Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Where Paradise Lay

 by Randy Lawrence

The snow held off until after Christmas, a whirling, heaving curtain of white that buried southeastern Ohio and threatened to cut short our late season grouse hunting.   But just as we were stowing gear for the next year, a Chinook came through pushing a forty degree rise in temperature.  Fourteen inches of snow turned to deadly flooding that washed out bridges and closed roads.  When we finally could get into the backcountry, we were cut off from several promising spots we’d found just before the winter storm.
We were working stiffs back then, Lyle and I, hunting only weekends.  Six days later, we were back, and literally followed a county road crew picking up “road closed” barriers.  Not only were we back in business, we were among the first bird hunters to return to this vast section of overgrown strip mine auger benches and quarries, remains of the leviathan coal shovels that had cut the land into an Appalachian version of Monument Valley.
For thirty years after WWII, Big Coal surface mined Ohio’s Appalachian foothills into a wasteland, blighted country that John Prine wrote about in his classic ballad, “Paradise,” about an idyll lost:

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Those great shovels had names:  The Mountaineer.  The Big Muskie.  The Tiger, Silver Spade, and the colossal GEM of Egypt, land-devouring machines with heights measured in stories, that boasted their own internal elevators so their crews could ride to the operating deck to operate buckets big enough to hold two Greyhound buses.  At its height of operation, GEM of Egypt tore through the countryside to the tune of 200 tons of coal per bite of its huge bucket.

*And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County

Down the Green River where Paradise lay

 Well, I’m sorry my son but it’s too late you’re asking,

 Mister. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.  *

The cost of cheap coal was a region left to erode into spoil banks, despoiled farmland, streams choking in silt, communities like John Prine’s Paradise, Kentucky, abandoned over polluted water and acid mine drainage.  It was only through the activism of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Farm Bureau and Grange, as well as the community of Ohio universities and allies in the steelworker and mining unions that pressure on the strip mine industry midwifed the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency and the beginning of strip mine reclamation in parts of Appalachia.
But while Big Coal fought a rear guard action against the cost of reclamation,  Ma Nature was already on the job.  Hollows and sidehill flats, abandoned farmsteads and orchards, came back to tulip poplar, thick tangles of blackberry and wild grape, rhododendron, greenbrier, and hawthorne. The result was the cradle of a grouse population boom that would flourish for some twenty five years.
One area we hunted in the mid-‘80’s centered around a sprawling coal-devouring power plant, its towering stacks belching waste from emptying more than one hundred train hoppers of coal every day.  A promising spot we had barely explored before the snow we called “Lovers’ Lane.”  The pull-off was a pad of cinders littered with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and condom wrappers.  From there we organized the dogs and hiked single file a few hundred yards through a narrow opening between two sheer highwalls…and tumbled out into a hillbilly grouse hunter’s version of Paradise.
The highwalls were like a mammoth coliseum surrounding a huge, undulating expanse of gnarly, tangled cover.  The hunting was as easy as Appalachian grouse hunting gets, with overgrown benches broad enough for two hunters with dogs tough enough to scramble up and down on each side.  We’d barely touched it at the end of an afternoon a month earlier;  this day, we intended to have all of it.
And have it all, we did.  Lyle ran his flashy white and liver pointer Dixie;  I had Arran down, an eye-patched Aspenglow setter with a steady, ground-eating quartering gait that perfectly complemented the slightly wider pointer.  Dixie wore a beeper, Arran a pair of Swiss collar bells, and on this magic day they traded solid points and intense backs like jazz cats in berets and shades swapping licks in some uptown basement juke joint.

Never again in our Ohio grouse hunting would we have birds in those numbers in one covert.  It was as if every ruffed grouse in the region had yarded up in this bowl-like bottom.  The cover was dense, the birds held tight, and the shooting was fast and sporty.   For two hours, Lyle and I didn’t speak to the dogs or to each other, almost as if we were afraid to break the spell.
The part I remember best had us pushing toward the steady tolling of Dixie’s beeper.  Lyle found Arran first, her lanky frame low and arrowed into a tangle of grape vines. The pointer had pinned a grouse fifteen yards beyond Arran’s nose, and my friend waited for me to catch up before he swung wide to the left and I to the right of Dixie’s twisted frieze of a point.  We walked ahead farther than we could imagine the bird might lit before turning back in toward the dogs.  When the grouse clattered out from just in front of Dixie’s quivering pose, Lyle had no shot.
I did, a brown blur crossing left to right and rising, and I pushed the little 16 gauge hard in front.  The first trigger felt good, but the bird powered on.  My second shot I knew was well behind, even as I marked the grouse’s flight.
Both dogs had broken at the flush, so keyed were they with all the action we’d had.   Lyle asked if I’d hit the bird; I shrugged, fishing for two more purple shells from my vest.  We corralled Dixie and Arran back to where they’d stood the bird and kept them for a long minute before walking them at heel, downwind of the grouse’s flight.

A quiet word from Lyle, and Dixie burned off.  I made Arran hold, tapped her on the head, and watched her push into a long stretch of sawbriar, her bloody tail tip cracking through the thorny mess
We were micro-managers then, hedging our bets.  “Deeeeeeeead,” we chanted.  “Deeead in here.  Hunt deeeeeeeeeeeead.” 
Noses up, the dogs’ casts went small and focused with deadly intent.  Dixie was slightly up ahead, checking out a black pile of sodden deadfall, when I saw Arran pause, then point more as a question than a statement.  I moved up alongside her just in time for her to relocate, then stop at the edge of a young thicket of black locusts, dark branches bristling with spines.
Again, the point was more pro forma stop than “boom-there-it-is”, and I was almost even with her again when the big dog reared on her hind legs like some circus bear…to stare and snuffle at the limp body of a ruffed grouse, dead where it had wedged itself into a tight, head-high fork of the little tree.
Arran dropped to all fours and begin to dance and jump at the tree.  I reached in with the leather glove I wear on my left hand and pulled the bird free.  It fluttered but once as I offered it to Arran to carry at heel, and we stepped off to find Lyle and Dixie, waiting where more paradise lay.

* "Paradise",  by John Prine, from the album German Afternoons on Old Boy Records. 1986


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Christmas Spirit Puppy

 by Lynn Dee Galey

For anyone who doubts the healing power of family and puppy breath, know that all details of this story are true.

It started with a tragedy.  Skidding tires, the horrible thump, the terror of reality giving a man the power to leap over the back of his pickup truck in a single motion.  But heroics couldn’t save this day, nor save the life of the beautiful orange belton puppy that had given life to so many dreams and plans and hopes. 

Afterward, John just wasn’t the same.  His wife and children had never seen him this defeated, this sad.  The loss of the 5-month-old puppy meant the loss of dreams held at bay since childhood, a passion and longing that had been shelved by a 20-year good marriage and three active sons.  The boys had heard the stories of the coonhound that their Dad had proudly owned, shown, and hunted back when he was their age.  They now came to realize that the silky setter pup had been the rebirth of this passion, only now in pursuit of partridge instead of raccoons through his beloved Vermont woods.

The boys joined together in deep conversation and the teachings and love that they had been given all of their lives came glistening to the surface.  They went to their Mother and with one voice said that they wanted her to take the money normally spent on gifts for them and instead buy a pup for their father for Christmas.  They wanted to give up their own Christmas, their own excitement of opening brightly colored boxes under the tree, to give their father another chance at his dream. 

Mother agreed, then quietly fretted on how she would come up with the large sum that a well-bred gun dog costs.  Their lost pup had been a gift from their hunter/breeder friend because friendship carries no price tags, but John’s wife knew she must somehow manage to do this. 

Beyond the money, it seemed simple enough – there were still three weeks left until Christmas.  Surely there were puppies out there just waiting for a home.  But John had very particular tastes.  He had spent time training and hunting with the breeder of the orange puppy, and he had developed his own opinions and tastes around a very particular type of dog. In his case, it had to be a Ryman-type English Setter. 

Never mind that most people waited months or more for a puppy of that breeding; his wife was determined to find a dog for her husband and her family for Christmas. Hours spent contacting breeders around the country found many setters available, but no Rymans.  Finally the woman who’d gifted the original puppy suggested it was a long shot, but might be worth a call to a breeder friend of hers located a few hours away.  Those people, in fact, owned ancestors of the original pup. 

Perhaps that’s when the magic of the Christmas spirit kicked in: indeed, a puppy had become available at the last minute.  It wasn’t an orange female. In fact it was a blue male, but it was a well-bred pup and would be nine weeks old on Christmas day. 

The deposit check was sent, with a blank left in the family check record as to whom the check was paid.  That blank led to several inquisitions over the next two weeks by John as to how his wife could possibly write a check at this time of year and forget to whom she written it.  But she played along, accepting his ire, praying and hoping that when the time came that his heart would be able to open up again and accept the promise that came with sorrowful hazel eyes.  She prayed that the weather would hold and that she and their friend would be able to make the long drive to the kennel in the days before Christmas.

Their luck, and the weather, held.  The two women were rewarded when the chosen youngster’s was the only tail that never stopped wagging.  As a bonus, unlike his littermates, he didn’t bark and wail when not picked up, preferring to sit back and study the action. 

He was placed in a crate in the back of the Jeep for the ride home, one of the friend’s setters in a neighboring crate for company.  But after displaying all of his bodily functions in his crate, a decision was made:  the pup was cleaned up and rode the rest of the way on his new owner’s lap where he contentedly snuggled in and fell asleep.

They drove straight to the little restaurant in town where the middle son was working.  The instant that he saw the puppy his arms stretched out to hold him, and the little setter was introduced to everyone in that tiny family restaurant. 

From the start, the middle son had been adamant that the surprise be kept until Christmas.  Here was the plan:  The pup would stay at their friend’s house until the holiday.  On their way back from church on Christmas Eve, where the boys were to light candles during service, there would be “a furnace emergency” at the puppy stash.  John’s professional skills might be needed to “repair” that balky furnace.

But cradling the setter, Middle Son had a change of heart regarding waiting the three days before Christmas Eve.  Couldn’t the pup go home that night?  Dinner business was slow and the restaurant owner could do without a bus boy. 

The youngest boy met them at the back door and his eyes popped.  Reaching out, he gathered in the puppy and shouted for his father and brother. There was a hush as the third brother and John stepped into the room.

“Merry Christmas, Dad”. 

John gently took the puppy.  Tears and magic filled the room as all eyes were on John and his dog.  Suddenly, his sons and wife all started talking excitedly at the same time, telling about the gift, the planning, the search, the impatience, and the “missing” check.

John’s eyes met those of their friend and he choked out the words, “Thank you. I’ve been so heartbroken”.  All the time John held the puppy to his chest and the pup quietly looked up at him. 

The friend smiled, said “Merry Christmas!” and slipped out the door.  As the sounds and lights of the kitchen spilled out onto the porch, she knew the spirits of two little puppies, one gone and one just a few feet away, had together joined to deliver the very essence of Christmas to all who had just shared this moment. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Lone Tree Christmas

 by Randy Lawrence

I loaded the dogs and left Ohio early on a Sunday the week before Christmas.  An unabashed sentimentalist, I kept punching up stations playing holiday music all the way ‘til the only two channels the truck radio could fetch were mariachi music and a Top-40 megawatt blowtorch from somewhere in Canada.  I was almost to the motel reservation on the edge of a small town on the northern plains before I ran out of tunes.

 My friends Gary, Nancy, and their Aspenglow setters, staying in an adjacent room, had left the door to mine unlocked and a key on the dresser.  They tumbled outside when they heard me backing up to the front of the motel, and we shared a cold, quiet reunion while I aired my dogs and tossed duffles and gun cases into my room.  We would meet for plat book reading over cereal and Nancy’s signature Scotch eggs in just a few hours.

 The three of us hunted in flannel shirts and hunting vests the first couple of days, basking in unseasonably warm weather in this little pocket of pheasants and a few Sharp-tailed Grouse well off the “glamor spots” we all know from the where-to magazine stories and chamber of commerce press.  The bird numbers are surely fewer, but so are the hunters, competition for land access, and pay-to-play leases.  My friends have been hunting this county for decades, building relationships with land owners into an annual homecoming.

 We had known about the weather change predicted for Day III before any of us had left home, blizzard conditions barreling down from the northwest.  On the eve of the storm, our long early evening ride back to the motel featured jittery pheasants lifting and settling up and down out of CRP grasslands and low sloughs, as nervous about getting buried in the coming snow as we were.

 That night the wind howled, the snow blew, and our little motel shuddered and quaked.  I lay in bed worried about whether or not we could even travel the roads in my friends’ well-outfitted Suburban come the morning.  But the worst of the snow had finished before dawn, the wind died, and bright sunshine turned the landscape to blinding waves of drifted white sparkling in single digit temperatures.

 Gary had mapped out our morning with the storm in mind, and we tramped shelterbelts and the edges of small sloughs.  Skittish pheasants lifted well out in front much of the morning, but enough of them cooperated with fast dogs that knew their business.  We broke for lunch, then cleaned birds inside the truck with the heater running.

 The afternoon had been set aside for one of my friends’ favorite spots, a broad expanse of prairie centered by a solitary ancient tree.  As we drove north, the sky darkened and heavy snow, forecast for the evening, cheated in early, blowing across the fields.  Pheasants huddled in gnarly copses of Osage orange, the cockbirds glowing like Christmas ornaments on bare branches.  By the time we reached the pull-off to my friends’ “Lone Tree” area, a full-fledged storm was raging.

 The spot below the truck was drifted.  Gary strapped on snowshoes, took a dog, and shuffled in that direction.  On the other side, the wind had swept clear a picked sunflower field and piled snow in a long stretch of switch grass.  All along the field margin, dozens of black bowling pin looking things milled and bobbed, pheasants spooked by the storm and activity around the Suburban.

 Nancy put a beeper collar and a thin fluorescent orange vest on her mostly white dog Dawn.  “We must be out of our minds,” she laughed as we masked our faces and leaned into the wind.

 The pheasants broke on our approach, cackling and clutter-calling as they flew in undulating streams across the picked crop field.  Dawn pointed three hen pheasants, but we couldn’t manage a rooster as we hunted the grassy edges to the field’s end, made a wide empty swing, then turned to hunt a long hollow that drained toward the truck.

 The snow had piled up in places, the switch in yellow spikes just above the white.  When Dawn’s collar sounded “point” the wind stole its tolling on down the draw.  She was up to her flanks in snow and a patch of silver buffaloberry, visible only because of her orange vest, head and tail high, the snow around her broomed by the wind.

                                                                                                                      Aspenglow Dawn

But Dawn had them, a pack of grouse burrowed in the snow.
   The first bird flushed in a spray of white before tumbling to Nancy’s 20-gauge, the shot a hollow pop in the hard blow.  But that was all the rest of the pack would take. The snow all around Dawn erupted into chuckling, clucking sharptails, silver shapes launching as singles and pairs before three lay birds flushed almost under the dog’s nose.

 Dawn snuffled and pounced through two more retrieves before Nancy sent her on downwind.  We all three were wearing down, with the truck a faint, dark smudge some distance away.  But the grouse we’d made at the head of the drainage had careened down the wind and reburied themselves in the snow.   Some flushed far ahead, but Dawn kept hunting, three times catching scent over her shoulder, whirling, and pinning a grouse between herself and her hunters.

 We staggered to the truck and huddled on its lee side, panting and giggling like lunatics, our coats heavy with game and Dawn dancing in her goofy orange vest, begging for her warm crate tucked behind the front passenger seat. 

 “Merry Christmas!” Nancy laughed, digging for the truck keys deep in her brush pants pocket.  “Santa comes early on the prairie!”

       Nancy and Gary Johnson and their Aspenglow Setters

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Come Here, Dammit

By Lynn Dee Galey and Randy Lawrence

In a heartbeat Lil Rip, our little bundle of fur, goes from “Amazing!  He listens so well!” to “OMG, he is flipping me off and ignoring me!”  Same puppy. Same owner. Same command and situation. What changed?

Lil Rip is growing up, more ready to explore the world where he wants to, when he wants to. And frankly, as the world becomes more interesting, you and your wishes become a bit less so. Remember, this is a dog bred to reach out and cover ground so that you do not have to, so expect it to happen. And face it: as they grow we actually want to encourage that certain independence and managed drive when afield .

The key words are “certain” and “managed.” Coming when called is perhaps the single most important command for any dog. It is a safety issue: when a car is coming down the two-track you need your dog to come to you to ensure that they are safe. It is a sanity issue: when you are ready for bed and let Lil Rip out in the rain for a quick pit stop, you do not want to stand in the doorway in your jammies yelling until the neighbors’ lights come on.

So, when your five month old Firelight pup is out in the yard and surprises you by turning a deaf ear to your call, what do you do? First is being honest about background.  If you’ve established the kind of rapport with your young dog where Good Things Come To Those Who Come, then you’ve got a foundation upon which to build.  Second is a quick trip back to boot camp for a refresher course.

Get out that very long rope and just like you did when he was 8 weeks old; let Lil Rip trot around the yard dragging the cord. Practice “Come when called or I’ll give you a corrective tug if you don’t” a couple of times a day.  Hey, sometimes we all need to be reminded to follow rules. (At least that’s what they used to tell me in after-school detention.)

Then, let pup know that yeah, I may not be able to reach you with my hands but don’t think that means that you are out of my “reach.”   Prepare an empty water bottle or can with some pebbles in it and have it on the porch just waiting for this moment. Or maybe you can use that nice fresh snow to make a snowball. Or if you are lazy like me and wear slip on shoes, you can use one of them in a pinch (In winter, don’t throw your car keys in a fit of pique;  they disappear in the snow…or so I’ve heard).

Settle down, pacifists. I’m not talking about whacking your dog with the can/snowball/shoe. And, in fact, it is rather bold to assume that we can chuck an empty, noisy-rattling can 70 feet and hit our target. We are just sending them a message, a signal. The tossed item is to surprise them and break their focus on whatever was distracting them. We send the message, they look up, we immediately and sternly say “Come!”  (retaining the corollary “Comeheredammit!” for the very rare moment).

If we have done our boot camp refresher course well, they will come. If they don’t, then I hobble with my one bare foot across the lawn to Lil Rip with very clear body language that I am enforcing a rule.  With the relationship that we have built with this 5 month old tractable, biddable companion the message will be very clear that I mean business and am willing to back up any message that I send.

If done properly, one or two of these ‘reach out and touch them’ incidents is usually sufficient. Lil Rip learns that you mean what you say, that you have powers beyond your fingertips, and, most importantly, that you will follow through on enforcing commands. That is a huge message.

A common problem for families is a puppy that will mind some members of his human pack, but not others.
  “Mom is the boss;  Dad (or the kids or Uncle Steven) works on the same pay grade as I.” The monks of New Skete Monastery live and work near Cambridge, New York.  Among their missions is the development of training programs meant to offer common sense companion dog training that helps owners forge a more complete connection with their animals. A drill they use is called the “Round Robin Recall,” described as an “experience in animation and praise.” 

The exercise has family members (or interested, cooperative friends who can follow instructions) space themselves in a circle around Lil Rip who is dragging the aforementioned “reminder line.”  The monks use a 20 cord. 

“The object of the exercise,” they write, “is to call the dog (using the decided upon command)…praise him (when he comes), and toss the rope to the next person in the circle.  This person then calls the dog and repeats the process.  The tossed rope is to ensure a prompt recall by the dog.  If he does not come after being called twice, give the lead a quick pop and call the dog, (gently reeling him in and) praising him warmly as he trots to you.”

The monks don’t spare the praise and don’t mind the use of treats in this exercise.  You shouldn’t either;  give the command, then clap, drop to a knee, or whistle and give praise, lots of praise as he comes. The monks recommend this drill twice a week, gradually broadening the circle gradually to the limits of the “reminder line.” (“The Round Robin Recall” from How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, 2002, Little, Brown, and Company, New York).

It doesn’t matter who you are:  sooner or later, your Firelight puppy is going to test you.  You’ve encouraged him, nurtured him, emboldened him into a happy, independent partner.  That’s the key word, though:  partner.  In fact, Lil Rip is the junior partner in your relationship;  he works for you, under your direction.  Surely one of the cornerstones of that partnership is a dog that comes when it's called – the first time, every time...eventually without your having to retrieve your shoe. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

When The School Bell Rings

by Randy Lawrence

Author's Note:  When I submitted this essay for consideration in "Firelight Reflections," Lynn Dee thanked me, but confessed to being uncomfortable, thinking it was too much about her to be posted on her own blog.  I responded with my usual light, empathetic touch: "Get over yourself.  It's not about you.  It's about the dogs and how we can all always get better at handling them in the field."  Then I offered to write a disclaimer.  Here it is: "If this gets posted, know that it was over LDG's ingrained New England reticence and modesty."

The cover was at least a week away from being frost-flattened.  Aspen brakes shimmered with a full head of gold leaves.  Any dog working more than 30 yards away was a faint impression moving through brush.   Whatever shooting to be had would be fast, with birds started over a dog’s point hurtling behind a thick early-autumn scrim.

But it was October, it was familiar North Woods cover in a decent ruffed grouse year, and my dog Deacon and I had come to jump start our bird season, guests of Lynn Dee Galey and Deacon’s Firelight Setters kin.  As bonus, we’d enjoy ringside seats to a breeding program arranged around one woman’s notions of how best to make game with a particular kind of pointing dog.

The pace is measured. Lynn Dee knows cover, knows and trusts her dogs.  She walks with her little gun broken over her arm because for her,  shooting is a points-only enterprise.  When the bell stops or beeper tones, there’s plenty of time to load and close the action while walking to the dog.

Lynn Dee doesn’t talk to her setters on point.  She doesn’t fondle them on point.  That way flagging and false pointing lie.  She tries to walk in on, rather than by, the stand, and she’s all business when she does.  When the dog is stopped, Lynn Dee moves.   Her part of the bargain is to put the bird up, and she is brisk and thorough, doing all she can to make certain the bird either gets into the air or has given us the slip.

A Firelight hunt is quiet.  There’s no manic whistling or shouting to “handle the dogs.”  To an observer, it’s more like her “handling” is about trust and support.  The dogs hunt;  she intrudes on their business only when a change of course is needed.

I came to grouse hunting without much background.  In the beginning, I wanted a dog I could see all the time, preferably in gun range (couldn’t risk missing a chance to shoot, don’t you know).  I would lose my mind when my first setter, a wispy, trial-type goer, showed any semblance of initiative.

It took a couple of years of angst and a day tagging along with a truly legendary Ohio grouse hunter named Nelson Groves to set me straight.   Tired of my constant hacking and checking and cautioning the dog, we stopped to regroup.  That was when I asked for input.  Nelson quietly suggested stuffing my whistle in a place where surgical removal would have been necessary later.

“Let the dog go,” Nelson Groves chided.  “He’s supposed to hunt.  You’re s’posed to keep found, keep up, and kill the bird when you find him standin’ there.” 

Nelson weaned me into rangier dogs that “checked in without coming in.”  Lynn Dee’s Firelights work like that, swinging ‘round in fast, sweeping casts, keeping track of her even while they are pushing on.  Within that general program, each setter she put down during my weekend visit flashed his or her own signature run under the Firelight marque.

Lynn Dee’s senior crew member, Storm, is a big dog with a smooth, reaching gait that belies her size.  Storm stitches cover in wide, fast swaths and goes to game with a bold, almost arrogant, swagger. 

Deacon’s compact dam Sally hunts a little differently with casts more linear and deeper than Storm’s on this day, but quickly settling into an efficient, deadly earnest rhythm.  She did, however, make one opening hegira that might have triggered a less savvy hunter into full metal fulmination. 

Not Lynn Dee.  She waited.  She listened.  She checked the GPS collar and rolled her eyes. 

But she knew Sally would come looking for her, sooner rather than later.  She didn’t stand there blowing whistle blasts that only give some dogs a reference from which to keep running their own program.  Instead, Lynn Dee kept quiet, and when Sally came looking, Lynn Dee called her into our line of march and on we went.

But it was Firelight Seth behind whom I'd most wanted to hunt. A clownish, almost anxious fellow when he’d spent some time with me earlier in the year, I’d seen firsthand what one flight of woodcock had done to his dormant “on” switch.  Months later, he was more confident, more relaxed, than I’d seen him.  When it was finally his turn to be down, Goofy Partydawg Seth hardened into a business-like stager who virtually punished the dense cover, lasered into looking for a bird to point.

I left Michigan a day later with a better sense of what Lynn Dee has spent her adult life trying to accomplish with her setters.  Over the years, I had become increasingly disenchanted with much of what was being passed off as a “Ryman-type setter.”  Too often, that designation seemed to have been appropriated by ponderous dogs that for all their classic looks simply weren’t built physically or mentally for hard hunting in tough country with scattered birds.  

The late Robert Wehle once described for me how an imported outcross strain of his great Elhew pointer line came a cropper: “It was as if they didn’t care whether school was in session or not!”  I became convinced that very few of today’s “George Ryman setters” could have made the cut in their namesake’s hunting string a century ago.

That won’t do.  When the school bell rings, I want a dog that rises to the head of the class - a bird dog athlete with a quiet mind that trains naturally.  I want a dog that hunts and points with a fever, one I can admire on the move and in repose, one that claims me as a full partner. By Firelight – Storm, Sally, Seth, my Deacon and the rest - I believe I’ve found that sort of companion gun dog. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

No Competition

by Lynn Dee Galey 

A friend who is new to upland hunting said to me, “I grew up participating in competitive sports; I didn’t think that bird hunting was going to be about competition.”  He went on to give me examples of what he, as someone new to bird dogs and upland hunting, is seeing and hearing, particularly on social media hunting groups which he has turned to in his hunger to learn.

“Got it done today.” 

“Had my limit in 30 minutes.”

“Got my limit but took me 2 hours.”

 “I walked 10 miles and my dog ran 23 miles at 10.3 mph.” 

After-hunt photos of a tailgate-sagging pile of birds, to which the replies posted are, “Nice work.”

“Shot these birds over my 16-week-old puppy.”   

Photos show guys whose hunting clothes cost more than many families spend on groceries in a month, high tech dog gear that would pay for a couple months’ rent for that family, and a gun with a famous name.

Yes, the social media world of upland hunting can be shiny and fast and too often imposes the same cult of status, numbers crunching, recreation as a job performance to be evaluated, checklist marking, and materialism that plagues our society.    

But each of us can get out of hunting what we most enjoy.  There are many who place more value on the earthy richness of the countryside and the quiet solitude of the woods and prairies, who measure their hunts by how deeply they can breathe when outdoors,  the familiar comfort of worn and patched gear, the reward of occasional warm feathers in hand, and the incomparable companionship of a veteran dog.  The value of a shotgun can be in the dings and nicks that serve as touchstones for past hunts and bluing worn from the many hours and miles of carrying in hand between memorable and measured shots.

No competition, my friend, just the rewards that are the uplands themselves.


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.”