Flushers for Quail

2a4cfde2-58ad-4a4f-bcd8-68a44caeff2f A dog holds firm on point, nose zeroed in on a covey several yards ahead. Rigid posture, a still tail—the iconic sight gets every hunter’s pulse racing with anticipation. A casual walk through brush slows to a creep. Footsteps are a game of roulette—any number, any second, could score a flush. Thumb on safety, the hunter is ready to make the most of that brief, crucial moment, when cover erupts with fist-sized quarry.
 
For many quail hunters, it is arguably a matter of productivity—the choice between a pointing or flushing breed. Proponents of pointers for quail hunting attest their dogs cover more ground and find birds quicker, helping fill the bag and bring home supper with less time afield; while hunters shouldering a shotgun over a flushing dog claim there is no excitement quite like the surprise of a covey seconds after the dog has gone birdy.
 
Advantages and drawbacks exist for both, and while pointers remain the predominant choice for quail hunting, flusher enthusiasts claim their dogs add a whole other layer to the sport and serve as strong, loving companions in the field and at home.
 

Labrador Retriever 

John Larson, owner of American Field Labs out of Arizona, first started working with dogs on a professional level as a law enforcement detection canine handler six years ago. During his two years as a committed handler, he worked extensively with high-drive dogs, mostly German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Labradors. A hunter his entire life, at the age of 24, Larson bought his first hunting dog, “Nelli,” an American field Lab, after meeting a breeder during a patrol, shortly after being certified as a canine handler.
 
“Having experience as a canine handler, I understood knowing how to read your dog – how to speak their language and read their behavior – is all important,” Larson said. “How quickly to reward or correct your dog is crucial, otherwise you’re just wasting their time. Training a bird dog is very similar to reading a dog who is trained to detect narcotics. It is a now-or-never type of thing.”
 
According to Larson, it is a matter of split-seconds—whether a search is justified and in the field, whether a hunter is prepared to take a good shot on a covey. “Hunting behind my labs, as soon as their demeanor changes,” he said, “I know I am on birds—the dogs are in the scent cone.” 
 
Larson spends a large sum of his hunting season chasing Gambel’s and scaled quail along fence rows and across desert terrain, where cover is scarce and birds are inclined to run. “There are a lot of times when you can get into good quail, not a lot of thick cover,” Larson said. “They’re in big bushes. Dogs will see them running. When training a young dog, a pointer will have such a natural drive to go after those birds. With a flusher, when they get in the scent cone, they work it closely.”
 
While pointers may cover more ground, get into more birds, that greater range may also require owners to invest in GPS or other electronic collars to track or keep a pointer within eyesight. Still, there is no mistaking the meaning of a solid point. Flushers, on the other hand, require a more intimate knowledge of an individual dog’s habits in order to know when it is time to shoulder a shotgun.
 
“As a puppy, Nelli’s tail would start spinning like a helicopter when she got into a scent,” Larson said. “Now she is a hammer—knows how to work air.”
 
Larson places a great deal of faith in the retrieve of his Labs, even at a young age. “Labs can be more patient as a young dog,” he said. “Retrieve is so strong—hit or miss with pointer on retrieve. I almost guarantee my pups will retrieve with almost no training at all.”
 
Labradors are truly adored, first and foremost, for their versatility. But what if they could point too?
 

Pointing Labs 

Professional dog trainer John Greer of Tiger Mountain Pointing Labradors has been working with pointing Labs since the late 1980s, when he was first introduced to Vince Retacco of Issaquah, Washington, and his dog, “Jackie.”
 
On his website, pointinglabs.com, Greer recounts the rich history of his line of pointing Labs:
 
“During our initial telephone conversation [Vince] mentioned he would like to bring a dog along, a Labrador that pointed birds. Though I didn’t say it, my initial thought was ‘yeah right,’” Greer recalled. “I was in line for a rude awakening when it came to my expectations of Vince’s dog. Although I did bring along two dogs with numerous championship credentials to cover our need for shooting birds over quality points, I didn’t need to. Jackie was finding, pointing, retrieving and handling herself just as well as they were.”
 
With a great nose, solid retrieve and resilience in cold water conditions, a Lab can work for any bird. Outside the field, the breed remains a family favorite. With the bonus ability to point, a Lab takes the hunt to a whole other level.
 
“We do a lot of quail hunting in southern Arizona – Mearns’, and of course Gambel’s,” Greer said. “The Labs I own and hunt, they’re trained just like regular pointers to stop the flush. Outside in bigger grass areas where a traditional pointer might range more, Labs are still going to work in a tighter pattern than a traditional pointer. Most guys don’t find that to be a problem. Some guys prefer the range of English setters and the like, but when I go to pheasant country, I am glad these dogs don’t range.”
 

English Cocker Spaniels 

While pointing labs are a rare find—even within Greer’s champion bloodlines, 20 percent of puppies may not exhibit a natural point—English cocker spaniels remain a favorite among hunters who appreciate a hard-working dog that can get into deep cover and flush birds with ease.
 
Contrary to what their name might convey, English cocker spaniels actually originated in Spain. British hunters appreciated their prowess afield and named them cocker spaniels in light of their ability to get into cockle burrs and retrieve wounded game where other bird dogs could not.
 
Little difference exists between the English springer spaniel and the Cockers except size, as the Cockers are generally 10 pounds lighter.
 
Christopher Loizou of Covey Flush Kennels in Georgia fell in love with the breed during a hunt in South Dakota in the mid-1990s. “They are full of fire,” he said. “They out-ranged all other dogs. There is nothing bad I can say about them.”
 
Loizou purchased his first Cocker in March of ’96 and has been breeding and training them ever since. “They are wonderful with kids,” he said. “Their temperate is fantastic. Their retrieve drive is next to none. Their ability to please you is incredible.”
 
The dogs practically train themselves, according to Loizou. “The only thing you’ve got to teach these dogs is their obedience and their manners,” he said. Whether hunting dove, woodcock, grouse, quail, or pheasant; Cockers are known to find birds, hunt all day and aim only to please with a zealous, yet soft-mouth, retrieve. For quail hunting, no matter the terrain, said Loizou, Cockers will run until every bird is off the ground.
 
So strong is their desire to please, with webbed feet, Cockers will even jump into a pond and retrieve waterfowl over twice their size.
 
“I had a little girl—she was 19 pounds,” recalled Loizou. “We were at a friend’s house and he had a couple ponds out back. He had some geese come in. We hunted that afternoon. First goose I shot over her, she jumped in the water and grabbed it by its neck, pushed him to shore and brought him to me by dragging, because she couldn’t pick him up. The goose was 42 pounds.”
 

Boykin Spaniel 

A need to please is also a common trait among other Spaniel breeds. The Boykin spaniel, the “state dog” of South Carolina, is the result of cross-breeding Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Cockers, Springers, and water spaniels, among others, in the early 1900s.
 
A trainer and breeder of Boykins for nearly 15 years, Ben Pafford of Georgia grew up with pointers and setters but has come to value the flushing capabilities of Boykins, which he often hunts behind a Brittany’s point.
 
“They don’t make good kennel dogs,” Pafford explained. “If you have a Boykin, the more time you spend with them the harder they try to please. Once they figure out what you want, they generally do everything they can to make you happy.”
 
Boykins are extremely affectionate and love attention. “When you chamber a round,” said Pafford, “they find another gear. They really pick up and hunt all day, retrieve well, mind well and are easy to train. All you have to do is spend time with them, but don’t overwork them when they’re real young.”
 
“I got a young male, just got done doing a 100 quail hunt with him,” said Pafford, who has worked as a quail guide for over 13 years. “He hunted all day long. Half in the morning, half in the evening. He will go all day. He isn’t quite two years old. If there’s water in woods, and it’s below 65 or 70 degrees, he doesn’t have any issues at all.”
 
In the end, for every hunter, it is a matter of preference—between valuing a concise forecast from your dog, or enjoying the intimacy of a close-working companion who gets just as, if not more, excited than you when birds lift up. In pursuit of quail, hunting over a flusher may require more time afield to bag birds. Yet, when we hunters really think about it, time spent among nature is the reason we pursue and so enjoy this sport. Extra hours each season, coupled with spontaneous flushes, can only add to that happiness.
 
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.

Photo credits: Main and Fifth Images, Tina Rensch Fraser – Mirror Image Photography / First Image, Andrew Vavra – Quail Forever / Second Image, John Greer / Third Image, Rene Loizou / Fourth Image
, michaelshaffer via Visual Hunt / CC BY 2.0.