My best day hunting.

It started like a lot other hunting trips, just me and a dog getting ready to go wondering around looking for whatever was in the wilds for us to find. It was in Wyoming kind of close to home where I had decided might have some game. I had actually been to this place a couple times. It’s a big chunk of public land walk in only that has some upland birds, an occasional snow shoe hare, deer, antelope, and if the ponds aren’t frozen a few ducks. It gets hunted pretty hard, and there is never a lot of game, especially anything tame in the area. I had a young bitch named Wanda out of our dog Cruiser who was just over a year old at the time. She was starting to cover some country and I really liked how she was developing. The plan was to make a big horseshoe about three miles for each leg, and end back at the start point. The temperature was perfect with a small amount of wet snow. Wind out of the northwest at about five miles an hour, and I didn’t think the ponds would be frozen yet so ducks might be in order.

The first mile or so was pretty uneventful. A very wild cotton tail took off well ahead of us and made it up to the rock cliffs before any chance of a point. When I got into some of the rolling grasslands Wanda locked up tight looking down into a small draw. A dozen huns took off and I got a double. She retrieved the one right to me, and then wanted to take off running again. It took me a little coaxing to get her on the scent of the other one, but she retrieved it nicely. I didn’t see where the covey went so I just continued with my plan. Another half mile or so produced another nice point. This time it was sharp tail grouse. Bang, bang, two dead birds. I usually miss quite often because I’m trying to watch the dog with one eye, the bird with one eye, and the covey with one eye, well you get the idea. I don’t always focus enough on the shot when I’m out by myself. If I’m hunting with someone else I rarely do any shooting, just watch dogs.

At this point we were about where I was going to make the turn. The country started to rise quite a bit going forward to the south, and there were three ponds all about half a mile apart running east to west in the bottoms of the draws. I brought Wanda in and put her on a lead. That way we could walk up over the bank and I could let her loose just before I started shooting the ducks coming off the water. The first pond was kind of narrow and long, maybe twenty yards by sixty yards. I was hoping the ducks were not at the other end of the pond. There was a small group of mallards closer to the other end when we came over the bank. I picked out a green head and broke a wing just as he got over the land. He hit the dirt and started towards the water. Wanda was already in the water swimming towards him, but he got in a went under just before she could grab him. For the next half hour Wanda would swim around looking for the green head and it would pop up and down always staying just out of her reach. I never could get a shot because it seemed like every time it popped up Wanda was in the line of fire. Finally it popped up right in front of her nose and she nabbed. All this time in the water seemed to give Wanda an extra boost of energy. She took off like a bullet across the prairie. I was pretty sure the ducks had just gone to the next pond and landed there so we went that way.

About the time I was ready to put a lead on her for pond number two she went on point again. This time I could see a big partly white, partly brown snowshoe hare standing on its back legs looking at Wanda. If I would have had the gun I normally hunt with which is a twenty gauge/223 rifle combo I could have taken a shot with the rifle. As it was Wanda couldn’t handle looking at that big fury rabbit any longer and she went after it. She gave up the chase after she could not catch up to it in the thick cover, and decided to come back to see what I was up to. I hooked her up and started the creep to the pond. This pond was round and smaller. When I peeked over there were lots of ducks everywhere. I let Wanda loose and shot another green head dead. It landed on the other bank and Wanda swam over to get it and then got back in the pond and swam around in a semi-circle for a while before she came back to me. At this point I’m maybe three or four miles from the pickup, with one pretty good climb ahead of me. Of course my bird bag on my back is quite heavy now, and I was kind of hoping she wouldn’t find anything else.

About two miles of Wanda running hard had produced nothing else and I was looking at the hill ahead of us thinking this is going to be a workout. Little did I know the load was going to get much heavier. Just before Wanda dropped into the creek bottom she locked up real hard with her head and nose up very high, and she was almost standing on her tippy toes indicating to me she had something just over the rise. I come up slowly and peeked over the small ridge, and a couple dozen turkeys were looking back at me. Well YES I did have a turkey tag in my hunting pack that was good for either sex, and the season was open. If I had been smart I would have ground pounded the smallest one, and called it a day, but I jumped them, and shot the biggest tom in flight at fifteen yards. Wanda went up and hopped on the big bird very happily, but then just like her dad Cruiser had found out, turkeys are hard to pick up. The feathers seem slick, and they are a big bird. She wrestled with it for a while and never did figure out what Cruiser figured out. If you are a Wirehair retrieving a turkey you have to grab it by the neck and drag it. I finally convinced her to let go of her prize and go get a drink of water from the creek since that was the last water until we got to the pickup. I figured one mile left with a good climb to start it off. The twelve gauge side by side was heavy, the hunting pack with steel 3 ½ shells, water, first aid kit, gps emergency locater, extra clothing, two huns, two sharp tail grouse, two green heads was heavy, now a big tom turkey slung over the opposite shoulder from the gun made this a true workout. The last mile produced nothing except sore legs for me. I didn’t do much except put my head down, and my ass up, and powered forward. Wanda was pretty tired by the time we got back and I’m not even sure how long we were gone, but a good portion of the day.

I have hunted as many as 150 days in a year and been to many locations, in many states, hunting pretty much everything with my dogs, but this was the best single day me and a dog ever had together. It might have been the perfect temperature/conditions with the mountains in the background, or the fact it was a young dog giving it everything she had, or the variety of game, but it was probably the whole experience. When I can’t remember this day of hunting I will be very old without any memory left.

Just a side note you would think a dog like Wanda would be a great dog for me to hunt with the rest of her life. Well she got rejected by my wife because she wouldn’t perform in the show ring. She had a good coat, correct form, no physical issues, but she just didn’t have that show dog attitude that says she is completely confident. I tell people all the time the show ring doesn’t just make or break a dog on conformation, but the temperaments are put to the test there as well. And even though she was great as a hunting dog with plenty of boldness, and confidence, our dogs are measured in the ring and field. She is now living with a couple in Texas who had gotten a dog from us years ago who died. She is primarily hunting ducks. Of all things I wouldn’t think ducks in Texas, but Texas is one state I still need to hunt so maybe a quail/duck hunt in Texas needs to go on the bucket list.

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Deer

One thing I would like to remove from my bucket list is to shoot a deer over a GWP point. I have had a couple dozen times I could have shot a deer over point, or maybe even killed them with a spear since I was able to get real close, but it wasn’t legal. In most of states especially out west, big game hunting with dogs is not allowed.  I think here in Wyoming you can’t even have dog in the vehicle if you are big game hunting. I know some of the states in the southeast allow hunting with dogs so maybe I’ll have to get a tag down south. I’ll list a few of the times where I had some up close encounters.

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I’m not sure how many deer/dog meetings I have witnesses, but it’s in the thousands. I would say 75% of the time they are mule deer, and 25% white tailed deer. Probably 99.9 % of the time there is no chance for a point on a deer. The most common thing that happens when I’m hunting with the dogs and a deer is in the area is the deer will just run away once they see the dog.  The deer usually see you or the dog at a distance and they will maintain that distance, or increase it. I think most of the deer have probably been pursued by coyotes, and some in a few states now have wolves chasing them around. I have had many dogs chase deer, and once I had one dog catch and kill an adult deer, but usually the deer out run them or I’m able to convince the dog not to chase deer.

The 1st deer point I can remember was in South Dakota with my dog Zoie, and her daughter Dilly. I can’t remember which one was pointing, but the other was backing. It was out on the open prairie with perfect scenting conditions, and about an hour before dark.  I had seen two white tail does lying down up on a small hill, and I watched the dogs work that direction. I’m not sure if the deer had seen me or not, but they were watching the dogs the entire way. When the dogs locked up about 75 yards out the deer lowered their heads slightly and just froze. I decided to see how close I could get to them. I knew the dogs would hold point until I released them since they were both completely trained, so I came in perpendicular to the deer. When I got about 20 yards away the one doe looked at me, but then locked on to the dogs and didn’t move. I kept going and got about 7 yards from the closest doe and I stopped. She looked at me for a few seconds then finally both of them bolted. I don’t know how close I could have gotten if I just kept walking and didn’t stop.

Another time I was out in the prairie in South Dakota working some rolling hills with three young dogs. It was pretty warm and dry, and they hadn’t found anything in about an hour of running. I decided to go down over a hill to a stock pond to give them a swim. This pond was the only water for a couple miles and it was well used by lots of animals, including ducks once in a while. I watched the dogs head for the pond and they all locked up with a divided find about ten yards from the bank. The pond was surrounded by cattails and a little taller grass and I just assumed some ducks were just over the bank. I eased up to jump the ducks and when I got a couple yards in front of the dogs I looked into the cattails. At 1st it was one of those times you see something, but it’s not what you are expecting so it doesn’t register quickly. I was a few feet from a very nice 150 class 4 X 4 whitetail buck staring right at me and the dogs. He was just lying in the tall grass perfectly still. I actually had a deer tag for that area and it was deer season, and I’m sure the 12 gauge a few feet away would have killed him, but shooting him didn’t even come to mind. I wasn’t sure if it was legal, and I was in a state of disbelief that this big whitetail buck was right there out in the middle of nowhere in the prairie a few feet away. After we stared at each other for what seemed like a week, but might have only been one second he busted out the back of the cattails. Of course the young dogs took off right after him, and I only had two e-collars at the time. Two dogs came back to me quickly, but the other chased across the open prairie for a few hundred yards before coming back.

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Another trip out on the prairie of South Dakota I had a couple of broke dogs working some rolling grasslands. This was an area where I had shot a few antelope over the years, and once in a while I would see a mule deer. That day the wind was perfect, and the temperatures in the 20’s so it was a great day for a GWP to go hunting. I crested a small ridge and I could see the antlers of a deer in the valley maybe 500 yards ahead of me. They were pretty tall so I assumed a mule deer. I sat down in some tall grass and watched the dogs work that direction. They were just over a rise where the deer couldn’t see them with the wind blowing away from the deer towards them. When they got to where I thought they would be in the scent they both turned and started working into the deer. They both slowed way down and locked up right on top of the rise about 20 yards from the deer. From where I was at I couldn’t tell if the deer could see them or not. I started walking right at them and none of them moved. I got about 50 yards away and I could tell both dogs could see and smell the deer, and the deer could see them. I kept going and about ten yards away from the deer it looked at me then back at the dogs. He was a tall spindly 3X3 mule deer, and very old looking. I actually pointed my gun at him and kept walking. When I got maybe three yards away from the deer it was still just laying there head down, but it was shaking like a leaf. I thought maybe it was injured and couldn’t move then it finally jumped up and ran. Both dogs stood and watched it run off and I thought this is a once in a life time experience.

I had these same two dogs out in Wyoming a couple years later and they pointed a small mule deer buck on a sagebrush covered ridge. This deer was standing looking right at the dogs pointing it. When I walked up to it I can still remember the trance like state it was in. His eyes were huge and bugged out, and it was just kind of twisting its head back and forth. I had a large bull elk do this in front of me when I was bugling it in for a buddy to try and shoot with an arrow, but that is the only time I have witness this behavior up close. The deer was so focused on the dogs I just walked right up between it and the dogs before it even knew I was in the area. Once it knew I was there it changed its stance and shortly after turned and ran off in the direction of the other deer watching from across the canyon.

I have had a few other points where I got close to Mule deer in the mountains of Wyoming while hunting blue grouse. My theory is that if the dogs get close to the deer and point without the deer seeing them at a distance the deer will freeze. The surprise of seeing the dogs up close locks the deer up, and then when the dogs don’t move it becomes a standoff. I think this is how they deal with predators when the predators get too close without them knowing. Most deer have probably learned this from an early age.

So if you can hunt deer with a dog in your areas maybe give it a try and see if you can shoot one over point, and then have the GWP go detain it for you after you shoot it. I let Cruiser got after a nice whitetail buck my brother shot on our place in South Dakota right after he shot it. Cruiser grabbed it by the neck and started dragging it down the hill while it was still kicking, and didn’t want to give it up. The chances are probably slim a point will happen, but I know from experience you can get GWP’s to point deer, and the deer will hold for you.

Pheasants

I might as well start with the most popular game bird and some of my experiences hunting them. I think there is a reason Labs and Pheasants are the most popular, that reason is convenience. The Labs fit nicely into the lifestyle of the average Joe forty hour work week guy with a wife and 2.6 kids living in a cul-de-sac. This guy gets out maybe five days per year bird hunting. The pheasant fits perfectly because just about anywhere in the US with ten acres of land you can have a kick and shoot pheasant operation. Even though I don’t consider releasing any pen raised birds for us to shoot as “hunting”, but that is a topic for another discussion. I do realize that in many parts of the country especially east of the Mississippi River hunting preserves are the only thing some people have that resembles wild game hunting. If I had to rate pheasants from 0-100 on difficulty of hunting 0 being the easiest and 100 the hardest for a GWP I would probably say they range from 1-99. There are a lot of factors that go into difficulty in hunting pheasants. I actually think hunting old wise wild roosters is more herding than hunting. I will list some of the experiences I have had with pheasants since I started hunting as a kid, and the last fourteen years with GWP’s. Most of my time with GWP’s was while living in South Dakota on heavily hunted public lands, but there are many other states in the west that have pretty good populations of wild pheasants where I have hunted.

I started shooting pheasants with the aid of Australian Shepard cattle dogs on our ranch in Idaho with a single shot 410 in the mid 70’s when my age was in the single digits. While in high school buddies and I would go shoot a couple almost every noon hour back when you didn’t have to pay farmers to hunt their lands. I’ve been shooting wild pheasants a long time.

  On the easy end of the scale would be the pen raised pheasants that have not been flight conditioned. We had some wildlife management areas in Idaho I would go to when I first started training dogs. I knew when they released the birds, and it offered a little different controlled environment for me to do some training on broke dogs. Since these birds never flew very far I could work the same birds over and over if I just blanked them offering some good training birds. Occasionally I would take a young dog that I wanted to get on some birds without running a long ways out to these areas, but I didn’t spend much time in the preserves. The nice thing was these birds would just sit there like a statue while I worked the dogs in on them and I knew for sure there were birds in the areas. Of course the dogs could just walk up and grab them if they really wanted to get them. This is the problem with pen raised birds, they aren’t wild. Young pheasants in the wild that haven’t been hunted or chased by predators can be almost as simple to hunt because they will just sit there until you get very close. Any of these birds would offer little challenge to a GWP and be very low on the difficulty scale.

Sometimes you even get a water retrieve while pheasant hunting. Ernie owned by Jim and Joanne Long in Colorado had to swim for this one.

Sometimes you even get a water retrieve while pheasant hunting. Ernie owned by Jim and Joanne Long in Colorado had to swim for this one.

While hunting as a resident in South Dakota during the five years I lived there I started to realize old wild public land pheasants were maybe the 99 on the scale of difficulty. The thing about the smart pheasants is they rarely let you or a dog get within rifle range let alone shot gun range. Any noise made by you will probably get these birds running out of the area. Smart pheasants like to run, and run, then run some more, until they are forced to fly, but given the choice they will just keep running. This is where herding them to someone else is a good option, but if it is just you and a GWP you can’t be a herder unless you have a good area to trap them. These running birds are just not a good match for a pointing dog, especially a young dog. If you are hunting these types of birds I have found a couple ways to get a good chance at shooting. The best way is to wait until the weather can help you out. If you wait until it is real cold and the wind is howling even the wildest birds will hold pretty tight. These days aren’t ideal for us humans, but the GWP’s can put up with some pretty nasty weather. I had a young bitch in south Dakota a few years ago I took hunting on a very cold windy day in late December. It was almost too miserable of weather for me completely bundled up to handle, but I put my head down and charged forward into the wind. The area I was hunting was about two hundred acres of public land with thick cover. Most of the fields for miles were cleared off with just remints of crops left behind. We started from the vehicle on the east side and worked into the wind coming straight out of the west. She started tracking birds right off the bat and I could tell she had scent overload. I knew there would be some birds, but not birds like you see in TV advertisements for hunting pheasants in South Dakota. Even with all the wind, and me being what I thought was noiseless quite a few birds were flushing well ahead of us. Most were landing in the far corner, and a few were just heading out across the open lands. I still don’t know for sure how they knew we were there, but they did know of our presence. The dog was covering quite a bit of land in a nice quartering manner so I think she just made enough noise and got close enough they knew we were after them. She did have a few points as we worked toward the corner, but all of them were hens, or sharp-tail grouse. I had decided not to shoot anything but a couple roosters over point, and I wanted to work them all the way to the end of the cover. When we got about a hundred yards from edge she pointed and a rooster flushed. I shot it and she took off after it for the retrieve. This is when the sky turned black. She was already almost back to me with the bird and I was just standing there slack jawed. I got the bird from her and she turned and I think she was slack jawed as well. I would guess five hundred sharp-tails, and a sky full of pheasants were in the air, and they just kept boiling out from everywhere. Something I will maybe never see again in my life. I’m sure there were birds running around us and back into the cover, and most were just flying back over our heads into the cover, but they just kept coming up like a volcano was shooting them into the sky. I finally shot a couple more roosters without even taking a step. I had hunted this area early in the season on a nice calm quiet day and lots birds just flushed way ahead of me and the dog, or they ran out across the open grain fields. I was extremely quiet during that hunt. I think all total we probably got a hundred birds in the air on that day, but some of the adjacent fields had standing crops, and most of the birds were just doing what they like to do, run, run, and run.  I was patient and in time the older dog I was working with that day slowed down to a snail’s pace and got some birds locked down. We worked the area for a couple hours before I got any in shooting range, and they were all that years hatch of birds, no old birds.

Adam Cunningham and his dog Ryder’s 1st pheasant. Photo courtesy Monica Bird. Adam Cunningham and his dog Ryder’s 1st pheasant. Photo courtesy Monica Bird.

 The most impressive GWP pheasant dog I have seen was in Idaho twelve years ago. My dad had a buddy that had gotten a dog from one of the strong field trial lines and he wanted me to watch it hunt. I talked to him about the dog before we went out, and he said she was four years old. He said all he had ever done was take her pheasant hunting in thick cover since she was a little puppy. After we met up the next day he said he would take me to one of his spots he had permission to hunt. We drove out to a still standing sugar beet field about one hundred acres right next to a very busy highway, and he said what do you think of this field? The field wasn’t fenced, and my first thought was I don’t want my dogs getting ran over if they wonder out to the road. I told him to run his dog and I would watch. There were four of us humans and the one guy said this dog is just phenomenal at getting these pheasants pointed. I just kept thinking big running field trial dog, highway, flushing pheasants in the distance, train wreck coming. He turned his dog loose and she just started walking at a very slow pace through the big leafed sugar beet plants. I kept waiting for her to take off, but she just put her nose on the ground and started tracking. Most of the time she would just go real slow and get one to lock up close to the edge of the field. Then one of us would go shoot it. We took turns doing this, and after a couple hours standing around telling stories while she hunted we all had a limit. Many of these birds were old and had been hunted, but I think she just knew how and when to push them. While I was watching her sometimes she would stop and circle out around it, and push it back the way it come from, then start tracking again. A few of the birds would flush wild at a distance, but I don’t think the birds wanted to leave the thick cover in the field because that is where they felt the safest. Eventually they would lock up somewhere with the dog pointing them usually fairly close to the birds. After watching this dog work and some of mine in South Dakota that have done a decent job I think slower is defiantly the way to go with wild pheasants in thick cover, especially if you are alone. If you think you are moving to slow, you are probably still going too fast. We took this dog out hunting sage grouse and chukar later that year and she ran like crazy, and busted birds everywhere. When she would get the scent she would start tracking and get way to close for the covey birds. She was probably one of the worst covey bird dogs I have ever watch hunt. I’m sure she had taught herself to track, and not point at long distances needed for the wild covey birds.

 I have found pheasants in some peculiar areas, but I think is key to pheasants, more so than other game birds, is food and cover. Out in Idaho and here in Wyoming I have found them in the sagebrush quite often as long as there are some croplands not too far away. Here within the city limits of Sheridan Wyoming there are pheasants everywhere. You will see them eating out of bird feeders and many times they are walking right down the streets living in bits of cover along the creek or very small grass lots. In South Dakota they were simply everywhere, but some of the marshlands held way more birds that I would expect. When you walked through these areas it was hard to find a spot without water for them to sit, but they were still there. I remember one time going into an area and seeing a few dozen pheasant roosting in leafless trees. The nice thing about a GWP is they can be just as happy wading through a marsh as they are running through sagebrush, or a grain field. As far as hunting them in town I’m sure GWP’s could adapt to hunting in someone’s backyard if asked to do so.

 A GWP is a great dog for pheasants, but don’t hunt your young GWP too much with the Labs or your pointer might get tired of getting birds flushed out from in front of their noses and start becoming a flushing dog themselves.

5 month old Plum with a pheasant almost as big as her.

5 month old Plum with a pheasant almost as big as her.