by V. Chernykh.
Originally published in Russian Hunting Magazine, June 2017.
Condensed translation into English by me.
Many European nations, like Poland, take hunting education very seriously, and you won’t get your hunting license until you pass an examination that proves you have enough knowledge and can apply it to practice. In this country, hunters are left to themselves in this respect. There’s no shortage of information nowadays about the theory of various hunts – but what’s the best way to start getting practical knowledge?
I began hunting with a group of friends who followed the classic Russian routine – they went to the summer waterfowl season opening day in August, continued to jump ducks from melioration ditches for two or three weeks afterwards, and then cased their shotguns until the beginning of hare season and waterfowl migration in late October. Also popular in my locality is calling in willow grouse, but I never liked this hunt, because you get to shoot only sitting birds. Nevertheless, it was a willow grouse calling expert who involuntarily introduced me to the pursuit that shaped me as a bird hunter.
One day, on our way from one willow grouse spot to another, we had to cross an overgrown field. “Get your gun ready – we may flush black grouse here!” said my partner. I did, just in case. And then, from a mix of strawberry and dandelion, a huge black bird rose into the air. I was taken aback for a second, but after my partner fired and missed, my shaking hands managed to point my gun a little ahead of the black silhouette. I fired, and looked as if someone pulled the black grouse cock down by its legs; I rushed to the spot where it hit the ground – it was a magnificent trophy, almost in full winter plumage, and excitement from such a close rise of such a great bird stayed with me for a long time. Of course, I started asking questions, I looked around, noticing the barely visible trail the bird left as it moved through wet grass, its fresh droppings. A new walked-up hunter was born.
I’d been walking up my game for eight years, before I got my first bird dog. I was mostly after black grouse, but also targeted landrail during its mass migration, and one or two times I was lucky to get on good concentration of migratory quail. I harvested capercailzie, woodcock, a hare or two every season, and walking up snipe in swamped small river beds has become one of my favorite pursuits. In the South I had a very good time walking up grey partridge and pheasant – and it turned out that with a little bit of skill you can corner and flash even this confirmed runner. The funniest thing about my first pheasant safari was that I came with a company of dog owners and outperformed them all on pheasants – without a dog!
Some hunters think a walked up hunt without a dog is not ethical, because you lose too many cripples. In my experience, with modern availability of shooting ranges and clay throwers, it’s not too difficult to learn to shoot well enough to minimize crippling. And on a walked-up hunt, where each trophy is measured in walking distance, you learn to value each chance, and each bird you take, and the cripple losses are almost non-existent. In my last four or five years of walked-up hunting I can’t remember losing a single black grouse, although with grey partridge, especially if you are one of a group of hunters shooting at the same covey, it may be difficult to mark and retrieve every bird you bring down. But experience will help you here, too.
Why do I, a certified field trial expert with over 15 years experience of hunting over pointing dogs, still think a walked-up hunt is the best bird hunter’s school?
To begin with, you need a lot of desire to get the birds to be successful. That translates into knowledge, the skills of “reading” the terrain, knowing the habitat and behavior of every species you hunt, where they can be in a given time and weather. An experienced walk-up hunter is usually very certain where to look for game, and, moving through the hunting grounds, picks up the most promising spots. This is a radical contrast with some hunters I know, who were introduced to bird hunting through pointer breeding. They may have great dogs, field trial winners, but their success at an actual hunt is not as great as it could be. I used to wonder about that, until I realized that there are people who can’t see things that are elementary for a dogless hunter. You almost never get game evenly distributed across an area – black grouse, for instance, prefer a certain combination of grasses and humidity, and there can only be so many such spots in a given field. But a lot of hunters I know walk through the fields any old way – even though they’ve been hunting black grouse over bird dogs for ten years and more.
“Let the dog do the searching” is their motto. Of course, but that’s not all the truth. Only pointing dogs search more or less independently, and that, in most landscapes, not more than a hundred meters from the hunter. Flushing dogs, such as spaniels and retrievers, search only a narrow area before the hunter. At any rate, the standard field in our region is 500 meters across, and if the hunter doesn’t have a clue where in that field a dog has a higher chance of finding birds, the dog will find fewer birds: it may make only 3 or 4 points in the same field where it could find 10 or more if directed by a more knowledgeable hunter. Experience is no less important for shaping your bird dog than genes; in practice, a dog that’s unremarkable at field trials, but makes 500 points over various species per season, will be a better hunter than a field trial winner who sees two or three times fewer birds, and half of that practicing for the field trial. The most successful hunters with pointing dogs are those who started out as walked-up hunters.
That’s why I think that if you want to be a bird/small game hunter, nothing could be better than a season or two of walking up birds without a dog. There’s no simply no other way to get the same amount of skills and knowledge invaluable for every other hunting method!
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