The Best Bird Dog Ever

     It was another frigid Maryland morning. A stiff breeze was gusting, threatening to tip me into the nearby Magothy River as my black Lab pup bounded along down the sandy beach. My plan was to introduce the youngster to the shock of cold, winter water gradually, starting that day.

    In the warmer months, Hobbes had always entered the water and swam boldly. But since this was his first winter, I didn’t want to thrust any unpleasant surprises on him. I cradled a retrieving dummy in my hand and as the wind gust seemed to peak, I timed a high throw to put it just a foot or two into the bitter waters along the river’s edge.

     But the gust hadn’t peaked, it had just paused, and as the training dummy arced out high over the beach, a wind burst took the bumper sailing well out into the river. I started to call Hobbes to heel and declare the thrown dummy lost in action but it was too late, he had seen his prey.

     With no hesitation whatsoever, Hobbes threw himself into the chilly waters and swam mightily after the dummy. I cringed. Would the shock of the cold water make him hesitant in the future, would the cold sap his strength? Could he catch up with the departing bumper?

    He was, after all, only 10 months old. But as he pulled himself along, threatening to lift his entire body out of the water with each stroke of his broad, webbed paws, I finally relaxed. He is as much at home in the water in January as he had been in July. 

     That’s why I consider hunt training always to be a work in progress. A hunting dog will end up doing for you what he’s been doing better than any other animal for the last 30,000 years.

     Many sporting dog fanciers believe that training the hunting breeds, particularly bird dogs, should be a complicated and exacting affair. If you intend on fielding a competition-level animal, it can be complex and expensive. But I just wanted a good hunting buddy.

     Dogs’ predatory senses are far more developed than any of ours—they just need us to shoot for them. That is, after all, the primary reason that they domesticated us so long ago, that and our comforting ability to build a fire. Man and dog are always far more productive (and happy) operating together than separately. 

      Come, stay, fetch and whoa are the keys to developing the relationship between the dog and his sporting partner and will also safeguard the pup from daily dangers. You can impart and reinforce those commands daily from the comfort of your backyard. 

      In my years with dogs, I’ve found that each had far more to teach me about the hunt than I could teach them. I still vividly recall a moment 50 years ago with my first pointer, a female German shorthair named Sophie. 

      Directing her movements on one fall morning while bird hunting with friends outside Pendleton, Oregon, I gradually discerned a strong air of resentment emanating from the dog’s body language and occasional back glances. Finally, after insisting she work yet another tangled and fruitless area, I paused to catch my breath and just told her to “hunt ‘em up.” 

     She looked around, then took off at a gallop with her nose in the air, cutting a half circle downwind of a rather large and thickly weeded field. I was immediately worried that she would flush any birds she encountered out of range. However, returning a short time later, she trotted briskly off with me following about 10 yards behind. She located, then cornered one bird after another and pointed them until I could come up and flush them. When we limited out on ringneck pheasants, I was out of breath, awestruck and never doubted her abilities again.

Fish Finder
     The cold persists as do hungry pickerel but yellow perch are staging more and more every day. Look to the deeper holes in the fresher parts of tributary channel waters, fish small jigs, bloodworms, red worms or minnows near the bottom and slowly. Next month will see the peak runs but the fish are moving up the tribs now to begin the spawn. Small males, usually show up first and all the males will remain in spawning waters for the duration. Heavy, roe-laden females will arrive next, spew packets of eggs over a few days, then depart back to more brackish areas. They’re the first fish of the new year, it’ll mean bad luck later if you don’t at least chase them. Happy Season 2020.