Anticipate The Flush - Reading Your Bird Dog When On Point

The tawny Great Basin rye rustled and cracked in the dry November dawn. The deafening sound of the brittle stalks raking across my vest and pants seemed to work with the cover as a cloaking device for my Llewellin setter, Finn. The feeling in my gut said she was on point. Somewhere.

Finally, glimpsing a tail and the ridge of her back, I circled behind her solid point. My heart raced. We were both new to the game. I, a first-time pointing dog owner, and she, a first-season pointing dog. She stood still and sure with head cocked slightly to the left; one of a precious few of these moments over the course of the season.

Flinching at my out-of-view approach, she shifted her attention between me and the bird. Once by her side, a rooster erupted out front, slightly left-of-center where Finn had predicted. My sixteen-gauge double rose smoothly, securing the rooster, Finn bounding in pursuit of the brilliantly plumed.

We’ve come a long way from that first season. I now have several Llewellins and our hunting styles have evolved together. Thinking back on hunts like this, we trained and hunted in trial-by-fire fashion. I was yet to be immersed in the upland community and oblivious to the resources and connections now available through social media. We learned the hard way. Together.

The Art of Subtlety

This specific hunt secured our last bird of that first season, and I came away from it with my first lesson in reading Finn’s body language. What she was telling me with her posture, tail position, and where she was facing. Every pointing dog has their own style and tells. They evolve and adapt over time, as does the hunter’s ability to recognize the subtleties and what they mean.  

The following season I began approaching the dog head-on for several reasons. First, I expected that her head position would telegraph the bird’s location. Second, her ability to see me in the foreground at all times would allow her to focus more on the bird and less on what I am doing off-screen. And third, I expected putting the bird between us would force a flush with decent shooting position. These were appropriate assumptions, but the orchestration of events is not so simple. And so, we embarked on the evolution of a hunting partnership. 

The Eyes Have It

The wind was stiff, wafting the bluegrass bunches like the Palouse itself was migrating. A scattered plot of Woods’ rose stood between Finn and I. Her position fixed squarely upon a small cluster of roses, yet her eyes searched. Shuffling in front of her nose, I failed to follow her eyes, shifting in response to a departing rooster. The scent was strong enough to keep her staunch, but she knew something wasn’t right. The bird flushed from behind and to my left. Lesson learned.

The eyes of a pointing dog tell the whole story. And the dark, vibrant eyes of a dog on staunch point tell a very different story than when the dog is searching for a bird close by, maybe a running rooster, or when working into the scent cone but yet to pinpoint the source. Probably the most rewarding experience of bird hunting is approaching for the flush and seeing confidence ablaze in the dog’s eyes. When her whole body is locked and loaded, she glances up at you, then back to the precise location as you approach. Both hunter and pointer anticipating the flush.

Anticipate the Flush

Recalling Finn’s sixth season, another lesson was learned. Several fellow uplander's in my area of Washington claimed that over the years, their dog could decipher a hen from a rooster pheasant on scent alone. I never bought it and even chided them over exaggerating the prowess of their canine companion. Turns out I was the fool.

There is a difference between solid and staunch when it comes to pointing posture and I have seen more than one setter and other breeds prove this. Finn has expressed a variety of postures across the seasons. I know its quail when her tail is low, possibly wagging gently, head swiveling with a general look of curiosity like it could be just a flock of juncos in the rose or elderberry. I know it’s a hen pheasant when the point is solid, head is lower, tail is straight out or slightly raised, and still.

For years I thought this posture was true for any pheasant, but 2018 proved otherwise. When on staunch point with her head low, tail position about 45 degrees, no movement whatsoever, it was always a rooster. Always. While I didn’t want to believe it myself, stats don’t lie. And for the record, “staunch” also has meaning unique to each hunting dog.

Understanding your pointing dog will not happen overnight, nor will it happen in the first season, or two. Hunting with a pointing dog is a lifetime (at least for your dog) partnership commitment of learning, adapting, and chasing the flush. Study their behaviors and recognize the tells. Over time, you will find that you approach every point entranced in heightened awareness, calling the point on instinct rather than cognitive recognition. The bond between you and your dog will be strengthened, engaged in teamwork born of confidence and precision. You will have greater success locating birds. Trust what your dog is telling you. Anticipate the flush.

About the Author: Brad Trumbo
Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State, serving the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. He also serves the Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever chapter in the positions of Secretary, Public Relations Officer, Newsletter Editor, Advisory Board member, and Habitat Committee member.  When not working habitat projects, he can be found chasing his Llewellin setters across the grasslands and penning tales of outdoor pursuits.

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