Hunting Young English Setters
By Jerry McAllister 

The author heading into South Dakota Prairie country with Hunter and Tommy, 
in pursuit of sharptails.

Hunting with young English Setters, after months of training and shooting a few dozen planted birds, was an experience with surprise, as well as one which delivered the rewards anticipated during training. The surprises came because the training and shooting were over pigeons, quail, and pheasants and the actual hunting was for ruffed grouse. When the season began in September 2007, the two setters, Daisy a female and Hunter a male, were 17 months old. They were bred and trained at Good Go Ing Kennels in Baldwin, Wisconsin. Their training is described in a companion article on this website entitled “Training Young English Setters.”

Grouse hunting in northwestern Wisconsin is a strange experience for setters trained in large grassy fields with intermittent food plots. Grouse live in dense early growth aspen for the food value and for overhead protection from hawks. In this cover Daisy and Hunter chose to hunt paths of least resistance like game trails and open margins near mature tree stands, rather than the denser cover likely to hold birds. This behavior allowed them to continue covering a lot of territory using their noses to hunt, as they had learned in the open cover training. Also, the forest cover disrupted the rhythm of teamwork between hunter and dog which had developed over months of training. They moved too fast and at too far a distance to maintain any relationship with their hunter. This led to their making great circles out of sight then becoming lost, before re-establishing visual contact with the source of the whistle. Usually the dogs went far behind looking for the hunter/whistle in the area just hunted. 

The hunter was forced to revert to training the setters, this time on how to hunt grouse in the woods. This task proved difficult because the grouse population in 2007 remained near the cyclical low for the fourth year in a row, and the hunter had scant opportunity to reward the dogs by showing them grouse. Hunting was done around black alder swamps in an extensive forest east of Minong, in aspen margins around a big marsh by Deer Park, in a large mixed growth poplar/evergreen woods northwest of Cumberland, and a similar grouse covert south of Stone Lake. None of these coverts yielded more than one flush every 1.5-2 hours. At the grouse cycle peak several years back, these coverts yielded over 125 flushes per day. A flush is counted for every bird that rises in front of the dog and hunter. Daisy and Hunter were afield for grouse about ten times for 4-6 hours on each occasion. No grouse were pointed and none were killed. The dogs never imprinted grouse scent as something to hunt. During the woodcock migration in early October, Hunter made some points on woodcock which were flushed and shot. He immediately began using his nose searching through similar cover. Daisy did not get the same opportunity.

Training the two setters to hunt thick poplar coverts in extensive aspen/hardwoods forest was not a straightforward proposition. The field training had taught the dogs to use the hunter to take them to game birds. They rely on their eyes to make contact with the hunter and to travel in his general direction. The nose is used to search for game while moving left and right on the hunter’s course. Often a scent takes the setter off course and the whistle says, “Look at the hunter and get back on his direction.” This whole proposition fell apart in the woods because the setter was always just two steps away from losing visual contact. New learning for the woods required a lot of whistle blowing to slow down the setter and to teach it to hunt closer. It does not want to comply because of all its past success running big in the open and finding planted birds. Many hours of woods-time repetitions were required. A second problem was teaching the setter that going into the thickest cover was correct and was desired over taking easy routes in order to cover lots of ground. This was reinforced hardly at all by the dogs finding grouse; so they only did thick cover at the example of their master.

The author and Daisy resting during a South Dakota pheasant hunt.

All of September and October were used to teach Daisy and Hunter how to work in the woods as a team with their human. During the first half of November, a covert near Cumberland was discovered which held 8 grouse that were flushed about half the hunts. By then the leaves were down and visibility had increased from 10-15 yards to 25-30. Daisy and Hunter maintained sight contact, hunted aggressively, but flushed the grouse beyond the visibility range of the hunter. Grouse get exponentially spookier as the season progresses. There were a few desperation shotgun blasts but no kills. The dogs never really imprinted the grouse as one of their quarry. The two setters were not hunted together on grouse. When birds are being found and killed, good hunting behavior transfers quickly from one setter to another. The opposite is true too and occurs when bird success is missing completely.

Wisconsin pheasant hunting is unrewarding, generally, and a hunter gets his daily limit of two only on the days when he is shooting perfectly and actually sees two roosters. Some sort of miracle occurred north of Hammond, Wisconsin in 2007: there was a very healthy population of wild pheasants with many roosters. The dogs hunted CRP planted in prairie grass. Daisy and Hunter pointed and held many wild pheasants and observed a lot of roosters shot over them. The dogs hunted very well together, and when one succeeded at something, the other tried it. They honored each other’s points very well. For the most part, each dog hunted with their human and not with the other setter. Neither Daisy nor Hunter ever ran off chasing running birds: when they got birdy, the whistle kept them within shotgun range. They did not bust any pheasants out of gun range and only a few were flushed without a point. Many times, they picked up dead birds and brought them back, at least part ways. They had not been trained to be steady to the flush but came back to the whistle after running 50 yards or so, when hens were flushed without shooting.

Daisy on point during a training session.

The best experience of the season occurred when the dogs got very birdy and kept giving up their points to move forward. This happened over a course of 500 yards or more. Running pheasants usually give birddogs the slip or flush out ahead of them well before 500 yards has been covered. Finally Daisy and Hunter drove the birds into some heavy cover next to a rock strewn dry run. Both dogs locked up. The trainer moved in for the flush but nothing happened. Daisy was completely transfixed by the point; Hunter just a little less but enough for him to look back quizzically. A few more moments passed before a great, slowing flapping sound ended the encounter with four jake turkeys rising directly in front of the dual setter points.

In summary, the training for Daisy and Hunter described on this website in “Training Young English Setters” worked. They hunted well for their human hunter, consistently hunting as a team bonded together in a common pursuit. They detected pheasants from a distance too far away to cause a flush, and then moved in methodically to hold the birds stationary with a point. These were held until the birds were flushed by the hunter. Downed birds were located and fully or at least partially retrieved. The dogs responded to the whistle returning quickly after hen flushes and after rooster misses following shooting. The dogs were able to adapt to hunting thick woods after a lot of additional training. They should easily adapt to ruffed grouse hunting when the cycle goes up, hopefully in fall 2008. This expectation for Daisy and Hunter comes from observing them during two days of sharptail grouse hunting in sunflower fields in South Dakota. (See “Dog Work on Both Sides of the Missouri River” also on this website.) The sharptail and cover, like the woods and grouse, were brand new experiences for Daisy and Hunter, but after a few sharptail rises and kills, each dog evolved different techniques for the new hunting experience.