A shooting slump during a weekend grouse hunt prompted my frustrated partner to proclaim that any self-respecting game bird ought to live in short grass on flat land. If that was the case, I argued, he might as well sell his dogs and shoot skeet because much of bird hunting’s challenge would be gone. Indeed, an upland bird’s living space is its greatest ally, and familiarity with home turf is its best defense against becoming dinner. A hunter’s edge is knowledge of that bird and the dog’s skill at working it. Nowhere is that truer than in thick cover.
Long-standing notions of birds and their cover, whether right or wrong, play a role in the kind of dogs we use to hunt them. Some sportsmen hold that flushers, spaniels and retrievers, are fine for waterfowl and the occasional pheasant but come up short with other birds. These sadly misguided folks are missing out on fine sport; if they looked closely on any given day they’d see a fair number of flush ’n’ fetchers in bird covers, particularly grouse, woodcock and some quail habitat. And why not? Brush-busting spaniels and flushing retrievers readily hunt thick and uncivil cover and put game in the bag, but working them needs a rethinking of techniques.
Developing a thick-cover flusher begins with drilling in core obedience commands such as “Sit” or “Hup” (a traditional spaniel command) and “Come” or “Here.” “Come ’round,” or change direction, is favored by some trainers. In addition to voice commands, training should include obedience to the whistle. Typically, a single sharp tweet means “Sit” and stay where you are; four tweets in rapid succession for “Here;” and two tweets or a single drawn-out whistle for “Come ’round” to turn a dog. In tight cover, a soft whistle is less intrusive; a well-honed flusher doesn’t need a mega horn.
Obedience to commands lets you control your flusher’s patterns and keep it close. And hunting close is the key to a thick-cover dog. A rule of thumb is that a flusher’s range be no more than 15 or so yards to your front and 15-20 yards to each side. If a dog flushes game farther out and you factor in reaction time to get on target, at best you’re looking at a 40-yard shot at a fast-flying bird in thick cover. And that’s where rapid compliance to obedience commands, especially “Sit” and frequently “Come ’round,” comes into play.
If your flusher starts edging beyond shooting range and you can’t hustle any faster, you can turn it or bring it back to you with a command, or stop it until you catch up. For an e-collar trained dog, an option is to stop or turn it with a very light “nick” or the “vibrate” feature. This approach has the advantage of reducing noise. (Note that whistles seem to have less effect than a voice on skittish birds.) If you’ve done obedience work, progressed to flushing drills with planted birds—and reinforced both with hunting experience—it won’t be long before you and your dog become a team.
Learn to read your dog’s “birdy” and “about to flush” signals—they run the gamut from a modest increase in speed to near frenzy—and when you see them, stay close with your dog and position yourself for a shot. A bell can help you stay in touch with a dog in thick cover—it gives you its rough location, and its cadence tells you how fast the dog’s moving. For visibility, hang the bell from a wide blaze-orange collar.
An important factor in success is understanding a game bird’s daily and seasonal habits. All nonmigratory birds—and some, like woodcock, that are migratory— have patterns based around the structural details of their habitat, which gave rise to the saying, “You hunt upland birds by hunting habitat.” This means putting your dog in the right place at the right time. When following a birdy dog, scan the cover for features that work to your advantage: openings for shooting lanes, breaks in the canopy, and likely escape routes birds such as ruffed grouse favor. With a bit of experience, you’ll find yourself automatically positioning for a shot, in some cases by using your dog to channel birds or block flight corridors.
A very handy thick-cover tactic in habitat cut by old farm or logging roads is to send your flusher into the cover to hunt a swath along its edge, while you parallel the dog on the road and “pinch” birds between you. Variations of this technique work well in any piece of cover that’s relatively open on one side—tangles bordering fields, dense alder runs, overgrown creek-bottoms and the like. Woodcock aren’t averse to flying across roads, fields or toward openings in the cover. Grouse, on the other hand, generally flush toward the thickest habitat available. For these birds you can reverse positions by directing your dog to work just in from a road or an edge—let’s say of an aspen stand—while you maneuver deeper in the cover between the dog and a bird’s escape route to safety.
If you haven’t deliberately taught your dog hand/arm signals to take a line or move in a particular direction, it might need a season in the field before making the connection and consistently going where your arm points. Your flusher will learn what an arm signal means much faster if it moves birds when it gets where you directed it, and in the process your dog will begin to recognize where birds are likely to be found.
Upland birds often favor small, thickly vegetated pockets of cover that are almost impossible to penetrate, thus hunt. You can turn “impossible” into “productive” by sitting your flusher down on one side of a pocket while you move around at least part of the cover before commanding the dog to hunt to you. Some sportsmen use their voice, even at a distance, to release a dog to hunt; others prefer a particular whistle command that tells their dog to work through the cover toward them.
Hunting thick-cover birds with a flush ’n’ fetcher can be a challenge: It’s not a leisurely stroll or a social event with friends. But that very challenge can provide some of the best of what bird hunting offers. The only limitations on using a flusher are your dedication to thorough training, your knowledge of particular game birds, and your ability to adjust to the close-quarter demands of rough covers.