Gary Lester, an all-age handler with numerous championship titles, watches while Miller’s Creative Cause backs.
Even though the bulk of the business of Northwoods Bird Dogs is training and breeding, I really like to guide wild bird hunts. Not only does this get me into the woods but I get to see how our dogs stack up against others.
While here in the Red Hills region of southwest Georgia/north Florida Georgia during the winter, I handle dogs off horseback on wild bobwhite quail hunts. It gives me ample opportunity to compare our dogs to others on the hunts.
The last hunt of this season was held on the prestigious, historic Dixie Plantation, near Monticello, Florida. First farmed as a cotton plantation in the early 1800s, the property eventually was purchased by the Livingston family, magnates in the railroad industry, in the 1920s. They turned it into an 18,000-acre wild quail hunting plantation, definitely one of the premier plantations in the area.
The main house of the Dixie Plantation is landscaped with boxwoods pruned in the shape of horseshoes. The entrance way features a life-sized bronze statue of a Tennessee Walking Horse, the favored horse for quail hunting plantations.
Ownership of the Dixie has since been turned over to Tall Timbers Research and Land Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fire ecology and wildlife management in the Southeast. The plantation, now 9,100 acres in size, is used primarily for quail research. But Tall Timbers also leases hunting days during the quail season and continues the tradition of hosting the Continental Field Trial Championship, an all-age stake now in its 119th year.
2015 National Champion Miller’s Dialing In has a covey find in a clearing of longleaf pines and live oaks.
Joining our client and his two friends on this final hunt was Gary Lester, professional, all-age field trial competitor. Gary has been wildly successful in field trial placements. Besides numerous championships, he has handled three dogs that won the three-hour National Championship at the Ames Plantation in Tennessee.
How fortunate that two of those champions were with him on this hunt: CH Miller’s Dialing In (2015 winner) and the recently crowned 2017 National Champion Lester’s Sunny Hill Jo. It would be fabulous to hunt with just one of those dogs…but here were two!
In addition to Dialing In and Jo, Gary brought CH Miller’s Creative Cause, another dog he ran in the 2017 National Championship, and three winning, derby-aged dogs.
All pointer males, these dogs are big and muscular—weighing more than 55 pounds—and they are powerful, athletic animals. They moved with strength and class but were also extremely responsive to Gary. Very impressive!
Lester’s Sunny Hill Jo shows his championship style on covey find and a hunter moves in for the flush.
I was both thrilled and humbled to see our dogs braced with some of the best in the nation—so I wanted our best in my string.
On the truck were setters CH Houston’s Blackjack, RU-CH Northwoods Nirvana, Grits, Rolls Royce, Jeter, Carly Simon, Nickel, Carbon and Anhiwake Grace and three pointer females, Vixen, Platinum and Audi. I also had two English cockers, Yoshi and Arrowhead Penny, to retrieve dead birds.
The hunting party readies horses, dogs and equipment for the morning hunt.
The first morning brace was a good one. Gary ran Dialing In (the 2015 National Champion!) and I chose Rolls Royce. Both dogs were on a mission to find quail and, to my delight, they ended their hour equal in bird finds.
The highlight for me, though, was the last brace of the day when I ran Grits, a strong 50-lb. male that always hunts hard and stylishly, and Gary ran one of his winning derbies. The open, rolling terrain allowed us to see them on big, beautiful casts. I was so proud that Grits compared favorably on the ground with Gary’s all-age dog. Even better, Grits out-birded his bracemate and pointed four coveys in the hour, giving the hunting part plenty of action. I think Gary was impressed because he asked me to call him if I get another setter like that…and he’s a pointer guy!
The next morning was foggy and warm. Gary braced CH Lester’s Sunny Hill Jo and CH Miller’s Creative Cause. These two all-age champions put on a show of strength, class and bird finding with five covey finds in a bit more than an hour. Again, very impressive!
At about noon that day when the temperature was 82°, I ran two of our dogs. I braced Royce with female setter Nickel (out of 2X National Champion Shadow Oak Bo x Northwoods Chardonnay). I was so proud that both dogs ran well, and found and pointed birds.
Both days were great hunts…and it was a special honor to watch Gary and his championship dogs.
Between morning braces of a quail hunt on Pineaven Plantation, Jerry explains the intricacies of Garmin collars with a group of hunters. A matched pair of mules is hitched to the wooden dog wagon where a Labrador waits up front and bird dogs rest in the boxes.
Bobwhite quail. Longleaf pines. Mule-drawn wagons. Bird dogs, retrieving dogs, handlers, horses and hunters. All are integral components of the one-hundred-year-old tradition of wild bird hunting on the plantations in the Red Hills region of southwest Georgia and northern Florida.
Pinehaven Plantation, located near Monticello, Florida, is the setting for the video. It is a privately owned, 5,500-acre plantation where I have been fortunate enough to work on occasion. Because no actual guiding is necessary (rather we follow courses of the mown checkerboard ground), my responsibilities are as dog handler for our client.
Jerry with Penny (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013), on the left, and dog trainer Bobby Ryan with his pointer prepare to start the afternoon brace on Pinehaven Plantation.
Hall and Hall, a real estate company headquartered in Montana but with offices scattered throughout the West, produced this video.
Northwoods Blue Ox (CH Peace Dale Duke x Blue Silk, 2007) has always been a soft-mouthed, natural retriever.
Grouse populations might be up or might be down but no matter where we are in the cycle and since there are only so many autumns in a life time, October finds me in the woods. And 2015 will go down as another good year.
What a beautiful sight……and the Holland & Holland is nice, too.
In early October, I load up our string of veteran grouse dogs and young dogs and head to Bowen Lodge, northwest of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, on Lake Winnibigoshish. I’ve been guiding for Bill and Gail Heig for almost 20 years and spend most of the month with them. Even on a day off from guiding grouse hunters, I still walk tote roads and slosh through bogs while training our young dogs.
Jim DePolo is justifiably proud when he finds his four-year-old Morris (CH Houston’s Blackjack x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2011) on point.
Bill and I were disappointed in the grouse numbers. We expected an uptick based on good spring drumming counts but reproduction did not follow. We flushed about the same number of grouse per hour as in 2014—which continues as the lowest number since the peak in 2010. We had better dog work on the birds we found and shot more than last year.
Northwoods Carly Simon (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2011) receives well-deserved pets from Ben Johnson and his son Seth after a warm morning in the woods.
As in 2014, we had another big year for woodcock flushes. Fortunately, woodcock keeps guiding clients happy during a slow day for grouse.
Some dogs–like Northwoods Vixen (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011)–have a natural affinity to find ruffed grouse. This gnarly, nasty cover screams grouse.
As for the dogs, it was a good year, too. Four-year-old Northwoods Vixen put it all together this fall. She pointed and handled grouse as proficiently and stylishly as any. No matter time of day when—or hunting spot where—I ran veterans Ox and Carly, both were, as usual, simply outstanding. Young sisters Carbon and Bismuth and pointer Platinum advanced and by the end of the season, all handled grouse like mature dogs. While not as far along, one-year-old Nickel and Mercury still found lots of birds and pointed many.
It’s hard to beat an afternoon like this in autumn–two happy hunters Ken Taylor (on left) and Jim DePolo, their handsome setters Tyler (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2011) and Morris (CH Houston’s Blackjack x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2011) and evidence of some good shooting.
My time at Bowen Lodge is special. The dogs and the birds are instrumental but it’s the clients, too. Most have been with us for those 20 years and now are friends. In fact, I can’t wait to see them all again in 2016.
Prior to a day in the woods, grouse hunters, guides and their dogs gather at Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish. With the exception of the pointer, all the setters were bred and trained by us.
As expected, ruffed grouse were hard to come by this year in Minnesota. The drumming counts were up last spring but the early-to-mid years of a decade have always been times of fewer grouse. The late spring and wet nesting season did not help as few broods were found. While warm temperatures in October were common state-wide, conditions varied from very dry in the northwest to quite wet in central Minnesota.
Based on personal observation as well as client reports, some areas of the state had higher numbers of birds flushed.
Low grouse numbers usually mean a higher proportion of adult birds encountered. These survivors are the most difficult for both a bird dog to handle and a for hunter to shoot. They run more, flush farther away and when they do flush, they fly low. (Age a bird shot that flushed across a trail and flew straight away and it’s likely to be an immature bird.) The woodcock numbers were again a pleasant surprise and made the spans of time between grouse flushes more exciting.
Besides all that, it was still a great season.
It doesn’t get any better than this. After a successful hunt on a quintessential autumn afternoon, Ken and his setter Roxie walk back along the tote road.
I spend most of October guiding out for Bill and Gail Heig of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish. A special group of hunters have been coming to Bowen for decades and most have become good friends. It’s always fun to see them and share our passion in the woods.
Hunters John and Brian bagged a big male drummer that had been pointed by experienced bird dog Shaq.
Again, as in recent low-cycle years, we all saw how valuable a savvy, experienced grouse dog can be. With their knowledge and experience, they find and point far more birds. Shaq (age 10) and Ox (age 7) perfectly fit that description; Carly and Vixen (both age 3) came into their own by mid-season. Rum Rickey and Slash filled in when needed and did solid jobs.
Ray and Carly take a break after a good morning hunt in central Minnesota.
An exciting surprise was our 18-month-old pointer male, Northwoods Jaguar (Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013). He showed a natural inclination to point and retrieve grouse with very little handling. His composure around game and ability to follow flushed birds and point them again was developed well beyond his young age. Jaguar’s five-month-old half sister, Platinum (Elhew G Force x Northwoods Prancer), also showed her proclivity by pointing grouse and woodcock as well as retrieving/carrying the dead birds around.
All guides and most of the guiding clients at Bowen Lodge have purchased dogs from us over the years. It’s insightful to watch the dogs develop over the years and gratifying to see the bonds between dogs and owners.
• Sunny (Blue Chief x Forest Ridge Jewel, 2003)
• Roxie (CH Terhaar’s Rocko x CH A Rolling Stone, 2005)
• Casey (I’m Houston’s Image x Blue Silk, 2006)
• Cammie and Daisy (Blue Chief x Blue Blossom, 2007)
• Bobbi (Northwoods Blue Ox x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2010)
• Tyler (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2011)
• Morris (CH Houston’s Blackjack x Chardonnay, 2011)
• Maggie (Dashaway x Good Going Moxie, 2009)
• Ice (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Black Bama, 2011)
• Ginger (Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013)
Bill Heig owns Ice (age 4) and she put on clinic after clinic. She proves there are dogs that can pin—freeze in place, not just point—ruffed grouse.
Near the swamp edge at the base of a beaver-chewed maple, Slash has his bird pinned and remains steady as Jim moves in for the shot.
Mike Powers again did a great job working our young dogs. Not only does he know how to put dogs into birds, but he is extremely proficient with a shot gun, too. Low populations can make learning about grouse more difficult and there’s only one way to get that education—keep hunting them.
A big disappointment in our central region was 12” of snow on November 10, followed by bitter cold and strong winds. That put an immediate end to all late-season hunting.
Looking ahead, I’m optimistic that next season there will be more grouse in the woods. But even if there aren’t, I’ll still be out there!
Hunters Dick Taylor, on left, and Henson Orser happily pose with their birds after a successful hunt behind Blue Shaquille. High stem density of the aspens combined with a rather open forest floor is a favorite habitat for ruffed grouse.
No one who is at all sensitive to criticism or who does take kindly to being disagreed with, should speak openly of his grouse dog ideas; much less permit them to become recorded in lasting print.
~ William Harnden Foster, New England Grouse Shooting, 1942
Ruffed grouse tend to inhabit wooded areas with high stem density which makes it more difficult for ground predators to approach. Generally, they prefer a bare forest floor with good visibility and an over story for protection from aerial predators. Grouse live singly and are therefore responsible for their own survival. Their preferred means of travel is walking. When threatened, evasive options are many and grouse will run, flush, fly into a tree, sit tight or any combination.
What Betsy and I seek in a grouse dog are qualities that allow the dog to find the most birds and the ability to point them in a manner that provides the best shooting opportunities. We choose our grouse dogs based on the habits, and habitat, of the birds.
Ruffed grouse are solitary birds that live in big woods.
Even though the woods are vast, only a small portion holds grouse. We require a dog that will cover a good amount of territory searching for these individual birds while staying in contact with the handler.
Ruffed grouse inhabit some nasty areas.
Not only does a grouse dog have to penetrate the bird’s realm but it also has to get there. This includes traversing rough cover of debris-strewn, moss-covered, logged-over areas, tall grass, thorny berry briars and lots of water—whether in swamps, streams, marshes or ponds. A grouse dog is constantly ducking under, jumping over or otherwise dodging something in its path. We want a tenacious dog that is not deterred by tough terrain.
Ruffed grouse also like bare forest floors.
A grouse leaves little scent on a bare forest floor. That open-ness at bird level also gives grouse a good view of its surroundings. We require a dog with superb scenting ability that can follow a bird’s movements. The dog should have the dual qualities of strong pointing instinct and boldness to engage the bird.
After a good hour or two in the grouse woods, Blue Shaquille has had to ford streams and search large areas for his quarry. Among many points this day, he pins a bird in a very likely spot.
In addition to those qualities that are bird-oriented, Betsy and I want a tractable, intelligent dog with physical ability and style. It should have good hearing with natural ability to orient to its handler. It should effortlessly adapt to different cover. It should move easily and hunt for long periods of time, even under hot, dry conditions. Finally, we want a stylish dog that hunts with zeal.
We know that’s asking a lot of a dog but we’ve seen many dogs do it.
And the only way to find out is to work dogs on grouse. It takes time, knowledge of the bird and boot leather. Some abilities can be ascertained when a dog is young but most will be at least three years of age before its true capabilities are known.
Northwoods Carly Simon points a good distance from a single ruffed grouse in northern Minnesota.
The goal of the breeding program that Betsy and I began 19 years ago has always been to produce the best grouse dogs anywhere. To make our string, a dog—whether English setter or pointer—had to prove that it could find, point and handle ruffed grouse. Further, it had to point not just one bird or two, but grouse after grouse after grouse.
Since our focus was ruffed grouse of the north woods, we didn’t consider southern birds. For the past two winters, though, Betsy and I have lived in southwestern Georgia and have trained on bobwhite quail. During recent hunts on several beautiful quail plantations, we had the opportunity to directly compare our setters and pointers to those used by professional guides. It’s clear (and gratifying) that our dogs do extremely well here on these wild birds.
We think several similarities exist between grouse and quail dogs.
Wild birds in the woods.
Habitat for bobwhite quail in southwest Georgia consists of tall, longleaf and loblolly pines with low-growing shrubby and herbaceous plants. In other words, it’s similar to woods where ruffed grouse live.
In typical bobwhite quail cover, Northwoods Carly Simon points a covey on a southwest Georgia plantation.
A covey of 12 or more quail can be as difficult to find as a single grouse and a dog needs a discerning nose to consistently find them. While bobwhites do allow a dog to get closer, they can be touchy, especially in January and February, about the approach of the dog. A good dog points from a distance.
Desire to find birds under tough conditions.
Grouse dogs are constantly getting hit by sticks, grasses and briars and their feet take a beating from all kinds of debris on the forest floor. Too, early in the season, weather conditions are often warm and dry. Circumstances are similar for quail dogs. A good quail dog must have tenacity and desire to keep hunting when cover and conditions are tough.
Hunting range and pattern.
The wooded habitat for both ruffed grouse and quail is quite uniform and birds can be found anywhere. The key for finding both is coverage, not range. Plantations mow the underbrush in a grid pattern and a dog should hunt these strips in a forward, crisscrossing pattern at an ideal range of 50 – 100 yards.
Early in the season, both ruffed grouse and quail are easier for a dog to handle. By late season, both birds are wily and wary and use every tactic possible to avoid detection—from sitting tight to running away to flushing wild at the approach of the hunting party.
One advantage, though…
Quail do one have one distinct advantage over ruffed grouse when it comes to survival. A ruffed grouse is a loner and relies on its own individual instincts and experience. Since quail are covey birds, they are dependent on each other and usually react as a single unit. Further, the wariest bird enhances the survival of the entire covey.
Jeff writes: Absolutely wonderful day when the sun is shining and you are shooting a 410. Five coveys over Izzie all blank gunned.
For bird hunters who live in the northern half of the country, winter can be bleak. Winds howl, snow piles up and grouse, woodcock, quail and pheasant seasons (except on certain reservation lands in South Dakota) have closed. Hunting clubs, preserves and game farms are open but are still somewhat weather-dependent.
Some friends of ours leave their bird dogs at home and turn to ice fishing. Others hunker down and do their best to survive with mental capacity intact. There is another option, though.
Jeff writes: Mearn’s hunting today on the live oak plains near Nogales. Not as many coveys as Wednesday but very good dog work. Hershey was the dog of the day….had 2 coveys and a single.
Go south. Bird hunting seasons are still open in many southern states. Here’s just a sample.
• Arizona: Gambel’s, Mearn’s and scaled quail seasons open until February 9.
• Georgia: ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail seasons open until February 28.
• Kansas: bobwhite quail, pheasant & prairie chicken open until January 31.
• Louisiana: woodcock season open until January 31; bobwhite quail season open until February 28.
• North Carolina: woodcock season open until January 25.
• Oklahoma: bobwhite quail season open until February 15.
• Texas: bobwhite quail season open until February 23.
Jeff writes: You know you are in great Mearn’s cover when the oaks are recovering from a fire and you hear the drones all day.
Jerry and I can vouch for hunting in most of these states but we retain a special feeling for quail hunting in the deserts of southern Arizona. The warm, sunny days are ideal for outdoor activities. Terrain can be a little tough, though, as cacti abound and the hillsides can be steep and filled with sharp rocks. But three native quail species, Mearn’s, Gambel’s and scaled, are striking to see, generally abundant enough and fun to hunt.
Too, evenings bring stunning sunsets behind the Tuscon Mountain range when all one has to do is decide what’s for dinner—big steaks and beer or authentic Mexican and margaritas.
Jeff writes: Lost Izzie when my Garmin battery went dead. Found her on point deep in a prickly pear patch. Took the picture and shot a bird from the covey.
Thanks to our friend and neighbor Jeff Hintz who shares beautiful photographs from southern Arizona.
May, our 10-year-old Labrador, poses with part of her retrieved stash of ducks.
Not unlike bobwhite quail hunts, duck hunting on a southwest Georgia plantation is a complicated, carefully orchestrated, social event. In addition, preparation for the actual hunt begins months prior to the season.
Most duck hunting is done in ponds specially created by digging or damming. In spring, those ponds are drained so corn or millet can be planted in the dry beds. The ponds are re-filled in fall so ducks can easily feed on the heads of the crops.
Various camouflaged blinds are installed. Some are half-submerged, wooden structures with a below-water platform (hunters wear chest waders) and an above-water, dry ledge for shells and gear. Other blinds are built on stilts above the water, complete with walkways from land.
In this far southwest corner of Georgia, ducks could have arrived via either the Atlantic or Mississippi Flyways and include wood ducks, mallards, redheads, pintails and ring-necked ducks.
Betsy and I are renting a small cottage and kennels which is part of plantation. One evening, Langdon, the plantation’s owner, called and invited me on Saturday morning duck hunt. I eagerly agreed and Langdon then asked, “Does your Lab retrieve? Bring her.”
May clambers on shore with her retrieve of a colorful drake wood duck.
This would be May’s debut as a duck retriever. She is a great upland flushing dog and has been on countless hunts and training sessions with pointers and setters. And she’s always loved to retrieve. Betsy began throwing dummies for May when she was a puppy and has continuously played fetch in many lakes and ponds. We bought her from Dennis and Janice Anderson, who specialize in Labradors out of British stock.
So early the next morning, I gathered my clothes, shotgun and loaded May into the truck. Langdon, a group of friends and family members and I gathered at 6:00 a.m. at the plantation’s lodge for coffee and planning. Licenses and duck stamps were verified; steel shot inspected; and, most importantly, hunters were assigned partners and blinds in one of three ponds. By 6:30, we were heading to our blinds.
Just as it was getting light, about 7 a.m., the wood ducks started to come in from a large body of water to the east. The ducks were easy to spot but not so easy to shoot because they were backlit by the sun. The action was hot and heavy for brief time, though, and several woodies hit the water after good shots. Later ring-necked ducks, mallards and a few redheads trickled into our pond, along with some coots and mergansers. By 9:30, the sun was up, the sky had turned blue and the hunt was over.
In the gathering light, May swims in with an easy retrieve of a floating duck. An elevated duck blind on the far shore is connected to land by a walkway.
Ducks aren’t retrieved during the hunt. Instead, they’re marked and picked up afterwards using hunters in waders and boats or dogs. So it was time for May and an English cocker spaniel owned by Langdon’s son to get to work.
May hunts for downed ducks in a corn stubble near the shore. Duck ponds in southwestern Georgia are drained and planted with corn or millet in the spring and then flooded in the fall.
With just a little encouragement, May took to it, well, like a duck to water! She first retrieved six, clearly visible, floating ducks. Several others were marked down in the corn stubble and I sent her out. May searched, using her nose, and swam back and forth several times with successful retrieves. She is now a great duck retriever!
Like many events at a plantation, hospitality plays a big part. After all retrieving was complete, hunters again gathered in the lodge to feast on a big Southern breakfast of eggs, sausages, bacon, grits, biscuits, fruit and more coffee.
Northwoods Prancer retrieves a grouse so gently that its pretty wing feathers remain untouched.
The early part of the grouse and woodcock season with its bluebird days and beautiful woods could have been an ad for Minnesota tourism but sure made hunting difficult. The temperatures were warm, the conditions were bone-dry and since no hard freeze had occurred, the cover was green and thick. Mid October brought a welcome weather change and, within days, most of the leaves had fallen in central and northern Minnesota.
It takes a tough, determined dog to hunt in the north woods in early season. Susie’s hard work pays off after a push through tall ferns and grasses.
Throughout the season I’ve found a good number of local woodcock and have just begun seeing flight birds. Ruffed grouse are a different story, though. I’ve only flushed two broods. Otherwise, dogs’ points indicate young birds—when grouse are walking on the ground in front of the dog—or mature, savvy birds. I’ve had dogs follow those running grouse up to 300 yards before they flush.
This isn’t surprising to me. The year 2010 was the last peak of the grouse cycle so we’re now in the third year of decline. In my experience, the next two years will be tough, too.
In years with low grouse numbers, an experienced dog truly shines. Blue Shaquille followed a running grouse for 300 yards before finally pinning it.
In years with plentiful birds, even a mediocre dog can look fairly good but in low grouse years, an experienced, talented dog makes a big difference. When birds are few and lots of cover separates them, the extraordinary grouse dog “takes you to the birds.” It will be exciting to see which dogs rise to the occasion.
In a beautiful piece of cover with tall pines, a small field and border of broomsedge bluestem, Lewis, left, and Buddy walk in for the flush of a big covey.
Although Jerry is perhaps most well known for his grouse guiding skills, he has several years of experience on bobwhite quail hunts in Texas. This year, though, is his first guiding in Georgia.
Just after Valentine’s Day, four guys from Atlanta, Buddy, Jack, Lewis and Oscar, loaded up their dogs and drove the easy four hours to our place here in southwest Georgia. They couldn’t have been a nicer group—real southern gentlemen—with soft drawls and easy smiles. Jerry enjoyed his hours in the field with them and we all had a good time at the end of the day with cocktails in front of a warm fire.
Most quail plantations that are serious about guided hunts have special vehicles. Ours has a Jeep chassis outfitted with dog boxes, gun racks and plenty of seats.
With shotguns in position, Lewis, left, and Jack move quickly up a furrowed row to the dog on point.
One beautiful morning, Grits (Northwoods Blue Ox x Northwoods Chablis) locates a covey along a picturesque two-track while Lewis, shotgun ready, is set for the flush.
Oscar, left, and Lewis display nice shooting form when the covey rises.
Many quail plantations own an English cocker spaniel or two to retrieve downed birds. One afternoon, our cocker Penny had a stellar performance. She searched tenaciously for 14 minutes (Jerry timed it) until she found the winged quail. Upon the command, “Bring it to the truck,” off she ran and jumped onto the front seat of the Jeep.
During a good day in the field hunting wild bobwhite quail, Oscar finds it easy to smile.