5 Things You Can Do in the Off-Season for a Successful 2020 Hunting Season
Written By: C.J Steely | April 15th, 2020
Injured hunting dogs, health concerns, reverting to bad habits and host of tragedies await those sitting out the off-season!
As a professional guide, one of the biggest mistakes I see hunters make is not preparing for upland hunting opportunities in the off-season. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have seen hunters come to the field in the fall only to experience serious health issues with their dogs or themselves. Sometimes they haven’t even got their gear out since the last time they went afield. On one such occasion, a guy and his buddy showed up to pursue some North Dakota Sharp-Tails. It was unseasonably cold that week and a strong northerner was hustling its way southward. The guy retrieved the only jacket he brought only to find it riddled with mold, defrayed from mice (one mouse was still inside the jacket pocket and now calls North Dakota home). In the bird Carrying pouch was the leftover remains of an uneaten lunch from the previous year. His day afield was miserable and cold. Because the gentleman in question was of ample size, none of our gear could fit him and he had to drive several hundred miles to purchase additional clothing which cost him time hunting.
Personal health issues are oftentimes ignored by upland hunters. Unlike our big game hunting compadres who spend significant time training for back-country elk, upland hunters often take their sport for granted and once they arrive and spend a day out trouncing through muddy fields they are googling to find the nearest local masseuse. Our days in the field are numbered. Some of us may still have years of life left, while others may be heading west into life’s setting sun. Regardless of the number of days left pursuing upland bird time is precious. When a hunter properly prepares with adequate nutritional plans and exercise routines, their days spent out behind their dog are enjoyable and long-lasting. Those of us who dismiss or disregard the need for proper personal health will never fully enjoy what would have been ours to experience and worse could experience dangerous and or life-threatening health-related issues.
The magnificent hunting dogs we raise are - in reality - canine professional athletes. Their genetic makeup is infused with centuries of DNA engineering purposed towards our upland passion. Hunting dogs need to be worked year-round. Off-season training needs to resemble the preparation professional athletes undergo in their off-season:
Consider several basic nutritional factors:
• Age of the dog
• Activity Level
• Reproduction possibilities
• Breed of dog
The Nutrition Equation:
o Fats are the major source of a dog’s energy. Thus the more active the dog is the higher the fat content. Although off-season training should include adequate levels of exercise, dogs are not being run to the ground as is the tendency during the season. As a dog ages, they require lower fat content.
o Protein promotes growth, helping dogs maintain and repair their muscle groups.
o Quality animal protein should be from an accredited producer.
o Dogs in their prime should have a Dogs 30% protein food base.
o Carbs provide additional energy components to a dog's diet.
Again, the more active the dog the higher the intake of Carbs and for aging dogs less carb intake is recommended.
Some breeders suggest changing up dog food. Instead, increase or decrease the amount you feed to match your dog’s activity level. Keep your dog(s) on a high-performance, 30-percent-protein and 20-percent-fat food year-round. When it comes to dog food the rule of thumb seems to hold true, that you get what you pay for. Working the right combination of age, breed type, activity level, and the right nutrition are essential off-season efforts.
You also need to keep in mind the timing of when you feed is important. The timing of feeding is just as important. During the off-season, feed once a day and generally, it would be better to do so in the evening. You may supplement a cup or two in the morning for dogs struggling to keep weight on. Make certain to regiment feeding, avoiding serious potential life-threatening stomach and gut-related issues by limiting feeding to at least two hours before any strenuous activity and wait at least an hour afterward.
Sometimes dogs won't intake enough water to meet their activity levels. One simple trick is to include some water mixed in with the dog food to help supplement hydration.
#2: Off-Season Exercise
A huge mistake Gun dog owners make is not spending enough time conditioning their dogs in the off-season. Dogs can quickly get out of shape just like humans. I remember once a client bought one of the most magnificent “started” Labs I had ever seen. I was genuinely jealous. The dog performed nearly flawlessly in the field, finding difficult birds, making some very tough retrieves and his obedience was top-notch. The following season the same duo showed up for another round of upland hunting. It would have been humorous except it wasn’t. Both the hunters and dog had put on considerable weight. They seemed to almost mirror one another physically. As good as the dog had been a year earlier, he performed equally poorly the second time around. It was a dismal showing. The Lab started strong out of the gate but wouldn’t be recalled. The Lab barely hunted for only a couple of hours until it finally plopped down at his owner's feet. Their day was done and their planned upland trip would be cut short. Professional canine athletes need to train all year for opening day.
Hunting dogs should experience a five to ten-minute warming up period followed by a more brisk 10-20 minutes of exercise twice a day.
#3: Obedience Advacement
Think back on your last season with your dog in the field. Could your dog have done a better job retrieving? How well did your dog recall? What other skills could your dog improve on? This is the time to focus on honing their skills as a hunter.
Get some real-time experience
Even professional and collegiate athletes have some form of spring training where they simulate their in-season sports. One effective way to get your dog(s) ready for the season is to get them on live wild birds. Post hunting season wild bird locations are generally depleted but urban areas that prohibit gunfire can be wild upland bird sanctuaries. Scout pockets of urban and city locations for adequate habitat, food sources and nearby waterways. The advantage of urban area wild birds is that they haven’t been shot at, so while they are wild they are less skittish. Good recall skills are a must so that you can hunt near busy traffic locations and around homes that may have other pets that could cause issues.
In Germany, dog handlers are required to teach their dogs how to pause or stay in place as many of the available primetime hunting locations are adjacent high-speed rail lines and freeways. Hunting Wild birds in the off-season will greatly advance your dog’s abilities and is an excellent source of exercise. Talk to landowners who may disallow actual hunting with firearms on their property but may be supportive of your needs to train your dog.
Driving around urban wild bird locations and doing a “spot and stalk” can help you understand how your dog is approaching the scent. When you see a wild bird, watch the bird's movements for a time before letting your dog loose. Note how your dog picks up the scent and the fashion your dog may move into the bird. A lot of data can be gathered and worked with under such training circumstances.
Remember, Off-season wild bird training needs to correlate with state and federal regulations regarding when your dog may be in the field. Be cognizant of when the breeding season commences. Also, wild birds start losing their scent around the March time frame making it difficult for even experienced hunting dogs to isolate and track birds. So be patient and understanding when they miss a bird or two.
#4: Upgrade or Repair Your Gear
The COVID pandemic has left many of us without extra resources to spend on hunting gear. There are, however, many creative ways for you to prepare your gear needs now and have them available during the season, i.e. There is nothing more frustrating than hunting in prime bird locations with sand burs (Goat Heads). They are hell on earth and can take the fun away from hunting. Hunting dog booties can be expensive and oftentimes get lost within the first hour of a hunt. One professional guide I know takes bicycle innertubes, cutting them down the middle and fashions hunting mittens for his dogs. It is an inexpensive creative and effective remedy and should be in every dog handler's "Possibles Bag".
Professionally have your gun cleaned or at minimum strip the gun down and clean every nook and cranny. Make certain you store your gun with the appropriate gun sheath protectants. One year a hunter showed up to grouse camp anxious and ready to spend several days on a very expensive guided upland bird hunt. He had left his over and under encased within a gun case for the entire year since his last hunt. When he unsheathed the gun he remembered that the last time he had been in the field it had been a misty wet afternoon. The gun was stored wet, rusted shut. The break-action was inoperable. I realize this is an extreme example but many hunters using semi-auto shotguns go out opening day of the hunt and are frustrated when their expensive guns jam with every shot. Proper gun maintenance is a must.
Leather boots need to be conditioned, replace shoelaces, and hunting knives cleaned.
#5: Assemble or Replenish Your First Aid Kits
If you don’t have one, get one put together ASAP. A coffee can or similar container can be put together with a host of human and canine first aid resources. Here are some must-haves for your dog’s first aid kit:
Dog First Aid essentials:
• Hydrogen Peroxide
o Good for cleaning out wounds
o Can induce vomiting if perchance your dog consumes poison (make sure to have printed laminated instructions for the process in your kit!)
• Antibiotic ointment
• Duct Tape
• Sterile eyewash
• White medical adhesive tape
• Rubber Gloves
• Lysol Disposable wipes
• Dog first aid instructions
• Self-adhering bandages
• Alcohol patches/wipes
• Snakebite kit
• Wooden dowel about an inch in diameter and eight inches in length includes some small but 300 pounds tested nylon rope. These materials can be fashioned into a porcupine quill removing tool
• Small needle-nose pliers (helpful if your dog(s) gets in a trap, tangled in wire or you need to pull porcupine quills)
• Waterproof matches
• A small candle
• Firestarter materials
• Space blanket (for warmth)
• Disposable poncho (if you cannot get the dog out of wet weather)
• Small bag of dog treats
• Make certain all your fist aid instructions, etc. are laminated.
• Pair of work gloves
eXtreme Upland also recommends these additional supplies:
• Tuf Foot spray or gel or a similar product (dogs can wear their paws raw and may need to coat their pads)
• An advance clotting sponge
• A copy of your dog’s latest inoculations and medical records
• Records/ Vet contact information
Preparation, training, and planning in the off-season will have a significant positive impact on 2020’s upland hunting season. Start preparing now for a great 2020 upland hunting season!