POINT AND RELEASE
Bob Wehle lamented, on numerous occasions, the decline of upland bird populations throughout most of their historic range. He was particularly anguished over the precipitous drop in bobwhite quail numbers, especially in the southeastern states. Mr. Wehle observed in 1997, that only a single covey could be found at his Midway, Alabama acreage, where fifty-four identified coveys had resided when he acquired the property in 1971. As a result of these observations, and similar reports from bird hunters from across the country with whom he corresponded, he came to advocate what he termed as “dry hunting”- firing a blank over a pointing dog and allowing the bird to be worked again on another day. Bob Wehle believed that the real joy of bird hunting was in the superior performance of a classy, accomplished bird dog, and not in the killing of game. A former competitive skeet shooter, he maintained that shooting prowess could best be demonstrated on the range, and that tenacious, intense bird dogs could be developed without killing wild birds over them.
Much of what Bob Wehle articulated in his promotion of “dry hunting” rings true. Certainly, the thrill of observing a fine bird dog skillfully handle birds brings immense satisfaction to most who venture afield with canine companions. As Mr. Wehle observed, “The essence of our sport is enjoying the dogs in the pursuit and handling of game." For most, the actual killing of the bird is almost anticlimactic. The prospect of working the same bird on a future outing, or of the bird surviving to successfully breed the next spring, is undeniably appealing. Also undeniable is that most upland birds make great table fare, although their inclusion in the menu is not likely to significantly impact the family grocery budget. A plump organic chicken seems an acceptable, cost effective, substitute.
Some do, however, take issue with Mr. Wehle's contention that bird dogs don’t need to have birds shot over them to be sufficiently rewarded or motivated. While bird dogs may not need to have birds killed over them, they do, in our experience, seem to benefit from it- as long as the birds killed are correctly handled by the dog. Killing a bird which a dog has handled well rewards desirable behavior. Killing birds that flush wild, or which your dog has “bumped” or “knocked”, rewards undesirable behavior and is, therefore, counterproductive. This practice can negatively influence the process of developing a class gun dog. Owners should, therefore only shoot properly handled birds over their dogs- particularly impressionable young dogs. In addition, you may want to consider not killing every wild bird which your mature, experienced dog points, as his desire will be unaffected. Carry a camera, instead of a shotgun, for the afternoon. Your photographs will remain cherished mementos of special days afield with your partner long after that delicious wild bird dinner has faded from memory.
Biologists tell us that upland birds live relatively short lives, and that their population is determined primarily by habitat and weather. They further note that, unlike waterfowl, you can’t “stockpile” upland birds by restricting harvest. Nevertheless, if sparing a few birds each season will possibly result in additional opportunities for dog work for you or another owner, or for the carryover to the following spring of a mature breeder, the prospect seems worth considering.