In Pursuit of the Perfect Bird Dog

Sunday, October 26, 2014
By Dennis Anderson

Star Tribune

Sandstone, Minn. — Were Jerry Kolter an accountant or an engineer, he could solve problems with mathematical precision.

Instead, as a breeder of bird dogs, along with his wife, Betsy Danielson, he lives in a world of nuance and inferences, or what some might call educated guesses.

“Bird dogs” in this instance defines canines that can race lickety-split through Minnesota’s northern forests in search of ruffed grouse, a feathered foe whose survival instincts are knife-edge sharp, and include not only flying, but running, walking, levitating into trees and otherwise just plain vanishing.

“This is Oscar,” Kolter said the other day while unloading an athletically sculpted male English setter from his truck.

We were parked alongside a vast block of public forest land in Pine County, between the Twin Cities and Duluth, and were about to engage, the three of us — Kolter, Oscar and me — in a battle of wits and brush-beating stamina with Ol’ Ruff, the King of Game Birds.

Cagier than pheasants, more reclusive than bobwhite quail and better tasting than sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse are a species shrouded in mystery and capable, it seems, of mutating from simple forest dwellers that stroll lazily on logging roads, to magic acts that disappear in a heartbeat.

“All right,” Kolter said, and Oscar was off in a blur, his legs opening up as he bounded over deadfalls and between aspens, his head held high.

Unlike continental pointing-dog breeds such as Brittanies and German short-haired pointers, which typically smell the ground while hunting, English setters and pointers (previously known as English pointers) hunt with their heads up, scenting the air.

It’s this trait that allows these dogs to detect and “point” — meaning, generally, freeze in their tracks — ruffed grouse from 15 to 30 feet distant, reducing the chance the birds will fly or run away before the hunter arrives to attempt a shot.

Fifty-four years old, with degrees in wildlife management and computer programming, Kolter has put his share of grouse and woodcock — another highly prized forest bird — in his game bag.

He still relishes the hunt, and relishes as well guiding other grouse and woodcock aficionados throughout the north country in October and November.

But even more enthusiastically over the past two decades, he and Danielson, a horticulturist, have enjoyed the daunting challenge of breeding and training setters and pointers with the physical stature, temperaments and bird-finding abilities to excel in the field.

Discovering a Passion

Growing up in the small town of Henderson, in southern Minnesota, Kolter didn’t own a dog. Nor was he introduced to grouse hunting by a family member.

Instead, in fall, a high school teacher who owned a pair of English setters took Kolter to Rum River State Forest on Saturdays, setting in motion for the teenage hunter a lifelong love affair with forests and forest creatures, including birds of prey.

“I had a falconry permit when I was 15 years old,” he said.

In college, Kolter bought his first dog, a Brittany, paying $35. Later, when he moved to the Twin Cities and met a core group of bird dog fanatics — many of whom ran setters and other breeds in grouse dog trials — Kolter ponied up for a setter of his own.

Bred from Southern field-trial stock, whose handlers follow their dogs on horseback, the new charge was a big runner.

“He was far more dog than I needed,” Kolter recalled. “He could find birds. But he ran so ‘big,’ I often had to find him before I could find the birds he was pointing.

“Still, I learned a lot from that dog. He was such a physical specimen. To watch him float across the landscape in North Dakota while hunting sharptails was amazing, and I soon realized I was having as much fun watching him as I was hunting birds.”

Danielson, who grew up with retrievers, shared the fascination, and in the years since, the two have attempted to mold what they consider to be ideal bird dogs.

“We ran grouse dog trials for a number of years, and when we did, we were looking for dogs that could win,” Kolter said.

To that end, he and Danielson bred their setters and pointers to dogs they believed would produce offspring that would run neither too far from, nor too close to their handlers.

“As you refine your breeding program, you want a little more and a little more, until, finally, you want a dog that possesses just about everything,” Kolter said. “Athleticism. Looks. A pretty mover. A calm temperament. And most importantly, a dog that finds birds.”

In 2002, Kolter and Danielson morphed from canine hobbyists to professionals, and in 2005 they left their Twin Cities jobs and exurban lifestyle for rural Pine County, where they established their breeding and training kennel, Northwoods Bird Dogs.

Other lifestyle changes followed. Instead of spending winters in Minnesota with their dog-training program on hold, they passed the cold months with their setters and pointers in Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma, before settling in Georgia, where from December through March they train their dogs, while Kolter guides hunters on a quail plantation.

“We try to expose our young dogs to birds year-round,” Kolter said. “For litters born in April, we want them on planted pigeons and liberated (training) birds by the time they’re 4- or 5-months-old.

“In August and September, we take them to North Dakota for work on sharptails, before coming back to Minnesota and introducing them to grouse and woodcock. Then it’s down South, to Georgia, in winter for quail, and back here in spring.

“It takes a lot of birds to make a good bird dog.”

Hunting With a Natural

“Oscar is 65 yards this way,” Kolter said, pointing to his right.

The dog wore a bell and Garmin GPS collar that uploaded its position every 5 seconds to the LCD screen of a handheld receiver Kolter carried.

The receiver vibrates when a dog wearing the special collar stops running, meaning the animal is on point.

The gadget augments the bells that pointing dogs wore exclusively years ago.

“Bells work OK, but when a dog points and the bell stops ringing, it sometimes can be hard to find your dog,” Kolter said. “The GPS collar solves that problem.”

Busting through forearm-sized aspen to the edge of a gray dogwood thicket, Kolter and I glimpsed the outline of Oscar frozen in place, his head held high in the dense forest understory.

This would be either a grouse or woodcock, and Kolter and I were unsure where exactly the bird was hiding.

We soon found out.

Hearing a whirrr of wings, we turned to see a ruffed grouse escape from the far edge of the thick covert.

No shots were fired.

Racing ahead, and quickly up to speed, Oscar was intent on finding still another bird.

It’s what he lives for.

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