Autumn In April

The unrelenting heat of summer leaves me nostalgic for the autumn-like days of Spring, when the woods of northern Michigan promise the return of migrating woodcock. I joined dog trainer Justin McGrail on just such an April day, when the chill of winter was just giving way and the warmth of the sun on our faces was still a novelty.

Justin brought along his English Setters, German Shorthaired Pointer, English Pointer and Labrador Retriever. My own Weimaraner Stuka rounded out the string. Watching the instincts of each breed in action is a fascinating study of hunting skill diversity. No two dogs hunt the same.

Rex, Justin’s GSP is a wise, methodical hunter. The connection between Justin and Rex was almost visible; they are a team in every sense of the word. A hand gesture, whistle and sometimes even just a glance, and Rex would maneuver through the brush as if guided by some internal compass. Once Rex was on point, even a blank shot from a starter pistol brought nothing more then a shift of an eye, and nothing short of a command from his trainer would budge him. If not for that command, Rex might still be on point.


Dutch, a muscular English pointer is, with the exception of his skill at finding birds, Rex’s alter ego. Dutch is almost frantic in his hunting style, as if his very life depended on putting a woodcock in his trainer’s vest.


Young Dolly (as in Dolly Madison; her owner runs with a “First Lady” naming scheme) is as energetic as she is beautiful. This girl is a focused hunter who covers an amazing amount of ground, impervious to the terrain conditions. By the end of her run her white feathers were caked with mud. She wore it well.


Ben. Ah, Ben. Watching this dog work made me want to run out and buy a camo shotgun and rowboat, and head to the nearest lake. This dog was in phenomenal condition; lean, fit, trim and muscular. Watching him take flight over open water to retrieve a training dummy was akin to watching a professional athlete. The look on his face as he retrieved his prize was nothing short of pure joy. He was completely in his element.


When Stuka’s turn came I left the camera behind to focus on training. When I have the opportunity to put him on wild birds, it’s gratifying to see him start to make the connections between finding birds and the ground cover in which they hide. He found a few woodcock and, much to our surprise even bumped a ruffed grouse. But steadiness is still an area on which Stuka and I need to focus in the coming months.

Any day in the woods is a good day…we’ll get through the hot days of summer, perhaps with more fly fishing than dog training. But come fall we’ll be rewarded with cooler, dryer conditions and the opportunity to put all this training into practice. Even Stuka thought it was time to call it a day.