Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Promises Shared

by Lynn Dee Galey 

"Eight little promises" was a comment made by a friend when I shared a photo of Annie's litter.   How perfect!  And got me to thinking about just how many promises really are represented with each litter of Firelight puppies. 

I promise that I have done my best to produce bird dogs who will give their gunners the kind of days that turn into stirring, warm memories that last a lifetime.  

I promise that they have a healthy foundation behind them and an upbringing that solidly places them on the doorstep of a bright future.

The carefully selected owners promise to love and care for them, make them part of their family, and provide them with a lifetime of sharing the thrill of wild birds in wild places.

The puppies promise... well, they are the embodiment of promise.  Eight generations of Firelight blood runs through their veins. Their beautiful faces look directly into the soul of all who take the time to look.  

Good luck little guys. You may not live with me but each of you is a part of me. 

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Katie Answers The Bell

By Randy Lawrence

Katie at 8 weeks

He's not a bad guy, her former owner.  In fact, he's a friend whom I admire.  A bright, highly successful professional and a driven angler and hunter, he would tell you that he loves his bird dogs, and in his way, I believe him.  

But at that time, he was also a zealot with a hard-edged, cookie cutter way of training forged in a perfectionist's bent.  That didn't work for Katie.  

He should have known better.  It didn't work for her mother either, a beautiful dog with the most soulful and troubled eyes I had ever seen.  She worshipped her Man, but struggled figuring out how to please him.

So when he found tremendous success with a completely different sort of dog, Katie, whom I'd long admired, came to my place for a reboot of sorts.

Understand that, if you took inventory on this tattered old farm, seems like everybody here, two-legged and four, came in for a reboot of one kind or another...and stayed.  But not Katie.  She would have a different calling.

Her former owner's complaint was that she was "tentative" in the field.  So for the first several weeks, Katie got back to just being a dog.  She played with the others.  She swam in the pond.  She rolled in horse manure, barked at the UPS man, and stalked the pigeon lofts.   Although she is not of the Firelight strain of English setter, she is more like my boys in temperament than not.  She eagerly responded to the things we do that have built their initiative and furthered our companionship.

Her confidence level buoyed, I contacted my long-time friend Bob DeMott.  I knew he'd been considering an understudy for his girl Maddie, was not interested in starting a puppy, and I felt certain that he and Katie would hit it off.

He came to the farm the next Saturday.  After a get-acquainted session in the barnyard, I suggested we go up on the hill where we go to learn with our dogs.  I was eager for him to see the beautiful, collected reach of her run, her high-headed, tail cracking way of going.  

We were nearly ready to make hay on the hill field and the grass was quite high.  Almost as an afterthought, I strapped a bell collar on her before she made the first cast.  I gave her two taps on the head to send her on.

The bell clattered, and Katie froze.  Then she panicked, running in quick bursts of ten or fifteen yards before racing back in.  Ten yards out, ten yards back in.   Stopping.  Checking.  Tail tucked.  Ten yards out and back, bell banging the whole time.

I hung my head. This was not the Katie I had described to my friend over the phone.  Yes, I had depicted her as "sensitive."  The expression "basket case" had not entered the conversation.

For my motley crew, the bell collar is a signal for "Game on!"  It excites them.  They dance and beg for it to be their turn to ring that bell.  To see beautiful Katie cowed by that same bell was gut-wrenching.

Williedog wore the clapper out of one bell in his insatiable drive to find birds.

 I put Katie at heel and unbuckled the bell collar.  Up came her head.  Her tail began to wag.  It was as if by taking all that neck clamor and stuffing it into my vest pocket, I'd lifted a sort of spell cast by The Baddog Sorcerer.  

That's when we knew.  In the team sports vernacular, we sometimes refer to harsh, regimented, fit-the-mold-or-else leadership and teaching as "hard coaching."  Quite obviously, Katie had been "coached hard" whenever she had a bell or beeper or (gulp!) inappropriately applied eCollar strapped 'round her neck.

In sports, not every athlete thrives under hard coaching.  Hard coaching didn't make Katie "tentative."  It positively wilted her.

Katie was sweet, beautiful, and a wonderful house dog.  Bob was taken with her affectionate manners and intrigued by her potential; just coming two, she was also six years younger than his older setter, the perfect age gap for his purposes.  Bob agreed to take her on trial when he came back from a fishing trip to Montana.

Bob DeMott and his setter Meadow (from his author's bio page on

Beginning that evening, Katie lived in her bell collar.  I belled other dogs when they played, which caused a riot at first.  

My guys: "We're hunting?  Here in the Thunderdome yard?  What's up with that?"  

But they adjusted, and so did Katie.  She wore her bell to be fed.  To be petted.  To run solo in the barnyard to help with chores, the horses snorting and rolling their eyes and the Noisy Big Coyote.  

Had I had time before Bob returned, I would have done the same with several different beeper collars.  But the summer raced by, and when Bob came back, she was better...but not over herself quite yet. 

It's important to note that Bob DeMott is no stranger to "project" dogs.  He's good with them because he's the most ardent woodcock hunter I know and keeps an ever-changing inventory of coverts in several counties.  He gets out every day in the fall hunting season and the spring migration and finds birds.   

The crowning piece is that Bob is an experienced, thoughtful guy who knows how to read a dog.  We agreed that he would just take her hunting.  He would not to speak to her when she went on point.  He would simply let Katie be Katie, rebuilding her confidence as much with what he didn't do as what he did.

So when the woodcock season came in, Bob covered Katie wild bird contacts, letting woodcock be, with apologies to The Big Liebowski, the rug that held the room together.   Our fair lady's makeover began to take hold.

Bob keeps a detailed hunting diary that, one day, will make the perfect companion to his excellent book,  Angling Days: A Fly Fisher's Journals.  Then we'll all have a chance to read about Maddie and Meadow and a quirky little grouse savant named Babe.  In that first autumn that Katie went to live with Bob and his partner Kate Fox, moved from a mincing, recovering neurotic to a bird-busting, bit-in-her-teeth bumbler.  All the while Bob stayed the course, and by and by, Katie showed signs of becoming what she was meant to be all along - a smart, steady companion gun dog that became more keen, more decisive, with each bird contact.

Katie and Bob DeMott, spring woodcock.  (Photo:  Kate Fox)

This past March, to a world already wracked by heartache and loss, came an email from Bob I had been dreading.  Sometime earlier, Bob's older dog Maddie had had a section of her beautiful setter tail amputated when cancer had been found there.  The concern at the time was that the disease had spread.  

"We had to have Maddie put down today by our vet.  She had been struggling with a cancerous tumor around her heart and was no longer able to breathe right.  She leaves a hole in my heart - she was the best woodcock dog I ever had and pretty much a dear in all other categories as well.  I am so glad I took Katie on because we will have a lovable dog in the house."

A second email arrived later that same day.  

"Kate and I took Katie out...this pm," Bob wrote, "We had a nice walk and watched her point three different woodcock, all in honor of her sister Maddie."  

Could there be a more fitting requiem for a grand bird dog, a tribute from understudy to star?  

In an earlier draft of this blog, I'd described Katie as "special needs."  She'd climbed out of the hole that had been dug for her with an approach tailored especially to her temperament.   That's when it occurred to me:  What dog isn't "special needs," especially among the more intuitive and responsive setters that we love best?  

In Kate Fox and Bob DeMott, Katie found partners more interested in reassuring than correcting her.  Bob's is a patient, respectful, woodsman's approach to hunting that lends itself to both the dog's rhythms and the game's.  From the beginning, he stubbornly kept far more faith in Katie than she had in herself.  He had made an outline of how to help her and adjusted it to fit Katie's progress as the beautiful orange belton struggled just to get out of her own way.

Through round after round of grouse and woodcock coverts, in rotation with the superb Maddie, Katie had become more and more eager to step into the ring, duck into whatever noisemaker her Man chose for her collar, and push cover with more tenacity, more savvy, more joy.

At the same time, DeMott and Fox brought the big dog fully into their lives (including a good-natured working around the inevitable Kate/Katie name issues).  They endured Katie's rogue bouts of kitchen counter surfing while supporting her with a solid foundation of dependable routine, behavior boundaries, and acceptance.  

The message  (though maybe sometimes through gritted teeth) was clear: "We don't dwell on mistakes.  Screwing up doesn't mean you're a screw-up.  We're all just better than that, and we'll roll on...together. Always together."

Katie at home with Bob DeMott (Photo:  Kate Fox)

If that sounds like something out of a pop psychology cliche fest, think about how your own setter looks to you for cues.  If you've any kind of relationship beyond water bowl and food dish with that dog, she looks to you for reassurance when she's uncertain, for correction/redirection when she knows she's strayed off the reservation, and the "attagirls" she lives for, proof that she's gotten it right.  

We owe it to these dogs (and to our own pleasure in bird hunting) to patiently set them up for success.  We do that by being proactive, thoughtful and consistent in our communication, realistic in our expectations, mindful of our dogs' individual schedule of progress, forgiving of our own mistakes and theirs, and flexible, always flexible, in our approach.

With her family circle closed more tightly, Katie is no longer a backup.  She is the starter, taking all the reps.  Smart money says she will continue to flourish under the program she and Bob and Kate have put together, another intelligent, biddable, confident birdfinder to fill pages of Bob's journal.

"Confidence" is an interesting word, isn't it?  One definition is "a sense of self-assurance or faith in competency".   Another, of course, is "to hold an intimate trust".  The photo below would be the perfect illustration for both sides of "confidence" in The Bird Hunter's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary.  

Attagirl, Katie.  Attagirl.

Katie, belled, beepered and well pleased with herself and Her Guy. (Photo: Bob DeMott)

Monday, May 31, 2021

For Memorial Day: Elegy for a Sportsman

James "Eddie" Lake

~By Randy Lawrence

 He never talked about himself.  Only after he passed away at age 86 did his small circle of  "country friends" learn that that he'd spent time in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.  We knew he had shot competitive trap and live pigeons.  He never, ever told us he and his pet Remington Model 32 won the Grand American High  Overall Championship at Vandalia one year.  I read about it in a scrapbook his family had laid out for funeral calling hours.

We knew he'd been an auctioneer of note, that he'd hobnobbed with the high rollers of Columbus's sporting set, especially the Ohio Valley Retriever Club.  We knew he'd once had a prize-winning herd of Hereford cattle on a hobby farm where, he once confided to me, "every gate hung true."

Mostly we knew Eddie Lake as a committed collector of fine English guns.  Every year for the dove opener, he'd assemble this or that gleaming Holland and Holland or James Purdey and Sons, or Boss and pass it around amongst our five or six quite irregular "Regulars."  My favorites were the Purdey hammer guns.  One 20-bore with impossibly figured stock wood had hammers sculpted to resemble raptors' heads.  Had there been a nearby crossroads with a devil on duty, I would have crawled through glass to get there after our shoot and sell my very soul for that masterpiece of the gunmaker’s art. 

One evening, Ed and his wife Guiana hosted our annual game dinner.  Eddie, the most gracious of hosts, kept disappearing into another room.  The long suffering Guiana rolled her eyes and allowed as how Eddie was bidding via telephone auction on a particular vintage double gun that he'd been tracking for years.  He finally rejoined the party muttering that he'd lost out to Sheik So-and-So.  “By golly, he knew I was around,” Eddie growled, drinking a tall iced tea that had lost its ice many bids ago.

On a visit to one of the country's great gun rooms, I was treated to a backroom showing of an exquisite 20-gauge Woodward over-under that had just come in on consignment.  The next time I was shared a campfire cookout with Eddie and some other friends, I began describing this rare gun that had belonged to a woman who shot, and how her Harvard math professor son had inherited the gun and decided he’d rather have the cash and...

Eddie quietly interrupted me.  “I know that gun” - and then recited the serial number.

On another visit, Eddie asked me what I was writing.  I told him I was working on a magazine article about dealing with pressure in competitive shotgunning, and wondered if he have any experiences to share (this was before I knew about the Grand American title).  He spat a long stream of Mail Pouch off the porch and said that the only time he ever felt pressure was during a live pigeon tournament in Havana.  He had two birds to kill for the Big Prize and as he was loading two shells into his pigeon gun, he looked down and noticed his pants were flapping.

"I looked up at the flags to see if the wind was blowing, and they were all limp.  My pants were flapping because my legs were shaking so hard."

Yes, he killed the last pair.  No, he didn't tell me how much money was in the pot.

Nobody on the porch said a word, but I'm certain all of us were thinking, "Havana??"

Eddie was looking off over the horse pasture, as if watching something only he could see.  “I didn’t shoot that way every time out,” he said, more to himself than to the rest of us.  “But they always knew I was around.”

Toward the end of his shooting life, Eddie wrangled a Caesar Guerini dealership.  He was a big fan of those solid built with the benefit of so much modern technology.  That was good enough for our ring of dove shooters.  More than a decade later, several of us are still shooting hand-picked Guerinis from Ed's inventory, purchased at what Ed called "the kinfolk price."  

But Eddie didn't last long as a dealer, giving up the enterprise after he'd nearly come to blows with his stateside connection.  Caught between the Italians and Eddie, the guy must have gone nearly insane with the gun aficionado badgering him for specific models executed to Best Gun standards at wholesale production gun prices.  Eddie sent a lot more guns back to the distributor than he ever sold to the public.

Ed had made a lot of money.  He managed to hold on to a bunch of that money because, as Mike Ditka once said of Chicago Bears patriarch George Halas, “He threw nickels around like manhole covers."  My Elhew-bred brag dog Fancy Dancer had whelped a litter of pointer puppies.  Ed had admired Fancy’s work and expressed interest buying one of her sons.   He came to look at the litter in the company of a mutual friend, another older gent who had also done particularly well in business.  

I handed Eddie a black-headed male I thought was exceptional.  Ed gave the pup a thorough once-over, then asked the price.  When I quoted Eddie what I thought was my own version of "the kinfolk price," the old auctioneer couldn't help himself.  He launched a spurt of tobacco juice into my wife's shrubbery, cocked one eye, and said, "I don't suppose you'd take ____"

His companion growled, "#*&%@, Ed," and walked back to the truck.

Ed shrugged, sighed, then peeled off a small stack of crisp hundred dollar bills. That's how "Billydog" the pointer pup entered a long and much loved career as sporting ornament, one-Lake States -trip-a-year-grouse savant, and a regular on Bob Thompson's farm for training and quail shooting. 

When Billy died, we all took it hard.  But when I offered to help Ed find another bird dog, he very quietly said, "No thank you.  I just don't think another dog would suit me like Billydog."

The photo that begins this blog is my favorite of Eddie Lake.   Every September 1, he was the first to roll into the barnyard, one of his wife's amazing lemon cakes balanced on the seat of his gleaming pickup, oak and leather gun case stashed behind the seat.  In those days, he was among the last to leave the field, too, laughing and whooping and loving every single second of the day.  Nobody I have ever known loved to pull a shotgun trigger more than Ed Lake.

This picture was made the year he admitted that his eyes were beginning to let him down.  The pile of 2" RST shot shells was threatening to dwarf his small bag of doves.  But Ed had found a barred black and white turkey wing feather near his favorite shooting post in the shade of a volunteer apple tree.   He said he thought it would give him "a little In'din stealth" if he stuck it in his hat.  He grinned and asked me to take his picture "so my friends will know I'm still around."

I love to think of him there, striking a pose in the hot September sun, one of his beloved Purdeys cradled in his big, capable hands, the guy who understood in the very marrow of his bones that the only thing that mattered after safety was that all of this was supposed to be fun, whether a person is age 8 or 80 as Eddie was in this photo.

Fast forward five Septembers, and Eddie's wife Guiana sends her annual Opening Day lemon cake with another friend.  We had been told Eddie was lost somewhere down the dark hallway of dementia and had gone to live in his beautiful lodge-like country home, a sprawling place remodeled for home health care.  But his predicament didn’t seem real until it came time to gather our gear and traipse up that hill to shoot.

I have no way of knowing if Eddie had even a clue Guiana had sent that cake.  What I do know is that nobody shot doves from under "Eddie's Apple" that bittersweet late summer's afternoon. I remember, too, a difficult time seeing what I was doing later that evening when I cut each shooter an Eddie-sized slab of that beautiful cake.  

Something in my eye, I reckon.  Or maybe it was just the certainty that Eddie’s friends did indeed know he would always be around.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Burrs Under the Saddle

By Randy Lawrence

 Sweet Jane originally came from a reclaimed strip mine commons somewhere in deepest, darkest Appalachia.  Apparently, mountain folk there still mark their livestock before turning them out on those highland community pastures.  To that end, Sweet Jane has a notch cut in the tip of each of her ears.

She also has scars I find every time I groom her, ridges of crusted skin lying across her chest where some cretin used extreme measures to tie her head at an angle to make her gait.

She came from a notorious horse auction to a trader here in Ohio, sold as a 9 year old.  I bought her at a deserted fairgrounds on a cold January afternoon during a pandemic, the talisman I needed for assurance that spring and warmth and health for my neighbors and me was truly on the way.  

My vet and my farrier are certain she is closer to 15 years old.  Doesn't matter.  I'd cover my age if I could.

She didn't come with a name.  She earned it standing in a snowstorm, sharing hay I had forked to her.  A donkey the other mares had bullied away was feeding at her side.  Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground were on the satellite radio in the truck.  Sweet Jane.

She stands patiently to be saddled.  This morning, doing my "pre-flight check" of tack, I found a spiny ball of burdock under the saddle pad.  At the least, that nasty bit of nature's splendor would have made Sweet Jane uncomfortable, but who knows?  Maybe Sweet Jane wouldn't have been so sweet with that burr digging into her flank and I'd have gotten another lesson in just how little a 66-year-old carcass bounces when tossed to the turf.   

Flipping that prickly ball into the barn trash bin, it occurred to me that maybe I could use a little de-burring now and then, a quick airing of grievances beyond Seinfeld's "Festivus" traditions to keep them from rubbing me absolutely raw.  Perhaps a list of annoyances is in order, but in no particular order... especially the self-inflicted ones:

1.  When I give my bird dog a command more than once.  "Here, Gunbutt.  Gunbutt, come!  Gunbutt!  You come HERE to me!"  I don't need Baer testing to know why my dogs seem hearing impaired.

2.   Mindless generalized barking for dogs and in humans.

3.    Psuedo conversations that open with, "I hunt with a Chocolate Lab..."  "My chestnut tri-colored setter..."  "Our Golden Doodle..."  (My opposition to this would be suspended if I were being offered a stately mold of retriever-shaped gourmet chocolate.  Different deal).

4.    People who wheel into my barnyard, wave a greeting, and turn their dogs out, thinking I'll be delighted to see them (the dogs, that is) irrigate my pitiful flower beds, send the homing pigeons into hysterics, rouse my dogs who might be kenneled at the time or worse, confront those who are lounging on their own porch or in their own yard, stir up the horses:  You know, "running free" like they can't in suburbia, like they think mine do here...

5.    Professional hunting guides taking grouse and woodcock clients on public tracts of land.  Not cool.

6.    Dog breed cultists.  Cultists of particular strains of dog breeds.  Shotgun model cultists.  Gear cultists.  Cultists using any or all of the above (complete with demurely referred to price points) as credentials.

7.    Dog traders.  Wheeler-dealers.  Volume breeders, especially those breeding strictly on pedigree.

8.    I think bird dog chat room/Facebook group experts would make the list, except I only ventured there once, so those are imaginary burrs...but annoying nonetheless.

9.    Disrespectful commentary that begins with "With all due respect..." or arrogant punditry that starts, "In my humble opinion..."  Go away.

10.    The "Whack 'Em/Stack 'Em/Kodak 'Em" crowd with their body count tailgate snapshots of "a big day afield" (been there, done that, sold 'em with articles, shame on me).

11.    Speaking of photos, portraits of dogs on point taken from the rear, giving ol' Gunbutt the appearance of having but one eye.

12.    Folks who put their dogs up after a run without drying them off, then checking ears, eyes, feet, "leg pits,"  etc.

13.    Biters.  Including dogs.

14.    "Waterproof" anything that really isn't.

15.    Dull pocketknives, humans, books, dogs, films.

16.    Waxing: waxed cotton, trucks, skis, body parts.

17.    Cheap (and expensive) bootlaces that won't stay laced.

18.    Harness-style "collars" I see folks using so their Husky or Bichon-Friese or Sheepadoodle can more easily drag their doting humans down the pavement.

19.    Covert cannabis cultivation in public land grouse coverts (except at harvest time).

20.    Folks who don't pick up spent shot shells in the field.

21.    Ill mannered people with dogs in outdoor restaurants;  ill-mannered dogs with clueless people in outdoor restaurants.  

22.    Paying more attention to our hand-held electronics than our dogs' hunt.

23.    Three-inch 28-gauge shotshells...and shotguns chambered for them.  Wingshooting's best example of when more is less.

24.    Retriever gun dogs wearing buoyancy vests on quiet water.

25.    Whiskey in flavors.  Competitive "hunts."  Both are fake.

26.    Self-absorbed, curmudgeonly twits who make lists of pet peeves, most of which they've been guilty of themselves.   But maybe sometimes a good de-burring is good for both saddle and soul.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

A Breath for Seth


By Randy Lawrence

"Is it Friday? Wow, what a week!  I thought I was supposed to be down here in Ohio to kind of take a vacay from hormonal madness.  But noooooooooooooo... A big truck wheels in, I'm introduced to a brazen female from 'way outta town, and suddenly I'm supposed know,  'Make Whoopie'.

Save the wisecracks.  It ain't easy bein' stud dog me.

'Specially when they are really pushy like this one.  I mean, I don't blame her.    I got it all goin' on.  But seriously!  At one point, she was playing so rough I had to jump up on the dog house to escape.  Not a dignified move in the least, but hey...enough is enough!

All the while in the background, the humans are talking in code, like they don't trust me to know what's really up.  LH spikes. All kinds of numbers.  Debating about ovulating... all as I'm over here getting a tail whipping up in my grill, dealing with rude confusion over who mounts whom and outrageous marking all over my playground area...and then, The Great Mystery clicks, everything gets crazy and BOOM!

Suddenly I can't move, I'm terrified that she's going to, and I'm like frantic, lookin' for my human. 'Dude! Lil' help over here?' 

In a blink, he has hold of my collar and hers, telling me to chill, that it's all good.  

'All good for you, maybe, you and the other human, grinning like fools and bumpin' knuckles...but do you understand what's happened here?'

It's I always forget about that awkward push-me/pull-you deal.  It's part of the job, but take it from ol' Sethie - it AIN'T the good time part.

Afterward, there was happy talk and hand shakes between humans, lots of ear scratching for me, so I suppose we did ok, she and I.  But I gotta tell ya...when the Other Human clipped a lead on that lady-what-wasn't-a-lady and walked her out to her truck, I was relieved to be back inside and racked on the cool kitchen floor.

I left a wake-up call for when it's time to go hang out with my boyz over in the main yard.  I've never been a big kiss 'n' tell kinda dog, but there's a Pyrenees in there who acts like 'Great' is his first name.  Can't wait for him to ask, 'Whaddya been doin' behind the house, Seth?'

Lemme tell you about great, white dog...

Remember Your First Time?

by Randy Lawrence

I do not remember my first grouse shot over a bird dog's point.  All I know is that it was a long time coming.

I went to the dogs at age 27.  It's important to note that until then, I'd been squirrel and rabbit hunting maybe a dozen times.  I had never been bird hunting, never seen a pointing dog work.  In fact, the first and only gun dog I'd been around, growing up, was a Louisiana Delta Labrador in exile, here in Ohio only because his human was in on our brief oil boom in the mid-60's.  

The dog repeatedly ran away from his yard in a nearby subdivision because he loved to swim in the big cement cattle trough we kept for our milk cows. I only knew he was a gun dog because the man in the wide black cowboy hat who talked like Justin Wilson kept coming to get "Blackie." Every time he visited, he bragged about the ducks he and Blackie shot "back home" before loading the dog into a shiny new diesel pickup and rumbling away.

I got slower and slower about calling Mr. Big Hat Ragsdale to report Blackie AWOL.  After all, the big dog loved to ride in the front of our beat up grain truck with my dad when he took a load of ear corn to town to be ground into cow feed.  Blackie was the only dog afforded that privilege until the pointer Riley 35 years later.   

Dad would stand talking to the dusty feed mill workers while dumping our corn into the churning trench augers.   Blackie always leaned out the window and wagged his tail, hoping someone - anyone - would have time to offer an ear scratch.  Inevitably, somebody new would ask, "Is that a full blood Labrador?”

That's when my dad would pounce.  "He's full of blood alright."

Side-splitting farmer humor never gets old.

Heir to Blackie Ragsdale:  Quail Valley Boots

Whenever Blackie and I were alone, waiting on Mr. Ragsdale to come fetch him, I would wrap my arms around the Lab's burly chest and bury my face behind his silky ears.  Blackie always smelled musky, very different from our farm dogs.  Well...musky, with the slight cachet of cow trough algae.

Fast forward nearly two decades, and I'm teaching, I am coaching, but something is still missing.  I accepted an invitation to spend a week on a shooting preserve.  Every morning, I raptly watched my cousin train English Setters, German Shorthairs, Brittany Spaniels (in those days), English Pointers, and Gordon Setters.  I came home burning up with a fever for hunting over a full-blooded gun dog of my own

During my school lunch hour,  I would slip out of the cigarette smoke and constant chatter of the teachers' lounge and study the dog ads in the back of the outdoor magazines.  It was a while before I nerved up enough to call a man in Michigan and reserve an English setter puppy "from grouse dog lines."  

I did this because my new brother-in-law and his brother Lyle talked endlessly about jump shooting ruffed grouse near their hunting cabin in West Virginia.  I figured that if I had a dog "from grouse dog lines," maybe they'd invite me to go grouse hunting.

But while waiting on my puppy to be born, I decided I needed a shotgun.  I still had the single shot, hammer 20-gauge my parents had reluctantly purchased for my 17th birthday.  But a careful survey showed neither Ted Trueblood nor Bob Brister nor George Bird Evans, Burt Spiller, or Tap Tapply toted a gun like that through the grouse woods.

 I settled for a second hand Savage 330 over-under from the village gunshop (a) because it was made in Italy, (b) I knew Italian shotguns were good but  I couldn't afford a Beretta, and (c) I didn't know where in the world to find a three-shot, 12-gauge Win-Lite Model 59 autoloader that author Frank Woolner, in my library copy of Grouse and Grouse Shooting, touted as the penultimate grouse killing weapon.


A Win-Lite 59 before it's been "Woolnerized"

I studied Woolner's book like it was the Torah. Frank had lopped the gun's fiberglass barrel to make a 23-inch cylinder. He sliced off the pistol grip, then circumsized the forearm to make the little gun even lighter to carry and faster to bring into play.

Fifty-one years after the publication of Grouse and Grouse Hunting, shooters still rhapsodize about a "Woolnerized" Model 59. But back then, I didn't think I was up to all of that DIY surgery, though I was totally on board with the "single sighting plane" of Woolner's autoloading shotgun.

"Single sighting plane" was a concept I had pulled from a Gene Hill essay. The expression posited that the narrow reference point of one barrel made for more precise alignment between gun and target. 

Never mind that wingshooters don't "sight," nor even register the barrel(s) other than as a peripheral blur.   One barrel or two, practically speaking, is irrelevant.  But there I was, a fledgling bird gunner, looking for an edge. Gene Hill wrote it.  I believed it.  That settled it.  

Thankfully, that Savage 330 sported a "single sighting plane." I put the $300 double gun on lay-away and paid on it every time my teacher's check hit the bank.  I had my puppy endlessly pointing a wing on a string before I had my first bird gun paid off.

It would make a better story if I could say I shot my first grouse over a point by the puppy I named "Drummer."  In fact, it would make a 'way better story if I wrote that I shot my first grouse over a point.  In fact, I didn't do either.

By the time I had a dog and gun of my own, Lyle had caught the bug, too.  He bought a well-started pointer with the big money he made driving a tow motor at Honda. We began making the five hour round trips to southeastern Ohio and into West Virginia together.  

Lyle and I quickly learned that shooting grouse only over a green dog's points meant that we wouldn't shoot very many (read "maybe not any")  ...and that was unacceptable to both of us.  What's the point of going grouse hunting except to kill grouse and bring them home and spread their fans to astound the flatlanders before overcooking them in cream of mushroom soup and pretending they are delicious?

I'm Ok with not remembering the first grouse I killed with that clunky Italian-made Savage gun.  All I know is that the bird wasn't sitting in a tree.  Gene Hill had written such practices were not sporting.

Savage Model 330

But I am sad that I do not remember the first grouse I killed over a point.  I'm certain it wasn't over Drummer, who, under my over-wrought training and handling, would lie down on point and did not hold a grouse for the gun for several long seasons.  I imagine it was over Lyle's pointer, and I'm certain I didn't believe it when I saw the bird tumble.  

I can safely say that I probably raced Lyle's cretinous jaws-of-steel dog to the fall, and that my friend probably had to listen to my play by play on a loop during the long drive back north.  Garrulous golfers at the 19th hole have nothing on wingshooters.

Even more certain am I that once I was home, I spread that bird's tail fan over and over, holding it for Drummer to smell like a bloodhound owner sharing a sniff of a fugitive's underwear with his trusty canine cohort.

Trust me when I say that when nobody was looking, I surely buried my own nose in those blue black ruff feathers.  I'm sure they smelled a bit musky...with not even a hint of cow trough algae.

John James Audubon:  "Ruffed Grouse" from Birds of America


Saturday, May 22, 2021

Rookie Year


by Lynn Dee Galey

Born in a small Maine cabin in the dead of winter, Firelight Setter pups Seth and  Sally never saw bare ground until they had made the 1600 mile journey to our new home in Kansas, nicknamed the Coyote Den for both the address and the wild dog songs heard close by on many nights.  For 26 hours Seth and his sister Sally rode crated next to me on the bench seat of the moving truck rental.  I drove and the three of us howled sporadically, sometimes to songs on the radio, sometimes just to let the world know we were still there.

           It was spring in Kansas, and the two pups spent their days romping the fenced acres of our new home and discovering that adult dogs, both their English relatives and their new partners, a brace of bob-tailed French Brittany boys, tolerated puppies but that their ears and tails were not chew toys.  Soon enough the pups learned canine social skills and could relax in the company of the pack or at least knew enough to stay out of their seniors’ way when youthful energy brought on fits of roughhousing and tearing around.    

With September comes a change in the air as everyone is loaded into the truck topper, eight dogs between my hunting partner and me: five English Setters, two French Brittanys and most importantly, the pack ruler Worf, a fourteen-year old miniature Dachshund who travels on his throne, a dog bed nestled on the front console of the crew cab.  The adult bird dogs are energized.  They had seen the guns and boots loaded and the travel trailer hitched up, as road veterans they know to curl quietly in their kennel boxes in the topper.  A few stern glares and rumbles from their mother through the inside bars of the boxes tells the Setter pups that they too need to settle down and enjoy the ride. 

The long hours of driving to the northern plains are dotted with quick stops for diesel and to air out the dogs. Seth and Sally quickly learn the road rule that each dog is given about two minutes to tend to its business before being loaded back up - no dawdling or smelling the roses allowed.  At long last the blacktop roads fall behind, and the dusty gravel leads us to the far reaches of a remote ranch with only antelope and cattle - and hopefully gamebirds - as neighbors.  When the veteran dogs are lifted down from their boxes, their muzzles turn into the ever present wind, their eyes closed slightly to savor the rich scents and promise of this land.

With the dawn of each new day, amid whiffs of sage and the tawny browns of grassy moguls, we put down a mix of three or four dogs in our search for Hungarian Partridge and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  With faith in good breeding and instinct, I run the 7 month old pups with adults in this wide open classroom so that they can learn by doing, wild birds serving as both lesson and instructor.  

On the first day the pups fall behind as the adults stretch out over the hills and they entertain themselves with Montana-sized pup toys - the white washed bones of a cow skeleton from the bottom of a basin. Proudly they carry their finds all the way back to the truck.  No comment by my long-striding, plains hunting partner regarding us New Englanders on his turf, but I see his raised eyebrow and slight shaking of his head, questioning the potential of these long-tail clowns. 

But quickly the instincts in the pups awaken, and they cut their bird dog teeth in the big time, Big Sky country. It's not easy being the new kids on a well oiled team, and time and again the puppies are a minute late or 100 yards off from having finds of their own.  

But finally, breeding meets opportunity.

I walk up over a grassy hill.  Halfway down the other slope is a Setter locked down, and yes, this time it's Seth.  One of the Frenchmen also sees the puppy with the neon white coat and freezes into a back.  The voice in my head quietly thanks him for his usual good form and for respecting that the pup just might have what it takes.  On approach I'm hoping that it is a sharptail and not a pheasant, whose season doesn't open for a few weeks. 

Walking in through the rough grass I see the telltale head of a sharpie pop up in the grass, then the rush of wings and chuckle of flight.  The recipe comes together and a young prairie grouse becomes Seth's first retrieve dropped over his point. 

Mustang Sally is aptly named and sows a few wild oats before settling in herself.  She shows her strong nose one day when a light breeze pulls her up and over a long hill.  In anticipation, her senior Frenchman bracemate and I start up the hill after her, hoping for a back and a position for a shot, only to be disappointed when instead a large group of grouse come flying over our heads with that little filly in hot pursuit.  

With that chase in mind she is hunted solo the next day in thick, high grass to her withers that might slow her down a bit.  She has to work for it in a field that produces only a single find.  Sally pulls up into a solid puppy point and holds as I flush the bird.  My partner's little 28-gauge usually drops them like a stone but as luck would have it, although he connects with this bird, it sets its wings and sails before dropping just over the top of the ridge. In light of the distance and thick grass I have my doubts about Sally’s ability to make the find, so I head up the hill in that direction, the puppy ranging well ahead.  Before I make the ridgetop, I am pleasantly surprised to be met by Sally carrying to me her first sharptail, a wing dramatically flared and covering her eyes. 

          Lessons taught by the big dogs back home in the yard and on the road continued into the field:  It is a thing of beauty to see multiple dogs spread out searching for feathered needles in a 640 acre haystack, but the magic starts when one of them jinks on a thread of scent, muzzle turned high as the dog becomes more deliberate in its search. Gunners and dogs who live and spend considerable time hunting together tune into these birdy signals from a distance and swing in for the assist.  This cooperation from the entire team often cuts off running birds who are not expecting another "wolf" to come play "squeeze" and boom, instinct freezes the well bred birddog either on bird scent or the sight of a bracemate on point.  The innate urge to pin game in place keeps the dogs motionless as the gunner walks in to flush the birds. That moment is the cumulative final exam of lessons produced by genes, canine mentors and the birds for whom this is not sport, but life or death.

The pups learn the hard way that galloping into these situations that are being finessed by teammates results in exploding groups of birds with the punishment of no shots fired and all involved then casting aspersions on the offender.  Caution when a team member is birdy and backing others points is a must; party crashers may hear their name being used as a discouraging word.  Being part of the pack requires respect and manners and paying attention. Those slow to pick up on those manners may find themselves with time on the chain gang back at the RV.

But when all is done right, prairie grouse hold for a gridlock of dogs, lifting only at the sight and sound of a gunner walking in. When a shot is fired and a bird falls, the dogs race for the retrieve. The first one to the bird is the victor who is then escorted by the others as the grouse is brought to hand.

With the pheasant season opener comes running ringnecks who taunt and teach puppies a new set of lessons: there one minute, gone the next.  Tail flashing, excitedly bouncing through the draw, Seth just knows there is a bird there, and from his trembling stand, he fails to get the joke when the rooster flushes 70 yards away with its laughing cackle.   Watching the bewilderment in Seth makes me laugh out loud along with that rooster.

            The prairie weeks pass quickly, and when Seth and Sally and the rest of the crew return to Kansas it is time to meet Bob.  Bobwhite Quail that is. And Bob has his own rules and playbook. Birds are now found in brush tangles and along edges of weedy crop fields.  Bob and his covey mates require some throttling down in speed and distance compared to the Big Sky birds. These 6 ounce delights sit tight like young sharpies in the grass, but when flushed they jet through timber like miniature rockets.  Game on then to locate singles who always seem to fly across a creek and disappear into thin air.    

The puppies’ pheasant education translates when Seth locates a covey of quail running along the bottom of a deep, wooded drainage.  When he doesn’t pop back up into sight along a grass and timber edge I head over to the deep draw where I last saw him.  I can hear the covey's nervous peeping chirps from below as I pause to contemplate the steep bank for my best non-neck-breaking descent and gunning position.  That’s when I see Seth: cool with caution, pointing and relocating until the birds finally hold, darned good stuff for a pup that three months ago was more focused on cattle femurs.

Sally’s own moment came in a favorite cover nicknamed The Jack Gas cover.  We New Englanders tend to name our covers for easy reference and memory: at this time I choose to not share the explanation for this one, granting dignity to a great dog named Jack.  I last saw Sally as she weaved through the brush along the barbed wire that separated this picturesque, hilly CRP field from the neighboring crop field and when we got to the top of the hill we can see one of the Fr Brits standing at the edge of the timbered draw below.  Unsure of where Sally is and hoping that she does not stumble into the situation from the wrong side, my hunting partner and I head down toward the draw.  At about 50 yards away a smile comes to my face as I see that the Fr Brit was not on point, he was actually backing Sally who was pointing a covey but was well hidden in the brush. I pause to snap the photo and the little half-masked pup stands solid as I walk in and flush the covey. A single that swings to the right drops at my shot and is returned to me by Sally: I swear that Sally and I have matching smiles on our faces as hold the little cockbird in my hand. 

    One of the blessings of Kansas hunting is that it extends through the end of January but finally it is time to clean and case the gun for the season.  Seth and Sally are nearly a year old as the season closes. In the last 5 months they have built a nice resume with multiple species of wild birds handled, thousands of miles traveled, and became civilized members of canine and human groups.  As I review the photos that I took over these months, the memories will come back to life. And as the pups snooze with the rest of the pack in front of the wood stove, I will hope that their twitches are a playback of the same memories.  Sleep well pups, there is so much yet ahead.