Dogging it for turkey

by Jeff Helsdon | September 24, 2013
dogging - Two guys hunting with a dog

Kevin Evans, left, and Dave Ferguson hike out with their turkey dog after a successful hunt.

Anyone who has spooked a turkey at close quarters can attest to the fact that your heart skips a beat. It’s a sound akin to a fighter jet taking off from underfoot.

That kind of excitement is raised a notch when hunting turkeys with a dog and a whole flock takes off. Then it gets even more exciting when the turkeys start calling to reassemble.

I’ve had the good fortune to hunt with fine turkey dogs, in New York and Ontario, and find they add a whole new element to fall turkey hunting.

In motion
The theory of the hunt is to use the dogs to break up the birds. Not only are dogs more efficient than people, as they can smell birds moving ahead of you, but the birds aren’t spooked in the same manner as they are by humans. The hunter can then set up at the break site, call, and wait for the birds to return en masse.

Kevin Evans of New York State’s Turkey Ridge Raquette Guide Service recently started using dogs after guiding turkey hunting great Steve Hickoff and seeing his dog in action. Evans’ two dogs are part English pointer, English setter, and Gordon setter. Although Evans hasn’t noticed a huge change in the success rate, he has seen a difference in his clients’ experience.

“I think the clients enjoy it a little more,” he said. “You can talk a little bit while walking through the woods as opposed to sitting there as motionless as you can be for hours on end.”

I saw his dogs in action during a hunt with Evans and guide Dave Ferguson last fall. We drove through the rolling hills of the New York countryside to a dairy farm with a 50-acre ridge that was a mix of hardwoods. Evans went ahead with the dog while Ferguson and I watched from the field. We heard barking — which the dogs are trained to do after flushing — but didn’t see birds. Evans didn’t see the birds either, but we trusted in the dogs.

Sitting up on a ridge overlooking an open section of woods, we waited a half-hour before we heard the first yelps coming from the bottom of the hill. Then I heard another couple before seeing the first bird about 100 yards away, heading up the hill. Evans provided the calls, a few kee-kees and then some yelps. The bird answered with an occasional yelp as it was searching for its flock mate. I dropped it when it came within 40 yards.

Evans believed there were more birds, so we repositioned, moving higher up the slope. After 45 minutes, I heard shuffling in the leaves and kee-keeing. I could tell these calls came from live birds and my excitement grew. Evans let the dog loose, and what followed was a textbook break, with 8 to 10 birds hitting the air, some to the left, some to the right, and some down the hill. That’s where the textbook part ended though, as it took over two hours before the first bird came back in, and when it did, it was silent.

I’ve also hunted with Appalachian turkey dogs, which are bred for turkey hunting, at Turkey Trot Acres in New York. That experience was also exciting.

In Ontario, it’s legal to hunt turkeys with dogs and no special licence is required.

Ontario resident Dave Reid uses his dog to turkey hunt in the fall, but he approaches the hunt differently than his Appalachian counterparts. His tactic might be more practical for the average Ontario hunter who uses their dog for more than turkey. Reid uses his field-bred English cocker spaniel Turk to hunt grouse, woodcock, pheasants and waterfowl, and unlike the American practice of hiding the dog in a camouflage bag after the break-up, Reid leaves his dog uncovered, believing that its black colour and size camoflauge it well enough. In fact, he suspects that turkeys are sometimes attracted to his dog.

Turk doesn’t range as far afield as dogs bred specifically for turkey hunting, but he is still effective at flushing birds that might otherwise run ahead of the hunter.

Training notes
I’m training my first dog for turkey hunting. Molly is an English cocker spaniel, and I hope she’ll turn out to be as fine a hunter as Reid’s Turk.

At 5 months old, Molly was out in the spring turkey woods getting used to the sights and sounds. She has seen several turkeys, but has yet to witness the harvesting of a bird.

Basic obedience is key for a turkey dog. It has to be steady while a bird comes in, not breaking to spook the bird or moving too much. If your plans are to use a bag to conceal the dog, Evans advises getting the dog used to the bag at a young age.

He starts with the dog in the bag in the yard or even in the living room with the family. At first, the exercise is to get the dog to sit still with no distractions. Then, he adds distractions to the training.

Evans’ advice for getting the dog to bark at a turkey is to taunt it with a turkey carcass.

Good information on turkey dogs can be found on the American Wild Turkey Dog Association website. 

Sleeping in
Oh, and did I mention that when hunting with dogs, you want the birds to be on the ground and moving around? So, there’s no need to be out before sun-up.

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