NORTHWEST OF ISLAND LAKE, Minn. — Phil Johnson had shot the woodcock over his young Brittany's point, and he had seen the bird go down in the popples up ahead. This was several years ago, when Sophie, the Brittany, was about a year old.
Johnson of Esko, Minnesota, is a longtime grouse and woodcock hunter, and he knew that some dogs just don't like the taste of a woodcock in their mouths. He wasn't sure whether Sophie would retrieve it.
"I figured I'd better go look for the bird," said Johnson, 68. "So, I went up there and was crawling around on my hands and knees where it had gone down. I looked over, and she was sitting about 10 feet from me with the woodcock in her mouth."
That answered that question.
Now nearly 7, Sophie continues to make grouse and woodcock hunting a joy for Johnson and his son, Nathan Johnson, 44, also of Esko. They own the dog jointly, but Sophie lives at Nathan's home. Neither had owned a pointer before Sophie.
The two were out in the land of young popple on a recent October morning near the Johnson hunting camp north of Duluth. They parked near the log-cabin deer shack that Phil Johnson and his dad, Clifford, had built back in 1977. Nathan strapped a beeper collar on Sophie and attached a bell to her collar as well. Off they marched into stands of teenage popples where both grouse and woodcock feel at home.
Doing their research
The Johnsons had gotten to thinking about acquiring a pointer after hunting with a friend, Mike Bushey, who had a German shorthair. They did some research and decided to go with a Brittany because they liked the breed's smaller size.
Now, they make it a point to be in the woods when the woodcock are migrating through northeastern Minnesota in the early days of October. They're happy to take the occasional grouse, too, but woodcock were made for pointing dogs. The plump little birds with the long bills sit tight for pointers.
"We had no idea, before we had Sophie, that there were so many woodcock out here," Phil Johnson said.
Beyond her ability to locate more birds for the Johnsons, Sophie gave them much more.
"I always loved grouse hunting anyway," Nathan Johnson said, "but it adds a level of sheer enjoyment. You're more relaxed. You aren't thinking that a bird might explode in your face at any minute."
Phil Johnson said he believes that hunting grouse and woodcock with a pointer is also safer, especially with two or three hunters together. When those hunters spread out to flush the birds themselves, it's often difficult to keep track of where one's fellow hunters are, he said. With Sophie, the Johnsons just amble through the woods or down a trail side by side and wait for Sophie to tell them she has located a bird.
Sophie's loud beeper collar lets the Johnsons keep track of her location. The bell jingles as she moves along. When the bell stops ringing, they know Sophie is likely on point, and they move toward her.
Early on Monday, her bell went silent.
"Whoa, Sophie," Nathan called.
He could see her among the close ranks of aspen. Then he saw her reach down and pick something up.
"What's she have?" Nathan wondered aloud.
Then, here she came, charging back to the Johnsons on the trail. She held a ruffed grouse softly in her jaws and presented it to Nathan. Not a shot had been fired. The bird had likely been shot the day before and wasn't found by the hunter — another reason to have a good dog.
Nathan took the bird from her and slipped it into his vest.
"That's another reason I like hunting with a dog," he joked. "Saves shells."
Sophie, like most pointers, moved easily through the woods. She seemed to float over downed trees or other obstructions. The only time she stopped moving was if she thought she picked up scent.
Now her orange and white body had become statuesque as she held a point just off the trail. Nathan's turn. He walked in with his 16-gauge Lefever side-by-side, a sweet old gun, in the ready position. Up twittered a woodcock, a small and formidable target as it spiraled through the bare tentacles of aspen. The Lefever barked once, then again. It was difficult to see, through the golden curtain of remaining leaves, whether the bird had gone down.
Nathan and Sophie went to the spot, and the bird flushed again. It escaped Nathan's load of No. 6 shot, and he headed back to the trail.
Not much farther along, Sophie locked up at the edge of the trail. Phil's turn. He moved in ahead of the dog, and a grouse whirred out almost at his feet. Johnson shouldered his Benelli 20-gauge, but passed on the shot because he couldn't see the bird after it curled behind some balsams.
Sophie seemed to not care. She went off in search of more candidates.
Hardware on board
It is hard to believe, watching her work, that Sophie operates with two metal plates and 13 screws in her left front leg. She had broken her elbow in that leg outside Nathan's home when her foot became caught in some wire. That's when she became a $6,000 dog. The surgery was successful. She tires a bit more quickly now, the Johnsons say, and they usually limit their hunts to a couple of hours.
Sophie gives the two men multiple chances to bag birds. A couple of days earlier she had pointed two grouse and five woodcock in just an hour. A couple of years ago, Nathan said, Sophie had pointed 16 woodcock in a morning's hunt.
"Not many things are more fun if they're around," he said.
The Johnsons figure that Oct. 10 to 15 is about prime time for the woodcock migration. While some woodcock mate and hatch young in Minnesota, thousands more migrate down from Canada, offering memorable days for hunters during October.
"The only problem is, there's only one October," Phil Johnson said.