Growing up in Duluth Minnesota, I think I can safely say that I know when to appreciate the weather. The jokes are endless and I won’t dwell on them but I will share one of my favorites believed to be from Mark Twain, although the attribution to Twain is not without controversy, regardless, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth.” That being said, the winter this year in Duluth, and the Midwest in general, was fairly mild including extended periods of mild temperatures and considerably less snowfall. To top it off, we’ve been welcomed into spring with a very mild stretch of weather including some beautiful days and a rapid melting of what little snow we had here. More importantly, with the snow gone we’ve had the opportunity to get our dogs into the cover to take advantage of some of the best training you can do with your bird dog this time of year, which is exactly what Hartley and I have been up to the last couple weeks.
Being based in Duluth does have its advantages and one of those is that I’m never too far away from some great grouse and woodcock cover. I can typically run home after work, put on my boots, get Hartley in the truck and have him down in some cover within twenty minutes. So far this year we’ve been out a handful of times and each time we’ve contacted anywhere from zero to fourteen grouse in a maximum of two hours. The zero came from a quick run in which we were on a tight schedule and the fourteen was the result of a full two-hour run with two other dogs on the ground besides my young English setter. The bird numbers will always vary, but the important part is that it’s good cover that it does in fact hold birds. All I have to do is keep putting my dog down on the ground and watch him learn!
To date, we have yet to encounter any woodcock but I have a feeling that is going to change any day now. I’ve been closely monitoring the Ruffed Grouse Society’s woodcock migration tracker which is clearly indicating the birds are on the move. I’ve also heard multiple anecdotal reports that woodcock have descended upon southern Minnesota and some surrounding states. Probably the most definitive indication would be the poor timberdoodle that unfortunately met my buddy’s patio door head-on this morning on the north side of Duluth. We should be seeing good numbers of them very soon all across the state so I would encourage you to get those bird dogs out into some cover this weekend!
One reason I find these spring runs so enjoyable is the lack of pressure due to the fact that I’m not hunting the birds. As a first time bird dog handler, I often found myself in situations last fall where I was overwhelmed with trying to manage myself, the birds and the dog all at once. I assume this is just part of the deal when it comes to hunting with dogs and I’ve enjoyed every step of the process but I’m also embracing the spring training sessions for what they are. It gives me a great opportunity to focus all of my attention on the dog and really enjoy watching him learn with each additional contact he makes. I’ve been quite content following the dog around with nothing more than a camera in my hands and a whistle around my neck. I’ve also found that I’ve been a better handler for Hartley which mainly involves me keeping my mouth shut. I’ve done little more than make sure the dog stays in front of me while adding a bit of encouragement to keep the dog moving across the trail and into the cover on either side when we are on a cleared path.
I’ve already seen these spring runs pay dividends. Hartley pointed some birds last year but his urge to hold point was often short-lived. Earlier this week, I witnessed the best point and hold of a grouse in his short career as a bird dog. To make note, I’m currently running him with a bell and the Garmin Alpha which I’ve really enjoyed. In this case, Hartley was about sixty yards off to my right and out of sight. I was looking down at the Alpha monitoring his progress and I noticed his bell had stopped. A second later the “Hartley On Point” indicator popped up on the Alpha. Needless to say I excitedly made my way towards him until I could just make him out through the alders. I confirmed he was on point and admired it for a second before proceeding. I was just about thirty yards from the dog when the grouse flushed. The bird seemed a little jumpy as I wasn’t very close when he flushed but rather than being upset about not getting a shot at the bird, I simply enjoyed the fact that my young setter had just perfectly pointed and held a grouse. That fact alone is enough to celebrate and it was nice to be able to do so. I tried to call him over to praise him but he clearly had other things on his mind as he gave chase to the bird so I quickly reminded myself to “keep quiet” and I took off after him with a smile across my face.
Needless to say, the spring training season on wild birds provides a fantastic opportunity for our dogs to gain additional wild bird exposure and exercise. It also provides the handler a lower pressure situation to observe his or her dog in the unpredictable training environment characteristic wild bird cover. This summer we’ll have plenty of time for controlled training situations on pen-raised birds, but for now I plan to spend as much time with my pup as we can in the spring cover before the birds begin to nest. We hope you’re all finding time to do the same and we’d love to hear about it. Let us know how the dogs are doing and what your favorite part of spring training is!
P.S. Spring also serves as an unfortunate reminder that it’s tick season and I can confirm that I’ve already pulled multiple deer ticks off my dog. Be sure to treat your dogs ASAP!