Local DNR wildlife manager sticks with hunting dogs
A cowbell clangs wildly as the dog frantically scours the woods for game. Then suddenly, the woods fall silent. His sensitive snout is onto something.
The English setter, named Lars, stands perfectly still, nose pointed at the bird a few feet in front of him on the ground. In a flurry of beating wings, Earl Johnson flushes the woodcock and takes the shot. A miss.
"That's why they call it hunting and not shooting," he says.
Lars, unfazed, is back to work, nose to the ground again, searching for another quarry.
Johnson, an area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has been using dogs to hunt since the early 1970s. He's owned and hunted with English setters since 1974. Of all the dogs he's hunted with, Johnson said the English setter suits his style of hunting the best.
"I have yet to see anything that would make me want to consider switching to another breed of dog," he said. "I know a lot of different bloodlines I want no part of, and I think I'm getting what are the best of the best."
Johnson trains his five English setters to find the bird, point and hold the bird, but not to flush it.
"My job is to flush the bird and shoot it," he said. "Sometimes we'll ask the dog to stand steady and not move until after the shot has been fired."
Retrieving the bird is one more step some hunters add to their dog's training, but Johnson's setters are not trained to retrieve.
"Pointing dogs are not usually strong retrievers, but they'll do it if you ask them to," he said.
Johnson also will show discipline in not shooting a bird if the dog doesn't point correctly.
"If a puppy flushes a bird, and you shoot it, what have you trained him? You're training him to go knock 'em out," he said. "That one lesson could set you back a whole year (of training)."
One of the hardest parts of training a pointing puppy when hunting with other people, Johnson said, is to convince the entire group to hold their shot if the dog flushes a bird instead of points.
Another instinctive quality English setters have is to check back and make sure he can still see his hunter while sniffing around the woods. Johnson's dogs are line bred from horseback hunting dogs, which will sometimes search for quarry a mile or more ahead of their hunter.
"It's that inate quality of the dog that says, 'I refuse to lose my man,' that makes them great for the woods."
Training his dogs to the specific bird he hunts is important to Johnson. A woodcock will tend to stay on the ground and not move when a dog comes close. A grouse or pheasant will tend to fly off to escape a hunting dog. Oftentimes, a dog will pick up a scent, point and relocate just a few feet to better scent. With a woodcock, that may be fine, but not with a grouse or pheasant.
Even though a pointing dog can be used to hunt pheasant, Johnson would prefer his dogs learn to hunt ruffed and sharptail grouse.
"If a guy wants to hunt upland birds -- ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasants, sharptail grouse -- but they also want to hunt waterfowl, then a flushing dog is the best way for them to go," he said.
Johnson said he made the decision back in the early '70s that he didn't want to hunt ducks anymore, and therefore had no use for a flushing or retrieving dog.
A successful hunt with a pointing dog doesn't always mean the hunter leaves the woods with a full game pouch.
"If you get a point and the dog handles the bird well, even though you miss it, it's been a successful day," Johnson said.
"Hunting with a dog is like having a partner with you all the time. And of course, you get the privilege of taking care of him the remaining nine or ten months of the year. I hope I never have to hunt without a dog and hopefully no less than two dogs."
Brian Basham is a reporter for the Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.