Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Thursday, December 30, 2021

That Most Important Thing

By Randy Lawrence

Not long ago, I read a wonderful epitaph for a companion gun dog.  This dog had had a rather indifferent history, finally landing in a home he could share with a family who understood him, doted on him, got him more time afield than ever in his past lives and, frankly, put him on to the fast track toward Living Happily Ever After.

When the dog passed on, a discerning friend wrote, "He passed away finally loved.  That's the most important thing."

Understand that this isn't coming from some fur-baby-besotted twit, but a member of the cognoscenti, a veteran handler who runs a short string of hard-going gun dogs... who share most every aspect of their handler's life.

"The Most Important Thing"... It occurs to me that in the realm of working dogs, particularly our world of sensitive, responsive companion English setters,  a higher order "love" for our dogs deserves a thoughtful review.

It should go without saying that we provide the creature comforts - quality food, clean water, dry shelter, regular vet care and grooming.  Doing so shows concern.  Responsibility.  Humanity.

But what about love?

We can admire a dog that cruises the woods with brio.  We take pride in a staunch point, a great mark on a downed bird, a tail wagging parade of a retrieve.

But what about love?

Maybe we keep a dog-friendly household arranged around our dogs' comfort and safety.

But what about That Most Important Thing?

The expression "Quality Time" has been reduced to a cliche in our culture.  I would suggest that it's not a cliche to our dogs.  Beyond their absolute pleasure in their work, created by an upbeat partnership with a savvy, collaborative, clear communicator human, maybe the thing most dogs want (and one of the reasons we invited them fireside, prehistory) is our Quality Time.  They relish our focused attention -  having their needs respected, being played with, petted, enjoyed as companions supported in ways that make them a pleasure to be with, rather than neurotic, furry crosses to be borne.

A guy named William of Wickham founded Great Britain's New College in Oxford in 1379 (dubbed "New College" to distinguish it from another academy founded fifty years earlier - leave it to the Brits to persist in referencing a 650 year-old school as "new").  The founder gave permission for the school to use his personal coat of arms and motto, "Manners Makyth Man."   That idiom remains on the ornate wrought iron entry gate of the school to this day.

Understand that for Wickham, Lord Chancellor to two British monarchs,  "manners" related both to personal character as well as etiquette.  What could better describe education's role in shaping students' lives?  What better backdrop for a loving relationship with our bird dogs?

In that sense, both "character" and "etiquette" are about thoughtfully, routinely, helping our dog with boundaries...which starts with our own decisions regarding, to paraphrase another Englishman, Winston Churchill, "up with what we will or will not put."

Frankly, it's easier to do this one person-on-one-or-however-many dogs with whom we share our lives.  If we bring our gun dog into our family setting, all members have to be coached on things like toilet training etiquette, door etiquette, leash etiquette, furniture etiquette, family meal etiquette, counter surfing etiquette, trash can etiquette, bed time etiquette, car etiquette, kid and cat etiquette, barking etiquette, etc., etc.  

It becomes a matter of character, of wanting Quality Time with our dogs in the woods and in our homes enough to be clear, consistent, firm and fair, looking at it from the dog's perspective in order to establish order that suits our own.  Consistently managed, house manners can be the linch pin of our field connection with our dogs as well.  Makes sense, right?

It's only natural that we bird dog people spend a lot of time thinking about performance.  The too-often-unspoken bottom line is that that dogs that adapt to our sense of manners in the field get hunted longer and more often because, quite frankly, they are more pleasure than pain to take into the woods.  

Likewise, dogs that get the "house rules" get more house time.  More petting time.  More talking time.  More everything, which means more of us, more of them for us.  More Quality Time.  Love.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, could have been talking about molding the manners that makyth men, women, and bird dogs in his famous list of love's most vital components: Patience. Kindness.  Trust.  Hope.  Perseverance. A snail-slow fuse to anger...all ingredients to a more fulfilling relationship with other people, let alone building a better companion bird dog.

As Partner Handlers, what better New Year's assessment than to step back and re-evaluate our relationship with our bird dog?  Are we holding up our end of the dog/human partnership?  Are we willing to do what needs done in a thoughtful, humane, dog-centered manner to make our lives together informed by, buoyed by, heck, made meaningful by being filled with that Most Important Thing?  


Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Bird Bright As Christmas

by Randy Lawrence

My earliest Christmas memories come through fog on the storm door to my grandmother's hot kitchen.  I would press against the glass watching the men gather in the barnyard, my grandfather and his brother, his brothers-in-law, two sons-in-law, and his only son, my mother's brother Ronnie.  Most of them were dressed in the same grey and off-white striped railroader coveralls they wore farming.  

Over top they shrugged into brown duck hunting coats and vests like the ones men, and sometimes even women, wore in the Field and Stream magazines Grandpa kept in a stack by his overstuffed living room chair.  To a man, they sported dingy red ball caps or ear flapped, red plaid Stromy Kromers, their sole concession to safety color.  

The impossibly long guns they pulled from the trunks of their family cars - nobody in my family had a pickup truck back then - were all repeaters, pumps mostly, and I can still see our menfolk cramming red or green or yellow shells in spring-worn magazines, the clacking racking sound of closing actions loud enough for me to hear over the kitchen bustle behind me.  They talked and laughed in puffs of white steam and cigarette smoke while Grandpa's farm dog, Rover Deeds, all wriggle and wag, moiled around their legs.  

Rover Deeds was a beagle-collie mongrel named after an erstwhile beau of my mother's from years ago. Grandpa insisted that while Rover Deeds would run rabbits, what the dog loved most was to chase pheasants,  the trophy of these annual Christmas Day hunts.  

My Uncle Ronnie liked to claim Rover Deeds would even point pheasants "like a real bird dog."  If he did, nobody else ever saw him do it.

My grandfather and his brothers all had town jobs, several of them alongside Grandpa at the foundry in town.  During the Second War, they had worked years without a day off, 12 hour shifts and overtime, back when overtime was only half pay.  When the winter weather was bad, they stayed in town for days at a time, which meant it was up to their wives and children to keep a house with no running water and tend sheep, cattle, and hogs until someone could get a tractor and plow county roads.

(The Marion Power Shovel Company where my grandfather worked for so many years building excavation machinery.)

But those backbreaking, lung fouling hours shoveling coal into furnaces to make steel to build the big steam shovels was a means to an end - a steady paycheck that propped up what they really wanted most to do: farm the land.   

I don't know that any of them ever owned his own place, but my grandfather and his brothers were never happier than when they were working their rented ground or raising swoop-horned, half-wild Hereford cattle they bought cheap off the boxcars in from the western states.  Their saggy, woven wire fencerows studded with Osage Orange fenceposts were rough and wide.  Sheep pastured in small woodlots that were never overgrazed.  Cranky antique combines and corn pickers proved indifferent about making a clean harvest of grains coaxed out of poor soil.  

An unintended consequence of those hardscrabble farming practices was the creation of nearly ideal cover and feed for cottontail rabbits and ringneck pheasants...and after farming, the thing my grandfather and his kin loved best was hunting rabbits and pheasants.  The one time they for sure could get out with the gun was Christmas morning before the big dinner, before the afternoon gift exchange in Grandma's crowded living room.

Once the hunt was out of sight from the kitchen door, I could scramble up the wooden steps to a freezing upstairs bedroom and watch much of the action from a bedroom window.   Our men walked up game in a line, Rover Deeds not so much quartering as just dinking around and snuffling a few dozen yards ahead.  At least twice I got to see the big dog start a rabbit, sparking a fusillade that echoed off the slumping barn and machinery sheds.  Only once did I actually witness pheasants come up in front of the guns, only to batter away toward a far tree line while the skirmish line stuttered to a halt.  Some of the guys reloaded, shaking their heads, and I could well imagine the grief they were getting from the others.

But they didn't always miss, especially my Uncle Earl and Grandma's brother George.  There were always rabbits to clean in my grandparents' mud room, and if I stayed back and didn't ask too many questions, I could watch Grandpa or Uncle LeMoyne make deft cuts across the rabbits' stiff backs with their pocketknives, blades ground away to thin slices of steel, pulling fur to reveal red meat pressed against bluish skin membrane.  I am sure I recoiled at steaming entrails tumbling down into a galvanized bucket for a later trip to the hog lot, but I hung in, desperate to be some small part of the hunting I knew I would love if ever I had the chance to go.

For me, the most wondrous of Christmases were when the the men came into the mudroom to pull pheasants, gaudy as bright holiday wrapping paper, from game pockets of those stiff canvas jackets.  We kids were in awe of the big birds and clamored for tail feathers we could parade back into the warm kitchen or use like swords in mock duels until somebody's mom evicted us from the flurry of last minute dinner prep.  I do not remember anyone dressing those pheasants on Christmas morn, instead drawing and hanging them to age for a couple of days until my grandmother could pluck them in time for a special New Year's Day meal.

(Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum: "Birds In Art")

My grandfather died the year before I bought my first English setter, four years before we hunted our first Elhew pointer, more than three decades before the first Firelight setter came to live with me.  He never got to hear about our trips to the Dakotas and Iowa, about ringnecks posed like Christmas ornaments in bare trees, about the golden eagle we once watched stoop on a snow plastered copse, scattering pheasants in all directions.  I did not get to tell him about the piebald bird that cackled up in a spray of snow, pinned by a hoary-coated old setter, two of his get locked down to honor his last stand of one freezing New Year's Eve, or how warm and full the game pocket of my own canvas vest was on the long walk back to the truck.

That pheasant is one of only two pieces of taxidermy I own.  This time of year, I can see the glow of my front porch Christmas lights on his window perch.  He is anchored in flight off a chunk of Osage Orange, much like the pile posts he flushed from in the late afternoon gloaming.   I doze in the shadow of that holiday bird, my Luke or Deacon or our buddy Seth clambering up to wedge in with me in the easy chair.  

I can pet a silky, chiseled setter head and conjure the aroma of turkey and sage in my grandmother's crowded dining room, my mind's eye watching the adults find their seats around the long table the older kids had stretched with pegged wooden leaves and covered with tablecloths embroidered with mistletoe and Christmas wreath patterns.  I can still see my cousins and me parked at a couple of card tables off to one side, our pheasant tail feathers confiscated, our plates made for us by our moms.   That's about when Grandma would glare us into silence so Uncle George could give thanks on Christmas Day, the most magical of which always began with pheasants.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Flood Tide

by Randy Lawrence

In an earlier blog, we wrote about a precocious little setter, Firelight Kyah, and about the opportunities provided for her in the field.  Admittedly, she had maybe more than her share of the Right Stuff at birth, but, metaphorically speaking, she has entered into the last weeks of her first season runnin' with the Big Dawgs when most others her age are still just venturing off the porch.  

With her smooth, athletic gait, she hunts tirelessly, gradually to more likely cover, staying found, naturally backing her elders, finding her own birds, crowding those birds, learning with every ruffed grouse she couldn't manage to set, and finally pointing, and holding, and retrieving birds she handled correctly... under seven months old.

So let's acknowledge right off that Kyah's partner is Not Your Average Hunter of Grouse.  Nope.  He is what Lynn Dee refers to as a "One Percenter," someone who has arranged his work and his life around a high level pursuit of his favorite sport.  

He knows cover, because he knows ruffed grouse with a naturalist's almost insatiable curiosity about food and cover, habits and habitat.  He has open mind about what constitutes a "birdy spot," and hunts in times and places others simply drive by because it doesn't fit their stereotyped sense of "good cover."  He finds new and different grouse coverts because he has a good set of legs and lungs underneath the keen will and curiosity and, dare I say, pride, in finding more places that give his dogs and him the best main chance.  

He is a minimalist handler, consulting the GPS tracker when one of his setters hasn't come around in a bit, then heads that way, expecting (and this is important), EXPECTING to find his dog or dogs standing a bird.  He doesn't speak to the dogs locked down on scent, loads his double gun when he gets on the scene, and walks in ready to kill a grouse for his dogs and, frankly, for the edge to his hunter's soul.  That he is a crack shot completes the resume.

In short, Kyah's partner makes Real Grouse Dogs in the woods, letting his older dogs and the birds and cover and conditions do the training.   Which brings us to another metaphor, this one from another guy familiar with passionate ambition.

In the play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare writes, "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Whick taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.  Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows..." 

The bard wasn't writing about bird dog prospects, but he nailed it anyway.  Pups like Firelight Kyah, bred from generations of well-tempered Real Grouse Dogs, come with all the ingredients.  It's up to the people to add ruffed grouse and patience and lots of boot leather, getting them into coverts they can handle on serious numbers of wild birds that they probably can NOT least in the beginning.

Owners who stay positive, who can accept puppy gaffes as something interesting rather than something vexing, who can carve out enough reps in good country, will succeed.  I would venture to say they will have a Real Grouse Dog sooner rather than later, in fact.  Maybe not Kyah soon, but sooner.

Seems obvious, right?  Unfortunately, it must not be.  Or at least it sometimes exacts more from owners than they are willing or able to give.  How many promising young gun dogs, left on shore during the flood times of their canine learning period, never make it out of the shallows, their owners content to keep them as beautiful side pieces to go with the fancy shotguns and the latest in unscarred boots and upland tactical vests, to pose with the occasional wild bird scratched down any way, any how.

I'm not the first hunter to make the Shakespearean gun dog connection.  Datus Proper did it in his intriguing book Pheasants of the Mind: A Hunter's Search for a Mythic Bird.  But I think of that excerpt every time I see a young dog trying to find herself in the grouse woods, too often with a handler who doesn't really have a clear idea of what he wants the young dog to accomplish.

One must feel for breeders whose labor of life and love is producing exceptional gun dog prospects.  How hard it must be for them to see What Could Have Been turned into a furry fireplace andiron or Santa-hat-wearing honorary family member on the annual Christmas card?  What the best breeders are hoping for from us, beyond a loving, healthy, and involved home life with our dogs, is commitment to do our homework:  establishing a solid, loving, working connection with our dogs, conducting a safe introduction to gunfire, then extricating ourselves from our workaday travels and travails to walk in times and places that give our puppy every chance for wild bird contacts, for learning from mistakes, for going to school on the birds that are to be its life's work.

Lynn  Dee tells about a social media post with a veteran Grouse Hunter posed with his young dog.  The caption read something like, "Yep.  Another pair of boots, the next truck, and he'll make a dog," meaning that only productive time afield can make a Real Grouse Dog.  Our obligation to that goal is to launch our puppy at flood learning tide, making a pact with her to do whatever it takes in helping her use her genetic inheritance, paddling out of the shallows and wag-dancing down off the porch to keep time with The Big Dawgs.

"Better three hours too soon," wrote that unwitting sage of bird doggery in The Merry Wives of Windsor, "than one minute too late."


Thursday, December 9, 2021

Royal Flush

by Randy Lawrence

Dateline:  Somewhere in Kansas.  I was not an eyewitness.  

No matter.  The heavy breathing came through the text:

"All I heard was, 'Covey!' from somewhere in 'straight up' overhead.  Steep dirt cliff.  No alternative.  Higher than I am tall.  Threw my empty gun over the top and climbed.  My friend, who'd had the birds blow up around him looked over to see me scrambling over the top, grabbing handfuls of grass to pull myself up on my hands and knees.  Picked up my gun and said, 'Which direction?' LOL."

Understand, Dear Reader, that this is one very keen Gun.  She has seen her share of covey rises and generally ambles/moseys to dogs on point, teetering always on the horns of the "Camera or Shot Shells/Shot Shells or Camera" dilemma. 

I say "teetering."  She loves to shoot second only to "loves photographing her setters in good country, standing game."  When she typed "No alternative," she meant it.  If the dogs are locked down on birds, she will get there to shoot a shutter or shoot her double gun...regardless of the obstacle.

My point being that she is decidedly not given to bursts of Marine Corps-like assaults on the high ground.

But we understand the hand-over-hand haul up that slope to where the quail had flushed.   There is something about a bevy of wild bobwhites hurtling out of the bunch grass that routinely inspires mad feats of otherwise unseemly behaviors.

Part of that rests in the fact we are ruffed grouse hunters by trade.  Our birds are most generally rolling thunder solo launches.  No matter how many trips we make to quail country or the years lived there, two dozen buzz bombs detonating out of the landscape never become commonplace.

We have seen reliably cool customers, some with only faint barrel bluing left just ahead of the forearm on a double shotgun they know far better than ever they did their first husband or wife, behave, when a covey flushes, as if a generous dollop of molten glass has been poured down their brush pants.  

In the motel the night before, we can whisper ourselves to sleep with the mantra  "Pick one.  Just pick one" - and still shoot in ways to suggest we'd have been just as well served pulling two shells from deep pockets and hurling them into the flurry of wing blur and shape shifts.

So rich, the word "flush."  Both Merriam and Webster remind us it's "to expose from a place of concealment."  The same word, they are quick to remind us, also describes the intense sensation of  blood rushing to one's face from exertion, excitement or, on occasion, embarrassment, all of which can derive from that first definition.

No matter how we parse it, Grouse Hunters travel to quail country for the covey rise.  For follow-up searches that give the dogs a chance on a single or two.  For the deep satisfaction of knowing when "enough" is "enough," understanding that the fragile treasure that is a bevy of bobwhite quail needs numbers to survive the winter.  For the rightness of whistling the dogs off surviving skulkers buried in the deep brush and hunting in another direction, praying someday we can come back to this place and be dazzled all over again in the raw thrill of a covey's flush.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Vintage Dogs, Older Men and The Slippery Slope

by Randy Lawrence

He is my hero, Clyde.  He has been a bird hunter for a very long time, and the years of hard going have taken their toll on his legs.  But his great hunter's heart is untouched.   Find Bryan Burdick in the woods, and you'll find his buddy Clyde, pushing cover, pointing birds for his Gun.  At age 15, he refuses to wait in the truck. 

Like all athletes, staying in the game sometimes means accommodations.  Last year, when an Achilles injury threatened to sideline Clyde, his partner Bryan rigged a nifty brace so the dog could keep hunting.  Achilles issues are small beer.  A broken heart is something else entirely.  Clyde wore the brace.

In his day, Clyde was a goer,  a veritable Grouse Hammer.  To THIS day, he and Bryan have the fire, and, for the record, that fire's not fixin' to be banked anytime soon.

But in these days, Clyde and Bryan have backup.  Like Clyde, Earl (The Pearl) is of the Llewellin strain of English setter.  He is heir to Clyde's title of "The Hammer."  At age 4, he's been through the Ruffed Grouse School of Hard Knocks and is working on an advanced degree.  He is fast, that Earl, his range suited to whatever cover he's in, and when he locks down, better give the bill of your cap a quick tug, soak up Earl on point with Clyde and the puppy backing, then close the gun and walk in with purpose.  A grouse is going to fly.

I mentioned "the puppy."  That's right.  Clyde's training a puppy, too.  Firelight Kyah is six months old and blowing every modest first season puppy marker out of the water.  She is sturdy, whip-smart, and given to absolutely flying through the woods, her confidence buoyed by her dialed-in mates.  October was taking her final bow when Bryan was finally in the right place at the right time to kill a grouse for her, part of a capstone five bird limit for Clyde, Earl, and little Kyah, just six weeks into her bird hunting career.

Kyah, backing Earl (top); Kyah making a grouse delivery

We had taken a long turn in the woods one afternoon.   I was draggin' tail, and I could tell Bryan had slowed down for me, a welcome courtesy, but a hard swallow nonetheless.  That's when Bryan treated me to Clyde stories as we walked a two-track back to the vehicle, the dogs swinging back and forth to check cover on both sides of the sandy trail.  


My favorite was the one in which Bryan didn't find Clyde on point a few years back;  Clyde came and got Bryan, actually took him by the jacket sleeve.  You know - the ol' Lassie -Timmy's - in -the-well-move.  The dog loped off, Bryan followed in the direction Clyde had come and found him locked back down on a woodcock.


Understand that Bryan and Clyde don't hunt woodcock.  Woodcock just sort of happen en route to the next grouse.  In fact, Bryan has been known to talk to his dogs about the Slippery Slope of Woodcock Temptation.  

A day later, we walked a long way to get to where the GPS marked Earl on point.  Kyah was backing, and Clyde slid in to make it a three-way stand.   We beat the cover for some time before a single woodcock gyro-ed up and out.

"Earl," Bryan says, opening the action on the little Belgian 24 gauge.  "What was that about?  What were you thinking?"

Earl and Kyah hustled on;  Clyde ambled down to get another hit of scent where the bird actually launched.  He's heard woodcock chidings his entire life...but he's not too proud to get himself an extra taste now and then.  Forbidden fruit is not without a certain sweetness after all.

Clyde's longevity is credit to good genes, good diet, and great care.  Bryan helps him in and out of the black pickup that's tricked out like a grouse gunner's batmobile; in fact, Bryan lets none of his dogs just jump down from the truck, easing them out himself.   Clyde, Kyah, and Earl have a deluxe dog box insert in the truck bed that Bryan designed and welded himself, but during a day of covert-hopping, the dogs ride behind the front seat in a heavily padded mobile doggy divan. In the field, Bryan carries a utility belt jammed with water bottles, and he keeps his crew hydrated, found and encouraged. 

Earl (The Pearl), Kyah, Clyde

Bryan and his team know their business.  They move through the woods quietly - no hollering, no whistling - the dogs checking in without coming in, Bryan waving them into the occasional spot he feels they've missed.  Only when the dogs point does Bryan slip a pair of shells into his double gun.  Like all of us, Bryan will miss a bird;  like very few of us, Bryan will not miss often.

"Businesslike" makes Bryan and his dogs efficient;  the passion these four have for grouse hunting and for each other makes them special.  

So there it is - an old dog who keeps turning new tricks is my inspiration.  I can only hope that when I am his age, there will be a grouse hunter willing to let me tag along.  I won't mind being helped down out of the truck, and who knows?  Maybe my friend will even look the other way just in case I backslide on that Slippery Slope.

Clyde guarding a grouse he pointed for Bryan, Earl the Pearl (left) being nosey.


Saturday, October 2, 2021

Jungle Fever

Firelight Dreamboat Annie on an early season woodcock

By Randy Lawrence

It felt more like a jailbreak than leaving for a hunting trip.  I would pull into the Honda plant parking lot just before 11, Lyle's dogs and mine already settled in their crates.  It was always easy to spot my friend among the second trick autoworkers.  Lyle was the one sprinting down the sidewalk.

In my memory, we laid rubber out of that late-night car park like something out of The Blues Brothers, but of course we didn't.  We just " made haste slowly" to be certain to beat the after-work exit jam.  Once on the highway, Lyle cranked Hank, Jr. on the cassette deck, rapped the bottom of a fresh can of Copenhagen, and I turned the nose of that battered white Blazer north toward Opening Weekend, Michigan Grouse.

The trip was almost eight hours.  The first few years, we drove straight to our first hunting spot, aired the dogs, then slept upright in the truck seats for an hour or so.  The best times were when we made friends with an elderly widow who was desperately trying to keep a ramshackle backwoods motel open.  She learned to trust us and for several years would leave a room unlocked (I remember at least one that didn't even have a doorknob),so we could crash for a bit, then get our over-caffeinated carcasses and unruly mix of pointers and setters into the woods.

The hunting was always good.  The finding?  Not so much.

The dog work was generally spotty.  The shooting was execrable.  Green, tangled, buggy, rank cover meant that we heard far more birds lift than ever we saw or shot, and for two guys burning precious leave time from our jobs, it surely wasn't the best bet for stylish dog work or birds in the bag.

But we'd waited nearly seven months since the end of Ohio's grouse season and couldn't bear to wait any longer.  We had worked dogs all summer.  We'd pored over maps, made plans, scheduled coverage at work.  If somebody somewhere was going to be hunting ruffed grouse, we wanted to be in the middle of that.

And we loved the Michigan woods.  They smelled different from our Appalachian strip mine coverts.  They were on wondrously flat terrain.  We actually bought an arborist's manual the first year so we'd know what aspen and alder brakes looked like.  After that, they were imprinted on our hunters' hearts.

We hunted in t-shirts and light jeans since the woods were not filled with cane briars.  And if they weren't exactly filled with game birds either, that was ok.  After all, we could still count on moving more birds in an afternoon than we would back home in coverts ravaged by grievous habitat loss and added pressures of late season hunting on vulnerable remnants of our grouse populations. 

Today, I'm almost sad to report our Opening Day Fever has broken, at least for now.  We say we can wait, struggling to extricate ourselves from a maddeningly more encumbered life.  We work our dogs on local woodcock as soon as the law allows and try not to get all green-eyed over texted photos of our friends' dogs locked down on point in an upland version of Where's Waldo? The frosts will come, we remind ourselves, and we will arrange things at the two farms so we can be gone for a bit where the woods smell different, the aspen and tamarack glow golden, and maybe the grouse will lie for a precocious Firelight derby. 

But I miss late night vigils at the Honda plant, obsessively checking my watch against the walk in/walk out worker traffic.  I miss the pushing through lack of sleep and the first-time-down dog fright shows.  I miss the bell going silent in those days when we still hated beepers and two friends who worked to flush the way only folks who've bonded over every training mistake in the book can beat toward a flush, too often only finding the stand after a bird had battered up somewhere close and the dog had broke, the bell's frenzied clangor like a school fire alarm.  

I miss scarred pool tables in faux log cabin bars,  gas stations that double as sporting goods stores, tailgate breaks of homemade venison jerky, Gatorade bottles dripping wet from the cooler, with Snickers bars and Twinkies for dessert.  I miss young dogs that burst out of dank, sodden, morning cover, their tongues lolling, their faces saying, "I have no idea what we're doing, but this is really a good time."  

I miss Nancy Johnson's brother's sediment 'n' suds home brew, rising out of dark bottles like a science fair project gone horribly wrong.  I miss linebacker-shaped waitresses with big hair sporting Chris Spielman jerseys who would tell us about the night Ted Nugent bought the house a round or Bob Seeger sat in with the house band.  Not to be outdone, I would compliment their attire by bragging that Lyle made All-Ohio one of the same years that Spielman did. 

I miss motel rooms with missing doorknobs, sputtering AC and heating units, coat hanger TV antennae, and thin walls with ardent lodgers on the other side.  I miss listening to the end of the baseball season and the beginning of the football year on the static-ridden  AM radio that went in and out between coverts.

Nancy Johnson, Randy, Lyle

But most of all, I miss the fire in the belly that refused to let us stay in Ohio when there were dogs that needed blooded, Opening Weekend, Michigan Grouse.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A Thread of Scent

by Lynn Dee Galey

Jungle shooting is not a bad description for early season grouse and woodcock hunting here in Michigan.  Ferns are still tall and green and foliage is thick and lush.  Add to that temps that shoot up quickly once the sun burns off the morning fog and yep, it's tough shooting. 

This morning's season opener was no different.  Finding dogs on point was a challenge.  

A rare find in the open this morning, closest dog stopped to back

"I see him now" is what the dogs heard each time we came crashing in and attempted to find a shooting lane.  Grouse were just a flushing noise up in front of the dogs, nary a feather seen. Woodcock however, with their twittering upward to the treetops offered a good look. 

My hunting buddy took a shot just as one topped the trees and yelled, "I think I got it."  But a thorough search by the 3 dogs failed to produce the bird so we sighed regret and we moved on. 

But wait.  Almost 100 yards ahead and to the left, there comes Sally with the dead woodcock.  Best guess is that it was hit just as it leveled off it's ascent and had begun moving forward and momentum carried it that far before it fell to be retrieved by the same dog who had pointed it.  

Sally did seem particularly pleased with herself

As I thought about this my mind drifted back to several years ago on an early season day in Kansas.  It was my friend's first time hunting Kansas and as we crested a grassy hill we spotted Tweed, my light orange setter, on point up ahead. But just as we saw, we were seen, and a group of prairie chickens lifted in front of her out of gun range.  I yelled to my friend one of the lessons that I myself had learned the hard way out there, "Heads up, watch for stragglers!"  Sure enough, three more birds lifted right in front of him and dang if he didn't drop two of them.

A double. On Prairie Chickens. The first time ever hunting them. Handled by the dog.  "Alright!!"  The dogs swooped in and my friend's setter retrieved the lightly hit bird that had dropped to the left.  

The New Englander gent delivering the first prairie chicken

The other had dropped like a stone a little further out and we headed over to pick it up.  But it wasn't there. 

This is another one of those moments when you check with your buddy to make sure that your mind isn't playing tricks on you.  "That bird folded and dropped right here, didn't it?" We agreed and proceeded with a rigorous and methodical search. Two of us, two veteran dogs with solid retrieve skills and the goofy puppy who had finally returned from chasing the fly offs, walked, kicked and sniffed a widening circle over and over to no avail. 

Sportsman's ethics require a thorough search for all shot game. But a once in a lifetime scenario like this kept us searching for nearly an hour without reward.  Our excitement dampened by this loss, we agreed to quit for the day and head straight back to the truck, a long, silent walk as we cut across a couple of fields.

I realized I didn't see Tweed and stopped to call her around.  I spied her a couple of hundred yards in the wrong direction down the field, and wondered what she was picking up.  We stood with mouths agape as she proudly carried that prairie chicken and gently gave it to us. 

That setter was Sally's mother.  There must have been a thread of scent that pulled her down the field to that bird, just as a drift of scent (and the thread of her inheritance) tolled Sally today with the woodcock.

We have all had a bird that we know we hit but could not find.  Like most good hunters, I was raised that is not to be taken lightly.  So today I am reminded to not just search thoroughly where we believe the bird fell, but also to believe in dogs with the will and tenacity and breeding to take up even the hint of scent and push until the bird is found. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Having Things The Way I Like Them

 By Randy Lawrence

The older I get in wingshooting, the more I Like Things The Way They Are.  That's because, for the most part, I Have Things The Way I Like Them.

I have a favorite hat, shooting glasses and vest.  I like my boots.  I shoot doves from a battered lawn recliner.  The dogs that hunt for me, I trained myself.  I know their faults and foibles because they mirror my own.  And for many years, what I knew I didn't want was a new shotgun.  I was comfortable missin' 'em close with the short stable of good birdguns already on hand.

Then came The Lockdown and too much time to think...and I started grieving the various 28-gauges I have owned in the past.  I regretted parting with a 5 and 1/2 lb. Grulla that Bill Hanus swore would be the firearm I'd choose to put in my casket for the Afterlife.  I mourned the too long, too heavy SKB 28 that I hauled around in a saddle scabbard for almost a decade, hunting and training dogs from horseback. 

My brother is fond of saying, "'Need' is the language's weakest word," suspicious as he is of virtually anything that smacks of "f-u-n."  But that's my brother - the sensible one.  I "needed" a 28-gauge because I wanted one;  not just ANY one, but 28" barrels fronting a straight hand stock, built on an actual 28 gauge frame...just like the one I stumbled across on one night during a bout of insomnia-fueled web surfing.

There it was:  a sleek, purpose-built Rizzini box lock over-under, 28" barrels, good stock architecture with a schnabel* forend, slight perch belly to the butt and, glory of glories, double triggers!  

"Boy howdy!" I cried, or something to that effect to the various dogs arrayed where I could trip over them in my sleepless perambulations.

I plunged into research about Rizzini guns and was quickly reminded that there are various brothers, nephews, cousins, etc. putting their surname to Italian firearms.  Add to this one of the Rizzinis being married to a Fausti, and stuff gets really confusing.

This particular gun was being sold under the F.A.I.R. style:  Fabrica Armi Isidoro Rizzini.  I had handled enough of the company's side-by's manufactured there in Northern Italy's Val Trompia, ancient home of Spaghetti Gun Making, that I trusted this "Isi Rizzi" O/U to be of  quality.  

Then stuff got serious.  

The fences were sculpted, there was a cut-away design to the top-lever's thumb, and the sides of the receivers were computer etched with Bobwhite Quail in flight on one side and a Gambel's Quail strutting on the other.  Ho hum...til the photo came up of the action's underside...and the beautiful Woodcock there was hand cut, the work signed, and the darned image actually LOOKED like an honest-to-Labrador Twister woodcock!

That matters to me.  I loathed that the SKB 28 I shot maybe better than any gun I've ever owned had (Heaven forfend!) ditch parrot pheasants in flight on the receiver.  And yes...I shot wild pheasants with that gun, sharptails, too, but doggonit, that was my quail and woodcock and ruffed grouse gun!

"Who cares?," any sensible person would ask.  I wouldn't raise my hand on that query where anyone could see it, but not very deep inside, I care very much.  The art is part of the deal.

(PS:  I can overlook the fact that the Woodcock image is of Scolopax rusticola, the barred breasted Eurasian Woodcock.  It was an Italian artisan at the graver after all...) 

I sweated through three auction cycles before I had the money to make a bid on that shotgun.  When I finally took delivery, the bird season was already over, so the little gun has stood empty by my bed where I can fondle it,  throw it to my shoulder, explain its virtues to the dogs, and dry fire on a covey of bobwhites flushing in an old print hanging on my bedroom wall.

Yesterday marked my first chance to shoot the dove patch we keep on the hilltop, three acres of mowed, then disked, sunflower, millet, partridge pea and wheat in the middle of my hayfield that absolutely horrify my no nonsense Amish farmer.  Boots the Labrador and I set up our water jug, chair, and two boxes of Fiocchi cartridges under a tree, and spent the next two and a half hours getting acquainted with the little Rizzini. 

This morning, Lynn Dee Galey texted, "How did you like the new gun?"

Without thinking, I replied, "OK."

That's the truth, actually.  It was "OK" shooting a new gun after any number of years standing pat on the firearms that I've loved, fitted, carried, and shot for thousands of rounds of game and clays, including the Beretta that's due for a refitted hinge pin.

The stock is a bit longer than I like.  The toe needs rounded and turned slightly out.  When that work is being done, I'll have my guy install an ultra thin rubber English pad to replace the plastic one there now.  

Those are details for another time.  For now, when I did my part, the gun felt great between my hands.  I missed some gimmes early, but by the shank end of the afternoon, "Isi Rizzi" and I let the air out of a couple of high fast ones that got the old dog some exercise on deep retrieves.

But doves are a dalliance.  If that little 28 and I do manage to form a new partnership beyond "OK", it'll be in October and November when the woodcock come through and the setter puppy Cool Hand Luke takes reps in front of the shotgun that was originally marked as "his."  

When he does his part, which he will, and if I do mine, I'll accept the retrieve and match the warm, setter-mouthed form to the hand cut one just forward of the trigger guard...and once again, we'll have Things Just The Way I Like Them.

*  Under the heading of "Did You Know?" comes the fact that the word "schnabel"is derived from a German word meaning "beak"?  I, of course, did not know this...