The bell clanged as Rebel carved up the alder run. He blew through the pass-through cover, slowed and zig-zagged in the thick poplar, and picked up speed when he entered the alders. That last patch typically held birds, both he and I knew that. I wasn't surprised when his bell went silent, and his beeper began to sing.
I looked over my shoulder to signal 'point' to my friend, but he was nowhere to be seen. I waited and waited, and when he finally arrived, we watched as the bird flushed before we got a shot. A tangle swallowed him up, and slowed down his patch.
Bird dogs are experts at navigating hunting areas. It's in their genes and completely natural. But we bird hunters aren't as low-to-the-ground, and most of us move with the grace of a washing machine instead of a gymnast. Navigating the woods is a learned skill. Here are four ways to get up on a point before the bird disappears.
1. Zig and Zag.
While it's true that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the quickest way is more important. Rooting through the middle of a thick, dense, impenetrable jungle is noble, but that's the dog's job. Hunters who grind their way through the thick stuff frequently don't get up on the point as quickly as they should. By the end of the day, they're slap worn out. As you're walking through the woods, always look ahead at what is in front of you. Find open areas that you can easily navigate with a simple parting a branch or brush. Avoid the dense patches that will tangle your feet and render you motionless.
2. Hit the edge.
Sometimes it makes the most sense to run a field edge, a skidder trail, or a game trail. If a whitetail with a 160+ class rack can get through then so can you. Those open field edges and skidder and game trails help bird hunters make up for time lost in the thick stuff. It also means that energy isn't wasted.
3. Wear gear that is action oriented.
There is a reason that a lot of older hunters wore brush pants with suspenders. The suspenders placed the pants' weight on their shoulders and left their waist free for better movement. Vests and strap vests allow for more arm and shoulder swing which is good not just for a proper gun mount and swing but also for weaving in and around a cover. Loose, lightweight chinos with chaps are better than jeans. You'll notice a difference after a few days of lifting your leg over deadfall, downed trees, climbing over stone walls or navigating barbed wire. Improved movement with less effort is the key. If you're a foot hunter, then lightweight boots with cleated soles are a joy to wear, especially after covering many miles in a long day. Laced boots with good arch support supersede general-fit rubber boots - unless you're hunting in river bottoms, crossing shallow streams or hitting seeps. Then a tall, waterproof boot is worth its weight in gold. A pair of shooting glasses keeps branches out of your eyes, and if you forget yours hit a hardware store. Clear safety glasses work fine.
4. Properly carry your shotgun.
There are a lot of different ways to carry a shotgun through the woods. If the dog is working, some gunners break open double guns and load when the dog is on point. Others carry their shotguns in one hand and use the other hand to push around branches and brush. The best way is to carry your shotgun in the ready position with the muzzle just below eye level. Less movement is required during your gun mount, and the movement is a short lift to the rising target. Guns leaned casually on a shoulder means the muzzle comes off the shoulder, typically passes down and below the target, and then has to come back up. That's a lot of movement and muzzle rock. It's also a major reason for missed birds.
We think about our shotguns and loads just as we think about our dogs and training methods. Give some thought about navigating the woods. It'll make your life easier and your shooting more effective.