Do I Need A Dog To Hunt Grouse, Pheasants And Other Upland Birds?

If you've spent any time looking through hunting magazines, you've seen the pictures: Beautiful, blue-sky shots of people hunting grouse or pheasants. The covers they're in are nicer than any you can ever find and the guys are always with two trusted companions: A double-barrel shotgun and a loyal hunting dog.

Traditionally, upland hunters used pointers, setters, and spaniels. Today, more are turning to retrievers. But do you need a dog to hunt upland birds?

Not really. In fact, a lot of times you're better off alone.

The Cons Of Canines

This is how it's supposed to happen: Your setter ranges out ahead and sweeps the area before you. When he hits bird scent, he locks into a point that says "Hey boss, I got one right here for you!"

Or your spaniel barrels through the gnarly cover and turns a fleeing pheasant into a flushing, easy-to-hit target. Unfortunately, though, things don't always work out this way. Plenty can go wrong in the field, and some dogs can cause more trouble than they're worth.

Bumping is the classic error. Pointing dogs, especially inexperienced ones, do it because they get too close to their game. This causes the birds to flush before you're close enough for a shot. Flushing dogs bump birds when they get too far out of range. While the dog is producing birds (and sort of doing its job), all you can do is shake your head and curse as you watch (or hear) birds fly off out of range.

Running by or passing birds in another common problem. In poor scenting conditions, or simply because they can't be everywhere at once, all dogs do it. Unless the bird flushes near or behind you, you never know it happens. Other dogs tire out quickly and lose their enthusiasm for finding birds. The worst ones are the run offs. You see these dogs twice a day: Right after you let you them out of the truck and hours later when you find them miles away.

Upland hunters who use dogs run into these problems all the time, even though they rarely admit it. So, don't think of hunting without a four-legged friend as a handicap.

Going It Alone

Game birds are skittish—for good reason. They spend their lives evading foxes, coyotes, owls, and hawks and other animals looking to eat them. When hunting season opens, you're added to the list. With your big human brain, opposable thumbs, and shotgun, you may think you have the advantage. But you don't. You're going up against animal who spends all day, every day fooling predators. And they know plenty of ways to make a fool out of you, too.

Imagine if a pheasant walked through your living room. You would notice it, right? When you walk into woods, you're entering the world where these birds live in. Chances are, they know you're there—especially when you get within 50 yards or so of them.

But while this may seem bad, it isn't. In the woods, predators are flying over and walking by game birds all the time. Whenever the game birds sense trouble, their instincts protect them. Here's how you can use these instincts to your advantage:

  • Move, but not too slow: When a game bird senses danger, its freezes. Many times, the predator will pass by without knowing a tasty meal was nearby. As an upland hunter, you should move through the woods at a steady, even pace. Don't crawl along like you're stalking and don't hustle like you're late for dinner. If you come across any birds, there first reaction will be freeze and let you go right by. That's when the next tactic comes into play.
  • Move. Pause: There are two ways to get a game bird to flush. One is to walk close enough to it to make the bird feel threatened. Another is to walk at a steady pace for twenty yards or so and then pause—especially when you're in real birdy looking cover. Pausing makes birds nervous. They think they've been spotted and it's time to flee. Many times, they'll flush right when you start walking again. Be ready.
  • Then zag: Another way to make a game bird nervous is to vary your path through the cover. This way, the birds won't know where you're heading next. This also makes them nervous and more likely to flush.

Two More Tips

Here are couple other things to remember when you head into the field without a four-legged friend.

  • Always be ready to shoot: This is the most important thing to do when hunting on your own. Without a "heads up" from a dog, you never know when a bird is going to erupt into the air. So be sure your gun is ready. At the same time, be sure it's safe. Never take the safety off until you've determined your target (and what lies beyond it) and you've mounted your gun.
  • Be the dog: One of the advantages of a hunting dog is they bust through cover you would rather avoid. But when you're are on your own, this job falls on you. So, get into those tangles of alders or thick shelterbelts and kick the birds out. Keep your gun ready and your eyes on the escape routes the birds are likely to use.
  • Get on downed birds right away: Another advantage of hunting with dogs is their ability to find downed game. When you hunt alone, you need to make up for this by moving quickly towards any birds you hit. If you don't find them right away, mark the spot where the bird fell with your hat and search in widening circles from there.

And don't be surprised if you find the bird a long way from where you saw it go down. Some game birds—especially wild pheasants—are tough. Even after they're hit, they can run impressive distances before expiring.