FLOODWOOD TOWNSHIP — This is what the Fries family looks forward to all year.
Not 100 yards out from where we parked the trucks, Viper, their diminutive female Gordon Setter, was already locked on point in a scruffy patch of tag alder. The cowbell she wore on her collar that clanged when she moved was dead silent.
Dean Fries, 60, was circling in from the left. Sons Lukus, 17, and Caleb, 16, were closing in on Viper’s stiff tail.
Each held their double-barrel shotguns chest-high, ready to go. Whatever was in the cover was holding tight just beyond the dog's nose.
The Fries family — including Jill, wife and mother — have made Gordon setters and grouse a big part of their life. Breeding, raising, training, boarding and hunting behind the dogs have become a family affair for the Fries family at their home and Clearcut Kennels in Culver, just northwest of Duluth.
And it’s in October when they really get to see the fruits of their yearlong labor.
“We’ll be out every weekend. Plus this is when I take most of my vacation,’’ Dean Fries said. “This is the best time of year for me.”
On that first point of the day there was some missing going on. A woodcock that had come very close to becoming a meal doesn’t know how lucky it was. But there would be many more points on a sunny, calm and perfectly cool day in the woods, and three hunting vests would end up with bulges in the game pockets.
A second generation of trainers
There is something immensely gratifying about training a dog all summer and then watching it do what it’s supposed to do in the fall, which seems to happen often for the Fries. By now, Viper, at age 5, was usually doing the right thing.
“The boys did all the training on this dog. This is Lukus’ dog, he raised it from a pup,’’ Dean said between Viper’s points.
Dean used to guide hunters in the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt — a fundraiser event for the Ruffed Grouse Society each October near Grand Rapids — including a couple first-place finishes “but that took a lot of time that I’d rather spend with my boys now.”
Dean Fries grew up in the northern Twin Cities suburbs but made hunting trips with his dad up to Itasca County.
“I would have given anything as a kid to live where we do now. So I tell my boys they should appreciate how close we are to really good grouse hunting,’’ Dean said.
Fries started looking at different breeds for grouse dogs while still in college and settled on Gordons, as much for their looks and the fact they were still uncommon than any experience he had with the breed.
“They are different, they aren’t a Lab or a shorthair that everybody has. It’s still a fairly rare breed across the country,’’ Fries noted.
He’s now been hunting behind them for almost 40 years and has been breeding Gordons for 35 years, offering training and guiding as well. He moved to Duluth, in part to be closer to grouse, in 1987.
“I remember a college professor telling us to find a career you are passionate about. And I thought, how can I ever make a career out of grouse hunting?’’ Fries said. “This is probably as close as I can get.”
On weekdays Dean is a commercial loan banker for National Bank of Commerce in Superior and he retains some of that number-crunching efficiency while bird hunting.
“On a good day we should move 25 to 30 birds ... On opening day we moved 26. That’s just grouse, not counting woodcock,’’ Fries said, noting that getting a limit of five grouse isn’t always easy, even with that many birds flushed. “You need to get a couple early, then hope for a lucky one at mid-day when the grouse seem to hunker down and the hunting is harder for the dogs… Then you can get two later in the afternoon when the grouse get active again. That’s a good time to be out.”
Their dogs have sold to customers across the country, as far away as Alaska, Maine, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Lukus said.
“Mostly it’s word of mouth. Once someone decides on a Gordon, there really aren’t that many breeders out there with really good hunting lines,’’ Dean noted.
Over the summer Caleb and Lukus were training four young dogs that came back from customers who purchased pups earlier. With customer’s dogs, boarding dogs and the Fries own 15 Gordons — and a litter of five, two-week old pups, Clearcut Kennels is a busy place.
Most of their Gordon’s run between 40 and 50 pounds, with some males even bigger. Viper weighs in at 35 pounds soaking wet.
“She's probably the smallest we’ve had,’’ Dean noted. “But she can go all day.”
Someone has to be around to feed and clean up after all those animals every day, which keeps the Fries family busy and close to home most of the year.
“We are the dairy farmers of the family,’’ Jill Fires said with a smile. “We don’t get to go anywhere. We have to be here every day to take care of the dogs. So if someone wants to visit with us, they have to come to us.”
Best genetics produce best dogs
Dean Fries is analytical about dog breeding as well. He rotates new dogs into his kennel, usually bringing in outside male studs, and continues breeding only the dogs that have the characteristics he wants. The dogs that are good hunters, but maybe not perfect, are sold as started dogs — probably the best dog that buyer will ever have but not the exact gene pool Dean wants to pass on.
“Breeding is like a deck of cards. You keep the aces and kings and you try to get rid of the twos and threes,’’ Dean said. “If you get too connected to any one dog, it gets hard to keep cycling them through. If they don’t do what we want them to do at the level we want them to do it at, we move on (to a different dog) for breeding. That’s how you line breed to get the very best out of a breed.”
Lukus and Caleb are home-schooled, and training and caring for the dogs is part of their education, Jill noted. Dean takes care of educating them on the hunting part.
“It’s been fun to watch them get better, not just the dog training but at shooting,’’ Dean noted.
Fries believes grouse are the toughest bird for pointing dogs to get good at. Woodcock usually hold tight for a good flush. Pheasants will run out from under a point in heavy cover, sometimes confusing dogs. But grouse will often escape unseen from under a point, leaving a dog pointing only at the old scent — if they don’t learn to keep up with the bird.
It’s that learned skill for the dog — how close to get to the bird without flushing it before the hunter is close by and ready to shoot — why Fries likes Gordon’s so much.
“They just seem to get it,’’ he said, noting the boys try to shoot at only birds that have been pointed by the dog.
The Fires boys move quickly through even thick stands of young aspen, keeping up with Viper as she ranged left and right ahead of the hunters.
“The dog should really set the pace for you,’’ Dean noted.
After a two-hour late-morning hunt the Fries boys and Viper had put up a dozen woodcock, which seem to be migrating earlier than usual this year, with many in the area. They connected on six of them.
“I love these little birds,’’ Dean said admiring the plumage of a woodcock in his hand.
But he loves grouse even more and, for some reason, we only saw one grouse in the morning location, despite some prime habitat of young aspen that had been clear-cut six or seven years ago. Nearly all the leaves had dropped, too, making visibility easier in the thick cover.
The morning grouse shortage was corrected with a one-mile move and a quick, one-hour afternoon hunt that produced a half-dozen grouse flushes and one connection.
Back at the truck the boys emptied their game vests and cased their shotguns as two of their own 12-week-old pups, Ares and Oliver, played with a woodcock, a little taste of what would come later in their lives.
“My dad was a grouse hunter. I’ve been absolutely in love with it ever since I was 12, back in 1972 when I could first hunt… It’s a life passion for me,’’ Dean added. “And I think I’m passing it on to the next generation now.”
Clearcut Kennels Gordon setters
Dean and Jill Fries, Culver, Minnesota
Why did you choose this breed? "I wanted a pointing dog for hunting grouse and I wanted something that was a little different, that wasn't common. And I just loved the way Gordon setters looked."
How long have you been hunting with his breed? 37 years
How long have you been breeding this breed? 35 years
What type of hunting do you use them for? “Mostly grouse and woodcock. But a lot of our dogs go off to places for quail and pheasants and even chukar partridges. Any upland birds."
What's your favorite thing about this breed? "I just love the way they hunt. The way they move in the woods. How well they point. But I think the best thing is that Gordon setters make such fantastic family dogs. They are part of the family. They can turn it on when they are in the woods and turn it off, be mellow, in the home. My kid's dogs sleep with them in their beds."
What should a prospective buyer look for in this breed? "First, pick a reputable breeder. Because once you go look at puppies you will go home with one. Then look at the (puppy's parents.) That's where a lot of its character is coming from. Look for a puppy that will point a feather you throw out. They should be doing that at 7-8 weeks. Look for ones that like to carry things around in their mouth."
What advice would you give a new dog owner specific to your breed? "If you are going to hunt, get a field-bred dog, not a show dog. Field-bred dogs are more athletic, a little smaller, and come from dogs that hunted. Show dogs are bred for their coats and their size and their appearance, not hunting."
How much can someone expect to pay for a quality dog of this breed? From $1,000 to $1,500.
About Gordon Setters
Gordons are the largest of the setters. Their coat is usually shiny black with buff markings and long hair on the ears, belly, legs, chest, and tail. Tan spots above the bright brown eyes point up a wise and willing expression. Like other Scots breeds, Gordons were built to withstand their homeland’s tough terrain and foul weather.
Gordon Setters first started to hunt game birds almost 200 years ago in Scotland. The setter was developed to lay down quietly, or “set,” when they located birds. This style of market hunting at the time would then require the hunter to cast a net in the area, sometimes covering the dog as well, and harvest the birds that were ensnared. The 19th century saw a divergence of setters into different breeds, evolving based on their location and the terrain in which they hunted.
The Gordon is named after Alexander Gordon, the Fourth Duke of Gordon and a setter fancier who founded a kennel of black and tan setters at Gordon Castle, Scotland. Though his early dogs looked more like the English setter, crosses with the flat-coated black and tan collie, boodhounds, black pointers, and solid-black setters helped mold the Gordon setter breed into what it is today.
The first Gordons came to the U.S. in 1842 when Daniel Webster (one time U.S. secretary of state) and George Blunt of New York brought a male and female named Rake and Rachael. In 1872, the British Kennel Club declared the Black and Tan Setter an official breed. In 1878, the breed was registered in America as well and recognized by the AKC in 1884. Eight years after that, the AKC changed the breed’s name from the Gordon Castle Setter to the Gordon Setter. Life expectancy: 10 – 12 years
Color: Black & Tan
Temperament: Fearless, eager, loyal, alert, confident
Weight: Female: 35–65 lbs, Male: 50–75 lbs
Height: Female: 23–26 inches, Male: 24–27 inches
Source: American Kennel Club