Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal.
Training your dog on wild birds provides the ultimate experience for a pointing dog. In fact, prior to WW 2, all pointing dog training was done on wild birds. It wasn’t until the suburbia growth of post WW2 was the concept developed of raising birds for training pointing dogs. Wild birds remain, however, a far better choice if you have access.
For folks who live in the spring woodcock migration pathways, March offers an outstanding opportunity to absolutely immerse your dog in wild bird scent. Whether you’re training a young pup or keeping a sharp edge on a finished dog, don’t miss this opportunity to work your dog over wild birds.
Obviously, the arrival of woodcock depends upon your geographical location. The farther south, the sooner you’ll see these birds. I’ve spoken with folks in West Virginia who train in late February. Your writer lives in Southern New Hampshire. If we’ve had a fairly open winter, I’ve found woodcock the first week in March. If we’ve had a hard winter with several inches (or feet) of snow, it’s often the middle of the month before they arrive. As with the fall migration south, it’s a steady migration that lasts for two to three weeks. This is Mother Nature’s way of assuring the survival of the species. If the early arrivals get buried with a spring snowstorm, there are plenty of birds yet to come.
Spring woodcock are found almost anywhere there is adequate cover. You’ll find them in all your traditional coverts and, in addition, small strips of cover barely large enough for a songbird. In fact, I have to watch my shorthair when I let him out to pee in the morning since he’ll often find and point a woodcock only 30’ from the house. The poor boy would be there all morning if I didn’t come out and flush the bird.
Since you’re not actually hunting, feel free to train in areas close to civilization. I have a friend who trains in March in a small industrial park near the Seacoast of New Hampshire. He says he gets 10-15 points in one hour. If you use a training pistol to reward your dog for good work, don’t get overly cozy with civilization, however.
One of the clear advantages of training in March is the absence of foliage. You can carefully watch your dog and see when correction is needed. Calvin Robinson, a professional trainer from Maine, uses the spring woodcock migration extensively for working his fine line of pointing dogs. Calvin doesn’t allow any infraction to go uncorrected. If a dog breaks on the flush, they’re immediately brought back to the point of infraction and made to stand.
There are a few rules I feel you should follow when training on woodcock in the spring. First, don’t continually follow-up on a bird. One or possibly two flushes are enough. These birds are under great stress trying to get to their breeding grounds and need rest. Secondly, pick your dogs up by mid-April. Don’t harass the birds once they’re on the nest. Also, be sure to check with your state to see if you need a permit to train on native species outside of hunting season.
March offers an incredible opportunity to work you dog over wild birds. Take the time and you’ll be well rewarded.