SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Start at amateur and work your way up
I have often referred to my life with my dogs as living in an interdependent relationship. They need me and I need them. They need me for food and shelter and medical care. They also need the human love and affection that all dogs crave and I give tons of that. They need to know where their place in the pack as they are all descendants of wolves. Knowing their place in life gives a dog balance.
Cesar from the "Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic channel made this statement famous, but it is true. When we are hunting, our interdependent relationship continues. The roles change a little in that the human handler becomes more of a co-worker than a manager. I get the dog to the spot and insure that he/she does their job within a few boundaries, but for the most part we are pretty much a 50-50 combo.
It is amazing how much there is to learn in any pursuit that you follow. Before I owned my first dog I knew they were good for hunting but had never hunted with one. The guys that had dogs would always shoot more roosters than a human alone. I thought this was because they had more boots, or feet on the ground in this situation.
When I hunted without a dog I could flush a few roosters. They were normally the young and dumb but every once in a while a solo human hunter could get an older smarter bird pinched up against a creek where it could no longer run and it had to fly. I hit about one out of every three back in that day. Of the ones I hit I found about 50 percent. Lost birds are one of the biggest reasons to hunt with a trained retriever.
If a hunter had a dog, it was my thought that he could flush twice as many roosters as me because there were two of them. More running around by the dog would result in more flushes. This is true to a point but it only took one season with a dog to understand that my thinking was very flawed.
Not only can a dog run around and flush roosters using only their movement but they can do much more. I found out that I am not alone in my thinking. Many novice hunters and non-hunting folks thought the same thing: that dogs flushed birds just by runningaround.
The big difference is that even if a dog can flush a rooster from running around, those account for a very small percentage of the dogs' flushes. It is after the dog crosses the scent trail that was left by the bird as it either walked or ran through the grass does the dogs' value become completely apparent. Dogs smell pheasants like we smell a skunk after it has sprayed. They can follow the minute scent left as the bird moves and follow that scent trail like a string to where the bird actually is. This is when the good stuff happens.
Experienced dogs can do a better job of following the trail and finding the bird than can a young in-experienced dog. With practice almost all dogs abilities improve and more birds are harvested. Instead of the lone hunter walking around trying to flush a bird, the dog can locate the trail and follow even one bird in 80 acres and stay on it until it is flushed for the hunter to shot at. Hunting with a dog is far more than just an extra set of feet on the ground.
The interdependent relationship requires the hunter to do certain things to help the dog do his job. Just as dogs can have an off day, so can the human counterpart of this duo. If the hunter shoots a bird that the dog was unable to see due the tall grass or other cause, it is the hunters' job to take the dog to the area called the fall. This is the general spot the bird hit the ground. When in the fall the dog will look to pick up the scent and find the bird.
Earlier this week, this avid pheasant hunter failed in his human duties in this regard. I had the rare opportunity to shoot two rooster one right after the other. This is called a double and in Minnesota this happens very seldom. The two birds went in opposite directions and the grass was so tall that neither of the two dogs could see them.
I took them to the first fall and after a few minutes we had a beautiful rooster in hand. I then took them to the second fall about 80 yards away and we started over on the second downed rooster. After 60 minutes of intense looking I finally gave up and wondered what was wrong with my boys. The bird was dead and they could not find it. I felt bad and wondered why they were not successful.
It has been terribly dry and in those conditions birds to not emit as much scent and leave little to no scent trail. I thought maybe I had not killed it and it had run away. I finally gave up empty handed on the second bird. When I got back to the truck, my hunting buddy Les and his wife Judy were waiting. They had hunted a spot a quarter of a mile away. I just could not give up. It was past shooting time so I asked him if he would go look with me again.
Off we went for another look for the downed bird. I had already looked for over an hour. When we got to the spot Les headed north and I asked where he was going. He was heading down wind to then hunt the dog back into the wind to give the dog the best chance of picking up a scent.
Forty yards north of where I had been looking for over an hour his dog came up with the bird. I as the human handler had missed the fall by 40 yards. This happens when the grass is uniform and there is no unusual marker to judge the distance from. My intent was good but with two birds in the air and downed at the same time I was unable to make a good mark on the second fall and I could have looked for days and never found it.
I felt a lot better about my dogs not being able to find the bird because it was my fault that I did not get them to where they needed to be to find it. I have hunted many pheasants over the past 20 years and this is just one of those moments when you realize that there is always something more to learn. The interdependent relationship requires more than just the dog doing his part. I apologized to the boys over and over on the way home for blaming them for a lost bid. The blame rested squarely with me. They forgave me after a treat and some scratching behind the ears. Tomorrow is another day.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.