After taking Brandy on a couple unsuccessful grouse hunts, I looked forward to woodcock season opening and getting my young pointer onto some more forgiving birds or at least some that would hold tight for her to point at. At two years old she is still not that experienced and was so excited by the grouse we did find that she couldn't hold point and pushed the few birds we found into the air before I had a chance to catch up to her.
However, woodcock hold better and when we made it to Canaan Valley the other day all I hoped for was that we could find a few birds for her to gain experience and confidence. She needed to figure out how to handle wild birds and the scarcity of grouse made it difficult for the young dog to learn and gain self-confidence and tended to frustrate her more than build confidence, but all that seemed to change last Monday.
We started hunting about noon searching the alders and hawthorn tangles along the Blackwater River for woodcock, Brandy running like mad from thicket to thicket tasting the air for bird scent. We had not gone far before she found that intoxicating aroma and trailed one a little to close and bumped it before she could pinpoint the birds location, the swirling wind may have confused her, but she was excited and we had the rest of the day to sort things out provided we could finds a few more birds.
We worked through some more thick stuff and Brandy pointed a couple that I just could not get to before the excitement got the best of her. She could not contain herself, took a couple extra steps, and pushed them into the air as I fought my way through the dense alders to get to where she was holding the birds.
The next bird she handled well, it was holding under a small hawthorn, invisible to me in the leaves but Brandy could smell it and locked up hard. As I approached, the bird came up on the far side of the brush zigzagging through the trees, I threw the shotgun up and attempted a shot through the copse of limbs but only branches fell and the woodcock flew untouched through the alders.
Then, while walking one of the few open paths that cut through the alder and hawthorn jungle we were in, a woodcock came up fifteen yards directly in front of me. Instinctively, I shouldered my shotgun and fired, the bird fell with the report of the 20 gauge right on the path. I called Brandy over and sent her to fetch the fallen bird and things seemed to get better after that. After a couple months of practice, she finally held in her mouth one of the birds that she has pointed numerous times over the last several weeks but never got the opportunity to taste. Things were coming together in her brain. She had been getting puzzled on the training walks we took prior to the season, we would find plenty of woodcock, she would hold them well for me to flush but since I could not shoot them was becoming frustrated and confused as to why she should even point them.
She started hunting more confidently after that, it seemed that she realized that I can actually hit one of those fast little birds once in awhile and she would get the opportunity to retrieve and taste the birds, finally. She was working along the riverbank when she locked up on another in some alders about ten yards in front of her, confidently standing there certain of the woodcock's location, she looked like a statue. I slipped around some brush concentrating on where she was pointing and stumbled headlong into an unseen ditch. Of course, this is when the wily woodcock decided to make his break and out he flew with me in no position to shoot, sorry girl.
Next bird was about sixty yards away in a small opening, Brandy once again stood like a statue pointing intently at an indiscernible clump of leaves next to some alders. I edged closer and the clump of leaves took flight and was immediately behind a curtain of alder, I tracked it with my muzzle and when it hit an opening, I fired. Missing with the first barrel the second one got her and she fell 25 yards from where we stood. I sent Brandy out to fetch, when she seemed confused, I went to join in the search and noticed the river made a big bend, and the bird may have fallen in the water. We searched the ground where it looked like it fell but I noticed brandy kept going to a spot on the riverbank; I looked more closely and saw the russet breast feathers of a woodcock floating in a tangle of alders bowed over into the river. I tried to bring it closer with a stick but only freed it from the branches and it started to drift downstream and toward the other side. I sent the dog and much to my surprise she plunged right in the cold, dark water, swam out, picked the bird up, and (hey wait a minute, come back hear) kept going to the opposite bank.
She climbed out on the far bank with the bird and looked back at me unsure of what to do next, we have not worked on many retrieves and she has never been a big fan of the water. I tried to coax her back but she just flipped the bird around in her mouth trying to decide how best to hold it for the swim back. After several minutes, she abandoned the whole idea, dropped the bird and swam back. I stood there looking at the wet bird on the far bank and thought we have to get that bird somehow. Once Brandy swam back, I patted her and told her good girl then asked her to fetch it up again. Even more surprisingly this time, off she went right back across and right to the bird, picked it up again and fumbled around with it and finally decided to carry it back by the head, I guess she was worried about getting water in her mouth. Big congratulations and praise plus treats for her this time.
Brandy needs more wild bird contact in actual hunting situations but it's coming together, things are starting to fall into place in that head of hers. Grouse are scarce and difficult to hunt for an inexperienced young dog, they do not give her the opportunity to learn how to hunt and work with the wind but woodcock fit that bill nicely. Woodcock will hold tight in cover for a long time relying on camouflage for protection as long as the dog doesn't make a mistake and crowd them. After all, she is still learning and has her good days and bad days but then again I am learning also and the thing I learned most that day was never underestimate a dogs desire to please you.