by Keith Schopp
There’s something about following a bell in the grouse woods. People who use them on their well-trained bird dogs tend to be savvy, dedicated hunters who may harken to a simpler time – before electronics and GPS tracking devices. With the bell, handlers and hunters can sense the joy and gauge the efficiency of their dog as it merrily and methodically works the cover. When the “cling, cling, cling” chime cadence begins to slow and goes silent – it’s showtime.
There’s something about a beeper collar. Press a button, and you get instant feedback on the whereabouts of your bird dog. If you hunt in “point only” mode, hearing that sudden, distant “beep … beep … beep” quickens the pace and makes the heart beat faster (applies to the grouse, the dog and the hunter).
And yes, there’s something about a GPS tracking unit. Especially if you can’t hear much and your big running bird dog is doing its job. Where’s Ranger? The GPS says he’s 239 yards to the Southwest and on point in the tag alder. Or, heaven forbid, he’s a mile away and lost after chasing a deer. With the GPS unit, we have a chance to find him before the wolves do.
Mike Flewelling of Holden, Maine, is a bell guy.
He should be – he makes and sells bells. Good, quality handcrafted dog bells. Flewelling has made and sold thousands.
“We’re approaching 10,000 bells,” he says. “I’ve made a lot more bells than I ever thought there were bird dogs. It’s pretty neat how far they’ve gone across the country and Canada.”
Flewelling started making bells 20 years ago because availability was scarce.
“There were some cheap bells and everybody’s bell kind of sounded the same,” he says. “I started making some for myself. High tones, low tones, experimenting with different plating and different-sized clappers.”
Since many hunters and shooters experience hearing loss, Flewelling says the lower tone bells are really popular. “It’s more of a ‘clunk’ versus a chime, but people can hear it better.”
When he’s not hunting, Flewelling operates Sunhaze Kennel, and his English Pointers compete in cover dog trials.
Truth be told, he’s not only a bell guy; he’s a bell and GPS guy.
“The GPS technology has put a lot of grouse in the stew pot,” Flewelling says. “When I’m hunting, I run a bell and a GPS. Like the purists, I like using the bell, but I also like the fact that the GPS is so fast and accurate. There are very few wasted steps. There’s a lot of excitement when the bell stops. Part of the fun with a bell is heading in the direction you last heard it and then finding your dog. The GPS and bell combination can help with that and tell you exactly where the dog is.”
Depending on the wind, terrain, tone and hearing capability of the handler, Flewelling says bells can be heard from 75 yards to upwards of 400 yards. “Typically, on a quiet day in the grouse woods, you can hear the bell at 200 yards about 75-80% of the time.”
How does Flewelling know? “We can use our GPS to confirm the range of our bells.”
Rick Smith, renowned field trialer and trainer and Brittany Hall of Fame inductee, is a GPS guy.
“I like it quiet,” Rick says. “These days the GPS is simple to use; they’re accurate and reliable, and they’ll tell you where your dog is and what he’s doing in real time. Distance and direction – that’s what I need to know.”
Plus, GPS units can keep track of multiple dogs at the same time.
Smith says the beeper collar has its place. “I never liked the beep, but it was good when it was all we had. And I know a lot of people use them, that’s great. They work, too.”
Smith never liked the beep, but he hates the hawk scream – a mode on remote trainers that mimick a high-pitched avian predator – or a smoke alarm – or an air raid siren.
“The hawk scream is annoying, but I have to admit it would squat those quail from time to time,” Smith says. “And you could definitely hear it even if you didn’t like it.”
Flewelling remembers the hawk scream, too.
“The first time I heard it in the woods I thought, what the heck is THAT?”
Again, that’s why he likes the bell.
“It’s there, but in my opinion it’s not obnoxious and it’s not taking away from any part of the hunt.”
I’m a beeper guy. But I’m liking the GPS more lately. And I always carry a spare bell.
That’s right, the author of this article started hunting grouse and woodcock with a beeper collar 30 years ago. I’m technologically inept, but after three decades, I’ve almost mastered the buttons on my beeper collar unit. The “locate” button does just that to keep quick tabs on my dog in the grouse woods or the thick cattails while pursuing pheasants. The “point only” mode keeps it mostly quiet.
Until recently, I’ve resisted GPS for two reasons – the early versions were too complicated for me, and I didn’t like looking at my hand while walking through the woods or cattails. Now, with a new young dog that runs a lot bigger, I find myself attaching a beeper collar and a GPS on her – especially since my hearing is diminishing and my fear of losing a dog in the vast north woods – or a section of cattails in high wind – is increasing.
Smith offers some sage advice:
“You’d better start breeding dogs with longer necks,” he says with a grin.
Seriously, I’d gladly buy a unit with a built-in beeper and GPS, but to my knowledge, nobody makes one. So instead, I strap a GPS collar and beeper collar on Willa. It might look overkill, but the dog doesn’t seem to mind, and I have options.
“The beeper may be farther down the list with the purist people,” Flewelling says. “But a beeper and a bell is a pretty efficient way to get a shot at a bird.”
At least I don’t add a bell to the GPS/beeper combination on my dog, but I do keep a spare bell in my hunting vest. The bell never needs a charge, the batteries don’t wear out and satellite reception is a moot point, pun intended. The bell is in my vest pocket if I need it.
“You always want back-ups for everything you have,” Smith says.
Whether you use a bell, a beeper collar or a GPS unit, practice makes perfect. Technology evolves, and units keep getting better, smaller and simpler. Even bells continue to evolve, and Flewelling continues to tinker with new bell development, offering a variety of plating options and lower tones.
“Since 2007 we’ve been stamping the dates on our bells,” he says. “We make a bell for the Ruffed Grouse Society as well as a nice little bell for the American Woodcock Society. I like that little woodcock bell. If you’re hunting alone and your dog hunts fairly close, it’s a lot of fun.”
Tips for Whom the Bell Tolls
Most dogs take to a bell easily.
“If I have a shy dog or a puppy, I’ll put a bell on him when it’s feeding time,” Flewelling says. “That way they associate the bell with fun. It’s the same in the grouse woods. When you put the bell on, they know they’re going to work and have fun!”
Flewelling says there’s a right and a wrong way to “bell a dog.”
“If your dog has a larger gait, you probably need a larger bell,” he says. “A small dog with a big bell may sound like it’s running slower. In trials where they allow bells, that can factor into judging the dog. If you have a dog belled right, it just sounds better.”
With all the fuss about hard-of-hearing hunters being able to hear bells, Flewelling has another tip:
“A large bell with constant loud ringing makes it harder for the dog to hear you,” he says. “It’s important that you can hear the bell, but it’s also important that the dog hears you, knows where you are and can work with you.”
One more tip: If you carry a spare bell in your vest, put some tape on the clapper. Otherwise, you may inadvertently jingle bells all the way through the woods.