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Boykin spaniels serve dual purpose

| Friday, Oct. 31, 2008

Turkey hunter Al Szymanski sits with his 'turkey dog,' a Boykin spaniel named Hunter, after a successful hunt in New York State a few weeks ago. The second turkey belongs to Szymanski's hunting partner, Jack Swiggart, of Ford City. Szymanski has harvested more than 90 wild turkey in 14 states.

MANOR -- They make good pets and great house dogs, they love to retrieve ducks, they have a great nose for sniffing out pheasants, grouse or quail, and according to Al Szymanski of Manor Township, Boykin spaniels make great turkey dogs as well.

When it comes to hunting wild turkey, Szymanski knows what he's talking about. He's taken more than 90 of the big birds in 14 states. In 2007, the Pennsylvania Game Commission permitted the use of dogs to hunt fall turkey. That decision prompted Szymanski to do something he's wanted to do for the past several years -- get a Boykin Spaniel.

He said Boykins were developed by South Carolina hunters during the early 1900s to provide the "...ideal dog," for hunting ducks and wild turkeys in the Wateree River Swamp. They needed a small rugged dog, compactly built for boat travel and able to retrieve on land and water. Heavier dogs were a drawback in watercraft already loaded with men, guns, provisions and other gear. Boykin males typically weigh about 40 pounds at most, and females less.

Szymanski said he got his dog, aptly named Hunter, last Thanksgiving, from Nicholson Run Kennels, owned by Randy Good.

"Hunter was only four months old when I got him" Szymanski said. "We spent a lot of time together, just bonding. I think that's important. I learned that these dogs are not only great hunters on land and great retrievers in water, but they are wonderful house dogs as well.

"I spent the next several months teaching Hunter basic commands. He was a quick learner. When it came time for training, I trained him on turkey only. The breed is close ranging and will hunt all game birds and will retrieve ducks. But I wanted a turkey dog. It looks as if I have one."

Szymanski said Boykin spaniels are trained to hunt turkey by searching for the fresh scent of birds that recently passed over a certain area. The dog goes to work by following the scent. When it locates a flock, it rushes headlong into its midst, barking loudly.

"This, of course, breaks up the flock," Szymanski said. "They scatter in all different directions. So then the trick is to call them back, but you have to be patient."

He said that once a flock is "busted up," he will position himself near the point the flock was scattered and conceal himself in camouflage.

"Boykins are usually a dark brown color and mostly don't need camouflaged," Szymanski said. "But for safety reasons, I have Hunter wear an orange vest. So, I have him crawl into a camouflage pattern collapsable bag made just for him. He will lay very still by my side and won't move or bark."

Szymanski said it's important to have patience during this phase of the hunt.

"When a flock is busted up, I always wait until I hear a bird calling to the others before I call. Gobblers are not as vocal as younger birds," he said. "When a flock goes up, you should try to note its composition. Try to see if it's composed mostly of hens, younger birds, or older gobblers.

"The composition will determine what type of calling you do. For example, 'ki-ki' runs are good for younger birds, 'yelps' will call back gobblers or hens, and the 'lost call' works for mixed flocks. If you don't know these calls, there are a number of good teaching tapes on the market. Good calls are reasonably priced."

Szymanski said that no matter what part of the country one may hunt, turkey behavior and response to calls is basically the same. He said that during the fall season, it is important to do a lot of scouting. Find out where the birds are.

"When you call a bird into range and shoot it, the Boykin will run to it and mark its location. That's important because a lot of birds shot by hunters are lost because they were not hit solidly and went down but then got up and ran, only to die in another location. They won't go far, but they can be very difficult to find in any sort of thick cover. But they can't hid their scent from a good dog, and that's where dogs like Hunter shine."

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