Chocolate lab Coco on point in Bobwhite Quail Fields
Without a doubt, the sometimes heated argument of who has the best hunting dog came up during the holidays and almost certainly continues today at hunting camps throughout Alabama.
To Yano Serra of Bayou La Batre, there is no argument. Serra says his chocolate Labrador retriever is a wonder dog that deserves special recognition for what he calls his “universal” hunting companion.
I’d seen numerous photos of Coco on social media with tons of ribbons she’d received during numerous field trials, but her versatility wasn’t evident until Serra called me one day.
“Ever seen a Labrador point a quail?” Serra asked.
“Not lately,” I responded, trying to remember if I had ever seen a Lab point a quail.
I’ve always appreciated a quality pointing dog. My late father was an avid “bird” hunter and always had at least a couple of quality English pointers and/or English setters for his numerous bobwhite excursions back during the days when wild quail were still abundant.
When Serra got Coco from Steve Layton of Brewton, he didn’t know he was getting a pointing dog. He wanted a Lab for his frequent trips to the marshes and brackish water of Mississippi Sound south of Bayou La Batre to hunt ducks, mainly bluebills (scaup), redheads, scoters and an occasional canvasback.
“I knew the mama dog, and I called Steve when I found out she was going to have a litter and told him I wanted the female runt,” said Serra, who guides hunting and fishing trips. “The reason I wanted the runt was I wanted a small dog. I do a lot of duck hunting. I’ve had big Labs in the past. My last one was over 90 pounds. He was a good dog. He’d jump through fire to get a duck, but when you had to get him back in the boat, it would almost take two people to get him in the boat. Then when you got him in the boat, you’d have to turn the bilge pump on.”
Coco weighs in at 52 pounds, which Serra considers the perfect size.
“She can pick up a goose,” he said. “She can pick up a duck, and she can pick up a dove.”
At four months old, Coco’s whistle training started. Serra said Coco went everywhere with him, and he used the whistle to make her stop and come. Retrieving everything from sticks to bedroom slippers followed before Serra got into obedience.
“I would spend from 30 minutes to an hour each day on ‘heel’ and ‘sit’ and ‘stay,’” he said. “Then we got into force fetch (making the dog reliable on bird/bumper handling and retrieve). That took about a month, and then we worked on force-to-pile (bumper). That’s when you teach them to go straight back. They’re not going to go right or left. They’re just going to go.
“Some of my buddies told me I needed to take her to some hunt tests. She blew right through the hunt tests right off the bat. When she was a year old, she already had her (Hunt Retriever Club) senior title.”
Next up for Coco was the AKC (American Kennel Club) Master Hunt test. Coco passed with flying colors again.
After Coco added an Upland title, Serra went in a new direction – finding deer antler sheds. He trained Coco to “find the bone.”
Coco’s quail hunting ability came about quite by accident. Serra’s friend, Keith Walker, owns and operates Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve in south Mobile County. Taylor Creek offers sporting clays, quail hunts and pheasant shoots on acreage not far from Bellingrath Gardens. Serra had been using Walker’s property to train Coco and a couple of other dogs because the ponds on the preserve were perfect for water training. He found out Coco would point a quail quite by accident.
“Keith told me if I wanted that I could come out and he would teach me about guiding quail hunts,” Serra said. “I came out with my pointer and left Coco in the truck. After we did a little training, Keith told me to let Coco out. He said, ‘You’ve already got her trained to sit. See if she’ll do it on a quail.’ She did, and then Keith wanted to see if she would flush. I let her flush the bird, and she chased it. When we came walking out, we looked over on this little hill and there was Coco locked up on full point with her right leg in the air, nose in the air and tail stuck out. There was a quail about 4 feet in front of her. After that, she just started pointing. From then on when she’d get birdy, I’d tell her ‘easy’ to calm her down because she gets so excited.”
Serra has trained Coco to hold birds as well as circle around birds to push them in certain directions to keep them from flushing into thick cover.
“And she loves to duck hunt,” he said. “When you’ve got her in the boat, you won’t even know she’s in the boat. She just lays there. Every duck she picks up is strictly a blind retrieve because I keep her in the boat. She doesn’t see them fall. She’ll go right on through the decoys to the bird, strictly on hand signals.
“She’s great in a dove field. She won’t go after other people’s birds. I take her fishing all the time. She’ll hold a rod and reel in her mouth. If a fish flops off in the boat, I’ll tell her to fetch it up.”
Serra admits the key to a good dog has breeding involved, but a lot of it is in the training. Repetition is the key.
“Some people think it’s hard to train a dog, but it’s really not,” he said. “It’s really fun to me. When you train a dog to really listen to you, you enjoy working with the dog. The first two months is the hardest. Then you start coming down the hill. When you get that force fetch, a lot of the obedience is already there. She’ll tree a squirrel or blood-trail a deer. If I put her on a trail, that’s where she’ll go. Everybody loves that dog. I take her everywhere I go.
“She’s just a universal dog. She just turned four, and she’s getting better and better.”
Go to this link for more information about the full-day and half-day quail hunts and pheasant shoots at Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve.
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.