When the sharp eyes of Nelli, a Boykin spaniel, scan a field and the scent of wild turkey hits her nostrils, the hunt is on.
The breed, sometimes called the little brown dog, is a small stature spaniel that's bred to be a turkey dog. Its job is to seek out wild turkeys and break up the flocks, so hunters can find a spot, sit and call the birds back into range.
For many, it's simply the way fall turkey hunting is done.
JESSICA WELSHANS/Sun-Gazette Correspondent
Nelli, a Boykin spaniel, scours a cornfield for traces of turkey scent during a recent hunt.
Bred for birding
Haneyville residents Rich and Kelly Musser own the almost-2-year-old Nelli. They purchased her from a breeder in Virginia, while they were on a guided turkey hunt.
"It's also called the little dog that doesn't rock the boat because they were also bred for waterfowl," Rich said.
The Boykin originated in South Carolina, where it has been honored as the official state dog.
"My wife and I made a decision that we wanted a Boykin. We wanted a dog that could live with us. I mean, she sleeps with us every night," Rich said.
In 2007, it became legal to hunt with dogs during Pennsylvania's fall turkey season, but not during the spring session.
After the Mussers' guided hunt, the two went to look at a litter. To figure out which dog would be the best one for them, Rich threw a turkey wing, from his kill earlier that day, directly into the the middle of the litter.
"Seven of the eight females ran from it and shook in the corner, but Nelli attacked the wing. She threw it up in the air," he said.
The couple brought her home, and Nelli's training began when she was 8 weeks old.
First, Rich said, they used a method of wing training in which he tied a turkey wing to a long whip.
"We would drag it around the yard and she would hit the wing, and then we would drag it up a tree. Kelly would jiggle it and Nelli would stand at the tree and bark," Rich said.
When the dog was a few months old, a small flock of mature birds wandered through the Mussers' yard. It was the perfect opportunity to test out Nelli's training.
"There was my 4-month-old puppy ... I put her on the scent and when it hit, she was gone," Rich said.
Nelli ran out of sight, barking the whole way. The couple beamed with pride and excitement, then abruptly realized Nelli didn't have a GPS tracking system and they worried they wouldn't be able to bring her back.
"About 300 yards (away), you could hear the turkeys flying off and her just raising cain," he said.
Before long, Nelli began to backtrack to her owners and they knew she was ready to be the turkey dog they had worked hard to train.
The Mussers kept encouraging her backtracking-to-the-handler behavior by playing hide-and-seek with Nelli, which taught her to find their scent and return.
Now, Nelli's conditioning for fall turkey season usually begins in August. Rich takes her out and instructs her to break up at least 60 flocks before the season starts.
He said Nelli runs on scent moreso than sight. She can smell a turkey flock before Rich hears or sees it.
"You got to see that today," Rich said, recalling a recent hunt. "She saw those turkeys and went to the first little group and ... hit their scent even though there were 20-plus birds going across the field."
He said Nelli will catch a flock's scent first and will scatter the birds until all of them are in the air. Once she loses the scent, she stops, begins to circle and returns to Rich.
"She marked them (the first group, which were in a tree), broke them up and came back to break up the others," he said.
Sometimes Nelli will backtrack up to a half-mile, making sure all the birds are gone. She'll bark to indicate she is "on" a turkey.
A well-trained turkey dog has the thought process to work through a flock break-up situation without just running wild, he said.
If a turkey freezes in place, Rich said he often would walk right by it, possibly losing a chance to harvest a bird. But
Nelli helps in that she can locate each bird by scent and get each one moving.
In addition to getting the birds to move, Nelli can retrieve wounded ones. An injured turkey won't bleed much, ao it's sometimes very hard to recover them.
Rich once winged a bird and enlisted Nelli to help find it.
"She was 8 months old. She broke up a flock for us and I wing-shot a bird. Nelli ran it down and found it for me," he said.
He said that was the day she actually took the sounds that a turkey makes and put it together with what the bird actually is.
When his dog picked up on the sounds of the birds, Rich was estactic.
"That was a whole new adventure for us," he said.
A silent language
The last part of Nelli's training was the hardest. She needed to learn how to be still inside a small, round blind while the turkeys were being called back into shooting range.
Rich said they used toys to help her keep busy and wait patiently.
"But, once she started to learn the sounds, it become harder and harder to make her hold," he said.
The blind they use when calling birds back in gives Nelli a buffer. She really can't see what's happening, but she surely can hear it.
"She doesn't bark, but she is fully aware of what is happening," Rich said.
He also doesn't use words once Nelli is working.
"You can't talk to them (while calling in birds)," he said.
He uses hand signals to get Nelli to go down and hold in the blind.
Enhancing the hunt
Rich has hunted since he was 12.
When his father took him pheasant hunting, he loved it. Later, his dad took him on his first turkey hunt, but that wasn't as much fun.
"I thought it was the worst thing I had ever done in my life," he said.
Later, while enrolled in Pennsylvania College of Technology, Rich took to the woods after classes.
"When I would get done with class early, I would run up to the mountains," he said. "I started following the flocks of turkeys around and that's when I learned to call."
With his renewed interest in turkey hunting, Rich has become a very good caller, and hunter.
When he and Kelly decided to get a dog for turkey hunting, they settled on the Boykin but they wanted to be sure the animal was an incurable hunter that could be part of the family.
Rich said Boykins are highly intelligent, pay attention to detail and analyze everything.
"It was something new, a new part of turkey hunting I have never explored. It was taking it to a different level," he said of hunting with a canine.
Rich believes using a turkey dog in the fall can provide a hunter with a more efficient hunt.
"It gives you the capability to find a flock in big woods, big timber," he said. "A lot of guys in today's world don't have the time to take weeks off to scout for turkey."
Plus, instead of hunters running into a field or thick laurel yelling, waving their hands or firing off shots to break up the flock, the dog does the work for them.
Nelli broke up a flock of more than 20 birds in a matter of minutes that day, proving the hours spent training an efficient turkey dog is time well spent.
It doesn't just add more legs on the ground for turkey hunters, though. Rich said he enjoys the relationship he has with Nelli.
"(There's) companionship and excitement. They add to it . And, I was looking for a challenge," Rich said. "When she is working, it's the most exciting part of the hunt."
He said he never had that kind of feeling for turkey hunting until Nelli came along.
He always finds ways to tweak how Nelli works and how he trains with her.
"(It) makes you proud of the dog. You are proud of the training she has developed and the excitement she brings," he said.