hunt. As an upland game dilettante myself, I really had no business even asking this of her; we were the definition of the blind leading the blind.
Case in point: last winter, when she was two-and-a-half years old and I felt she was the perfect age to begin hunting, I set about trying to find some quail to put out for her. Lacking a large stretch of my own property, I was forced to use one of Georgia’s dog-training oriented WMAs (which actually turned out to be a well groomed and perfect field, with milo left standing in rows). You couldn’t ask for a prettier piece of property, and we had it all to ourselves, but the problem was birds. To get them, I had to drive more than two hours from my house, meet a bird rearer in a gas station parking lot and then furtively exchange cash for a scritching box under the flickering light of a sodium vapor lamp out near the dumpsters. Nothing about what I had done looked legal; I drove away checking my mirrors for a DEA tail.
When I got home that night, I had the brilliant idea of letting my newly-purchased quail out of their box and into a spare dog crate for their overnight stay, you know, so they could breathe. This was a little like trying to stuff all the Kleenex back into the package in perfect order, that is, if the Kleenex had the capability of exploding loose like a firework and could also fly. I ended up running around my garage with a fishing net held high, like Christopher Robin chasing butterflies in a Winnie the Pooh storybook, trying to recapture the next day’s game birds. I managed to catch almost all of the quail. (My wife found the last two, by smell, a few months later. My compliment about her qualities as a bird dog was not well-received).
Unsurprisingly, my wanted-by-the-DEA quail failed to impress with their flight characteristics in the training field the next morning. Gretchen pointed them, all right, but she was understandably confused by the entire process of me trying to shoot a quail with one hand while holding her back with the other as the birds clumsily skimmed the grass tops at the approximate height of a skateboard. The single bird that actually managed something like a wild quail’s flight path did his relatives proud, and no doubt also pleased the hawk circling overhead as soon as I left.
In sum, my first attempt at planting birds for Gretchen shot a little left of the goalposts. I came away with an idea that she would point, but I still didn’t know whether she would actually course and hunt. Unwilling to transact another game-bird drug deal, I shelved my plans for Gretchen’s development as a bird dog, resigning myself to the reality that she might never be more than a pet. And then one day, the following fall, a friend casually mentioned that a certain farm would put out quail for a reasonable fee. No guides needed, bring your own dog. It sounded perfect.
When Gretchen and I reached the field on that cold winter day, with the birds already strewn like Easter eggs for her to find, the temperature was in the mid 30s, and the sun was high and bright—good running weather for a bird dog. I worried about the scent, though; with the wind we faced, I wasn’t sure enough of it would pool around for her to locate the quail. We thus worked our way to the opposite end of the field along an edge before we began to hunt, so that we could work back upwind. I spotted a quail visually skirting a fencerow as we crossed into position, and jumped it and brought it down, thus giving Gretchen some idea of what we were trying to accomplish. Her nervousness at the 12-gauge’s blast evaporated as soon as she filled her nostrils with the heady scent of a real (dead) game bird.
Watching a bird dog’s internal wiring heat up with a signal for the very first time is a lot like plugging in the batteries on a new toy at Christmas, back when you were eight years old. A complete change came over the dog as new instincts suddenly surged and large chunks of ability dropped, as if from the rafters of her brain, down into place. As soon as we reached the end of the field and began working back, she caught the full blast of the wind in her face. A wind full, despite my concerns, of quail scent. Her demeanor changed utterly. Instead of lolly-gagging along the trimmed pathways between the rows, she began to switch back, blasting through the standing milo at full speed, working like a bird dog is meant to do. The farmer had put out fifteen quail for us. Gretchen found at least two more than that.
Even better, she didn’t flush wild, and only chased the first bird I missed. After immediately picking up the scent of another when she returned, she seemed to get the point; chasing one bird means not getting to find the next one right this second. She preferred to hunt from that point forward.
The most amazing moment of the day—and let me tell you the shooting she was forced to endure was nothing to write home about—was when she locked onto a small covey, which I couldn’t find. She held a perfect point, rigid as a board, for three or four minutes while I scanned the grass for an idea of where the birds were about to burst from. When I stepped up, three quail shot into the air, bee-lining down-wind for the trees and safety across the creek. I managed to bring down only one, and Gretchen (who, let’s remember, is kind of new at this herself) deigned to give me a disappointed look.
It is now clear to me that the bottleneck in my bird-hunting relationship with Gretchen will not be her abilities, but mine. I suddenly find myself in the company of a real live bird dog. I’ve already scheduled our return to the field, and visions of wild quail hunts still to come are starting to creep into my long-range plans. But if I’m going to do my dog justice, I’d better get on the clays course. They say some athletes are born skilled, and all the others have to work hard just to keep up. When it comes to birds and Gretchen, I now know which one of us is which.
Zach Matthews is the editor of The Itinerant Angler website and a writer and photographer who focuses on fly fishing and hunting. His work appears regularly in most of the sport’s publications.