Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Ghost Pack

 by Randy Lawrence

The hill behind my home is my favorite plot of ground on the entire planet, 47 acres with a ten mile view to the north.  Our grouse hunting is rolling at best, vertical at worst, so we practice like we play, up and down and around steep slopes where we sync hay making, brush hogging, and grazing with our dog work.

 

I can still find Captain there, resting at the foot of our hill in a spring fed wetland alder brake bordered by a two-track oil road. In the spring, Captain would sit with us and watch woodcock dancers spiral high above the hay field.  Along that same two-track, he became the first of my dogs to point a wild bird while retrieving another. 

 

An Aspenglow setter named Arran was the second to count that coup.  Arran and her kinfolk, Indigo and Dusk, stand watch from the western slope above the alders. Riley, the mostly black “own son” of Elhew Snakefoot is there, too, Riley “The Natural,” born broke with an uncanny nose. 

 

On top, overlooking where we live and hunt is Williedog, a horseback trial setter turned honest gun dog who found birds in times and places the others could not. In his lifetime, Willie wore out the clapper on a stout collar bell;  he pointed the last ruffed grouse seen on this property. 

 

Willie keeps company with five generations of Labrador retrievers, earnest black dogs who earned their crust along the Scioto River and for years on the old lease on Lake Erie’s Nielson’s Marsh.  Moxahala is there, too, Riley’s orange and white daughter. Well into her dotage, she pinned a brood of Michigan grouse during my son’s first trip north.  Zane managed but one step across Moxie’s bow before four consecutive rolling thunder flushes left him with his jaw dropped and his gun unfired. 

 

I have buried my share of prized 4-H cattle, long riding saddle horses, porch-snoozing farm dogs.  But where a gun dog is laid to rest is a different matter.  I suppose it’s the shooting that makes it so. 

 

Think about it.  Together the dog and I conspire to take a life to add another layer of meaning to our own.   We do so within a stylized set of sporting rules that somehow make it OK to kill a grouse or woodcock or sharptail we would otherwise never harm. 



Within those rules, we keep our own score, call our own fouls.  When we are in polite company and accept a wet-mouthed retrieve after a solid point and fortunate shot, we try hard to be sober about the whole matter.

 

But when we are alone and bring a bird to hand, there are silly setter dances and ball caps turned backward and rib rubs and rude, leaping lunacy we would never brook elsewhere.  We have been known to yip and howl over a kill like the coyote gangs that shadow our farm fencerows, celebrating that by god we do know how to do this.

 

Several of the dogs gathered around that hilltop were born into my hands; nearly all of them died in my arms.  Between those markers, we trained.  We traveled.  They slept by my bed, dozed at my feet while I wrote or read, tagged along while I did farm chores, ran errands to the village bank where the pretty teller never forgets to offer a treat.  

 

Our most grievous sins were but sins of enthusiasm, and we learned to forgive each other over and over and over again.  The way we lived, the way we hunted, redeemed us just enough to keep pushing for the precious handful of times we Got It Right. 



Maybe that’s what makes possible the clawing back from grinding, gnashing grief that no shovel can begin to cover with yellow Perry County clay.   Maybe that’s what makes possible taking in that next puppy, especially one bred from those who hunted here before, all of that promise and fun and learning shading out the terrible knowing of how this always ends.



When autumn ebbs to winter, the heirs to my ghost pack hunt the deep draws and tangled alder brakes that drain the flanks of that high hill.  Always, we work a course that lets us finish topside.  From there we catch our breath and revel in that ten mile vista, the one that sees all the way through my very soul.









 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Flushed With Success

 

by Randy Lawrence

Disclaimer:  The author would like to confess that the following events are true, though the names have been changed to protect the guilty.  Also, he admits that some of his favorite dog friends over the last 38 years have been drathaars, several out of “imported blood.”

Wayne was new to the pointing dog game.  He lit up like Christmas when Ava, his sixteen- months- old drahthaar, locked down in a waist high stand of dwarf sorghum.

“Point!” he sang, even though all three of us were in plain view of the stand.   Gun at port arms, Wayne scrambled over to his dog as fast as his senior citizen legs could travel.  Tom, the landowner, and I stood back, guns broken, to let our friend have his moment.

When he reached the dog, Wayne panted to a stop.  “Whoooooa,” he gasped, before switching to variations on a theme.  “WhoUH.  Whooooa, Avie. Good guuuuuurl.” 

Wayne eyed the dog, eyed the sorghum, before creeping along Ava’s right flank . Each time Wayne toned Ava’s name, her scent trance wavered.  The dog’s eyes shifted to her man, questions in them instead of predator’s glint. Her stub tail twitched.  Her body relaxed ever so slightly.  

Wayne caught the movement.  He turned and hissed “Whoa!,” his palm outstretched like a bad Lizzo dance move.

Ava held, but only on command now, her point having lost all original meaning. Wayne tip-toed through cover just off her nose, head down as if searching for the birds, his hand still up, cautioning the dog. 

Ava crouched, took one step, then another to shadow Wayne.   The covey of bobwhites could bear no more choreography. 

 That was it for the birds.  The first three whirred up at an honest twenty yards… and that was it for Ava. 

She pogoed in as every fist-sized head of dark red millet seemed to claymore a buzz of quail wings. The birds poured over a hill before setting wings and careening into a draw bristling with briars, Ava streaming along in their wake. 

Horrified, Wayne stumbled after, fumbling for his whistle and shouting, “Ava!  No! Bad dog!  Come!  Come here to me! Aaaaavie!”

“Ava!  Whoa!”  A single flush from deep in the cane briars sparked frantic whistling from the handler.

“Whoa, Ava!”  Two flushes, then a third.  Another furious whistle blast.

Wayne nabbed his dog only when she stopped to dig at a ground hog hole.  He came huffing up the hill where Tom and I waited, Ava’s collar fisted in his right hand. Her tongue lolled bloody from a briar cut.

Tom had known Wayne forty years since their days field trialing retrievers.  Wayne and Ava were there on his invitation, Wayne anxious to show off his dog and “maybe get a few tips”.

Tom made no secret of his bias against “off brand“ bird dogs, i.e. those not pointer or setter or long of tail.  He had expressed as much when Wayne had called to crow about his expensive purchase the year before.

“Why, she’s out of imported hunt tested blood,”  Wayne had insisted.  “Her grandsire was certified to have killed fur back in Austria.”

Fast forward a year and a half.  Wayne slipped a lead over the bristle-faced female, as his friend says quietly, “Ya know…that’s a nice pup you got.”

“Thank you, Tom,” Wayne said warily.  A giant “BUT” hung heavily in the bright November air.

“But she needs to trade you in for someone who knows what he’s doin’ if she’s ever gonna make a dog!

“First of all,” Tom sighed, “when Ava started makin’ game you went runnin’ over there with your gun shut like she needed your help.  Trust all that ‘imported blood.’  Just walk over there like you’re going somewhere, not like your hair’s on fire. You can close your gun when you’re ready to do business.   

“Next thing: When you got to her, you went on point!”

Wayne got busy fingering a burr caught behind Ava’s ear.  I studied a cloud formation that bore a faint resemblance to Biff the Michelin Man.  I knew what was coming next.

 “Here’s the rule:  When the dog’s on the move, workin’ scent, you stay still.  When the dog goes still, you get on the move.”


The old man paused to listen as a flock of geese lifted from the impoundment south of the farm.  “Back there was a set-up. You had a perfect chance to come in wide, circlin’ in front then angling back in toward your dog. Sometimes that helps set the birds.  For sure it helps the dog hold her water.”



Our host half laughed, half snorted.  “Keep your head up so you can see, your gun up so you’re safe, and your feet moving.  You got one job: get those birds in the air while the dog’s still standing there.  Instead, you went creepy-mousin’ past her like some kinda Elmer Fudd.  You’re a magnet then, pullin’ that dog in there with you.

“And for God’s sake,” Tom begged,  “stop yakking at that poor dog while she’s on point!  What if the birds have run out on her, or she’s pointed a box turtle or an old quail roost?  Now you’ve reinforced a false by whoain’ her… on what?  You don’t know!

“If Ava breaks, it’s nothin’ but another chance to teach.  Go get her.  Walk her back.  Set her up where she pointed.  Make her stand there for a bit, then heel her away from the direction the birds flew.  Reminds her that we’re workin’ together here.  Get her lined out with the wind and go hunt singles.”

Tom hitched the little Superposed up over the arm of his chore coat and grinned wat his chastened old friend.  “One advantage o’ those Cont’nental dogs,” he deadpanned, “is sooner or later they’ll get to diggin’ at a coyote den, or tree a squirrel or drag down a wild boar or somethin’.  

“Makes ‘em easier to catch.  I ‘magine you just grab hold o’ that stub tail and hang on.”

 

 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

When Two's Good Company

 - by Randy Lawrence

The highest compliment any serious gun dog enthusiast will ever pay another person is to ask him or her to bring a gun and walk along on a hunt with a first season prospect.   That means the invited person Gets It – capital “G,” capital “I.”  He or she understands that the hunt is about one thing and one thing only: constructively supporting a young dog as it finds its way on wild game.   If you’re ever honored enough to be invited on such a hunt, here are a few tips to make certain you are invited back.

 

1.      Stay the course. The handler sets the pace and direction of the hunt.  The guest’s job is to stay in touch with the handler, stay even with him or her or just slightly behind on the line of march.  Spacing is up to the handler, too, and is likely dependent on how wide that youngster is meant to range.  Those who like a bigger going dog might want more distance between hunters to widen the dog’s reference;  still others may ask a guest to walk behind the whistle with an open gun.

 

2.      Stay alive (quietly).  It should go without saying that the companion guest not speak to, whistle at, commiserate with, or otherwise handle the dog.  However, as a member of the support team, an alert guest can help keep track of the dog’s beeper or bell, can discern when the dog is making game, perhaps help locate the dog on point.  Because they are alive to everything from likely cover to wind direction, the best guests are able to provide thoughtful intel on bird contacts that happen away from the handler,  reporting on dog/bird interaction or marking flight lines for any birds that get up wild away from the dog or handler.  And speaking of birds…

 

3.      Stay with the program.   The kind of guest we want on any hunt is thinking gun safety, partner safety, dog safety at all times. When a dog is working scent or standing a bird, good guests are quick to position themselves as per the handler’s direction. Should they be asked to help flush, especially on a point well away from the handler, they move briskly and assertively and quietly upwind of the dog.  When possible, they step back in at an angle to, rather than passing and moving away from, the dog’s stand to encourage staunchness.  Again, never do they caution or cue the dog (personal bias: I’d rather the handler didn’t speak to the dog on point, either, but…). 

 

4.      Stay the trigger.  Surely the toughest thing for some guests, particularly when the day is long and bird contacts are sparse, is to only shoot birds the dog handles correctly.  Wild flushes or birds the guest walks up get a pass and are marked in case the handler wants to work the dog in that direction.

 

Blessed be the handler who has a hunting accomplice who can stick with the regimen and be a real help in hunting a young dog.  To the right person, sharing in the challenges and successes of that youngster’s progress is not just a privileged responsibility, but a darned good time as well.

Pen and ink miniature by Daniel Philip Cote; Randy Lawrence collection.




Tuesday, November 3, 2020

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's the Moon?

It took planning to travel with ten dogs to hunt for six weeks.  Everyone needed to be in condition and ready to go, including two eight month olds who required gun introduction before we left so that they could hunt with others in their apprenticeship.

The pups had seen wild quail so they had a good idea of what their job was, but they needed a proper intro to the gun.  A quick trip to a farm with a wide assortment of pens holding both common and curious species of birds provided me with a few pigeons to use for the gun intro.

Native prairie grass behind the house was perfect for flying the pigeons.  The first couple of releases were meant to assure acclimation, followed by gunning if each pup’s responses were on track.  The first bird was a dark grey and fluttered past the pup with appropriate noise and speed and all lights were clearly on for Kate who had drawn the first run.

The next bird I tossed was mostly white and after I tossed it into the air it chose to land on the ground instead of flying.

Rut roh.

But Kate headed that way and slammed into a point and held. Atta girl. I had to roust the pigeon with my foot and off it flew, circling around and around my house, Kate in hot pursuit, eyes to the sky.

That darn bird and pup did three or four laps around the house before the pigeon finally landed on the travel trailer with the pup standing below, eyes locked on that white bird.  The rest of the preparatory training was less uneventful, all thankfully going to plan, and the great pigeon chase was forgotten. Or so I thought.

Arriving on the northern prairie with weeks of wild birds ahead was intoxicating, made more so by a crystal clear, cool night at the remote boondock camp.  As the dogs were aired for the last time that evening, I could hear them inhaling and sniffing the air, sorting out the many scents carried on the breeze. Except for Kate. 

I noticed that she was standing perfectly still, head high and muzzle pointing to the sky. I followed the direction of her gaze and saw what held her spellbound: the quarter moon, rising in the clear sky. She was as mesmerized as she had been by that white pigeon flying around the house back home.  The sky was clear for several nights and each evening Kate would eagerly search for her white pigeon in the sky. 

I don’t remember exactly how or why she lost interest in the moon. I suspect it was when she discovered the hot scent and chuckling flush of sharptail on our hunts. Looking back, though, Kate will always be my star who tried to catch the moon.



Saturday, October 31, 2020

Blood In The Alders

 

We do not shoot woodcock in the home covert, fourteen acres that lay wet at the back of my farm. Through it crawls a lazy creek that the beaver jam every year or so with housing projects my Amish farmer wrecks with his backhoe. 

 

We planted black alders along that creek in 1988, trees that have been cut over twice, the last time in 2013.  The main stand holds bird in spring, dancers that spiral over an adjoining hayfield we call the Goose Pasture.  Last year was our best yet for staging birds on the move in autumn, the dogs pointing resting woodcock across the entire plot.

 


So the home covert is part woodcock preserve, part schoolyard, conditioning for the older dogs, the perfect place to light a fire under youngsters.  Since the last cut, the alders have yet to drown out the cane briar and black raspberry laced like concertina wire through the understory.  I follow my dogs, my loins girded in heavy canvas chaps over jeans, camera stuffed in the armored Filson vest that’s been missing a bottom button for twenty years.  I snug tight a low profile blaze orange cap that I will still have to pick up half a dozen times. Thick gloves I’d never wear toting a shotgun make running camera and blank gun a challenge.

 

But the only blood shed in the home alders comes from setter tail tips and hunter forearms…foreheads…and #@%&* ear lobes.  The older dogs know this covert by rote.  They muscle through sharp tangles and race along the more open fence row edge, pinning birds in places where they have found them for years.   It’s not pretty pointing dog work, more spaniel-like rooting at times.  But a hot point in a briary corner where we’ve found woodcock for generations of pointing dogs remains as fresh and exciting for Deacon and Doc and Lucy as it was for Arran and Captain, Cotton and Dusk, Willie, Dinah, Molly and all the rest…and is for me.

 


Before the alders were planted, the former owner of this farm rode a one-eyed white walking horse to his woodcock and even the occasional ruffed grouse, the dogs coming across wild birds in the thickets above broad food plots where bobwhite quail covied.  The quail were pen-reared in isolation, live trapped and never handled.  They were skittish, flushed hard and flew fast…but they weren’t wild birds, and the landowner used a highlighter to mark the woodcock contacts in his game diary where he kept track of dog work and shooting. 

 

We took turns as horse holders and gunners.  Not always, but most times, we shot over, rather than at, woodcock the dogs stood, not because we didn’t love the shooting or a lovely meal of fast-seared woodcock over wild rice.  We knew even back then that the birds were in trouble across their range and eventually consecrated the farm as sanctuary for them.

 

These days, the horses are saved for other times and places, and we take Shank’s Mare into the alders.  Even the puppy, the irrepressible Firelight Cool Hand Luke, takes a turn down one section that isn’t quite so gnarly, gamboling and snuffling and dinking about until I fly a big racing pigeon from the shoulder bag of loft birds I carry just to make sure there are no dry runs.  As the dark bird batters its way up and out of the alders, it’s almost like a cartoon electric charge runs all through the puppy;  when he chases, I squat to shoot the .22 blank gun into the ground, muffling its sharp report.  Every release adds purpose to puppy putzing and gets us closer to the time when a woodcock cooperates and holds upwind.  When that moment comes, point or push, it doesn’t matter.  It’s a wild bird contact, another chance to ignite his Firelight blood toward a gun dog fever from which I hope neither he nor I ever recover.


- Randy Lawrence

 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Introducing....

Randy Lawrence is to be an occasional collaborator on this blog. A retired teacher of writing from Hocking College, for 20 years, he wrote the monthly "Wingshooting" column for Sporting Clays Magazine. Randy shares his beautiful hillside farm in southern Ohio with a motley cast of canine characters including the setters Firelight's Deacon and Cool Hand Luke, October Blue Doc, Huntmore's Lucy Lieu, and Longhunter's The Count. Randy's 40 years' experience paired with his passionate, on-the-dog's-schedule approach has led to a fun and valued collaboration with me at Firelight.

Welcome Randy!

 - Lynn Dee                                                                                                 Randy and Deacon 



Thursday, October 29, 2020

All Too Soon

 

When the feed store clerk came out with the heavy bag of pigeon seed, I opened the tailgate and asked him to set it next to the months’ worth of dog food bags that are still in the back from last week’s delivery.  Upon arriving home, I pulled into the garage next to the bags of recyclable bottles and also noticed that I had forgotten to take the trash to the transfer station last week. 

Crossing the driveway, I pulled the blue tarp a little tighter over the surplus firewood still lying in a jumbled heap in front of the garage, waiting to be cross-stacked in place since the garage already has four orderly rows of wood lined up from front to back. That wood ousted the little SUV that is loaded with dog crates, which means scraping heavy frost from the windshield each morning.

As I sit here at the laptop sitting on the kitchen table, the black, expensive-looking boxes from my new camera are still on the table as is the box with the new CO detector for the RV.  The Garmin doctors-bag-look-a-like sits at the end of the table with life supporting wires charging collars and handheld. Rain crusted leather boots sit in a scattering of sand beneath the table by the door and as I drop my gloves onto the mantle above the woodstove a small puff of dust lifts.  

The bottles, boxes and firewood will all still be there to be taken care of when accumulating snow gives last call to bird season. But for now, the eager young dogs need more birds, the skillful old dogs deserve more birds, and the primetime stars in between do also, and we all know that this favorite time will come to an end all too soon.