Nov/Dec 2020Sometimes, It’s Polite to PointBy Joey Frazier
For many South Carolina quail hunters, it’s all about their dogs.
Although good bird dog stories are a "dime a dozen" as my grandmother might say, good bird dogs are harder to find. The promise of a really good dog brought me to the Chat n Chew restaurant, near Turbeville, on a chilly November morning. I was glad for the warm bacon and egg sandwich that would get me through the day.
While I waited for David Connelly my host to arrive, I thought back on my own experiences with quail hunters and their bird dogs.
Although I was much too young to follow behind him in the field at the time, I remember how my dad loved to hunt birds, and how he loved an old English setter named Duke. I never really had an opportunity to see Duke in the field, as he died before I grew old enough to go hunting, but Dad talked about Duke for decades. No dog ever measured up to Duke in his eyes, and I guess maybe that is why the old setter never got replaced.
It was not until 1984 that I had a chance to see a trained bird dog in action. Baby Doll was a liver spotted English pointer that belonged to Pete Miller. Miller invited my brother to go bird hunting, and I found a way to tag along. Although we did not come home that day with a jacket full of birds, I was hooked. I started reading Havilah Babcock and Nash Buckingham tales and dreaming about training my own bird dog.
Finally, Connelly wandered into the Chat n Chew. A tall and lanky fellow as bird hunters often turn out to be, he wore an orange vest and sported a whistle around his neck. I knew right away that he was a dog trainer. After a quick cup of coffee, we were off. Before he put the dogs in the Jeep, we talked about bird hunting. Well, Connelly talked and I listened.
"When I was nine years old," Connelly began, "I took my Daisy BB gun and followed my dad on a bird hunting trip with one of his friends. They killed twenty-one birds that day, and that weekend we got twenty more."
Connelly went on to recount what seemed to me to be magical days in the field with his father and the bird dogs he had grown up with. Then, he brought out an old journal with a worn cover. Connelly’s dad recorded his quail hunting adventures from the 1950s on page after tattered page. Besides the date and location of each hunt, Connelly’s father recorded the names of the hunters, the weather and the dogs that accompanied them. He even listed, in detail, which dogs pointed, which made retrieves and the shooters who downed or missed birds.
As he talked, Connelly loaded a couple of bird dogs into the box on the back of his Jeep, but a beautiful English setter got in the cab. "Bo thinks he is supposed to ride up front with me," he said.
Bo was first on the ground, and it was not long before he pointed. It was picture perfect. Neither Connelly nor I cared whether or not we shot at the birds. Without a word between us, we both knew it was already a great day.
On a cold January morning, I found myself at Willow Swamp Farm in Rum Gulley, a small community not far from Walterboro. The property was beautiful, meticulously managed for hunting. It was worth the drive just to photograph the farm, but of course I really came to see a man about a dog.
Kevin Griffin also learned about bird dog ways in a family steeped in tradition.
"Furman Shuler, my great grandfather, kept English setters," Griffin said. "He would walk out the back door of his farmhouse, turn a dog out and go hunting. Best of all, he took me with him."
Griffin remembers his grandfather, a great dog trainer who utilized setters for pointing and English cocker spaniels for retrieving. Griffin hopes he can emulate Shuler as a dog trainer. Birds became scarce and Griffin grew into deer hunting, as many young hunters of his age did. But fortune revisited Griffin in the name of Lawton Huggins, a friend who brought Griffin face to face with pointing dogs for the second time in his life.
"Lawton was from the Pee Dee area, and I started to help him train dogs," Griffin said. "He taught me a lot."
Eight years ago, Griffin got his first Vizsla, a pointing dog that is about as unusual in the South as he is beautiful. As luck would have it, Silas had great hunting instincts.
"I guess Silas spoiled me because he was so easy to train," Griffin said. "It is like he came programmed to do everything I wanted him to do."
Griffin’s friend kept Elhew pointers, nearly all trained to be steady to wing and shot. Silas, more than any of Griffin’s other bird dogs, learned the same lessons.
For Griffin, like many traditional bird hunters, the sport offers a chance to spend quality time with family and good friends. He often hunts with his father, Jim Griffin, who is always happy to be the shooter as Kevin works the dogs. Like many bird hunters I have known, Jim Griffin has that unique ability to become your friend at your first meeting. I guess that is where Kevin gets his even temper and the patience that dog training requires.
"I love to hunt birds, but I am just as happy to watch the dogs," Kevin Griffin said. "It is like a symphony when they do their jobs right."
If that is true, then Kevin Griffin is the conductor and Silas sits first chair violin.
Back in Lexington County, on my own home turf, I took a late season visit to Pete Miller's farm to watch his German shorthaired pointer. Miller loves the dogs but admits that hunting wild birds may be a thing of the past. He is not ready to buy into plantation-style put and take hunting — at least not yet. However, he allows a few family members to use his back forty for dog training.
Quail hunting rekindles the nostalgia of priceless moments with our grandfathers and fathers, but it also reawakens the magic of watching a good bird dog at work, head down, politely freezing on point, before a wild covey.
Joey Frazier is editor of South Carolina Wildlife.