How to Get Generation Z to Extreme Upland
Recruiting, retaining and reactivating younger generational upland hunters- R3
To the Reader,
I am a “generation Z” upland bird hunter. Some folks say it’s easier to find sasquatch than a generation Z upland hunter. That said, I am living proof. I am completely addicted to hunting upland game birds. My favorite upland activities are to hunt pheasant and grouse. I am even willing to admit, as long as no one tells my father, that I enjoy hunting the occasional chukar.
It wasn’t always my passion. There was a time when- on occasion- I enjoyed hunting upland birds with my father, uncles, and grandpa, so long as we made sure to stop and eat good food and it wasn’t every weekend. Now, I am hopelessly addicted to all things upland hunting! Why? It all started the day I got my first dog. Like a drug dealer trying to get a new customer addicted, my father asked me if I would be interested in raising a hunting dog. He made sure that I was aware of the commitment and obligations to the dog I would be raising for the next 10-14 years. I was extremely excited and told my dad I was ready (or at least I thought I was).
The idea of having a brand new hunting puppy was exciting. My father committed to purchasing the puppy for me, so long as I covered everything thereafter. He had located a nice litter of Rough Haired Slovakian puppies and had secured the possibility of one male puppy. The breed is just so cool looking and when it was time to get my dog I couldn’t have been more excited. The anticipation of getting the puppy was greater than the wait for any Christmas morning. The trip to get the puppy seemed extra-long and I thought we would never arrive. When we finally pulled up to the breeder’s home, he already had the puppies out in the yard. As the puppies milled about, one silver male, in particular, caught my attention. You might find it unbelievable but I feel like this puppy picked me. He left what he was doing with his siblings and came over and sat at my feet like he was saying, “Ok, I am ready to go, let’s do this thing.” I named him Baloo and we headed home.
Once I got home, and the excitement had worn off from showing this new puppy around to all my friends and family, I was left alone with the little beast. What had moments before been a cute little puppy, all at once turned into a little Tasmanian Devil. The real work had begun. I know my dad had fully laid out the responsibilities of raising the puppy and I had accepted the job, but I’m sure I was completely unaware of how much work was involved.
The work began immediately cleaning up after the puppy and getting the crate training done. The puppy would constantly cry when I left her alone and I got very little sleep for several weeks. I wasn’t allowed to have the puppy in the house without it being on a leash, but alone in my room, I let him wander about freely. After a pair of prized Nike high-tops were mutilated and the USB cords of my computer were shredded, I clearly understood why close supervision was required. The rules existed not only to protect my stuff but to keep Baloo safe from eating something he shouldn’t ingest. Puppies require nutritional attention more often than they do as they mature, requiring a ton of time. I had to work extra shifts to be able to afford the pup’s shots and other necessities. I had no idea how much work my father had gone through to raise his dogs until my own experience.
Baloo started growing and as he matured it became increasingly more fun to spend time with him both in the house but especially in the outdoors. I followed several dog trainer’s advice I found online including Talmage Smedley’s “Dog House” videos. They worked and helped me a ton. My father was a great resource as well, but at the end of the day, I discovered that the single most important ingredient-by far- in raising a great hunting dog, is simply spending time with the dog. And I did just that. I spent untold hours walking with Baloo through the woods. I consumed my summertime with Baloo, wading back and forth across little streams graduating into heavier water currents as he got comfortable.
While I was out in nature with my dog, most of my friends chose to spend their time sitting around playing video games. Most, if not all of my friends, spent the majority of their day scrolling through social media or sitting on their couch playing games. Similarly, I would probably likely had spent my days in the same manner if it hadn’t been for Baloo.
Upland bird hunting has become my sport of choice. I don’t mean the term “sport” in terms of some trophy hunt imagery. I consider it my sport because of the competitiveness and training involved in the art. It’s just how I approach it. But for me to be a successful upland hunter I have to treat it like I do when I play sports like basketball or football. There is a lot of preparation that goes into the off-season training, great nutrition is important and staying in hunting shape helps me realize better days in the field especially when it comes to hunting high mountain grouse and late-season chukars on the steep heavily snow-blanketed hills. I have developed a strong respect for the different quarries I seek, whether it be pheasants, grouse, quail, sharp-tails, Hungarians, or chukars, each of the different upland birds present unique challenges. I must prepare my shooting and keep my gear in great shape. I do tons of film study on all the birds I pursue as well as training techniques for Baloo. So for me, it is a sport, everyone else can call it what they will.
It all came together for me early on one particular fall day. I had taken Baloo alone to our family’s cabin intending on finding grouse. We hunted for a couple of hours without Baloo even acting at all interested in anything but goofing off. We certainly found no grouse. We had narrowly avoided a porcupine disaster and it was starting to get late. The sun was just waning over top of the hills to the west and I knew I only had about a half-hour to get back to the cabin. Moments earlier, Baloo had disappeared around the corner of a large stand of maple trees. The tree’s remaining leaves were crimson red and the leaves that had previously fallen to the ground had left a carpet of color. The one thing I distinctly remember was all of a sudden how quiet things had become. I stopped to hear where Baloo was, but all that was audible was a slight breeze rustling through the trees. I grew concerned and rushed around the corner of the thicket. As I came around the bottom corner of the maples I saw Baloo motionless on point on the maple tree border, standing shoulder deep in some buck brush adjacent the tree-line. The fading light behind my back, illuminated the entire scene, so that it seemed surreal. I immediately readied my gun and just in time as three ruffed grouse burst out of the cover. One escaped to the right through the taller maples but the other two sped downhill. I’m not sure I was all the way ready when the flush happened even though Baloo had stood on a steady point. I missed the first shot but connected with the second. The ruffed grouse fell downhill in the clearing and Baloo was on it right away. He snatched the bird from the branches of a smaller shrub brush and brought the bird back to me. The experience was such an emotional one for me that it is still such an amazing moment in my life. All the sleepless nights, the poop cleanup and the ruined property didn’t seem to matter any longer. All that stuff was long since forgotten.
When after months of training, and spending endless amounts of money on dog food, and your dog goes on point for the first time- it’s an indescribable joy! The feeling of excitement and accomplishment as your dog realizes the entirety of the process getting his first bird is immeasurable. I could argue there is no better feeling in this world for you or your dog. It is for such experiences, I am as addicted. I remember catching a game-winning touchdown in the last seconds of an important football game. But the day Baloo pointed and retrieved his first grouse was a deeper and more thrilling moment for me.
The bond one creates with a dog can never be broken. There is more to it than a man and his dog chasing down a couple of roosters through a field. Only true avid bird hunters and their dogs understand the bond. It’s not about shooting the bird, but the culmination of hard work and lots of love for each other. It’s about the time spent with our best canine friend. I think our bond is possibly stronger with hunting dogs because we are helping them fulfill their purpose. I believe at some point, the dogs come to understand and appreciate us for our mutual devotion to their purpose. It’s a deeper connection one might only share with a close family member. That dog one raises becomes an integral part of our life’s fabric. They truly become our chosen hunting buddies and best friends.
The amazing experience with Baloo has led me to acquire an additional hunting dog, an English Setter. I just recently saved up and invested a healthy sum of money to obtain a puppy from a known breeder with a proven championship pedigree. After learning how much work and attention and training a dog needs, I made sure to spend my time doing the proper research on what the best hunting dog- for me and Baloo- would be. My new English Setter comes from Gunslinger’s pedigree line. Gunslinger is one of the top producing male Setters in my state. I think I had forgotten how much work Baloo was because this puppy seems twice as hard. Baloo wasn’t initially all that excited about our new addition but he is slowly coming around to the idea. I realize at such a young age how truly fortunate I am to own two hunting dogs. I feel blessed.
I know not every Gen Z person is able or in a good position to buy and raise hunting dogs of their own. Schooling, starting up a career, sports, and just getting going in life is the priority. But if you love the outdoors, enjoy recreational hunting, and are a dog person at heart, then I strongly recommend establishing a small savings fund and start researching which breed would be best for you. Eventually, the time will come where you can pull the trigger on a puppy purchase and start your own amazing journey. My advice would be to ask people you know, who own bird hunting dogs, why they like their particular breeds. Research which breed meets your lifestyle and how you might spend your time hunting in the great outdoors. Different breeds meet different people’s needs depending on many conditions. For example, whether a person hunts in warmer climates or colder environments significantly influences which breeds selections are better than other breed options. How much waterfowl hunting a person does or even your style of hunting can greatly influence the breed a person should select. It was my experience that everyone thinks the breed they hunt with is the best breed ever. I guess that’s not a bad thing except one upland hunter’s experience and needs are different from the next person. I hunt differently than my dad hunts and we enjoy different dog breeds. What is so cool, is that there is a breed out there just for you. Find it, plan for it and come on board this awesome upland hunting train. It is so worth the ride!
There is nothing like walking through a field with the red leaves on the trees just beginning to fall, the crisp clear air, the sounds of nearby roosters cackling in distant brambles, or the sight of your dog going on point. The exhilarating adrenaline rushing through one’s veins as a rooster bursts out of cover; like lightning bolts. I have fallen in love with this obsession, and so will you once you get your first dog.
Trust me, it will change everything.