DogLESS Days Afield
by Ed Migale
You’ll get no argument from me.
Going after upland game birds and waterfowl with a good dog is one of the most pleasing attributes of hunting there is. Those of us that have had the pleasure of watching a trained pointer or retriever know “it just isn’t the same” when not in the company of one of these fine animals.
And hunting sans canine assistance isn’t the same. But that doesn’t mean that it is a bad thing ... or that one can’t be successful and/or enjoy one’s self. I know. I did it for years, was very successful, and enjoyed my dogless days afield just fine, thank you very much.
You see, like many of you, I grew up in the city, and simply had no place for a dog in my life. And – like many of you – I loved to hunt. So I learned to hunt without a dog. Ducks, quail, doves, and pheasants were the primary quarry that I would hunt every weekend. I just had to work at it harder – and smarter – than the guys who had a leg … er, make that four legs … up on me.
You, too, can be a successful dogless hunter. Here’s how:
Pick Your Battles
Confederate General Robert E. Lee was stunningly successful in the American Civil War because, by recognizing the weaknesses of his army, he made sure he did not engage the Union forces unless he already had chosen the venue in which to fight. By commanding the high ground, or some other terrain feature, Lee was always in position to best his opponents. The only time he went into battle without the upper hand was at a small crossroads town in Pennsylvania in early July, 1863. You may have heard of it. It’s called Gettysburg. He lost, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As a dogless hunter, you need to hunt the terrain accordingly. Rather than wading into the middle of a 600 acre harvested rice field, hunt the reed choked ditches on the edge to find cagey rooster pheasants.
For ducks, just the opposite approach is sometimes best. If you hunt the deep, thickly choked marshes most often associated with mallards, you run the risk of losing more birds than you bring to hand. Instead, by hunting shallow open water, your retrieves can be close to or equal 100%.
Choose Your Shots Wisely
If you do hunt that mallard hole, shoot only at single birds that are high percentage shots that you know you can drop … and drop right in front of you for easy retrieves.
In the dove uplands, it can be tempting to try for doubles as they float in, but unless the ground is flat and devoid of tall grass and rocks, doubles should be avoided. Doves blend in so well with the ground that they can be impossible to find. Shoot them one at a time and visually follow each downed bird to where it hits the ground. You’ll spend less time searching, and more time shooting.
A silent approach can be a huge advantage when going after pheasants and quail. Waaaaaaay too many guys have dogs that run waaaaaay too far ahead of them, then they yell at the dogs to come back, thereby alerting the birds of their presence. The birds – especially as the season wears on – tend not to stick around to find out what all the yelling is about.
Oftentimes I’ve hidden myself from view -- either by walking in a ditch or behind a levee -- as I silently hiked to an area of thick vegetation, hoping to catch midday pheasants as they loafed in what they thought was a secure area. Which it was until I suddenly popped into view at 25 yards!
You’ll hike for a long time, sometimes hours, before you get into action. That’s just part of the “dogless” game. But you must continue to work the cover, because if you didn’t flush anything in the last 4 miles, that simply means that all the birds are still up ahead of you.
Equip Yourself Appropriately
To go along with all that patience, you’ll need comfortable boots and clothing. Dress in layers. Wear a vest that has a huge game bag that you can use to store shed clothing. Bring lots of water and some food. A change of socks can be nice, too.
Use Quality Ammunition
Without canine assistance on the retrieve, it is imperative that you kill immediately any bird shot at. And I mean right now! So use the very best, made specifically for the task-at-hand ammunition available.
For tough upland birds like pheasant and chukar, nickel-plated shot is renowned world-wide for its lethal qualities. The hard nickel coating ensures good patterns, while the soft lead center deforms upon impact with bone, causing the coating to take on sharp edges. That’s why live pigeon shooters in Europe – where big money is bet on these competitions – use nickel plated shot.
Italian ammo manufacturer Fiocchi offers nickel plated shot in its “Golden Pheasant” line of shot shells in 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauges. A new offering from Federal called “Prairie Storm” in 12 and 20 gauges contains both nickel and copper plated shot, with the nickel shot having an extended cutting edge the length of its circumference. Testing in ballistic gelatin reveals this type of shot causes wider wound channels than traditional round shot.
For waterfowl, there are a whole host of new, heavier-than-steel, high quality non-toxic ammo choices on the market. While performance reports from the field are excellent, the prices on these USFWS approved alternatives can be quite high.
I still shoot steel, in part because I love to handload my own ammo and steel and its components are readily available and relatively inexpensive. It also performs very well for me. The trick to effectively using steel is to use larger sized shot than is traditionally recommended. I have found that #1 steel is much more effective than #2s. There are less pellets in a load of #1’s (only 100 per ounce compared with 125 #2’s per ounce) but the extra energy #1’s carry can be the difference between a duck that hits the water dead vs. alive.
For those times when you do have a “swimmer” on the water, carry some steel loads with small sized shot. One ounce “swatter” loads with #6 steel contain about 300 pellets. The dense pattern these loads produce make it much easier to make head shots on a duck as it swims away from you with most of its vital areas hidden below the water. As steel 6’s lose energy quickly, be sure to get to about 25 yards before shooting and watch out for other hunters beyond your target as steel shot can ricochet off the water.
There you have it. With a little planning, an open mind and some common sense, you too can be a successful dogless bird hunter.
Author’s note: This article is dedicated to my departed hunting companion “Gunner” a.k.a “The Retrieving Rottweiler”. This year marks the 10th anniversary of his passing. A rescue dog from the local shelter, Gunner was a born natural who hunted every day with me for six seasons. Before I met him, I was a “dogless” hunter. But Gunner opened my eyes to a whole ‘nother world. Most importantly, he taught me to appreciate the very act of being afield. For Gunner it was all about going on the adventure! Take care old pal … until we meet again.