If I were to look back on my bird hunting life, the overwhelming amount of my days in the field were spent pursuing Ruffed grouse and woodcock. The focus of my attention has been in New England and Canada, and if I were to drill down even more New Hampshire gets most of my time. I own covert dogs, shoot small bores with open chokes, and wear out tin cloth chaps and brush pants on a regular basis. My dogs and I have the scars to prove it.
A number of years ago, cross training became popular among college and professional athletes. I thought then and think now it’s a great idea. I applied that level of thinking to my bird dogs, and it meant exposing them to different regions which had different conditions and different birds. The quality of my dogs improved, and cross training has paid big dividends.
This past fall I noticed that my dogs had become routine oriented. I would put them down in the grouse and woodcock woods and they went about their business. Two of my setters had a knack for remembering where they found birds. They’d high grade the covert and make a bee line to where they remembered they had found birds in the past. Most of the time they were right, but they’d bypass a lot of huntable areas in favor of cutting to the chase. I didn’t like that approach, and were I a betting man I’d bet you wouldn’t, either.
To correct that ailment I moved them into a big corn and millet field that had some pheasant. These new areas were big, they were soft, and they had big, running birds. My dogs were awakened, and they looked to me for direction. They listened better, covered the terrain better, and got outsmarted by some birds. It was a learning curve that inspired them, and we all got along fine. When we returned to our home coverts the next trip they were better than ever. They worked thoroughly and deliberately and it was a joy to behold.
Since that discovery a long time ago we’ve taken our show on the road. When our season winds down at home we’ll search out different areas with different conditions. The most popular hunts are in the Southeast for quail and also for migratory woodcock in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina. Cross training dogs on different birds and environments is a good idea because it makes both of us better. We’re learning as we go, just the way it always should be.
Tom Keer is an award-winning writer, columnist and blogger who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He is a columnist for Covey Rise magazine, the Upland Almanac, and a Contributing Editor for both Fly Rod and Reel and Fly Fish America. He’s also a national spokesman for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s Take Me Fishing program, and writes regularly for over a dozen outdoor magazines. When they are not fishing, Keer and his family hunt upland birds over their three English setters. His first book, a Fly Fishers Guide to the New England Coast was released in January 2011. Visit him at www.tomkeer.com or at www.thekeergroup.com.