by Chad Mason
Retrievers are one of American pheasant hunters’ most popular companions. In pheasant country, I see more Labs than anything else, with goldens running third or fourth. For our beloved retrievers, it’s all about range. As long as a retriever is ranging just right, there isn’t much else he can do wrong.
Few things in upland bird hunting are more exasperating than a dog that flushes beyond your shotgun’s capabilities. But there’s nothing more useless than a dog that covers no more ground than his master. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of retrievers at both ends of that spectrum.
Ranging properly is not the same as the textbook description of quartering we read in training books, though some enthusiastic new retriever owners aspire to see their dogs hunt in this manner.
Retriever field trials and hunting tests have not (yet) put a heavy emphasis on upland bird hunting, so you’d have to watch a spaniel event to see what I mean. What you will see are dogs running back-and-forth before the gun like high-speed lawn mowers, cutting neat lines perpendicular to the hunter’s direction of travel. These lines extend perhaps 20-25 yards on each side of the gun, and 10 to 15 yards in front. One spaniel field trial judge told me this was “ideal” for hunting upland birds.
I think that’s crazy.
Ranging right is not a mindless, mechanical activity, and it is not a series of all-out sprints. It is a nuanced and intelligent quest that recognizes which areas are likely to hold birds, and which aren’t. It means effectively covering as much likely bird-holding cover as possible at an endurance pace, in such a way all birds put to flight by the dog are reasonable targets.
Proper range begins with canvassing the wind for bird scent, and culminates with investigating the sources of scent. Ranging just right may even take a dog momentarily beyond the range of the gun in order to expose a bird to the gun. But ultimately, a dog that ranges just right understands the physical and ballistic limitations of his master and hunts within them, because he also understands his own need for the master as an indispensable teammate.