I’ve been thinking about reviewing this setup for a while: Garmin Alpha 100/TT 15 Mini. I wanted to make sure I knew it well enough, and that I had a definite opinion about it.
Now that I’m in my 5th season with it, I think I’m there. Before I got it, I posted some nasty comments about using, er, cheating with these kinds of things. I copped a purist attitude, basically suggesting that using a GPS collar for your dog was close to Internet hunting. I suggested that chukar hunters should keep track of their dogs, and if they couldn’t, well, there was something wrong with them, and probably something worse wrong with their dogs. I must have been in a bad mood. My students would say, “When aren’t you in a bad mood?” I’m teaching them about rhetoric, and they’re definitely getting the hang of the rhetorical question.
Anyway, I was wrong. Before I got the Alpha, one of the reasons I got in a bad mood while hunting was that I always knew where my dogs were if they were not on birds, but when they didn’t check in with me at the normal time interval (about 1-2 minutes), I knew they were pointing somewhere but I had no idea where. More often than not, I’d go the wrong direction only to watch a covey blast by me just out of range and my dogs hot on their tails. As Angus got older, but even better at finding and pointing birds, my hunting stress increased because I felt greedy about maximizing his points. With a dog that good, I felt obliged — yet unable — to be there for every one of his points. That was the tipping point for me to eat crow and get the system.
It wasn’t that hard to set it up, and once I figured out where to put it on my vest (which was harder than figuring out how it worked), my hunting stress level instantly decreased substantially. Actually, in terms of stress, it probably stayed the same, but it became almost totally positive stress (i.e., excitement). Rather than worrying about where the hell he was, the Alpha told me. I still tried to stay as close to him as always, and still took my cues from intensely focusing on his gait and tail, but when he disappeared, I didn’t have to wonder what direction or how far away he was. After getting accustomed to this, which took a few hunts, I remember laughing out loud to myself at how fantastic it was that I could actually enjoy the scenery when Angus wasn’t in my field of vision. I’d glance at the Alpha, and see that he was moving, and then go on my merry way.
Until it beeped that he was pointing: game on. Knowing where he (or Peat) was pointing allowed me to pace myself to get to him; if he was close, I’d basically run, and if he was far (200+ yards uphill) I’d run a little slower. Sure, the Alpha takes some of the mystery out of hunting, but it improved the economy of energy output, which has become more important to me as I get older and weaker.
There are lots of detailed reviews of the features of the Alpha and TT 15, so I won’t get into that too much. But I will outline how I use it not only to hunt but also to help me keep my hunting log. It took me a while to figure out my process and what settings to change so I could manage the data to my liking, so I’ll go through that here; if someone has a better idea, I’d love to hear it (I spent a fair amount of time trying to find information on the Internet, but basically struck out). To collect the data I want, I use Garmin’s Basecamp application, and created a simple Google Sheets (similar to Excel) form to chart the basics.
Before the Hunt
When we get out of the truck, the first thing I do is turn on the TT 15 Minis and put them on the dogs. Then I put my vest on, turn on the Alpha unit, wait a few seconds for it to boot up, and then select “New Hunt.” When it asks if I want to set the current location to “Truck” I select “Yes.” This clears the previous data that I’ve already transferred to my computer after the last hunt, and makes it easier to see my current track during the hunt (which I never, ever check, but if I were to get lost or want to find the dogs it would make it easier to see on the map screen because the previous hunt(s) wouldn’t be shown).
Then I scroll down and select “Trip Computer.” I select the Menu icon, and select “Reset” and then “Reset Trip Data” and then “Clear Current Track.” Doing this restricts the data you transfer from the Alpha to Basecamp to that day’s hunt; if I do a bunch of hunts in a row when I’m away from home and don’t transfer them to my computer after each hunt, I don’t reset these things at the beginning of each hunt, and then when I transfer the data I’ll manually separate the hunts, which is not difficult.
During the hunt
Once we head away from the truck I select the compass icon on the Alpha to make sure both dogs are registering; you can see thumbnails for up to three dogs on one screen, or you can change your display settings to Big Numbers (by selecting the menu icon), which is much easier to see the yardage information, but requires you to scroll through multiple dogs, which I find too cumbersome. I have to squint to read the yardage (distance each dog is away from me) with the smaller numbers but prefer to see both dogs at once on the same screen.
The directional arrows show each dog in a different color (Peat is green, Angus is purple), and that’s easy to read at all times regardless of whether you have the big or small numbers selected. Garmin recently added a feature to the thumbnails that shows the current direction the dog is moving, which is pretty cool. For example, if Angus is north of me but coming back my direction, the purple hand on the big dial will show him to the north, but thumbnail has a little pointer showing him moving south, and his yardage will be decreasing accordingly. I like this little update because it helps me see patterns in how the dogs hunt, which can allow me to anticipate where they might be going and decide if I want to buzz them to come back or change the direction I’m moving.
When the dogs stop for more than 5 seconds, the Alpha vibrates and beeps and a message saying “Angus on point” comes up. If they remain on point, the dog’s thumbnail shows an icon of a pointing dog (cute), and shows the yardage. Peat stops a lot to admire the scenery (or eat cow manure or worse), so he generates a lot of false alerts. Angus seems to move constantly enough so that when I get an “Angus on point” message, it’s almost always legitimate.
The pointing dog’s (or dogs’) hand on the dial points me in their direction, and I high-tail it to him, checking the yardage occasionally, and making sure the pointing dog icon still shows; sometimes they’ll start moving again and there’s a little emotional deflation when I see the tiny directional icon and changing yardage which indicate the dog is moving again. In open country, of course, it’s easier to pick up the dogs visually than in heavy sage and bitterbrush, or in tightly undulating or rock formations, so my reliance on the Alpha varies depending on the terrain.
The only other thing I regularly use the Alpha for during the hunt is to correct the dogs, usually to try to get them to come back to me. For Peat, this means beeping him, and for Angus — since he’s deaf and can no longer hear the beep — giving him a small electrical nick. You can program the three buttons at the top to do several different things, at different stimulation levels for different dogs. This is where the second “T” in the TT 15 comes in: TT stands for “track” and “train.” Thanks to Garmin buying Tri-Tronics they were able to incorporate e-collar functionality into the GPS tracking, which means we don’t have to force our poor pups to wear three collars on a hunt.
Occasionally I’ll look at the map icon to check if I’m still on public land, but now that I have OnX on my phone, I usually use that since the screen and resolution are better, and it has the landowner information on it.
After the Hunt
When we get back from hunting, I plug my Alpha into my laptop, open Basecamp, and transfer the data from the Alpha into Basecamp. Then I look at the left column and double-click on the “current track” from that day’s hunt, which gives me the mileage, the duration, and the elevation gain, which I enter old-school style into my Google Sheets hunting log. Then I’ll open the track for each dog for that day, and enter their data (mainly the distance) into the hunting log. I used to mark coveys on the Alpha during a hunt, but don’t bother doing that anymore, mainly because it doesn’t matter in terms of planning a hunt, and it’s kind of cumbersome: the little bird icons end up dominating the map screen (I think I stopped doing this after marking over 100 coveys). The Basecamp app doesn’t really excite me, but honestly I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. It’s free, and it allows me to transfer my data to the computer. You can save your tracks and other data as GPX files to use with other applications, but I don’t have the time to mess with that too much. OnX has a tracking feature that looks pretty cool, but I haven’t used it yet, although a friend easily sent me a waypoint from a spot where she found some birds…
Annoying Things About the Alpha
Aside from the high price tag, the Alpha has only one really annoying thing that I haven’t figured out how to fix: whenever I hunt with Leslie, and we get on different sides of a ridge, the Alpha sends warning messages and beeps fairly frequently, saying that we’ve lost communication with each other and with whatever dog isn’t near the respective Alpha. The warning is the same beep and vibration that you get when the dogs go on point, so I constantly have to look at the Alpha screen to see if Peat’s pointing or if I’ve lost touch with my wife. (There has to be a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not touching it.) If anyone has a suggestion on how to remedy this (the Alpha thing, not my marriage), I’d love to hear it.
I love this thing. It’s made my hunts more enjoyable and relaxing, and I’ve had way more action with the dogs because of it. It’s held up well (so far; mine is in its 5th season, Leslie’s is in its 3rd). I’m sure there’s more we could do with it; I know I’m not using all its functionality, but haven’t spent a ton of time with the manual. I purchased ours from Gun Dog Supply, which has been an excellent resource for dog stuff. They ship super fast, and have been very gracious handling the few warranty issues we’ve had with Garmin products. One of the reasons I originally went with Gun Dog Supply is that you can choose the collar strap color with the TT 15 or TT 15 Mini, which Garmin or any of the vendors on Amazon do not offer. Gun Dog Supply also has some really thorough product videos that have helped me choose between one thing and another over the years. (I’m not affiliated with Gun Dog Supply, and don’t get any discounts or free stuff from them, although I wish that were the case…).