October 25, 2021
Call ‘em what you’d like, off-breeds, upland dogs, or versatile dogs–which I prefer–they’re here to stay in the world of waterfowling.
Like many of you, I love to hunt and have all my life. I also appreciate a good dog that’s trainable, obedient, driven, and at the end of the day will curl up by my side and watch a movie, or voluntarily go in the kennel as I work in my office, where both of my pudelpointers are as I write these words.
When the time came for me to get a new hunting companion, I searched for two years. In addition to a dog that could hunt ducks and geese from September into March throughout the West, I wanted one that would run the rugged mountains all day in the spring and early summer in search of deer and elk sheds, pound the ground for an array of upland birds from mountain quail to ptarmigan, sit for doves and band-tailed pigeons, track and flush fall turkeys, tree gray squirrels and retrieve ground squirrels along with cottontails. I wanted a breed of dog that could handle the places I like to hunt from Alaska to California and into the Rocky Mountain states, amid an array of terrain. I also wanted a good family dog, one that was considered hypoallergenic, or close to it. I wanted one dog to do it all. That’s why I chose a pudelpointer, and two years after I got Echo, I got a male, Kona. They’ve changed my life.
I’ve been fortunate to hunt with a range of versatile dogs in many parts of the world and I can never see myself owning anything but a pudelpointer; okay, maybe a Griffon or Drahthaar. I hear the same from fellow waterfowlers who have versatile dogs.
The intent is not to change minds, as Labs will always rule the waterfowling world. The purpose is to share with fellow hunters, like myself, who might be looking to hunt upland birds, fall turkey, antler sheds, furry animals, even wild mushrooms, with one dog.
“They always get people talking or at least shooting questioning glances your way when you let ‘em out of the truck in the public duck hunting parking lot or on the training grounds,” shares Josh Powell who lives near LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Powell is the proud owner of Eudor, an impressive Drahthaar I’ve had the honor of hunting with.
“What continues to amaze me is how well these dogs mark,” notes Powell, who is an aspiring full-time trainer and breeder of Drahthaars. “Eudor will sit all day in cold, harsh conditions, marking and retrieving ducks and geese and that would surprise a lot of folks.”
I hunted with Eudor and Powell in Cold Bay, Alaska last November. I held an emperor goose tag and Eudor made a heckuva a retrieve on a prized bird amid heavy winds, blowing snow, and chilling temperatures in the white-capped Pacific Ocean, on the south side of the Aleutian Chain.
“You should have seen the five snow geese he retrieved the other day,” piped Powell as we were packing up emperor decoys on the rocky beach. “They came in low, into our goldeneye decoys, in deep water. We dropped the whole flock and Eudor was instantly on every bird without my having to say a word. Then again, they were white and easy to mark, but in blustery conditions, and the ice-cold water this time of year, it would have made an off-brand doubter a believer, right there!” Eudor was nearing two years of age last winter and chalked-up an impressive number of duck and goose retrieves in some truly harsh Alaskan conditions.
Training & Bloodlines
“Quality bloodlines and proper training are essential in getting the most of your versatile dog,” shares Desiree Stormont, a North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) judge and passionate waterfowl hunter. “We duck hunted a lot with our German Shorthair Pointer (GSP) in Wisconsin, but it got pretty cold up there, plus that breed can get over-excited when sitting in a blind. I’d been around a lot of Griff’s in the duck blind and loved their demeanor, so three years ago got one, and he’s incredible in so many ways. Now that we live in Nebraska we waterfowl hunt with our Griff’ all season long, and sometimes our GSP joins us on shorter hunts.”
Stormont says the drive a Griff’ has to perform in water and its ability to mark birds would surprise a lot of folks. “Rupert is my eyes in the sky. I think my favorite part of hunting ducks and geese with him is watching his eyes constantly searching the sky. Just by watching Rupert I can tell where the birds are approaching from. He does an incredible job on retrieves too, and if one dives, sails, or hits the timber or brush, he’s not coming back until he finds it. It’s nothing for him to push back 500 yards and be gone for 10 minutes or more, and he takes signals very well.”
“Get a versatile dog with drive and they’re something to watch work in the water,” comments Stormont. “We hunt fields, flooded timber, ponds, lakes, rivers and sloughs, and Rupert is always flexible, always adapting to situations that are new to him. I’ll even kayak him into hard to reach places. If goose hunting from pit blinds or layouts, he’ll do fine on the floor, but prefers being able to see the action.”
Like many versatile gun dog owners, Stormont and her husband like to do it all. “It’s common for Rupert to be hunting ducks in the morning, pheasants later in the morning, then back for an evening duck hunt. He’ll go all day long, every day, with stamina, drive, and patience that continues to impress me.”
When asked what folks should consider when looking to get a versatile gun dog for waterfowl hunting, noted trainer and breeder of one of the most elite lines of pudelpointers in the country, Jess Spradley of Cabin Creek Gun Dogs in Lakeview, Oregon notes, “If you want a versatile dog that loves water and waterfowl hunting, two things are important. First, you’ve got to have the best genetics you can find, as that’s going to bring out the top performance of the dog. If you want a pudelpointer or Griff’ or any other versatile gun dog for waterfowl hunting, make sure the breeder knows that so they can get you a pup that has parents and grandparents that tested well in water. Another important thing is the timing of getting a pup. If you’re going to get a versatile pup and you live in a cold climate much of the year, get it in late spring or early summer, if possible, so you can introduce it to water at a young age and regularly train it. Forcing a sensitive pup into cold water in winter can cause training challenges.
“It’s not so much the extreme hunting conditions that should raise concern, rather the timing of training versatile pups in water, Spradley clarifies. “Where I live in western Oregon we might hunt on thin ice a few days each season, and I water train year-round. A buddy in Montana has multiple pudelpointers and hunts amid snow and ice all winter long for ducks and geese; his dog even retrieved a coyote he shot that swam into the middle of an icy Yellowstone River and died, then delivered the soaking wet yapper to his feet. He trained his pups in the summer and kept working and hunting them in water as conditions grew colder.”
I got Echo in February and introduced her to a kiddie pool with warm water and we regularly played in it. Exposing pups to water in the bathtub also works, but get a mat to ensure solid footing. Make these early water experiences fun and positive and you’re set.
“The great thing about pudelpointers, Drahts and Griffs is their wiry, thick coat,” points out Powell. “That, along with a quality neoprene vest and it’s surprising the conditions these dogs can endure, and I’m not talking just for a few hours, I’m talking all day for days on end.”
Stormont chose a Griff’ with a tighter coat. “Rupert does really well in the cold and this type of coat drys really fast.” A good point to consider.
It can be a challenge finding a neoprene vest that fits thin waisted, deep chested dogs like Drahts and pudelpointers. My favorite vest for my pudelpointers is made by Browning, while Powell has been pleased with Tanglefree for his Drahthaar.
Last January I took a buddy on a duck hunt. He’s a police officer who’s used to working with well-trained canines. “Will they sit like that all day?” he asked, nodding to my dogs on the platform. It was pouring rain, windy and 36 degrees and my dogs hadn’t moved for six hours other than to retrieve birds and relieve themselves. I assured him they would, and do multiple times a week, all season long. He was surprised pudelpointers had that much discipline.
He made another key observation, one I noticed right away when hunting with Powell in Alaska, and one Stormont confirmed with her Griff’. “Watching your dogs watch birds, they even know the difference between ducks and all the other birds, don’t they?” He’d been closely studying my dogs’ eyes, ears, and head position, and made the connection.
“On days like this where wind and rain are hammering our face, I might not look over the decoys much, I just hunker down and watch my dogs and they tell me if ducks are coming, from what direction, and even how fast they’re approaching,” I smiled. “Folks who claim gun dogs won’t mark waterfowl need to see this,” he stressed, before shouldering his gun and dropping our final bird of the day.
The following morning I took Kona into the rolling foothills of the Cascade Range on a fall turkey hunt. It was our seventh day over the course of the past couple weeks trying to find birds. Finally, he cut a track, promptly followed, then held a pair of jakes in heavy brush on the edge of a Douglas fir forest. When I caught up to Kona on solid point, the birds flushed and I dropped one, which he retrieved. The biggest tom Kona has retrieved weighed 21 pounds.
A couple days later, we were hunting honkers in a field, followed by a wood duck hunt in a brushy creek. Then our late goose season kicked off and Kona racked up the retrieves on cacklers as our groups dropped hundreds of birds before the season culminated in March.
But the second to last hunt of the goose season was perhaps the most memorable of the year. A flock of more than 3,000 cacklers funneled into the decoys and selectively, a couple buddies and I dropped five from the fringe of the flock, finishing our limits for the day. One bird nearly hit me, which I grabbed, looking up to see Kona with another cackler already in his mouth. Quickly he was after another goose he saw drop behind the blind. Then I directed him by hand over 150 yards through the foot-tall, green, rye grass to where a crippled goose had drifted. He couldn’t see it, but once he started cutting wedges into the wind, it didn’t take long for Kona to pick up the scent.
“That dog’s more like a horse than any dog I’ve seen,” claimed one buddy, eyed fixed on Kona. “Man, he covers ground!”
“Yeah, and he’s not done yet, we got another goose that went down way out there past the fog line, in fact it’s so far, I’ll just go get it,” the eldest man of the group announced.
I failed to see the last bird, so got a line on it from my buddy. “It’s a quarter mile across that field, and the fog is another 100 yards beyond that, and who knows how far the bird is past that by now,” he pressed. “I’ll just go get it, I need the exercise anyway.”
He started across the field as I sent Kona out, but the dog got sidetracked with all the fresh scent in the tall grass from the morning hunt. I called Kona back, started him on a new line, then pushed him back about 100 yards before he stopped and looked to me for direction. Raising an open hand overhead, I hollered “back” and Kona took off. Another 150 yards later I stopped him with a buzz of his collar, directing him to the right with a hand signal. He took off at his usual gate that’s powerful, steady, and gobbles up ground. At the edge of the fog line Kona paused, stretching his big black nose as high as he could. He slowly inched forward, not on point, rather pinpointing the direction of the smell he’d just detected. His back legs loaded, dug in, then thrust his deep chest over the lush lime green grass. He was in high gear and quickly consumed by fog. My buddy who was now 100 yards into the field just kept walking toward the goose.
A few minutes later Kona emerged from the fog, still more than 500 yards away, proudly pranced past my buddy, head high, goose in mouth. He didn’t slow until he was by my side.
My buddy made it back to the blind, winded. “You know, I’ve been hunting waterfowl many years (60+ to be exact) and that was an amazing pair of retrieves, and how Kona responded to your signals at that distance, that was very impressive. I just ordered a Lab pup the other day, but it looks like I might have a pudelpointer companion in the near future.”
In his usual post-hunt depression, Kona curled up by the pile of geese where he monitored us gathering decoys.
My family had fresh goose for dinner, then Kona snuggled up on the couch between my wife and I as we watched a movie.
Kona slept well that night, and when my alarm went off at 3:45 the next morning, I could hear him stand, shake, and start wagging his tail in his kennel. Echo did the same. It was time to go hunting and they knew it.
Scott Haugen is a full-time author. Learn more about his line of books and booking service at www.scotthaugen.com. Follow his adventures on Instagram & Facebook.