Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Vaporizing Birds

by Lynn Dee Galey
 
“Sally’s down!” In quail country that is not an ominous warning of dog trouble but instead
is a bobwhite quail hunter’s way of calling “Point!”

Quail quickly earned their way into my heart when I moved to Kansas, beautiful little birds whose “Bobwhite!” call is a favorite, right along with the meadowlark’s. Pointing dog work on quail is straight out of story books with varied brush, thickets and fencerows for cover yet the dogs are often visible for viewing pleasure.

Quail have a defined home territory and don’t wander far unless repeatedly pressured. Conservation minded hunters visit a covey only once or twice a season and are careful to take only 1 or 2, or maybe 0, birds from the covey depending on how many are in the group that year.  Researchers have found that covey survival requires at least 8 birds so for me, any covey with fewer than 10 birds means those unfired shells go back into my pocket but with a thanks for the fun for the dogs.   

Living and hunting in the local region you come to know the coveys. My New England habit of naming coverts followed me to the plains: Black Squirrel Cover or the Oak Hill Cover or the Road Crossing Covey. 

And the Vaporizing Covey.

Scattered across the countryside there were numerous coveys whose home turf was a peninsula in a sea of agricultural fields. A rusty barb wire fence would be partially draped between large hedge trees, marking the time when fields were smaller. Brush, berries and locust trees would grow up between the hedge with a rim of prairie grass around the outside edge. A really good hedgerow cover could be up to a mile long and 200 feet wide.

The Vaporizing Covey might be only 20 yards from the truck. Or they might not be found until over a half mile later when the cover petered out to a wisp of a plum thicket. They usually held well for the point, as if they knew that it didn’t matter because they were about to pull their disappearing act regardless. Move in for the flush, and enjoy the exciting sound of those little wings as the birds would scatter.



If lucky I might drop one on the rise, but more often they would pull the usual quail maneuver of flushing through the timber to the other side so that a lone gunner had little opportunity. Carefully watching to see which way they flew, the dogs and I would head that way.

With most hedgerow coveys like this I could locate and get some nice singles work before turning the dogs back toward the truck. But with the Vaporizing Covey…. it was rare to ever find even a single bird: bare ag fields on either side as far as the eye could see and only this strip of cover yet, the birds would disappear. Over the years it became a challenge to find them. I had to assume that they had flown out into the fields and were hunkered down, camouflaged on the bare earth of winter, but sending the dogs on wide sweeps onto the moonscape never produced. Perhaps they doubled all the way back and crossed the road into the over-grazed pasture that was off-limits.

These little native birds have been outsmarting better predators than I for a long time. And although it’s humbling to be bested by a 6 ounce bird it’s good to know that they will likely be there for a very long time. Good luck little guys and thanks for all of the fun.

Authors note: If you are interested in bobwhite quail hunting, here is an essay that I suggest :

           http://ultimateupland.com/quail-hunters-lost-code/




Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Gentle On My Mind

 by Randy Lawrence

The first time I ever heard the word “predacious” was shortly after an over-indulged, sullen shorthaireddrathviszpointer went up the arm of a famous bird dog clinician as if said arm was an ear of roasted corn.  We were on the admittedly grim “force fetch” part of the seminar, and this swaggering dog had had bloody well enough of the process. 

 Once order had been restored, the clinician, nonplussed but still dripping blood, gave a short spiel on the “predacious nature of certain Continental breeds,” as well as some of the more “intensely bred long-tailed dogs used in competition”.   He did so admiringly, saying it was vital to drive. 

 “Folks,” he said, “you want a predacious dog.  You need a certain level of aggression, though not expressed this way,’ gesturing with the leash toward the chastened client dog.  “You gotta have one out there pushin’ cover, lookin’ for somethin’ to kill. 

 

To which we at Firelight might say, tongue in cheek, “Predacious to a point,” yes.  To a fault, no. 

 

What passes for “predacious” in the current common parlance is too often code for “high strung,” perhaps to the point of borderline neurotic: a dog that’s always on edge, challenged in terms of chilling in the house, in transport.  Such dogs remind me of falconers’ birds we’ve known: on overdrive in the field, connected by a thread, always on the rim of being lost. 


Certainly some folks not only choose to live with that profile, but seek it out. “You can always rein one back in,” they insist, “but you can’t instill that Juice.” 

 

For those of us after a proficient, even exciting, companion gun dog, that doesn’t need to be a binary choice.  One absolutely must have  “juice” in casting for game, for intensity on point.  However, that never should be a cover euphemism for a dog aggressive with humans or other dogs.  Neither should that make for merely a suggestion of a field partnership. When “predacious” translates into extreme range or free agency, we readily admit that most of us want to hunt with, rather than for, our dogs.

 

Important too is the notion that between hunts, we want to be able to unplug our canine partners so we can live happily at hearth and home.   A high energy, “predacious” dog can hardly be exercised enough; we spend a great deal of time protecting that dog (the kids, kennelmates, the house cat, the father-in-law) from its own innate edginess.  That’s not the point of having a companion dog. To borrow from the rapper philosopher Jay-Z, “I got 99 problems, but my bird dog can’t be one.” 

 

Recently, an experienced bird dog owner described the temperament of his nice setter as “gentle.”  I bristled at that a bit.  I’d seen the dog hunt on video, had hunted in person with its dam and a littermate.  All were tough, cover bashing gunslingers, savvy, independent operators that accepted their hunters’ spare and judicious handling.  But “gentle”? 

The dictionary set me straight.  “Gentle” is, by definition, “moderate in action,” “absence of bad temper,” “easily managed or handled.”  Check, check, and check. 

Most of us want a dog that works on a string in the field, plays on an even keel between hunts.  We want dogs that accept boundaries and confinement, defer to higher ranked pack members, and require but light, timely correction.  The best of such dogs are ambitious and athletic enough to manage the kind of conditioning a performance dog needs, are intense in the presence of game, but are not on the prod 24/7, 365.

So how do we find such an animal?  We look for a meticulous breeder who’s been producing this kind of dog not occasionally, but for generations.  We choose a breeder who lives and hunts with his or her dogs the way that we do, who can provide references: others who own these dogs and who also live and hunt with them the way we intend.   We ask permission to visit and observe the dogs in the house or in the kennel, best of all, in the field on wild game, even if just on video.  

Obviously if, during our visit, we observe manic barking, caged-animal pacing, or over-assertive bully behavior, we thank the breeder and move on.  Likewise, we’re going to shy away from what an acquaintance delightfully calls “the slobberknocker”:  a sweet, scenic, slow-plodding himbo, a dim bulb athletically suited only for couch d├ęcor or doubling as a fireplace andiron. 

That’s not the “gentle” we’re seeking in a predator gun dog.  Instead, we are looking for “gentle” as in a “quiet mind.”   A quiet-minded dog is alert, charismatic, and connected without being batty.  That’s the dog that can get out of its own way enough to learn and build on that learning.  In a true sense, we’re after a “variable speed” partner, upbeat but not relentlessly, mindlessly up-tempo.   

 Call this animal “The Gentle Predator,” the family gun dog eager and happy on the job, anxious to please, alive and receptive to cues, docile in accepting confinement and boundaries.  Surely all of this can be enhanced by a thoughtful trainer’s brand of “Nurture,” especially in terms of a young dog’s learning to learn, learning to respect space and boundaries, learning to defer to higher ranking pack members…but… all of that’s a heck of a lot easier to shape when starting from “Nature.”




Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Range Rover, Range

 by Lynn Dee Galey

Ahh, arguing on the internet about the finer points of gunning over a pointing dog has taken armchair quarterbacking to new heights.  Unfortunately, many times the kerfuffle is sparked by an unsuspecting person new to upland hunting who asks a question, having no idea that it is a trigger. One of those innocent and valid questions is, “What is the best range for a pointing dog when hunting ruffed grouse?”

You on social media who are whipping out your popcorn bowls in anticipation of sass will be disappointed here. That’s because the definitive, hard and fast answer is:  It depends. 

Some of variables for which “It depends” is the right answer include the type of habitat you are hunting, are you hunting expansive woods or pockets of covers, is it early or late season, and the performance level/reliable staunchness of your dog.  However, you are perhaps the most important variable.


If you like to push through the woods quickly and cover as much ground as possible, hunting timberlands that are thousands of acres with only scattered islands of cover, then a more independent dog who consistently reaches for 200+ yards can be a good fit.  Instead of “watching” this dog work you will likely rely on a GPS.   Communication with the dog if you change directions will require blasts on a whistle or using a tone button on the collar.  When the point alarm goes off, you look at your handheld for distance and direction and quickly head toward the dog. 

Important in this scenario is that you must have confidence that your dog will remain honest on point for those very long minutes it takes to climb over and through fallen treetops and brush to reach him. It is maddening to burn time and energy pushing hard through cover only to have your dog break point and flush the bird before the Gun gets there.


For hunters who want to feel that they have covered their more moderate sized coverts which have a good amount of habitat and want to be able to see the dog working at least some of the time, the dog who hangs between 50-125 yards is likely to be pleasing.  Early season in thick cover you will not see the dog as much as hear her movement, bell or beeper or catch glimpses but you will pretty much know where they are as they hunt.  If you turn around or change direction, communication with the dog can be simply a call or lip whistle.

After the leaves have come down and the ferns die down from frost, visual contact increases and you may even see the action as your dog gets birdy and maybe even as it freezes into a point. Obviously, the dog is still expected to staunchly point until the Gun arrives, but given the closer proximity the dog can obviously expect firepower support to arrive more quickly.


Many grouse hunting areas are rich with two tracks, trails and logging roads. Grouse like edges and these roads provide light which can mean good food sources along their edge.  There are many who enjoy walking these trails and watching their dog cast a little bit ahead or dipping into cover as the party moves ahead.  This dog may be only 25 yards into the cover as they move along. A simple bell or maybe a beeper set to point-only ensures continual communication between the hunter and the dog because they are usually within eye sight of each other.  This hunter usually sees the dog hit scent, begin to work a bird and come to a point. Gun at ready, this hunter is on the scene quickly.



So, which is the dog for you? The answer is, “Which hunter are you?” Being honest with yourself about your style, energy, habitat and preferences will help you at least with this aspect of choosing your bird dog.  And although you love that week of hunting the wide open western prairie, be honest about where and how you spend the bulk of your time. If you hunt thick cover 40 days a year and the prairie only 5 days, it is a case of “horses for courses”: go with the dog that you will most enjoy those 40 days.

Now, as to which of the above dogs will likely produce more shooting opportunities for you?  Sorry, I’m not going to touch that one with a ten foot pole but there are plenty of armchair online quarterbacks who would likely be very happy to give their opinion.


Friday, January 8, 2021

Off Game

 by Randy Lawrence

Aspenglow Briar was in his dotage before I was able to see him in the field, nearly forty years ago now.  The handsome dog had made a name for himself not only on wild birds of seven species, but in Shoot-To-Retrieve trials in the Upper Midwest.  We were in Iowa the first time Briar made game in front of me on the edge of a wide band of CRP between two crop fields.  When he arrowed into a point, his owner motioned me to move in front to flush.

I was white-knuckling the little Fox gun when the rooster pheasant cackled and clawed for air space, Briar leaning back on his haunches.  But before I could mount the gun, a burly coyote, every bit as big as Briar, his own stalk foiled, rose up out of the grass.  He was the first coyote I’d ever seen in my life, and he stood for an instant, wild dog staring down a domestic one, before spurting away.

When I shared with the landowner the details of that weird double find, his face turned purple under his battered Stormy Kromer as he launched into a tirade about not wanting hunters on his land who weren't willing to shoot every coyote they saw. We would go back to that farm for a number of seasons, but never had to make good on his orders. 

                                                                                                                               

Fast forward five years.  The ranchers up in the Dakotas had told us that the warm autumn had kept the snakes above ground.  Still, my blood turned to ice water when my setter Arran cruised into a stretch of buckbrush and that deep menacing buzz rose out of the ground.  The dog froze as if on point. The buzz thrumbed into another hard warning. Arran had never heard a rattlesnake in her life. But I had never seen an English setter moonwalk before, either, and that's exactly what Arran did, tracing her steps in reverse, skirting that patch and hunting on...while her people tried to breathe again and follow. 

                                                                                                                               

Arran always seemed to know. We were in Wisconsin, hunting through a grassy opening between aspen cuts when a friend on my right shouted, "Bear!"  I could hear Arran's bell tolling my direction in an unusual way, signaling a sort of slow rolling canter in the wake of a big dark shape bulling through the grass not 20 yards across my bow.  Apparently, Arran had started this bear from a mid-October snooze, felt compelled to chase just fast enough to keep that bruin moving, but not fast enough to catch up and have to do anything about it. 

                                                       

The last day of the early Ohio grouse season is always a letdown. For a week, then, we must give way to the hordes of city folk come down to our hills to camp, race four wheelers while pretending to “scout,” carouse, and try to kill deer through a killer hangover.  We had trailed the sturdy white and orange pointer a long way down a brushy strip mine auger bench.  Pistol Pete was a savant on running grouse, and my partner Lyle gave him his head, letting him point and relocate, point and relocate.  Looking ahead, the bench was about to contour to our left with a huge tangle of grapevine draping the bend in our path.  Pete locked down on that grape tangle, and Lyle circled around him on the very steep downslope.  I arced uphill to the right, ready for the bird we knew had to be holding there.

Instead, the grapevines exploded into antlers, a basket-racked, eight-point whitetail intent not on getting away, but on killing the dog, his head down like a fighting bull. Pete broke and turned tail back down the auger bench. At Lyle's shout, the buck turned and made a bluff at him before tumbling down the hillside, one back leg flopping uselessly with an obvious and illegal gunshot wound. 

We listened for what seemed like a very long time as the buck half fell, half scrambled down the long drop.  Lyle was calling the dog in and we were figuring out a new line of march when a single shotgun blast echoed from far below.   Some city sport had just had a week tending camp fall into his lap.

                               

On Thursday nights, the football team I helped coach practiced late.  That meant that one afternoon a week, I could slip away from school, drive to a nearby woodcock covert, change clothes, bell the dog, and get in a decent hour’s hunt before I had to head back.  One favorite spot was an impoundment rimmed by wetlands spiked with alders and paper birches that held woodcock, spring and fall.

The hike in followed a closed DNR service road through a spare woodlot, and I was letting the Captain burn off a day in his truck box when suddenly he whirled and pointed something just off the lane.  “That better not be Bugs,” I muttered to the big pointer as I fumbled in my vest for shells.  “Better not be a BR.”

But I knew it was not a rabbit, Captain tipped nearly over in his “right there” crouch.  I had just started to walk in an upwind arc beyond the dog when I saw the bowling pin shadow in the clump of poverty grass.

Pheasant!  I braced the gun on my hip, barrels upright.  The season wasn’t in on ringnecks, but how great would it be to have a band of these birds where we could come back and work on them?

I was nearly to the clump from the upwind side when the shadow shifted. Poked its head out of the grass.  Looked the Captain in the eye.  Looked me in the eye…and blinked.

It was a peacock. 

That’s when the bird flushed. The lift was so slow, so ungainly, that when the Captain could no longer hold his water, he snapped two plumes from a bedraggled tail fan as the peacock struggled to a low branch of a nearby tree.

The impoundment abuts several farms, and I suppose Mr. NBC was a refugee from one of them.  But as I leashed the dog and heeled him away, both of us kept turning to see a bird of a decidedly different feather draped over that bare limb.



                               


The dogs and I'd been on the road for over a month traveling up through the Lake States hunting grouse and woodcock before meeting friends in South Dakota for pheasants. I'd pulled a camper for this first long swing after my retirement from teaching and had settled into sharing the road with a pointer, a setter, and an exuberant Labrador puppy. This was our last night in the grouse woods, and the pointer Moxie had honors. 

The woodcock seemed nearly played out, but Mox had made two excellent grouse finds that offered no shot when her bell went still on the edge of a small clearing.  The wingbeats began just as I stepped into the open, a bald eagle that seemed the size of a 747 leaping from a deer carcass. 

Give Moxie credit.  She’d had Eastern Wild Turkeys lay for points in Ohio, and they’d tempted her mightily when they thundered out of rocky reclaimed strip mine edges.  But an eagle with a body about the same size as the four year old boy child she was helping to raise back home?  She held through lift-off, then broke, moving with the same hesitation that Arran had shown with the bear, clearly conflicted whether or not this was something she really wanted to catch or not.


We made a loop back toward the trailer, killing a grouse that had run away from a staunch point before flushing well out, a bird that dropped on a lucky shot and was tucked, head up, under a pile of deadfall when Moxie pointed it there.

We were feeling pretty smug, Moxie and I, dusk falling around us, huddled together, admiring our grouse when the Wild I’d dreamed most of my life rang entirely too close. 


In the decades since Briar’s coyote, packs of these song dogs had moved into our home region, and we’d become accustomed to their music.  I tried to make this into a coyote howl, but I knew from the first throaty bawl that this was no ‘yote.

A single high note held for a very long time, a keening cry that broke gooseflesh across my entire body before falling, falling, then finally playing out, as if the animal had finally run out of air…or out of things he wanted to say.

I’d overhead wolf gossip in the little cement block bar and restaurant where I had taken a couple of meals, more to escape my own company than to find anything good to eat.  Common North Woods tap room stuff:  the decimation of the deer herds, calves devoured, a pack of bear hounds murdered, a shoot-shovel-and-shut-up brag, curses for the “wolf lovers” lobbying against an open hunting and trapping season.

 I had thought no more of wolves after that evening.  But as Moxie crowded close, ears up, tail clamped between her legs, we waited together, knowing that we absolutely didn’t want to run into the wolf that had sounded so close, but I, at least, desperately wanted him to cut loose just one more descending scale.

 We waited there for some time.  Nothing – a woods settling into nightfall.  The grouse was a warm weight in the game pouch against my back as I stood to clip Moxie to her lead.   Studying the compass, it occurred to me that to chase ruffed grouse in country that can sustain coyote, fisher, bear, bobcat, eagle, moose, and grey wolf is to be reminded of my place as a visitor.  Not “visitor” so much as “pilgrim,” a sojourner come to find something lost from living that he is convinced he cannot live without.



Sunday, January 3, 2021

Firelight Chat: The Ties That Bind

by Randy Lawrence

The meme cut to the heart of it all: “God, please make me half the person my dog thinks I am.”

Certainly, isn’t that the humbling thing about being owned by a dog, one of the reasons our prehistoric ancestors invited them in to the fire in the first place?  We can trip, stumble, fall, and sprawl in every other aspect of our lives…but come home to our dog, and we can be reminded that we are at least not beyond possible redemption.

So what can we possibly give back for that level of acceptance, of loyal faith?  Surely the creature comforts are the minimum.  When we bring home a puppy, we are making the promise of  warm, dry, clean lodging, fresh water, ample food.  But it’s the next level commitment that makes all the difference:  a place in our lives.

By that, we mean safely, intelligently integrating our dogs into our busy schedules, our quality time.  Some of the most effective, and surely most rewarding, gun dog partnerships are forged away from the field – in our homes, our yards, our vehicles, our day to day lives.

The kind of full partnership I would wish for our dogs is an everyday thing, shaping a gun dog by molding a living room dog.  Child dog.  Golf cart dog.  TV time dog.  Leash dog. Vehicle dog.  Stupid Pet Tricks Dog. Dining companion dog.  Paddleboard dog.  Bedtime dog.  A dog that doesn’t bull its way ahead of us through a kitchen door, doesn’t surf counter tops, accepts crate confinement, falls into a clean-out routine, can wait its turn while we are working from home, that understands boundaries and markers, that responds, if not always happily, then dutifully, to a gradually expanding set of clear, concise cues, be they spoken or offered in body language.  Every useful connection made in Daily Life With Dog is primer undercoating for a working relationship in the field.

I still know men and women in our hills who insist that keeping a gun dog or livestock dog in the house makes the animal “soft.”  Some prefer keeping a dog on a chain to build desire to run; others will mix a sprinkle of gunpowder with a dog’s food to gin up hunting desire, or keep only females because of their presumed gender-based drive to forage for their puppies.

Over and over in this blog, we ask readers to define for themselves the experience they want with their dogs.  Is the dog a tool to bring out after a favorite cap is lifted from a wall peg, feet are snugged into carefully greased and laced leather boots, the gun is cased and loaded into the truck?  Is the dog an accouterment, another accessory to our image of ourselves as Upland Hunters, more like a boutique small bore double or high tech hunting vest than collaborator or co-conspirator? 

Instead, is that bird dog the most compelling reason we do what we do, so much so that we’d give up going to the woods or marshes or prairies before we’d think about going shooting without our dog?  So much so that to have our dogs in our homes, squarely in the middle of our lives, only makes the ties that bind a hunting partnership more purposeful, richer, sweeter…not to mention hellamore fun?

If she’s not with you right now, go get your dog.  Bring her in to the fire circle.  
She belongs there, while you figure out just how to be half the person her eyes tell you that you are.