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 pheasant or grouse holding tight, waiting for the flush. At least that’s what I always envisioned upland bird hunting to be. 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.
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.
A New England native, Matt Spafford is a novice retriever trainer, passionate hunter and lover of the outdoors. While training his first flushing dog, Matt fell in love with the companionship, sense of pride, and continuous learning that accompanies DIY gundog training. Matt works as a marketing professional in the outdoor industry and resides with his wife, daughter, and two dogs in rural Western Massachusetts.