Every hunting dog owner believes their dog is the best dog. As they say, none of us are wrong. For my husband, Rich, and I, our best dog is our Boykin Spaniel, Nelli
Nelli found us after we’d moved to the north-central mountains of Pennsylvania with plans to turn our cabin into our permanent home. It was the ideal time to settle in with a hunting dog, but what kind? Rich and I live, breathe, sleep, and eat turkey hunting. It’s our No. 1 passion and our lives revolve around it. Pennsylvania had recently made it legal to use dogs in the fall turkey season, which made our choice clear: we had to have a turkey dog. That led us to the Boykin Spaniel.
This story appeared in the Fall 2021 Issue of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine
My first impression of the Boykin was, who cares if it can hunt because it must have been the cutest thing I’d ever seen. I instantly fell in love with the liver-colored coat, the golden eyes, the floppy ears, and its compact size. I was sold just on the looks alone.
But then, we started reading about the history of the Boykin Spaniel and how it originated in the swamps of South Carolina and was bred for turkey and duck hunting. We read about them being great family dogs with eagerness to please, passion and drive for the hunt, stamina in hot temperatures, and excellent flushing abilities. Before long, we were sold on this “All-American” dog known for its history of turkey hunting. Now the challenge was to find one.
One day, we were getting ready to head to Virginia on a spring gobbler hunting trip and mentioned to our Virginian friend that we wanted to find some Boykin Spaniels while we were there. Since we would be near their origins in the Carolinas, we hoped that we could at least lay our eyes on one to see what they looked like in real life. What happened next was too coincidental to be called luck. Our friend told us that one of his best friends not only had Boykin Spaniels, but he even had a litter of pups. Honestly, we didn’t believe him until he texted us a few pictures. It added another level of excitement to our already highly-anticipated hunting trip.
If you can predict where this is heading, you’re correct. We went to see the Boykin Spaniels and the litter of 8-week-old pups and knew we had to have one. We loved everything about them, including their docked tails, which we learned is standard for the breed so they don’t rustle the leaves in a turkey blind. Luckily for us, there were two available pups in the litter. Nelli was the first pup that came to me before she went crazy over a turkey wing. It was meant to be.
While we were thrilled about finding our pup, reality was also setting in. We didn’t have time to prepare; we hadn’t exactly gone on the hunting trip with the intention of coming home with a new puppy. We didn’t have any dog supplies and we didn’t know how to train her. We channeled our best intentions and, fortunately, Nelli made our job easy.
Training Boykin Spaniels for turkey hunting
To train her for finding and flushing turkeys, we gave her as much exposure to turkey feathers, turkey sounds, and turkey scent as possible. We would place a turkey wing or tail on a lead and let her chase after it. We would hide turkey feathers in a tree and encourage her to find them. She also heard lots of “turkey talk” because Rich was always practicing with his calls around her. We even drove around in the truck with her as a pup and, if we saw a flock of turkeys, we would show them to her and say, “turkey, turkey, turkey!”
She was proving to be a natural with all the backyard training, but our anticipation was building up to see what she would do in the field.
By six months of age, fall turkey season had arrived and so we decided to let her try her luck on a flock of turkeys. We were anxious to see how she would react to live birds instead of just feathers in the yard. The plan was that Rich and I would locate a flock of mature turkeys and let her go. The plan worked perfectly. Nelli was released near a flock of turkeys, keyed in on their location, and ran after them while letting off a high-pitched yip. As intended, the birds flushed in all directions. She came right back to us after the break, which was remarkable for such a young dog. It was a sight I’ll never forget because our dreams of having a dog that could be used for turkey hunting were coming to life before my eyes.
The barking plays an important role during the hunt. It lets you know that a flock was located and the dog is scattering them. It’s important that the dog only barks on a flock of Eastern turkeys and not at squirrels or other animals, so that the hunter knows it’s time to go call the birds back in. It’s a difficult behavior to teach, but we worked on building her excitement by almost teasing her with feathers and getting her amped up over the turkey scent.
Keeping track of Nelli while she’s hunting is also important. We keep a GPS collar on her to always know her location. As a pup in training, we found flocks close to the truck so we could observe her as she worked. We could see her trace her own scent back to us, which was a born-in, natural trait that we didn’t teach. Now a veteran hunter, she often breaks a flock that is well out of our sight and may go on a long run after the birds.
Another part of the training was teaching Nelli to have the composure to sit with us after the flock was broken up while we called to bring the turkeys back into gun range. This was challenging because, like most pups, she was full of energy, so remaining quiet and still was initially a struggle. At first, all she wanted to do was dig in the leaves and chew sticks, but she soon caught on to our expectations. We gave her as much time as we could in the woods to sit with us while we ran the calls in hopes of a few turkeys coming in. After the early puppy stage was over and several practice runs had been conducted, she learned to have the discipline to remain completely still while the turkeys approached us. Some turkey hunters place their dogs in a sack or even take them back to the truck after the flock has been broken up, but we didn’t follow that method. We worked to teach her the appropriate behavior so that she could remain with us during the entire hunt. We felt it was her hunt, too, so she should be part of the whole thing.
As her hunting skills advanced, she even learned to recognize turkey sounds and can often hear them before we can. She will look in the direction of the approaching turkeys, which gives us an advantage.
Boykin Spaniels on a turkey hunt
Hunting with Nelli has changed the whole dynamic of a fall turkey hunt for us. It makes it more magical, special, and meaningful.
One of our favorite hunts was the opening day of the 2019 season. Opening day is like Christmas for us—there’s so much excitement in the air because we have waited all year for the season to arrive. We reached our starting point well before daylight in hopes of hearing turkeys on the roost. While we watched the beautiful sunrise and listened to the woods coming alive with songbirds and squirrels, we didn’t hear any turkeys, so Rich decided that he and Nelli would walk down into the hollow while I stayed up on the ridge to watch and listen. Before long, Rich heard turkeys moving through the woods, but they were traveling away from us. Of course, this meant one thing: it was time for Nelli to take over.
Nelli broke up the flock in perfect fashion with birds flying high in the sky. It was a large flock, and the sky was practically black with turkeys. When they landed, they scattered over the entire mountainside. It took her several minutes to zigzag back and forth, covering every inch of the area to ensure all the birds had been flushed. She is very efficient with her technique and we knew it was a great break. Nelli soon returned to us, signaling that the next stage of the hunt was about to happen. It was time for us to take over and get busy calling while Nelli sat by our side to quietly watch and listen. Knowing how in-tune she is to every sound she hears, I focused on Nelli so she could let me know where the turkeys would be coming in from.
I scored first by shooting my fall turkey and quickly recovered it. Rich wasn’t far behind with his shot. He could tell the turkey was hit and he believed it wouldn’t survive the shot, but somehow it flew over to the next ridge. This meant it was time for Nelli to get back to work.
Nelli immediately went to the spot of the shot and smelled the feathers that fell out of the bird. She put her nose to the ground and started a fast trot down the mountainside and crossed over a small stream. We watched as she quickly moved up the next side and headed straight towards a blown-down tree—and there she stopped. To our surprise, she just sat there and looked at us. Rich called to her, but she stayed still and waited for us to come to her. Once there, we saw why she didn’t want to leave—she had found Rich’s dead turkey. If it wasn’t for Nelli’s outstanding tracking skills, we may never have recovered that beautiful bird.
The hunt itself was nearly perfect. Nelli demonstrated that she could find a flock and flush it; she could hold still for the turkey to come to us. She could even track a wounded bird. We felt privileged to be able to witness it all and proud to have her by our side.
Once our lives were touched by a Boykin Spaniel, we realized we could never be without them. We soon grew to a three-Boykin-Spaniel family: Nelli, Jenny, and Raspy. All three have their own unique qualities that we love, while still keeping the common traits Boykins have and displaying the excellent attributes of the breed. Rich and I even took up pheasant hunting with our younger two and they have proven to be excellent upland bird hunters. It’s a win-win for all of us. The dogs get more time in the field to do what they love to do, and we get more hunting opportunities filled with the enjoyment of watching the dogs work.
For Rich and me, the Boykin Spaniel is truly an amazing little brown dog. It’s a versatile hunting companion that fits beautifully into our lifestyle. They make our home complete, our hunts more meaningful, and our hearts full.
Kelly Musser lives in the north-central mountains of Pennsylvania with her husband, Rich, and three Boykin Spaniels. She is an avid outdoorsperson with a great passion for hunting upland birds, wild turkey, and whitetail deer. When she’s not in the woods, she works as a Project Administrator.