Monday, February 28, 2011

Old Time Dog Training

     Ever wonder about the techniques we use to train our dogs, or the standards we apply? Where they came from, and how they evolved? What the bird dogs of yester-year looked like, and how they performed?  As long as I've been involved in dog training I've tried to continuously learn more about how to improve my methods, and how to improve my dogs, and I'll bet you have too. Well, guess what? Training methods might have changed over the years, but the old ways still work. Even when there were only a few methods, they produced dogs of the highest standards. Check out this multi-breed film from the 1940's.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Spring Time, Puppy Time

     Spring can't get here quick enough. While this sentiment may not be out of the ordinary for those of us who live where the snow falls in the winter, I feel it profoundly this year. With the advent of spring, I tend to be consumed with planning turkey hunts and trout fishing trips. Turkey calls get chalked, and fly line dusted off and cleaned. Camo, and waders get inspected for tears, and the salt rigs too, get prepared. After all, before you know it the stripers will be running again. Striper season means the grill must get cleaned, too. Oh, hurry up spring!!

     This spring, however, I've got one additional, and extremely exciting event to look forward to. In May I'll be meeting and bringing home my new puppy. Getting a new dog is always exciting, and I can't wait. When it was confirmed that Austin's sickness was indeed terminal I began making inquiries about up coming litters. I was fortunate enough to find a Springer breeding that not only made me excited, but in which I could get on the list. After several e-mails, and a phone call to the breeder, a deposit was sent, and the waiting began.

     Adding to the excitement, is the training seminar my wife and I will be attending at the kennel the weekend we pick up the pup. David Lisett, of Buccleuch Gundog, Scotland will be working with spaniel owners, and demonstrating some of his training techniques. David is a 7 time championship winner in the UK and Ireland.

     The excitement of getting the new pup is bitter sweet, however, the memory of Austin, and the feelings that came with losing him still fresh. I'm looking forward to starting this pup, but he's not here yet, and I do  miss my pal terribly . I don't know what I'd give to have him greet me at the front door again, or to be able to sit in my chair with a book and a scotch while scratching his ears. Austin certainly was a dog I'd have been happy to have forever.

      I'm certain that as I looked after Austin throughout his life, he has somehow looked out for me too, and that when puppy comes home Austin's presence will be felt, and in ways I don't, or can't understand, he'll be guiding this pup down the right path to make me happy. And in this way, Austin and all the dogs before him are still here with me, and always will be.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Winter Grouse, February in the Catskills.

     Neither the light snow, nor the below freezing temperature bothered me as I stood on the hotel balcony assessing the weather, but the wind was blowing a bit harder than I'd have preferred. I hadn't driven from Boston to the Catskills to be forced to sit around in a hotel lounge suffering the antics of the ski bunny set, but to take advantage of New York's long grouse season. My good friend, and frequent hunting partner Sterling often hunts grouse in the Catskills, and assured me he knows a few good coverts. I trust Sterling. Since a job transfer landed him in NYC, he's been making frequent day trips to the Catskill, and has shot as many grouse as anyone else in our little hunting syndicate. As a dog-less uplander Sterling has learned how to maximize any grouse cover he steps into, and he's got an eye for cover.

     Our first stop was a hillside of mixed age, and growth cover. The hillside featured a series of terraces festooned with abandoned apple trees, and patches of bramble. We'd hike up hill 30-40 yards, hunt from one end of a terrace to the other, then climb to the next terrace. The snow was barely ankle deep in most places so the walking and climbing was only hampered by a few icy spots. While the snow did little to slow us, it had knocked down a considerable amount of the cover. While the terraces where quite bare, it wasn't hard to imagine what they'd look like in October and November. Quite obviously a food cover, I would have loved to have run Austin, my late Setter, along these benches on a chilly November afternoon. As we neared the top of the hill we had our first grouse of the day flush. Probably on high alert due to the lack of cover caused by the snow, the grouse got out well ahead of Sterling. Not perfect, but a start.


     At the top of the hill we took a quick break, noted the increased wind velocity, and planned our descent. For our return trip, we hiked parallel the hillside to an area of tall pines on the lee of the hill. Out of the wind the temperature was at least 10 degrees, maybe closer to 20 degrees, warmer. This side of the hill held more soft wood shelter and escape cover, mixed with some young hardwoods and lots of bramble, the type that tests the limits of your chaps, and not only steals your hat, but is loathe to give it back. Amazingly, Sterling and I won the bramble battle, with not a drop of blood being drawn. We wouldn't, however, win the battle of the Ruffed Grouse.  We quickly put a grouse out of a high pine tree. The bird offered no shot, but seemed to not fly too far, so I climbed up a bit, looking for a re-flush that never came. Then, while making my way back down another flushed out of a tree, offering a quick shot opportunity I wasn't ready for before presenting Sterling with a fleeting glimpse. A third flush behind us about four minutes later, and the zig-zag tracks of what looked like an army of rabbits kept us on high alert as we hiked back to the car, but nothing more was produced.

     After a hurried lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches in the car, we drove to another area to continue our quest. It wasn't to be, as we abandoned our mission after hiking about 200 yards up the trail to the cover. The wind had become unmanageable, gusting up to around 40mph. Unless we found a sheltered cover we'd never find birds. The rest of the day was spent driving around, taking advantage of the extended visibility afforded us by the bare trees, scouting possible cover for the future. We think we found some, and two covers, in addition to the one we'd hunted, have me excited about returning in the fall.

     While my first winter grouse hunting trip yielded  neither birds, nor bunnies, for the pot it was quite enjoyable, and I classify it as a success. I'd never hunted grouse past December, nor had I ever hunted grouse without the aide of a dog, so this trip represented a first in two areas, and I'd seen enough birds to know now that it can be done. I'd also never seen a turkey flock of the magnitude we stumbled upon; fifty birds being no exaggeration. We saw a few deer too; something that's always nice. Best of all, however, was sharing a few laughs once again with a like minded sportsman, and friend over a couple drams of 18 year old Laphroaig, and some pheasant pate.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Clay Day

Shooting is an essential part of hunting, and good shooting makes for a more enjoyable outing. Second to good dog work, there's nothing I'd rather see. Naturally, to enjoy good shooting one must be either lucky, talented, or committed. I'm neither lucky, nor talented, so I squeak by on a bit of commitment. That commitment is to regular practice days at the fish and game club; Breaking clays or at least trying to.

I'm fortunate enough to be a member of a club that keeps regular skeet and trap hours. If the desire arises I can shoot skeet 5 days out of the week, and trap on 4 of those days. Anyone intent on improving their percentages in the fall would be well served by spending time swinging their gun. While regular clay days are enjoyable in their own right, and watching your scores improve builds confidence in your abilities, I learned a long time ago that your scores on the skeet field have little direct effect on your ability to hit real game. What does have an effect is the act of trying to break those pesky little orange clays. Shooting clays, and shooting birds are different enough that even if one shoots regularly without seeing an improvement in their scores, their percentage in the field will improve. Improved scores don't hurt though.

As much as I like shooting skeet, I've come to think of sporting clays as Holy Grail of clay shooting. It is simulated hunting. Sporting clays present the clays in unpredictable, and varied ways; Much like an actual grouse flush, or a covey rise. Sporting clays courses too, are set up in a variety of ways, many along an actual trail you follow through the woods. Who here doesn't enjoy a nice walk in the woods? Add a gun, and it gets even more enjoyable. However, sporting clays is only half of what draws me to the woods in the fall; Without a dog, or actual game that can be cooked up, and shared with friends it will remain just something to be done in the off season.

While regular shooting is something I believe anyone can benefit from, don't ask me how I do it. I have read some books, and watched some instructional shooting videos, but I can't impart an Yoda type wisdom on the subject. I find shotgunning to be visceral, something I feel, and experience, and once I've found the sweet spot I instinctively know it. Like a good day of Judo training, I shoot best when my mind is clear, and I have a feeling of centeredness, my arms, legs, head, eyes, and core all functioning together as one unit.

I do believe there are a few things that shouldn't be over looked by any shooter. Gun fit is one of them. A properly fitting gun will shoot where you are looking. Period. Also, know your eye dominance. I struggled with this some years ago when I got my first double gun. Though I'm not cross dominant, I do have almost equal eye dominance, which allows my left eye to pick up too much rib on the gun; Something that doesnt happen when I shoot over-unders, or single barrel guns. I also believe that one should practice their gun mount. In fact, I've found this so helpful, that I believe that even if you don't have time to shoot regularly, or find yourself unable to shoot for a while, practicing your gun mount a home will help to improve your percentage afield. And of this I speak from experience. Like I said, I squeak by on a bit of commitment.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saying Goodbye

"...And he was jest a dog, Lawd, but such a dog as ain't never been on dis-yeah green earth....It ain't for no common field hand like me to know what kind of 'rangemints you got up yonder, and maybe dey ain't no allowance made for dogs and such. But in time I heard birddog folks say you got a plantation leased up yonder, and it's a thousand miles long and twice as wide, and dey ain't no briers ner rattlesnakes, and it ain't never hot and ain't never ground-froze, and de birds is golden birds with sapphire eyes and dey don't run, and dey don't flush wild, and ain't no night to spoil de hunt, and no whistle to call de dogs in; and dat's where de good ones go when dey die...."

Wesley's prayer for Old Sam.
Two of a Kind
Vereen Bell, 1943

     Austin passed today. I'd made the decision to end his suffering. Though his condition had worsened over the last ten days, he'd only started to loose the sparkle you see in his eye a couple days ago. Part of me felt I could nurse him, and have him with us a bit longer, but knowing what was happening I made the appointment. When Austin was a pup I had committed to being his care-taker, and whenever something was wrong he looked to me for help. And I always helped him. This weekend, whenever I looked him in the eyes, I could see that he knew something was wrong, that he needed something, though he didn't know what it was. I'd scratch his ears, and he'd lean on me, and he knew daddy would take care of him. And today, in the vets office, he drifted off, away from his pain, with me scratching his ears, and him comforted knowing I was with him, taking care of him.

     I've lost dogs before, and it's something one never gets used to. When we loose a dog, we are really loosing a piece of ourself. Our dog has become what we've created, and is who it is because of us. Existential beings that they are, we are amused by their antics, amazed by their abilities, and very often humbled by their forgiveness. Often wanting little more than a scratch behind the ears, they stand loyally by our side, sometimes crawling onto the bed, and readily accept us as theirs, though we spend their entire life time molding them to what we believe they should be.

Austin 6/23/00 - 2/15/11  RIP

     Thank you for being part of my life, part of me, for the last ten years. I couldn't have asked for a better pal. You put a smile on my face everyday, and were a sympathetic ear when I needed one. A more endearing dog you couldn't have been, and I'm proud that you reached the hearts of so many people, and worked so tirelessly to make people love you. I certainly did. I would have been happy to have you as my dog for the rest of my life. Happy hunting, my pal.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Partnership

Typical of winter, I spend lots of time thinking and dreaming about future seasons. I usually try to make an assessment of things I could do better, changes I could make, and dog issues I'd like to resolve. This winter it's different.

Recently I've met a few dog people. These people train dogs, hunt with dogs, and are hunting guides. Though we  all basically find enjoyment in the same thing, hunting Ruffed Grouse, I was a bit surprised at some of the differences in the way we operate in the woods.

Ask anyone who hunts with dog, and they'll tell you it's a partnership. But is it really? I've noticed some people train their dogs to hunt, and then expect them to go right out there and do it, perfectly. They just follow their dog, and enjoy any success they achieve. Others, in a similar fashion, put their focus on the dog. They follow behind, and marvel at the work it's doing, almost not believing it's actually happening. Everything that happens is a spectacle. The dog a performer. I, on the other hand, take a different approach. The partnership I enjoy with my dog isn't one of, he finds birds so I feed him. It's based on my observations that he really loves to hunt, and he loves to make me happy.

Grouse, and Woodcock to a lesser extent, are runners. Before you ever get to take a shot at one on the wing, your dog has to decode the scent, and track the bird for some time. Of course, having a dog you trust, and who understands the behavior of grouse makes this task less risky, and we can help the dog if we're willing.

We can start by learning to trust our dogs. Let your dog relocate, and re-point a bird if it feels in needs to. Remember, he' got the nose, not you. If you "whoa" your dog on every point, you'll quickly get frustrated, and start doubting your dogs ability after walking in on a few unproductive points. I learned a long time ago not to command my setter to "whoa" when hunting grouse. For those unsure of what I mean; whoa, just like with horses means stop, and when told the dog should stop until released. For some reason it is tradition to release your dog with a tap on the head, which is impractical in the grouse woods. Let your dog have some control. When he's got the bird locked down you'll know it.

We can also help our dog by getting out in front. If you start walking in on unproductive points, or see your dog relocating, get and stay 20 yards in front and to one side of the dog. The bird is running ahead, and you'll cut off an escape route this way. If you give the bird a little something extra to worry about it'll lock down sooner. But don't crowd the dog too much. Twenty yards to the side, as well, is about right. Any closer and you run the risk of flushing the bird before it's pointed. Often, when I know we're on a runner I'll try to boogie ahead about 50 yards and slowly work towards the dog as he works the bird between us. Pinching a bird like this can also get it to lock down. While it is the dogs job to point birds for me, we are partners, and there is no reason why I shouldn't help. After all, successfull, productive points are fun for both of us.

So, how are you helping your dog? Other than the guy with the gun, what role do you play in this partnership? Think about it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Things You Should Check Out- Worcester Sportsman Show Edition

The Worcester Sportsmans Show opened yesterday at the DCU center in downtown Worcester. Hoping to avoid the weekend crowd I attended the opener. Though the show is predominantly big game, and fishing oriented there were a few wingshooting oriented participants, and I found a few things I think are note worthy.

NEPVA, New England Paralized Veterans of America is a charity group which organizes activities for paralized veterans. Many of those activities are outdoors oriented. In particular, the NEPVA organizes a bass fishing tournament, pairing up local bass pros with a vet. If you've got any interest in bass fishing, I'd bet they'd appreciate any time you can volunteer.

There was a product featured that I am seriously considering purchasing. A company called Phazzer is making a pair or sun glasses with a built in video camera. They say the camera will clearly video out to 50 yards, and store about 2 1/2 hours of video, powered by a rechargeable battery with a 4 hour life. The glasses also come with a set of three interchangeable lenses. The show price was $199, but I found these same glasses sold at LL Bean for $169 for the camo frames, or $159 for the black frames. I haven't tried these out, but I wish I'd had something like this all along. With a pup on the way I'll be wanting to video training and hunting to document and memorialize my dogs in ways I've not been able to. I suspect these glasses will also find their way into both the duck blind and the tree stand.

If you've been following my blog you'll know that I've been dealing with the inevitable passing of my English Setter, Austin, due to cancer. Like most dog owners I've got lots of pictures, and I've been trying to find a way to use some of these pictures to memorialize Austin. Well, I think I've found it. Alan James Robinson, is an artist from Easthampton, Mass. Alan works in watercolor, and has been turning out some really nice stuff. He specializes in wildlife, and does both equine and canine portraits. The coolest thing he had displayed, however, was a series of works where he paints images on either nautical charts or topographic maps. I've already begun searching for an appropriate photo of Austin to be painted along side a grouse and a woodcock on a map of the region of New Hampshire we frequently hunted.

Probably the biggest highlight of the show was meeting Paul Fuller, of the TV show Bird Dogs Afield. Paul has a passion for bird hunting and sporting dogs, and has produces a great show which features him and his handsome German Shorthaired Pointer, Dillon, hunting various locations in the US and Canada. The show airs locally in the New England area, but can also be viewed on the web. In addition to his show Paul writes the bird dog column for Northwoods Sporting Journal. There are two ways you can watch Paul's show on the web. You can link directly through his website,
Or through the My Outdoor TV website, which offers a selection of other outdoor sporting shows.
Check them both out. You won't be disappoint.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Last Grouse

     I ate the last grouse today. Not "the" last grouse, but the last grouse in my freezer, so you can relax. My appetite hasn't been responsible for placing Bonasa Umbellus on the extinction list, and even if I could eat that many grouse my shooting would surely never allow for it.

     Today's grouse was sauteed in olive oil, drizzled with a bit of a Dijon pan sauce, and served with some ratatouille I whipped up. I like the taste of grouse, and pretty much every other game bird I've eaten. In fact I thoroughly enjoy eating all manner of big game too. Today, however, the grouse didn't taste so good. Not only was this the last grouse in my freezer, but also the last grouse my English Setter, Austin, will have pointed for me.

     In December, Austin started suffering from painful lameness in his front right leg. I didn't hesitate taking him to the vet. After six weeks of tests, and awaiting lab results our worst fears were realized. Austin had bone cancer. Our time together is now limited, and we've had our last grouse season together. Austin doesn't know this, though he knows he's got a painful leg, and he knows he gets treats twice a day now, because I learned a long time ago that a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down. And though I'm not 100% on this, I suspect he knows something is going on, because just like I know him, he knows me, and I'm not too good at hiding that this situation bothers me.

     I remember the day, and the place I shot that grouse really well. We'd been at our annual grouse camp in upstate NY. For more than a decade I've been travelling to hunt with the same rabble every year. Originally we held two big camps in NH each fall, but over time families, and job transfers changed that. We decided to hold camp in Pa a couple times, but eventually settled in NY. Austin pointed this bird along the edge of a small stream lined with wrist sized dogwoods. He had pointed 4 birds in the last hour, but I hadn't had a shot opportunity. This time I did, and the bird tumbled dead. It was a beautiful, healthy bird. The kind of bird one shows off, and I did, a little.

     I wouldn't eat that last grouse without giving my pal a taste, so as I sat in front of my plate, Austin sat by my side with his own plate of grouse. I know he earned the privilege of eating by my side, and I hope the grouse tasted good to him. Today, I found it to have the rather bitter flavor of mother nature's cruelest joke, taking our dogs from us too soon, and the saltiness of tears.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Things You Should Check Out.

     "Things You Should Check Out" will be (hopefully) a reoccurring post I will put up when I find things of interest to the sportsman. I may do a product review, but most likely I'll just post links to relevant website, and events.

     Ducks Unlimited has a new DU iPhone app. The app has some pretty cool features. In particular, I like the waterfowl ID feature. The app also has a lot of videos of various categories all relating to waterfowl, and conservation. I find this app to be both educational, and entertaining. It works on the iPad too.

     If you have an interest in the British sporting traditions you might want to check out Fieldsports Channel.
Fieldsports Channel airs a weekly program, which like the DU app, I find both educational, and entertaining. They also have a Youtube channel, called Fieldsportschannel. Check it out. As a wing shooter I've enjoyed their shooting tip segments.

     This week the Sportsman's show is at the DCU center in Worcester, Ma. All the info can be found at
This show is always a good time. If you like big game hunting, and fishing there will be no short supply of outfitters, guides, and captains who can lead you on an adventure. Unfortunately the show lacks in the area of wing shooting, but I'll be there none the less/

Cliche and Contradiction

     The sport of hunting is filled with stereotypes, and cliches. Why wouldn't it be? Life, and everything we do, suffer at the hands of the unimaginative. Just look at the efforts the animal rights/PETA/ anti-hunting crowd go through to smear our image. The image of blood thirsty, half-drunk -on-moonshine redneck may indeed describe someone we've met before. They may even go out and shoot an animal in the woods on occasion, but they are in no way a "hunter". Of course, those who would have us be such, will never openly admit we're not. Within the sportsman community, we too, tend to look upon each other, and presume, with an I-know-something-you-don't-know-attitude, that we've got the other guy figured out. With a glance, the entire story of another hunter can be figured out instantly. We judge your gun, your dog, your footwear, the brand of clothing you wear, your truck, whatever. We stack it all up, using each piece, each clue, to fit you into a shoebox labeled "cliche".

     We've all met the "cliche" before. You know what I'm talking about. The just stepped out of Gray's Sporting Journal sportsman. The first thing you'll notice is the matching Orvis label on his hat, and shirt. Next you're drawn to the $80 leather lanyard around his neck, and it's $6 whistle. "I'll bet he's got a pointer", is what you're thinking, but you quickly forget that thought when you see the beautiful 16 gauge he's been missing all those clays with on the skeet field. But wait, isn't that a Barbour jacket, and an Orvis hat hanging on the hook in the hallway. Why yes it is. That and a few other things I've added to my collection are part of what creates a contradiction in my sporting life. While it's easy to chuckle at the uber-urban sportsman make over, we've got to admit that sometimes it's nice to have good stuff, stuff that works. A WalMart hunting vest is great, for a while, but sooner or later our needs change.

     Contradictions can be fun, but I'm sure they piss people off too. In many ways I'm probably close to being that well-heeled sporting cliche. Except I'm not well-heeled. Maybe some of my sporting contradictions stem from a bit of insecurity about being "that guy", or maybe they stem from the need, like all sportsman, to have a little one up on the next guy. A quick look and you'll see that I fit the mold in an obvious way.  I shoot a 20 gauge double, over an English Setter, at Ruffed Grouse. This alone pays for my club membership, but that I also like fly fishing in the off season too, really seals the deal. Why? It's cliche; This image of the Brahman, blue blood with his double gun, and perfect oil-on-canvas-setter (which, I have).

     It's the contradiction, however, that keep things fresh. Confusion begins at the gun rack. Though I do shoot a nice double, I own both single barrel, and stack barrel guns too. I've got a rather pedestrian appreciation for guns, however.  The gun rack at grouse camp is in no way of museum quality, but I've a fondness for all the guns I've seen there. Perhaps it's a the memories of the many great camps attached to them, or the many Woodcock appetizers they're responsible for. One such gun  is a Browning BPS. This gun is a grouse killing 20 gauge work horse with 24" barrels and a straight stock. I want one, and think the 12 gauge version would make the perfect jump shooting gun. I  doubt this gun gets dreamt about much on Wall Street.

     When it comes to dogs I've been known to alienate myself too. Not because I train my own dogs, rather than sending them to a trainer, but because I've been rather outspoken about flushing breeds being more suitable for grouse hunting than pointing dogs. And currently I've got a Setter. Pointing dogs are fun to watch, each with their own highlights. A brace of setters coursing through the woods together really is a beautiful sight. Spend enough time shooting grouse though, and eventually you'll end up shooting over a Spaniel or a Lab, and you'll see a different quality to the grouse flush. True, pointers cover more ground, resulting in more finds, but ultimately shooting over a flusher you'll kill more birds. Though many spaniels are capable of maintaining ones state on the social ladder, I seldom see them being walked on Beacon Hill.

     It's probably my inhumane fly fishing practice that ticks people off the most. I'm not talking about keeping my fish; I release, but my obsession with nymphing. Often viewed as not really fly fishing, I view the nymph as the spaniels of the river, while I view the dry fly as the setters of the river. To make matters worse, I use a strike indicator too. A fuzzy version of a bobber. What can I say? I told you I wasn't well-heeled.

     Setting my contradictions aside, the cookie cutter side of me doesn't always struggle with fitting this mold. Socially, hunting is loosing it's popularity, and many areas in the countryside, where I hunt, are being gentrified. The blaze orange hat doesn't always get you a smile and a wave from the farmer hauling hay. Frequently it brings you a sneer from a Volvo driving soccer mom, who doesn't recognize you, and is a gun control nut. If appearing to be something which makes people more comfortable gets me access to the alder grove running along the back of the pasture, then so be it. Once upon a time gentlemen wore ties while hunting, and in some parts of the country(think Massachusetts), this may have to be the norm again, if only to serve as a distraction. I'm also comfortable knowing that should I ever need the services of an attorney, a stock broker, or a podiatrist,  I can no doubt find one who owns a bird dog.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Paw Prints, or Rather Impressions, If You Will?

     I've begun looking for a puppy. Of course every dog person is always looking for a puppy, researching breeders, and new lines within each breed, but I don't mean it in that sense. I mean it in the sense of, I've been calling and e-mailing breeders I've researched, and been refered to. Actually looking for a puppy.

     Over the years I've been exposed to many different breeds of bird dogs. I've shot over quite a few different breeds too, and have developed opinions of the differing breeds. Then again, have you ever met a grouse hunter, or even a disciple of any of the other winged game, that didn't have opinionated views of the various breeds. True, most hunters become fanatical about their particular breed. Same with guns, loads, and boots. If we can argue, pointlessly about something, we will. I'm sure some of my hunting buddies will take exeption, but I've come to believe there are only two types of dogs with characteristic suitable to allow them to become grouse dogs. They are the Setter, and the Spaniel.

     The Spaniel may be the best do all, versitile upland dog ever. An English Springer Spaniel is a tough little dog, with energy, and a passion to hunt. Reliable retrievers who take to the water readily, and can penetrate tough cover easily. They look great too. As a grouse hunter I have learned the importance of being fully prepared for each shot, and that isn't easy. Hunting with a spaniel makes this possible. When the dog gets birdy all the hunter need do is position himself to a place where one can easily swing the shotgun and wait for a flush. No walking in on points, trying to kikck a bird out of cover that he may not even be in. With a Spaniel, you may not see as many birds as you would with a pointing dog that covers more ground, but trust me, you'll kill more of the ones you see. Spaniels can also handle occasional waterfowl retrieving duties, so urge to jump shoot Mallards can be accommodated.

     Though I've mentioned the English Springer Spaniel, it is by no means the only spaniel capable of handling grouse. No doubt a Field spaniel could do the job, or even a properly bred Cocker. A Welsh Springer Spaniel, though I've never seen on in the field, I'm inclined to place on this list too. By all accounts, the Welshie, which is more common in the UK has what it takes, though anyone here in the states looking to get one should make sure it's a field bred dog, and not a bench bred dog.

     The Setter is the other breed I feel has the capacity to be a grouse dog. Like Spaniels, Setters differ slightly both between breeds, and their lines within a breed. Though I'm partial to the English Setter, many Gordon Setters have become grouse dogs. I'm sure their Irish red and white, and American Red cousins have what it takes too. My argument for including Setters on this list isn't very good. Tradition. English Setters are just what one uses to hunt grouse. Aside from that, they are damned good looking, and generally have lots of style. What is better than watching a beautiful, feathery Setter coursing through the woods, and staunchly locked up on point? Nothing. Besides that, I've never come across a breed of dog that is more endearing, and tries harder to make people love them. I'd advise anyone looking for an English Setter, for the purpose of hunting grouse, to focus on the Ryman/Old Hemlock type Setters. These lines have been bred to be slower(but not slow), closer workers than other lines.

                                   There are other breeds of dogs out there that I like, and I've been privileged to shoot over. The English pointers come close to making the list. They, of all the pointing breeds, have the most intense point, and seeing the seriousness with which they hunt and point is exciting. This is also what keeps them off my list. Too intense. A dog has to know when to slow down to be a grouse dog.

     Retrievers, too come close to making the list. Labs, Chessies, and Goldens all hunt like Spaniels, flushing for the gun. A hunter with one of these breeds will certainly kill a lot of birds, but they are waterfowl dogs, and that is their first true mission. Fortunately, most guys hunting with retrievers are waterfowlers first, and dabble (no pun intended) with grouse hunting in the same way I hunted grouse first, but only very casually waterfowled with my Springer. Of course shooting over any well mannered dog is a joy, and I've had some absolutely unforgettable experiences shooting over retrievers and pointers.


     The funny thing is, over time, I, like everyone, will eventually see things differently. My list is always in danger of changing. Having had a Spaniel, and then a Setter, I've been known to say, and I quote "I'll never get a Setter again." Yet my puppy search has had me in contact with some serious Setter people. I've always secretly, and sometimes not so secretly harbored an interest in a wire-haired breed of dog too. That right there is a potential list changer. I have another opinion that's changed too. I decided awhile back that I'd never have more than one dog at a time ever again. I've now decided that I'll never have only one dog at a time ever again. Please don't tell my wife.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Burn's Night Special, Haggis Stuffed Pheasant Breast

Burn's night has come and gone this year, and not many people noticed. I usually find Burn's night to be a great excuse to drain a malt that's been sitting in the liquor cabinet for a while, and then uncork a new one. Though the Scotts may not be known for their culinary contributions to the world, their unparalleled excellence in distilling whisky is hard to not notice. That's not to say that Scotland's most misunderstood food, Haggis, does not deserve a place in the game chefs kitchen.

Believe it or not, Haggis, though unique in it's flavor profile actually isn't disgusting. I actually like it, though it's not something I eat regularly. Since the first time I tried Haggis, I felt that it is something that could be used in game preparation. I've been planning on incorporating Haggis into a stuffing for goose, and have used it as a stuffing for pheasant. Here is that recipe.

For this recipe you'll need some basic ingredients:
Pheasant breast
Haggis (canned is fine)
Onion (shallots if you prefer)
Fresh herbs-Rosemary & Thyme
Olive oil

The first order of business is to pour yourself a dram of whisky.

All good recipes start with a happy chef, and a good malt. Now you'll want to start preparing the stuffing. Dice both the potato, and the onion into small pieces. You'll want them to be roughly 1/4" cubes or less so the stuffing doesn't get to chunky. Chop the garlic, and your herbs too. Next, heat a bit of olive oil in a sauté pan, and when it's hot add the haggis, onions, and garlic. Let this mixture heat, and brown a bit. Now, add your potato, herbs, and a bit of whisky and cover. Cook until the potato softens a bit, then uncover and let the whisky evaporate.

While the stuffing is finishing, pound out your pheasant breasts to a manageable, even thickness. You'll be rolling the breasts with the stuffing inside, so make them something you can work with.

When you feel the stuffing is ready, spoon some onto the pheasant breast, and roll. Wrap the breast with a strip or two of bacon, and wrap the breast in aluminum foil. If you feel the need, you can drizzle the breast with a bit of olive oil, or place a pad of butter in the foil packet.

Bake the breasts in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 20-25 minutes. Then turn up the heat to 400 degrees, and open the foil packets so the bacon can crisp up a bit, and the pheasant can get a little color. About 10 minutes should do the trick.

You have probably noticed I didn't supply amount, or volumes with the ingredients list. I'll leave it up to you to decide how much of each you want to use. Unless you're cooking a dozen pheasant you'll not want to use an entire can of Haggis, so scale it back as you see fit. With all the ingredients combined 1/4 can of Haggis should give you enough for 4 breasts. If you aren't too sure if you'll like Haggis try either letting it brown well, or adding a generous amount of herbs. Rosemary is an especially powerful herb, and its flavor profile can easily rise to the top.

I think you will find that the combination of ingredients with the haggis makes for a nice rich stuffing perfect for pheasant, or even grouse and chukar. I like to serve this dish with roasted turnip, but no doubt it'll taste just as good with mashed potato.

Give it a try. I hope you like it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Remembering, To Forget

     Keep dogs long enough, and sooner or later you'll find yourself reflecting, and remembering dogs you've had in the past. As I find myself dealing with my Setter, Austin, being in his twilight, I find my thoughts are more and more filled with memories created because of my relationship with these incredible animals. But I must confess; I feel an enormous guilt when I think of the events from the fantastic years Austin and I been a team, while he's still here. Even as I write this he's curled up, sleeping next to my chair in the living room. And as long as he's unaware that the sun is setting on the awesome time we've shared together I can't bring myself to think of him in the past tense. 
     I took my first step into the dog world 18 years ago with a pup named Paulo. I rescued Paulo from a shelter, being convinced by the staff that he was a Wirehaired Pointer. As Paulo grew, or in this case, got older, it became apparent that something else had gotten over the kennel fence. Paulo was no pointer, but he was a loving dog, with a nose for woodcock, a soft retrieve, and a gift for making people love him.

     A year after Paulo came Maggie. Maggie was an English Springer Spaniel of questionable pedigree. She loved to eat, pushed the other dogs around in camp, had a stubborn streak, and loved to hunt. Though the early years with Maggie were trying at times, I progressed in my dog training skills and soon convinced her that what I wanted her to do was enjoyable. She became a pretty incredible little bird dog.
     As I'm not letting myself reflect upon my time with Austin, I am constantly redirecting my thought to the many great day afield I'd had with Maggie. One of my fondest memories is of a day I brought a good friend, Bobby, to observe a day of grouse hunting. Bobby had spent a lot of time around the dogs, both in the house, and at training sessions but had never seen the whole thing put together. So off we went to trudge through some of my most productive Western Mass coverts.
     Early in the day we'd moved and shot some Woodcock, but being new to the sport Bobby was missing the action. Sure, he'd seen Maggie working the cover, heard the report of the gun, and seen the results of the shot, but he hadn't seen a bird in the air. As grouse hunters, we've trained ourselves, and can easily spot a woodcock flush even on a foggy day, but for the uninitiated, it ain't easy.
     As the day progressed, time running out, I took Bobby to my most productive covert. I ran Maggie along our usual route along the stone wall that edged the field and the cover, down the edge that bordered the farm pond, and then back into the thicker and wetter area below. As we pushed through towards the beaver pond at the far end of the covert Maggie flushed yet again another Woodcock. This time everything came together perfectly. The bird flew through an open, clearly in Bobby's line of sight, trying to make for the other side of the beaver pond. I swung the Gamba 28 gauge smoothly, and the little bird dropped with a small splash into the pond. Maggie, upon seeing the splash broke at full bore to the waters edge where she stopped for but a second to get a visual on the bird before plunging in, and returning to me with our prize. While I'd shot and had many birds retrieved by Maggie before this, the speed, and efficiency she displayed on this bird would have made me happy on any day, but for her to do it with a friend in tow made it all the more better. After a day in the woods, Bobby had finally gotten to see what it was all about, from start to finish.

     Maggie could be forgiving too. On another occasion Steve, a Pennsylvanian friend, and I hunted one of my most challenging coverts. Maggie flushed a Woodcock which got up to tree top height and began flying in circles. Steve and I both sent lots of lead at the little bird to no effect, reloaded, and tried again with the same result. When the smoke cleared, we looked at each other speechless for a second before realizing that Maggie was still hupped (sitting, for those who don't speak spaniel) in the place she flushed the bird from, looking at the two of us with a clear look of disdain. I don't know if we laughed because of our shooting, or because of the dogs obvious disappointment, but boy did we laugh. And every year at camp we tell the story again, and laugh some more.
      I could go on and on about Maggie, and share stories involving all my hunting buddies, and I'm sure I will one day. For today I'll stop here, because I know in the next few weeks, as Austin grows sicker I'll need these Maggie stories to remind me of happier times, and to remind me that one day I'll get the same enjoyment out of Austin stories. I'm amazed when I think about the fact that I've been keeping bird dogs for 18 years. I've made mistakes, but also continued learning, and I've still got a passion for bird dogs. And with this passion these stories, and their inevitable heartbreaks will continue. It's just the way it is.