Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Friday, January 8, 2021

Off Game

 by Randy Lawrence

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

It was a peacock. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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