When I met Huey, all I could do was smile.
His love for life and the outdoors was contagious; and he couldn’t hide the feelings of loyalty and respect for James, his best friend.
We first met in a remote field near Point MacKenzie. We climbed into James’ truck and took a short ride up a lone path to an adjacent field. I sat in front and talked to James, and Huey rode in the back, where he always does.
Huey was quiet on the ride, but both James and I knew what he was thinking.
“C’ mon guys, let’s go hunting!”
Huey is a Master Hunter. He and James have been working toward the Master Hunter title for three years; they have put in hundreds of hours of training, thousands of miles traveling, and multiple tests from different judges.
All this and Huey is only six years old.
He’s also an English Springer Spaniel.
James Ohlinger, a lifelong Alaskan and hunter, had always wanted a bird dog, but growing up there wasn’t money for an expensive dog. James attended UAF, and after graduating with a degree in engineering, he started working in the oil industry.
“I always had a desire to get a bird dog. I wanted that upland bird dog experience. I got to a point in my career that I had the funds to afford a bird dog, which can be quite expensive. I figured, let’s do this.” James got his first dog, a Springer Spaniel named Timber.
That experience turned out to be very rewarding and was a good fit for him and his family. Along this journey, James joined several bird dog clubs and made a lot of friends saying, “It’s fun, our friends have bird dogs, we go hunting together, camping together. We cook meals in the evening, sit around the campfire, and talk about what we did.” Continuing, “It’s a hobby, but it’s more than a hobby, you also have a lifetime partner.”
Along come Huey
Timber was a family dog and a decent hunter. James said, “I got him to the junior level. I realized I was never going to get to the senior level with him.” Adding, “If I’m going to do this hunt test with the AKC (American Kennel Club) I want a field springer. I want to get to that master level. In AKC hunt testing, there are Junior, Senior, and Master levels. I wanted a Master level dog.”
James remembered when he and his family attended a hunt test event, “He [Huey] was actually there. As a puppy, he was doing water retrieves, was retrieving and picking up dead birds at the time. So, I picked him up while my wife was sleeping in the camper, and I opened the door and put the dog inside and shut the door.” Pausing and then added with a big smile, “We went home with a puppy!”
It’s been a long road to Master Hunter for James and Huey. Training started as soon as James brought Huey home. They started with obedience training. Obedience training at home pays great dividends both out in the field and at home, according to James.
At 12 weeks old James started training Huey to retrieve tennis balls in the house. It progressed from there to bumpers, then bumpers with feathers, then frozen birds in the field. The frozen birds help teach the dog not to bite too hard when retrieving.
As the training continued, Huey was exposed to freshly dead birds, then to pigeons. The pigeons help get the dog accustomed to birds flying close to their face. Eventually, shooting over the dog with live birds. James uses mainly Chukars for training. “It’s a long process. I learned with Timber. I would take short cuts by just [taking him hunting]. It was fun; it’s hard not to do that. But, if you’re going to train for the Master level, get that steadiness as they call it for a dog, you really need to take your time. It’s just a lot of work. I was training 3-5 days a week minimum. It doesn’t have to be long. We were training, maybe five to ten minutes at a time. Attention span is very short when training a puppy. You have to be persistent, to be consistent on your training. As long as you keep that up, they learn,” said James.
Huey and James worked hard together both out in the field and at home to hone their skills. They went to the field to train at every opportunity. Complicating things was James’ demanding work schedule as a petroleum engineer. Once James felt Huey was ready, they signed up for AKC testing.
There are a limited number of AKC qualifying bird dog tests given in a year in the state of Alaska. That’s due in part on how many dogs are being tested and how many judges are available. There are both in-state judges and occasionally, out of state judges come from the lower 48 to do the testing. According to James, there are four tests given each year, and dogs have to pass five tests to qualify as a Senior Hunter.
It took Huey a little extra time to earn his Senior Hunter qualification after failing one test. The same happened during his Master Hunter test. Huey needed to pass all five tests, and with the pressure on, he failed one.
“One of the hardest parts about training a bird dog for me was attending a hunt test 360 miles away, only to fail 30 seconds into the test. So, altogether, we applied for 12 tests, and that took about three years to get qualified as a Master Hunter.
James explained that although Alaska is a large state and there are a lot of hunters with bird dogs, surprisingly, there are few places to train them. So, he along with five other members of the Arctic Bird Dog Association (ABDA) bought 75 acres of land that is used for both training and hunting.
The association has approximately 75 members with a wealth of information who can help with training both flushing and pointing dogs. James urges anyone with a desire to train their bird dog to contact the association. That’s how it all started for him -he enrolled in a training class, and he is now a trainer for the novice class.
In Alaska, the two enjoy hunting Willow, White and Rock Ptarmigan, ducks, and on one hunting trip harvested all three species of grouse; Ruffed Grouse, Spruce Grouse, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.
James shared a story about Huey going on one of his first fly out duck hunting trips in Alaska. At first, Huey was a bit skeptical, and it took a bit of coaxing to get him into the floatplane. However, on his second trip, as soon as he was out of the truck, he dashed down the dock, through the open door of waiting plane, and into the co-pilot’s seat, as if to say, “I’m ready, let’s go!”
“Huey has more air miles than most people in Alaska. We have flown to Washington State several times to hunt pheasants. We’ve flown to North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Oklahoma to hunt pheasants, quail, ducks, and geese,” said James. Many of those trips have been with 4-6 members of the ABDA.
According to James, it is quite the ordeal to get all the dogs, luggage, guns, kennels, and gear through the airports; find vehicles large enough to haul all the stuff on the other end; then drive several hundred miles to finanlly arrive at the hunting location.
None of that bothers Huey. He loves to travel, hunt birds and most of all please James.
“On a hunting trip, it’s not always about shooting birds. I’ve been on several trips that I don’t even pull the trigger, but watching my dog work the field and flush a bird is more rewarding.”
Back out in the field at Point MacKenzie, James and Huey take a break from practicing before going to hunt for a live Chucker. Huey sits beside him waiting, panting and wagging his tail. That love for life and his master undeniable. James looks down at his hunting partner, and it’s evident that the love goes both ways.