By Dennis Anderson
Sandstone, Minn. — Were Jerry Kolter an accountant or an engineer, he could solve problems with mathematical precision.
Instead, as a breeder of bird dogs, along with his wife, Betsy Danielson, he lives in a world of nuance and inferences, or what some might call educated guesses.
“Bird dogs” in this instance defines canines that can race lickety-split through Minnesota’s northern forests in search of ruffed grouse, a feathered foe whose survival instincts are knife-edge sharp, and include not only flying, but running, walking, levitating into trees and otherwise just plain vanishing.
“This is Oscar,” Kolter said the other day while unloading an athletically sculpted male English setter from his truck.
We were parked alongside a vast block of public forest land in Pine County, between the Twin Cities and Duluth, and were about to engage, the three of us — Kolter, Oscar and me — in a battle of wits and brush-beating stamina with Ol’ Ruff, the King of Game Birds.
Cagier than pheasants, more reclusive than bobwhite quail and better tasting than sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse are a species shrouded in mystery and capable, it seems, of mutating from simple forest dwellers that stroll lazily on logging roads, to magic acts that disappear in a heartbeat.
“All right,” Kolter said, and Oscar was off in a blur, his legs opening up as he bounded over deadfalls and between aspens, his head held high.
Unlike continental pointing-dog breeds such as Brittanies and German short-haired pointers, which typically smell the ground while hunting, English setters and pointers (previously known as English pointers) hunt with their heads up, scenting the air.
It’s this trait that allows these dogs to detect and “point” — meaning, generally, freeze in their tracks — ruffed grouse from 15 to 30 feet distant, reducing the chance the birds will fly or run away before the hunter arrives to attempt a shot.
Fifty-four years old, with degrees in wildlife management and computer programming, Kolter has put his share of grouse and woodcock — another highly prized forest bird — in his game bag.
He still relishes the hunt, and relishes as well guiding other grouse and woodcock aficionados throughout the north country in October and November.
But even more enthusiastically over the past two decades, he and Danielson, a horticulturist, have enjoyed the daunting challenge of breeding and training setters and pointers with the physical stature, temperaments and bird-finding abilities to excel in the field.