Flushing Dogs for Grouse and Woodcock

Ruffed grouse can run and woodcock can walk away from pointers, giving blushing dogs the benefit of hunting and making birds flip wings. (Chris Ingram photo)

I’ll be the first to admit that for much of my career I’ve focused on training, testing, and judging flushers across the country. That said, I made ends meet by leading highland hunters for breeding birds at the many gun clubs near my home in the Hudson Valley.

However, when I was a boy there were numerous opportunities to track wild fowl and woodcock in my home hideouts, and this early relationship with woodland birds and blushing dogs developed my aesthetic and training style. Over the course of my career, I’ve also spent a lot of time with my colleagues at The Orvis Company in Vermont, in the middle of the land of the capercaillie and woodcock lands. I was fortunate to work with several Orvis employees who trained flushing spaniels specifically for use in capercaillie forests.

Why showing is a challenge

The Northeast’s predatory grouse and woodcock populate the most tangled, prickly, unforgiving and most overlooked corners of our region, and find both food and shelter from predators in these places. Hunting the wood grouse and woodcock here means finding what my friend Pat Berry calls “a piece of forest” so thick you would have trouble throwing a dead cat through it. Even so, we send our dogs in and hope to move a bird or two.

Hunting for such cover with a pointing dog can be challenging for a number of reasons. First, this pointing dog needs to quickly learn that predator is rarely ready to sit tight and wash out of a blanket quickly. Frills also have an eerie ability to run and scurry through the underbrush before flushing at the edge of the cover. These characteristics force a pointing dog to quickly but carefully work on a cover, holding a point at a distance at the first sign of an odor, and relocating as needed, often without instruction from the hunter. Then, of course, the capercaillie and dog must be firm enough to wait for the hunter to get into position for a shot. All of this proves to be incredibly challenging.

Woodcock hunting over a pointing dog is more forgiving. Woodcock has a tendency to hold on, rarely run, or flush, even when a dog is around. That is, they often hold on so tightly and are so well camouflaged against the forest floor that a hunter almost has to step on them to straighten them. The resulting shot is often a riding and snapshot scenario in close cover, which can prove quite difficult even for the skilled marksman.

A flusher method

How does chasing these birds with a flusher look different? First, think about how a dishwasher, especially a flushing spaniel, should behave. The flushing spaniel must be closed a quarter and checked in to ensure that it does not reach further than the weapon can reach. Ideally, the dog will keep pace with the hunter and not stretch too far when the hunter picks through difficult terrain. In addition, a flusher can become “hupped” if the hunter makes good ground and keeps up with the dog’s progress.

Flushing Spaniels are often more agile than a long-legged pointer in the capercaillie forest. If a hunter ventures into the capercaillie forest, he or she can assume that the flushing spaniel is thoroughly chasing the cover and staying within reach. He works fast enough to make a grouse flush instead of running without moving enough to gently push wild birds.

Woodcock presents a slightly different story. Hunting woodcock with a pointer can be a leisurely activity. Essentially, a hunter can send a pointer from a forest road to ensure that a dog with a good nose can find and hold birds. However, once a point is established, the hunter must find the bird and flush it, which can result in a tricky snapshot through the stems. Hunting woodcock with a flusher is an interesting alternative. You can of course just follow the dog through the ceiling and shoot at the reddening that occurs. This works great with more open field edges or middle-aged poplar covers. Alternatively, a flushing spaniel working alone or in braces can chase a band of cover while the hunter misses more open ground so that hunter can shoot birds that flush into the more open canopy. Perhaps the most fun, however, is to work on a pointing dog while holding a flusher by the heel, and then send the flusher in to raise the bird while the hunter stands for an open shot.

Labrador Retriever with a woodcockChasing thick cover for capercaillie and woodcock with a blushing dog can be a quick and enjoyable experience. (Jeremy Moore photo)

Reading, Retrieving, and Shelf Birds

Hunting these birds, especially the woodcock, over spaniels is a time-honored tradition. The cocker is just that, a woodcock dog developed to chase birds in the thick, dark, and damp forests of the British Isles. Second, it’s exciting to chase wood grouse and woodcock over flushing dogs. Both dogs and birds work quickly and it is the hunter’s responsibility and joy to really “read” the dog. Shots are quick, and a dull moment is seldom wasted looking for a dog in a distant spot or hearing the roar of a shy bird bursting far out of reach of the gun.

Eventually, based on their design, the Flushers will raise a bird and then quickly retrieve it for a safer recovery of the crippled game. As wild birds, wood grouse and woodcock are an impressive livelihood. They can also disappear against a sheet of leaves, unlike any bird I’ve ever seen. A blushing dog generally has a better tendency to track down and retrieve dejected or crippled game than a pointer, making its use in capercaillie and woodcock forests both a protective measure and a pleasant hunting tool.

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