Six pointing breeds and four flushers round out our picks. Now let the fur fly…
By Tom Davis
Grouse hunters are a notoriously opinionated bunch. Put more than two of them in the same room and sure as sunrise they’ll find something to disagree about. More likely, they’ll find lots to disagree about. The best shotguns are a bone of endless contention. But if you really want to see the fur fly, stand up in a roomful of grouse hunters and say, “When it comes to grouse hunting dogs, I think breed _____ is the best.” Before you do, identify the closest exit, because objects will be thrown at you.
Today, that’s all changed. Flushing dogs now enjoy a large and enthusiastic following, the Continental breeds are an established force, and the Irishman and the Gordon have made heroic comebacks as grouse hunting dogs. It isn’t that the lights of the pointer and the English setter have dimmed; it’s just that they are no longer the only stars in the sky. William Harnden Foster wouldn’t know what to make of it.
To be sure that you do know what to make of it when it comes time to choose your next pup, here, in no particular order, are snapshots of the top 10 best grouse hunting dogs, 21st century style.
1. English Setter: The Traditional Grouse Dog
This breed remains the classic choice for traditional-minded grouse hunters—although the words “English setter grouse dog” can connote very different animals depending on who’s listening. There are low-to-the-ground, wispily feathered 35-pound English setters that smoke through the woods like missiles, and tall, extravagantly coated 70-pounders who go about their business with the unhurried formality of Downton Abbey butlers. The former are generally known as the field-trial type, the latter as the Ryman/Old Hemlock type. The legendary Tom Prawdzik of Clare, Michigan, believed that an English setter somewhere between those extremes—wide-ranging, but with an easy, all-day gait—was the most “efficient” dog for ruffed grouse hunting. He had 50 years of meticulously kept records to back up that opinion too.
2. Gordon Setter: The Handsomest Grouse Dog
Perhaps the handsomest of all the sporting breeds, the “black-and-tan” gets its name from the fourth Duke of Gordon, the Scottish laird who stabilized the breed’s type in the early 19th century. A steady, level-headed worker who operates at close range and rarely screws up, the Gordon was a great favorite among market hunters—about the best recommendation possible if your aim is to put birds in the bag. But for many years, as bird-dog fashion changed and the Gordon’s breeding was increasingly co-opted by the show crowd (the same fate that befell the Irish setter), sportsmen who’d have loved to hunt grouse with a Gordon had a devil of a time finding one that could hunt. Thankfully, the hunting Gordon is back, and while you won’t find one behind every bush, they’re out there if you make the effort to look.
3. Pointer: The Speedster
No breed elicits stronger opinions than the pointer. As the saying goes, there are really just two kinds of bird-dog people: those who think pointers are the only dogs worth feeding, and those who are scared to death of them. The way I look at it, the pointer is the Formula One racecar of the pointing-dog set: capable of jaw-dropping performance in the hands of those who know what they’re doing, and a wreck waiting to happen in the hands of those who don’t. Both Burton Spiller and William Harnden Foster, two of the most hallowed figures in the lore and literature of grouse hunting, were diehard pointer men. The greatest pointer man of all, Robert G. Wehle of Elhew Kennels fame, was a grouse hunter, and it’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of pointers used to chase ruffs boast a preponderance of Elhew blood.