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Should You Consider a Flushing Breed for Your Next Bird Dog?

Should You Consider a Flushing Breed for Your Next Bird Dog?

A Golden retriever brings a pheasant to a hunter.

The upland world is often full of pointing dog breeds, leaving flushing dogs underrepresented as an effective method of bird hunting

For many of us, upland bird hunting often brings to mind vivid images of years past, of handsome English setters and German shorthairs—paw up, tail straight—poised behind a ring-necked pheasant or ruffed grouse holding tight, waiting for the flush. At least that’s what I always envisioned upland hunting to be with a pointing dog. That is, until I brought home my first gundog, a field-bred golden retriever. Have you considered a flushing dog as your next hunting buddy? Walking the fields behind a flushing dog is an exciting experience, although quite different than that of a pointing dog. 

The decision was easy for me: I was lucky. I grew up with beagles—great hunting dogs in their own right, although ours never hunted (except for the stray rabbits that wandered too far into the yard) and knew that I wanted a dog that could hunt, but birds instead of rabbits. Nobody in my family hunted the uplands, but the romance of it always intrigued me. I did, however, grow up with a friend who had a large, majestic golden retriever, and the allure of the retriever always got to me. 

I didn’t know much about upland hunting, and after much research, I jumped in and decided to explore the flusher route, as I had duck hunting on my mind as well as upland birds. It was somewhat against the grain, since most of the folks I knew who hunted the uplands ran pointers. After months of research, I stumbled upon a book called Training Retrievers for Marshes and Meadows written by James B. Spencer, and the cover shot of a proud golden with a pheasant in his mouth finally sealed the deal. I’m glad I made that choice—it was right for my hunting style and what I wanted out of a gun dog.

For many of us, selecting a gundog that we think will be best for us is an arduous task, and largely a personal decision. There are so many factors to consider—size, temperament, trainability, versatility, hunting style—the list goes on and on. There is a fundamental decision to be made, though, when selecting your next upland pal: do you want a dog that’s designed to point birds, or a dog that flushes birds? I like to compare it to shotgun choices: whether you grab the old pump that day or choose the more graceful O/U, the end result is the same. It’s just a difference in how you get there.

If you’re teetering between a pointing dog and a flushing dog, here are a few of the experiences and tips that I’ve learned running my first flusher.  

Thinking of a flushing dog? Consider what your ‘ideal’ hunt looks like

Let’s get this out of the way. Flushers are designed to locate birds and put them in the air, hard and fast, while pointing dogs are designed to locate the bird and hold point while the hunters gain position and flush. Both types of dogs are bred to excel at sniffing out birds, but their hunting styles can be quite different. In general, pointing dogs are designed to range to maximize their effectiveness in finding birds, and flushing dogs are designed to hunt close. Just watch a video of hunting ruffed grouse with flushing dogs.

So, think about your hunting style and terrain. If you’re looking to cover some serious ground with birds being sparse between covers, a big running pointing dog might be the best option for you to maximize success. On the other hand, if you’re looking to hunt up close to the action and will be hunting select, high-probability pieces of land, a flushing dog might just be the ticket.

Hunting behind a flusher—a golden retriever, Jenny, in my case—requires a different mindset. I’ll describe it as a “fast” experience: you need to move with the dog and be tight up behind the dog as he/she searches the cover immediately surrounding you. You have to be on your toes. A good flushing dog is designed to put birds up into the air hard and fast, and you have to be ready to make the shot. Oftentimes you don’t have the opportunity to position yourself for the perfect shot. Things can happen fast behind a flushing dog—and that’s part of the thrill!

Having absolute control over where your dog goes and how fast they do it is critical. Flushers need a strong foundation in obedience and should stay well within gun range for success. If not, you may find your newly “trained” gundog running birds into the next county. A good whistle (and a backup) are your best friend.

When my dog was a pup, we’d go out into the fields and woods on a 30-foot check cord and train with the whistle; she quickly learned what was acceptable and what was not. It’s a delicate balance between control and a dog’s natural prey drive and instinct. Once you hunt behind one, you’ll know what I mean.  

Novice tip: As long as your dog has a solid foundation in obedience, has a strong prey drive, and can hunt within gun range, you’ll put up birds. 

Pointing dogs range, while flushing dogs have to stay close

As I mentioned, my initial thoughts around upland hunting pranced around big ranging pointing dogs casting wide on giant clear cuts and open fields. While pointers and setters can range far and are designed to lock-up on birds beyond gun range, a good flusher is taught to quarter—they work the close cover within gun range in a grid-like pattern, leaving no patch of brush unchecked. It’s quite mathematical, really, and they’ll find the same birds, just in a different fashion (that may require a few more miles on your boots). You’ll teach your flusher to cast and hunt specific areas within gun range, and they excel in close, tight cover. Think of marshes, switchgrass, and areas of mixed cover.

The first time Jenny put up her first “real” bird was a memorable experience. It was fast. We’d trained on pen-raised pheasants for a couple of months, and were hunting the field edges on our way back to the truck after a fruitless, rainy October morning. Within the last quarter mile before we hit the road out, we hit a high-probability patch of woods, and I cast her in. Soon enough, the tell-tale signs appeared—nose down, tail rifling back and forth, quickly quartering from side-to-side. Jenny charged into the wood line 10 yards to my left and a big, colorful cock pheasant burst out of the patch of oaks next to me. With a single crossing shot (I was proud of that one, being a notoriously bad shot), the bird sailed into a tall brushy field 100 yards to my right. Jenny raced into the field, and proudly retrieved to hand a bird half her size. We hadn’t seen a single bird all day. 

This brings me to the next topic: retrieving.

Natural retrieving instinct

Flushers—spaniels, retrievers—have a natural retrieving instinct. Now, that doesn’t mean that your 10-week old pup is going to bring back that training dummy on the first go around—it takes some training—but it can be easily accomplished. Where I hunt, this is a huge asset. Oftentimes, we’ll find ourselves in thick woods, and mixed cover, often including water, where retrieving is essential. Pointers of course can be taught to retrieve, and retrieve well—I’ve seen GSP’s who can retrieve with the best of them—but it just seems to come naturally with flushers. 

My favorite spot to hunt pheasants is an area with multiple covers that include water, and the pheasants notoriously like to hang out in the sawgrass on the edge of the swamps. Just this past season, I had a bird flush out of the grass right over the water, headed for the other side of the swamp. After the shot, it landed smack in the middle of this cedar swamp—a difficult retrieve. I sent Jenny in after the bird, and when she came out with that bird cradled between her jaws, I was thankful I had a retriever! Retrieving in any cover can be difficult, but water retrieves can be a different beast altogether.

If you have notions of waterfowl hunting alongside your days in the uplands, this can be a huge asset. Many flushers pull double duty as duck dogs and pheasant machines. They’re very versatile.  

Now four years old, my golden Jenny has developed into quite the pheasant machine. Her prey drive is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and her nose is excellent—she finds birds in places where they would “never” exist (that’s a bird hunter’s joke; we’ve all been there). Training certainly wasn’t trouble-free, but by following a simple training program, a DIY gundog owner with a flushing dog can have a versatile hunting buddy in no time.  

If you’re in the market for your next (or first) gundog, I’d encourage you to consider a flusher.

View Comments (9)
  • Nice Article Matt. As a field springer owner and DIY trainer, I thought you summed up the flushing game well. A good pointing dog is a real pleasure to hunt over, but if we are measuring success by birds in the air, and in the bag, a good flusher is hard to beat.

  • Great information, Matt. Well written. As you know, a well-trained, highly obedient flushing dog can learn to point, if taught. My Lab will point and flush on command, which is beneficial for us hunters that need all the help we can get in shooting. I have added a young Llewellin setter to hunt with my seven-year-old Lab and it truly is a pleasure to watch them work together.

  • Good write-up Matt. I’ve hunted over both pointers and flushers, at times I’ll hunt my Springer with a pointer. No better thrill than watching a flushing spaniel work and bust cover. Our field expression; never doubt the nose of a Spaniel.

  • Great Article Matt!

    When I saw this article, I got excited and couldn’t wait to read it. I too have a young, female, field-bred Golden Retriever (Penny, 2.5 years). From the beginning, she was bred to be a great bird dog. While I did my homework on flush and retriever training and pragmatically applied what I had learned, I can’t take credit for her intelligence. She was skilled from the minute she was born. I started out as a DIY guy as well, but I admit when life got crazy I got some professional help with her training while my wife and I transitioned during a huge move. We recently moved from Florida back to my home state of Washington. This last weekend she and I went on our first grouse hunt and she got her first two grouse! A blue grouse on Saturday in NE Washington and a Ruff on Sunday (across the border near Moscow, Idaho). The competent training she received made her aware of what our intent was in the field, but she still has a lot to learn. She delivered the birds to heel and hand flawlessly. In any case now she really knows what it means when the vest goes on and the shotgun comes out of the scabbard. She can wind a bird from a helluva lot farther than I expected. I couldn’t be prouder of my pup and am so glad to know there are others out there putting Goldens to work as well!

  • If you hunt Blue Grouse, you can train your flushing dog to work uphill and parallel to your side-hill-track. The birds nearly always flush downhill. I hunted blues this way for years.

    I have a pointing breed now, a Gordon Setter, and my experience is the pointing dog is not as effective when hunting Blue Grouse in the mountains. If you only shoot pointed birds, you will be passing up some shots when your pointer bumps the jumpy, wild flushing, Blue Grouse.

    Another consideration is how you prefer to hunt. If filling your vest with limits is the prime concern, a flushing dog might be right for you. If, on the other hand you get your greatest satisfaction from watching dog-work resulting from hundreds of years of selective breeding and countless hours of training, you should choose a pointing dog.

    To use fishing as a metaphor, there is an old adage that says fishermen go through 4 stages. First they just want to catch a fish, next they want to catch a LOT of fish. Third, they want to catch a really BIG fish. And finally, they are only satisfied by catching fish with their preferred method. This explains the lunacy of fly fishing, another of my favorite outdoor pastimes.

    I began bird hunting years ago before I could afford a dog. Next I bought a Lab off somebody’s back porch for $25. A few years later I paid $500 for another lab with a pedigree. Next, I paid more than I want to admit for a Pointing Lab. I still have that dog (actually 2 Labs!) but I currently hunt most over my Gordon Setter.

    My duck and goose decoys are gathering dust in the attic of my shop. I have spent months afield and thousands of dollars in pursuit of the perfect point. Hours and hours of training go toward making the dog steady to wing, shot and fall. Do I get as many birds as I used to with my labs? Hell no! But I enjoy each hunt as much as if it were my first trip into the hills behind the orchards of Tonasket.

    At the end of the day, any dog that helps you get your quarry in the bag is nothing short of a miracle and if you can’t appreciate that, you should probably just stay home and watch TV or something.

  • Great write up Matt. I love a flushing dog. I have a field bred springer. Last thing I want is to have to kick a bird in the air. The anticipation of your dog getting birdy and the rooster exploding out of the cover is awesome! I, like you, am also in western mass.

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