“Ruffed grouse dogs are bred, not born, and once born they are developed, not made.”
–George Bird Evans, An Affair with Grouse
Author’s Note: I wrote this story clear back in 2018, Rainey’s second season of hunting. It was accepted for publication in a prominent bird dog magazine and then the magazine editor retired and it fell through the cracks. I tried to get it published elsewhere and it never found a home. So, I am sharing it with all of you. Hope you enjoy it. I am happy to report that Rainey, who is almost 5, has turned into a phenomenal grouse dog in every sense of the word (although we still need to work on her retrieving!)
With every puppy taken home, grouse hunters hope that they will raise a bona fide “grouse dog” in every sense of the term. My American Brittany, Misty, developed into one of the finest grouse dogs I have ever seen and I was blessed to have her for seven hunting seasons.
In 2017, after unexpectedly losing Misty in the spring, I decided to get pup out of TopperLyn Kennels in Stevensville, Montana, a breeder of Epagnuel Bretons (French Brittanys to the lay person). My friend Grayson, a gun dog trainer from North Carolina, told me that his dog, Ella, out of this same kennel was the “dog of a lifetime.” That sealed the deal for me.
My pup’s mom is Fanny vom Falkenhof, out of a German kennel and her dad is TopperLyn Marco from Topperlyn Kennels. We picked up TopperLyn Rainey Creek Ruff, or “Rainey,” in June of 2017. She had a wonderful first hunting season with numerous finds, points, and a few retrieves of Huns, sharptails, ruffed grouse, blue grouse, and even a pheasant. After such a good start, I was pretty excited for her future prospects. But the question remained whether she would become a “grouse dog,” which was my main hope for her.
During the Spring of 2018, as Rainey and I hiked together, Rainey happened to find a ruffed grouse and she got so excited that she pursued the fleeing bird while barking a high-pitched yip. I took this as just sheer excitement on her part, which I got a kick out of. When I shared this experience on social media, a friend told me that in Germany this barking pursuit of prey is called “going laut” and is rewarded in field trials. “Laut,” in German, means loud, noisy or loudmouthed. Since I’ve never seen this behavior in any of my American-bred dogs, I assume Rainey got this trait from her German mother, Fanny.
The start of the 2018 hunting season was just plain tough. I hunted Rainey three times within the first week and we struggled to find birds. On the first day, as we walked a covert I named the “Outhouse,” my friend Scott Johnson’s yellow Lab, Ruger kicked up a blue grouse, which Scott connected on and Ruger retrieved almost as soon as it hit the ground. Rainey was nowhere near the action. Though we hunted pretty far up the canyon, we did not see any other ruffs or blues.
As we made our way back down the creek bottom, Rainey stopped at a thick swampy area of the creek. Since she literally points everything including butterflies, grasshoppers, chipmunks, and Tweety birds, I doubted that she was on a bird, especially given the fact that we had hunted up this creek bottom when we started and saw no bird earlier. To my surprise, a grouse (I’m not sure if it was a blue or a ruff) blew out of the tangle with a laut-ing Rainey in hot pursuit. My lack of faith in my dog cost me a prime chance at a grouse. The other two hunts we found only a few birds with no good opportunities.
On Wednesday, September 5, 2018, I worked a full day and then hustled home to meet up with my brother Jake for a quick evening grouse hunt. Since Jake was with me at the Outhouse when the cover got its name, hunting there seemed like the obvious choice. Besides, I hoped to find that same grouse that gave me the slip opening day.
After parking, Jake and I hunted up the little two track leading into the narrow valley, surrounded by thick quakies and chokecherries on both sides. We hadn’t walked fifty yards before Rainey ran up into the thick cover on the left-hand side of the road and stopped.
“Rainey is on point,” said Jake.
“That dog points every dang thing!” I responded doubtingly. “She’s probably just dinking around!”
“I think she is on a bird . . . What’s that right there?” Jake replied while pointing at a ruffed grouse on the ground in the thick cover.
“That is a ruffed grouse!” I exclaimed. Rainey had solidly pointed a ruffed grouse for the first time.
As I tried to maneuver the thick cover to get into position for a shot, multiple birds starting busting out of the cover in all directions. All said, there were five or so birds in that covey and Rainey had four or five points on these birds, but I had no shots in the thick cover. Still, I was ecstatic about her performance. It was like a light switch turned on.
“Brother, Rainey is going to be an awesome dog. I really like her personality and the way she hunts!” Jake praised.
“She may make a grouse dog, after all!” I acquiesced.
We continued to work our way up the narrow valley to the sage flat, surrounded by quakies, where Misty first found blue grouse back in 2012. I pointed out to Jake where Misty is buried and we both commented on what a great grouse dog she was.
“Wish Misty was here to show this pup how it’s done,” I said longingly “Misty was the best dog I ever had.”
“Rainey is already getting it, brother” Jake pointed out. “She just found and pointed all those grouse.”
“Yes, that’s true.” I had to admit.
About seventy-five yards up the road, I jumped the creek while Jake stayed on the road as we approached the big service berry thicket that straddles the creek. Blues and ruffies both love this thicket and we regularly find birds here. I fully expected a blue or a ruff to come out of the thicket, but we had no action, even though Rainey worked the cover thoroughly. Above the service berry thicket, is a grassy opening in the creek bottom, and right above this opening the creek bottom is aligned with thick chokecherries. Rainey worked her way across the opening into the chokecherries and grouse started flushing everywhere. I made a solid shot on one as it tried to cross the creek. Rainey promptly picked it up, ran away from me, and dropped it in the creek bottom. Little turd! I had to go into the thicket to retrieve my own grouse while birds flushed around me. I need to work with Rainey on retrieving to hand.
After taking a few pictures, we worked up to the covert’s namesake, the actual outhouse, and had to get a few photos with Rainey’s first outhouse grouse. We then worked all the way up to the top of the canyon without moving another bird.
With all the birds flushed earlier in the bottom of the draw, I suspected that we’d see one or two on our way back to the car. And we did in the last chokecherry thicket along the two track. This bird was more mature than my first one and maneuvering through this cover would be tough, let alone getting off a shot. I saw an opening where I might be able to have a window, so I worked my way up the hill into the thicket and called Rainey in to get up the grouse. She jumped into the cover and flushed the bird along the thicket’s upper edge. I got on it quick, but by the time I pulled the trigger, my sight of the bird was completely covered by thick foliage. Notwithstanding, the shot felt good, so I climbed above the thicket and kept my eye on the ground. About fifteen more yards along the thicket’s edge, I spied what looked like a downed grouse on the ground. When I inspected further, I realized that my eyes had not deceived me.
“YES!!!! WOOHOO!! Good job, Rainey!” I praised. Rainey had flushed the grouse in such a way that I had a perfect—albeit obscured—shot through the timber. That was teamwork at its finest.
On the way home, I commented to Jake, “Rainey became a grouse dog tonight.”
“She sure did.” Jake agreed.
It’s been said that it takes grouse to make a grouse dog and I know that is true to a large extent. But, after twenty years of grouse hunting, I am also convinced that much of a dog’s ability to chase ruffed grouse successfully comes from breeding. With a little work, patience and bird exposure, I believe Rainey has it in her to be a great grouse dog.