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Scott Rall: Always trust the dog

Scott RallDaily Globe outdoors collumnist It has been quite a pheasant season this year. When the roadside counts came out in mid-August they showed a pretty big increase in pheasant numbers. The numbers in this situation are kind of misleading f...

Scott Rall
Daily Globe outdoors collumnist 

It has been quite a pheasant season this year. When the roadside counts came out in mid-August they showed a pretty big increase in pheasant numbers.
The numbers in this situation are kind of misleading for many hunters. They stated that there was a 34 percent increase in pheasant numbers. This sounds really good, and it is. But consider this, if the number of pheasants counted on one particular route had 10 birds in it, then a 34 percent increase would count 13.4 birds. Sure, it is a nice increase, but if the old number is 30 birds then a 3.4 bird increase still leaves us a long way from where we once were.
Curt Haroldson occupied the post of head farmland zone pheasant guy for the Minnesota DNR for many years. He explained to me that when weather and poor nesting conditions reduce pheasant numbers in a dramatic way that it can take between 3-4 very good years for that population to rebound.
We had the best spring weather for nesting in 2015 than any year in the past five. It certainly did help, but pheasant numbers across the state still have a long way to go. Nobles County has the highest bird numbers of any county in southwest Minnesota, but we have a ways to go to return to the days when there are birds in every corner.
I have been so happy with the performance of my new dog, Sarge. He is hunting his first season and with a sum total of seven weeks of actual hunting experience he is showing his colors. He still has to hone his skills, but even now it is hard to tell him apart from his two other hunting companions when they are all working together in the tall grass.
I was reading an article on the Field and Stream website a few days ago and the author had written a blog with the title “Always trust the dog.” When you hunt with a dog I call it a mutually satisfying inter-dependent relationship. The hunter needs the dog to smell, track and flush the birds. The dog needs the hunter to make the kill. Each part in this interdependent relationship has an important yet separate role.
I find it humorous when any member of this duo tries to take over the responsibilities of the other. Here is where the trust-the-dog statement comes from. Take, for example, the human thinking he is smarter than the dog in the nose department.
When a hunter shoots a bird the dog runs to the fall and looks for the downed bird. If the bird falls and the dog did not see it, then the hunter’s only responsibility is to get the dog in the general area and then just stand still and shut up. Under both examples, the dog is in charge of finding the bird. If the bird is not dead and runs off, the dog will attempt to track it until it catches it or the bird makes a successful getaway.
There have been many times where the dog will start tracking the bird and the hunter will call the dog back. They think the bird landed dead right on the spot they are standing.
When I quiz hunters about this they will say over and over that the bird is dead and it is right here. After the dog has searched this area extensively for some time I then explain to the shooter that a dead bird does not run away. If it was dead we would have found it by now.
The hunter needs to let the dog do what the dog does best. That is to use its nose and ultimately find the bird. For the human to think they can do a better job of smelling and finding the bird is just plain funny. In addition to calling the dog off the scent, in many cases the hunter will actually do more things to make the dog’s job more difficult.
The hunter should never wade into the fall. By doing so you leave your scent in that area. Now there are competing scents - the smell of the human and the smell of the bird. There is no reason, in my words, “to stink up the fall.” While the dog is looking in the fall the hunter should stand back about 15 yards and wait. If the bird is not found right away I toss my orange hat on the ground to help keep a general idea of where we started the search. If the bird is not found and several minutes have passed, and if the dog is not working a specific scent trail, I will take the dog downwind about 50 yards and start walking back to where the bird fell.
Wind is a dog’s best friend as long as it is not blowing 30 mph. The breeze can blow the bird’s scent toward the dog and help them find it. If I had a choice I will always hunt a property into the wind - even if this means walking a half-mile on a dead head in order to walk the spot back into the wind. When you see a pheasant in a road ditch they can disappear into just a few blades of grass almost like a genie. If a human thinks they can find a wounded bird in four-foot tall native grass when it is doing its best to evade the dog and you, the hunter is truly fooling himself.
How long you look for a bird is a matter of pride. This season I have shot many birds. I have only lost one. My dogs can do a pretty good job of finding cripples, but they are by no means the best tracking-trailing dogs in Minnesota. Les Johnson has some of the best in the area for finding cripples on the run. I will look for at least 30 minutes before I give up. Some hunters only look for a few minutes and move on. I have gone back later in the day to the spot of a lost bird and looked again. I hunted with a guy this past weekend who went back three times to a spot and finally found the cripple. That is solid dedication.
When a bird is shot I allow every dog to go to the fall. If there are other dogs in the group they all go, too. Only when I can see the bird in the dog’s mouth will I use the whistle “here” command to call them back. Three noses are better than one, and five is better than three. I don’t have any issue if a hunting companion’s dog saves my bacon and finds a bird my dogs cannot. There is a saying that every dog has his day and on the next outing my dog might very well save his bacon in return.
I was out hunting last week with Tracer and Sarge, and Sarge got really birdy. Birdy is an expression to describe a dog that is very excited, tail wagging faster than normal and head down with the sniffer in full power. I was so happy to have my young dog acting like a veteran I was totally entranced watching this young dog.
As I was watching Sarge I heard a rooster cackle and as I turned around I saw Tracer jumping up to try to grab a rooster that was just lifting off. I never even got the gun to my shoulder. Hunting more than one dog takes concentration, and at that moment I had lost mine.
If you have never hunted it is hard to understand a hunter when they say that they hunt birds so they can watch the dog. The interdependent relationship between dog and man is much like a nice slow dance with great choreography. Both parties know what the other is doing and where they are going and are doing it together.
Trusting your dog is the very first step in developing this dance. There are times when that trust will not go as you had planned. A dog of mine pointed to something in the grass and when I waded in the result was a spray of a skunk.
Even dogs must have a sense of humor. The sense of smell in a dog has been described to me like this: They can smell a pheasant much the same as we can smell a skunk. When it comes to finding birds I trust the dogs and do my best to stay out of the way.
If you want more birds in your bag this season it would be great advice to follow.

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