Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

In The Grand Manner

 by Randy Lawrence

Most of it wasn't wild bird hunting.  We hatched out 300 Northern Bobwhite Quail each year and raised them in near total isolation in the spacious pens behind the house.  Big feeders and waterers kept human contact to an absolute minimum.  The birds were nervous, strong fliers with no resemblance to the preserve birds fed like barnyard fowl and handled into broken feathers and indifferent flight.

Everyone who releases birds wants to brag and say, "Why, most folks can’t tell the difference!"  That’s only when the “most folks” in question hadn’t hunted wild bobwhites in our hills, in the Deep South (when they still had birds), or farther out in the Midwest. 

Still and all, ours were very, very good. The secret was an elaborate system of trapping and releasing the pen-raised quail. We turned them out in long patches of dwarf sorghum days before the weather and our work set us up to hunt.  If "Mr. Bob" Thompson, the major domo of this operation, didn't get to go along on a hunt, the second question he asked (after a query about the dogs, of course) was, "How did the birds do?"

That's because those birds were the base of all the dog work and shooting we did on the farm.  There were several times the dogs turned up a bonus  Ruffed Grouse or two, and there were Woodcock, always Woodcock, spring and autumn on the gnarly edges of wide hay fields.

In the beginning, there were wild coveys along the ridges above the broad bottom land, down along shaggy fencerows, even one bunch for years we called the Junk Yard Covey because they had set up housekeeping in an around a dump kept by previous owners of this land.  If we believed we were on a wild covey, we saluted those birds with a safe shot in the air, then worked the dog on the singles.  We fell into the habit of carrying a blank pistol for just such a blessed event. 

Mr. Bob had come to pointing dogs from the Labrador game, and he arrived steeped in stories of quail hunting by Buckingham and Babcock.   For a time, he kept an English setter called Jetset Danny on the shooting dog circuit with Doc and Andy Zoll.  Bob and his wife Sybil showed up on weekends to tailgate, talk dogs, and ride the braces on borrowed horses.

But Bob wasn’t long for the professional field trial circuit, even if he did get to handle Danny in the amateur stakes.  In the back of his mind, Bob had always wanted to hunt, tongue lodged firmly in cheek, in what he termed “The Grand Manner,” meaning “from horseback.”  To that end, he went to school on friends like the Zolls, Tate Cline, and John Thompson, pored over thick books on managing farmland for quail, bought three easy-going Tennessee Walking Horses named Snowball, Belle, and Ebony.  Just like that, Bob was in what he laughingly called “The Plantation Business."

Mr. Bob on Ebony, a walking horse raised and trained on the farm.  This is a classic photo to the author because Bob's pointing where he last heard the dog's bell. That white fedora still hangs on a farmhouse peg.

By the time we became friends, Bob was down to just one true “horseback dog,” a rawboned wind burner named Willie.
  Williedawg was something of a pheasant and quail producing legend in the sportsmen’s club fun trials that Bob and a circle of buddies kept going into the early 1980’s.  To paraphrase Coach Bear Bryant, Williedawg could beat you finding just his’n, but he was just as liable to find his’n, your’n, and any of their’n left over from earlier braces.

                            Williedog was bred from Sam Light's great line of "Sam L" setters.

Bob field trialed and hunted Willie from a stout one-eyed white walking horse he called "Snowball."  He sang to the dog while Willie gobbled up the terrain:

“Heeeeeeeeeey,” Bob would chant.  “Heeeeeeeey. Heeeeeeeey-Yup!” 

Snowball, parked out, as Bob pulls his shotgun from the scabbard.  The dog is on point in the brushy draw to the horse's left.

The "singing” helped Willie keep track of horse and rider without coming in. That meant all of the dog’s focus was on scouring fencerows and food plots, sucking scent, then later, sucking up small trophies and cash prizes awarded at the end of each weekend’s fun trial event. 

(A sidebar from Bob Thompson, who "sang" on horseback and seldom spoke or whistled to his dogs on foot:  "Sometimes the worst thing we can do when we want a dog to look us up is to keep makin' noise.  Shut up!  Let 'im get worried about where you are.  If you've got the right kind of relationship with your dog, he'll come lookin'.  If he knows where you are because of all your racket, why would he swing by?)

It's important to note that Willie had done his puppy catechism in the woodcock coverts of New Brunswick; when Bob brought him back to Ohio, Willie was stamped as that rare pointing dog who understood how he was to handle when Bob was in the saddle, how he needed to hunt when his partner was on foot.  When the fun trials finally petered out, Willie never again left our Perry County, hunting the home farm and nearby Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock coverts.

At home, Bob hunted Willie from horseback.  Bob hated any kind of technology in his hunting, so there was never any talk of beepers, only then coming into vogue.  “Takes all the fun out of it,” he’d growl, preferring to set out on Snowball to go find Willie when neither of us could hear the dog’s over-sized Swiss bell.

Willie wearing the bell he would eventually wear out.  He's on a woodcock in this photo.

I could never prove it, but I always thought that Snowball knew when Willie had gone on point.  Bob thought so, too.  I can’t begin to guess how many times Bob gave Snowball a loose rein in the direction we’d last seen the big tri-colored dog, and the little white horse seemed to take us right to the stand. 

We’d “park out” the horses some distance downwind of the dog, dropping the reins and letting them graze.  My big Rose mare had maybe a touch of Equine ADD, so I carried a weight in my saddle bags.  I’d drop that weight to the ground, then clip Rose’s rein ends to the weight.  It wasn’t enough to stop her had she wanted to tear off, but enough to remind her that she could get plenty to eat right there while we humans went trundling off to find the dog.

(Above) Midnight Rose, minding her manners during a training exercise. The walking horses were an integral part of our training as well as bird shooting. They seemed genuinely interested in all of it.

Bob had several reputable birdguns lying in a wooden gun chest that doubled as an unobtrusive bench in his den.  But his saddle gun was a Savage 220a 20-gauge, a hammerless single barrel gun, the kind kids once got for Christmas. It’s important to note that this particular $125 Savage boasted a custom stock cut and bent to Bob’s specs, particularly as advancing years and stiffer joints made a shorter stock a necessity for someone who took shooting seriously. It also was precision choked.

The bar sinister Savage 220a, custom stocked and choked.

That's right.  Bob had stuffed that 20-gauge tube in a paper grocery sack and carried it into the workshop of a friend and master gunsmith who specialized in boring custom chokes.  Bob told Ken Eyster the paper bag was to insure that Eyster's regular Krieghoff, Purdey, and Perazzi customers did not become ill if they saw Bob's proletarian bird gun.  Eyster stopped laughing long enough at some point to put a devastating “Skeet” choke on Bob’s saddle gun, and it rode along on every horseback hunt for the next twelve years.

 The single barreled gun was a nod toward Bob insisting on savoring his shooting and stretching his dog work.  One cartridge was enough, shooting only over points.  Bob would stand marking the fall of a bird dropped on the covey rise as the rest of the group flew out into the cover.  Willie was a very casual retriever, so we celebrated whenever he delivered to hand, and simply pocketed the quail when the setter pointed dead or stoically stood over another of Bob’s birds.

We hunted the singles, maybe two or three, before Bob would set Willie up away from
singles already sounding “covey up, covey up.”   For that great dog’s entire life, Bob made him stand there until I could almost see the setter rising on his toes, so keen was he to go. 

 That’s when Bob would send him on with two sharp toots on the plastic Thunderer he kept threaded on a dirty nylon lanyard.  Willie would explode into his first reach as Bob shoved the empty 20-gauge back into the leather scabbard and levered himself back up into Snowball’s brush scarred Trooper Saddle.

Not long after this past century’s turn, Snowball was buried at the corner of the pasture where he lived for some 30 years.  Bob had a marker made with the epitaph “A Good Horse;” it hangs on the fence where we can see it every day.  Willie’s collar bell rests on my mantle these days, the clapper missing, lost one day after years of beating against that dog’s great heart.  I know this may seem a bit maudlin, but that silent bell sits next to the old wooden Winchester shotshell case topped with a quail sculpture.  Bob’s ashes rest inside, not far from the rocking chair where he read and held court in the little farmhouse kitchen. 

The whistle on the white nylon lanyard has been replaced at least twice.  That latest clear plastic model rattles against two woodcock bands taken from birds Willie pointed there on the farm coming on two decades ago.  Listen carefully, and you can still hear them clicking when I walk into a point by Deacon or Luke, that single barrel Savage balanced easily between my two hands…all in the grand manner, don’t you know.

Williedog and Bob Thompson

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Playing The Match Game

by Lynn Dee Galey  

In January of 2018, I attended the Breeder Gathering in Kansas.  Gathering days are filled with daily hunts followed with evenings of lively group dinners, evening discussion forums, and a lot of fun.  Members attend from all over the United States for the wild bird hunting and fellowship of course, but a critical side component is the chance for the kind of networking that small-scale breeders crave most:  the chance to scout, in person, dogs who might make into future breeding partners.

One day in particular, I hunted with New Yorker Bob Mele and Walt Lesser, lifetime Ryman setter aficionado and co-author of The Real Ryman Setter.  One the ground were my Sally and Bob's two females, Lizzie and Abby.  The three dogs were nearly indistinguishable as they skirted the edges of the cover, hot footin' to hit likely spots on the horizon, weaving in and out of every pocket in that particular section of farm country.  Although that particular covert was not especially productive for bobwhites, I was impressed by the hunt Bob's dogs showed and discovered they were related, Aunt Lizzie to Niece Abby.  That started this breeder's scheming, dreaming wheels a'turning.


Two days later I hunted with a Ryman/Llewellin male from Idaho called Doc, Abby's sire and Lizzie's brother.  As I watched him hunt hard, stylishly point his birds, then lie down and relax on the sunny hillside next to his owner, I was pretty sure I had found the sire of my next litter.   My Dreamboat Annie would be the product of our breeding to Doc, and now, three years on, that little spitfire gal is a lady in waiting on a litter of her own.

 Dreamboat Annie

Selecting proven bloodstock is a full time job for the breeder who puts hunting ability and performance conformation at the tip top of considerations.   That means studying video.  That means long conversations with others who have hunted with a certain dog and actually knows at what he or she is looking.  The ideal is the rare chance to actually walk behind that dog in the wild bird coverts.

The stakes couldn't be higher for folks who breed but one, at the outside two, litters a year.  Get it right, and the breeding totem moves forward toward the ideal.  Get it wrong?  That's a detour that may take years to get back on course.

Some of the most important litters in ongoing my breeding blueprint have been literally years in the planning.  Firelight Tweed was an exceptional companion gun dog and remains an important touchstone in my breeding program.  When I had the chance to meet her son Parker and his owners at the aptly named landmark pizza pub, Parker Pie in Vermont (an absolute must stop each visit I make back east), I was taken aback at how Parker was his mother in male form.  He had the look, the personality, the character, the quality, the field reputation.... unmistakably a Tweed offspring.  Plus, he is the brother to my outstanding bird dog, Storm. I knew that day that I had to get a puppy from Parker .

Years later I sent a photo of a 3 week old puppy to Parker's owner and said, half-jokingly, that I finally had the right female to breed to Parker so the boy had better keep himself prime!  That puppy was my Kate, and she lived up to my intuition in every way.  When she came of age as both a fine field performer and potential brood female, plans were made, but a family emergency suddenly made Ken and Parker unavailable when Kate was in season.  Plan B was ready in just such an eventuality;  I bred Kate to another lovely male and those pups have been precocious and oh so pleasing.  

But I still wanted my Parker x Kate litter.  

Arrangements were made, but on the cusp of a Parker-Kate hookup, Life happened...and Kate came into heat in the middle of the sale of my home in Kansas and a search for a home in the Michigan grouse woods.  That meant that the movers and my household headed to a storage unit in Michigan while Kate, the rest of the pack and I headed to Cape Cod and Parker. 

Our timing was perfect. We got two breedings.  I filled up on fresh seafood. All that was left was to head back west for northern Michigan where I still needed to shop for and buy a house in time to deliver the pups that I knew were coming.

Despite every monkey wrench Life threw into my Swiss Watch/Cuckoo Clock planning over the next two months, we managed to manage:  I moved into my new Michigan grouse house on a Saturday, built a whelping box the next Monday, and welcomed ten Kate and Parker puppies that weekend.   Two years later, that litter is turning out into everything I thought that they would be, proof of the best of what judicious line breeding can offer in fixed, desirable traits.  I watch Dance, my puppy from that litter and in my mind's eye I try to see what she might be able to weave into the weft of Firelight genes.


Parker, it took me nine years to get to you, buddy, but it sure seems you were worth the wait!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Is She?

 by Lynn Dee Galey  

Is it my imagination or is Annie already thickening around the waist?  She sure seems extra hungry these last several days, even turning to begging (which previously was beneath Her Nibs).  And while we're pondering all of this, were those small stomach upset bouts she's suddenly suffered actually morning sickness?

It has been not quite three weeks since we journeyed east and Annie had her snow bunny rendezvous with handsome Tip.  Folks excited to bring home a new hunting buddy this summer are already asking if I think the breeding took. I reply that it is much too early to know for sure.  

Gestation for dogs is 9 weeks.  Many people have an ultrasound done at about four weeks which can usually confirm if a dog is pregnant. I prefer to stay as natural as possible and not stress my dog, or possibly expose her (and, in these times, me) to something nasty with a vet visit.  

Besides when you live with your gun dogs who are also your companions and breeding animals, you tend to notice even small changes and develop a sense about them.   By four or five weeks there should be clear signs that suggest it is time to put a new coat of paint on the whelping box, not to mention figure out a more comfortable sleeping arrangement this year for me in the puppy room for those anxious, long nights when Annie's time comes.

I’m not going to raise hopes yet, but I do think mid-March is a great time to look online for a new sleep sofa.  You know...just in case.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Echoes On The Prairie

By Randy Lawrence

The air felt 10 degrees cooler down in the ravine.  We had been walking for a very long time over the hard-baked September prairie without moving a single bird.  The plum thicket at the bottom of the coulee held a trickle of a creek, and  Dusk, the big old-timey looking setter, drank his fill before we pushed on to the head of the draw.   A dense cluster of shrubby plums squatted there, dark and thorny, marking the spot where we’d eventually climb back out on top to the grasslands.

I believe there are times when we simply feel we are in the presence of game.   A cynic might suggest that any prairie bird hunter who didn’t bet on the end of that cut should turn in his boots.  Either way I was already hustling up the slope when Dusk went solid just inside the plum patch.

He relocated one time, then pointed again.   I could hear bird mutterings and scoldings deep in the shade before a Sharp-tailed Grouse beat out of the cover into the turquoise sky.  

Perhaps it was the heat or fatigue or maybe just a smug bit of calm from being right about the cover.
  Whatever the reason, for once, I didn’t behave as if wingbeats set my hair ablaze.  I got myself turned, the antique 16 gauge came up without a thought, and the second grouse lifting through the gnarled branches folded as it cleared the trees.  Two deep flushes off the edge of the draw came before I could move on a Sharp-tail I didn't even hear go out, a  hard-flying silver shape banking right to left over the thicket.  That bird tumbled off my left barrel, a silhouette against the late afternoon sun.  I broke the gun, short-stopped the ejected empties with my right palm, and looked for the dog.

Too late.  Intent on the retrieve, Dusk had stumbled on a pair of skulkers.
  He stopped at flush, wagging his tail almost sheepishly as the lay birds clattered away, dark shapes twisting into that odd waggle-flight of prairie grouse.  

Eventide caught us cleaning birds and feeding dogs next to a backcountry stock tank tucked into a broad valley.  Game trails spidered away from the big cement pool brimming cool water from a prairie spring.  We had just finished our chores when the bison came out of the gloaming to drink.

Part of a small herd we’d been told ran this particular ranch, they tossed immense shaggy heads, grunting and shuffling single file down the far rise.  We clambered into the truck and drove up the opposite hillside to a low ridge overlooking the tank.  Sitting down against the truck, weary legs stretched in the grass, we watched the snuffling, jostling relics gathered ‘round the water under a sliver moon, like the grouse, the dog, and the slender double gun, echoes of times long past on the northern plains.

Photo Credits:

"Bison Bull" and "Aspenglow Dawn t' Dusk" by the author.

“Prunus Americana (Wild Plum).” Minnesota Wildflowers, Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, 2021,

“Public Domain Picture: Sharp-Tailed Grouse.” Public Domain Files, US Fish and Wildlife Service: Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, 2 Apr. 2014,

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Seven Acres

by Lynn Dee Galey 

As is common with old New England houses, she sat close to the narrow, winding road. Yet most people likely never noticed her hidden behind the thick, overgrown cloak of vines, brush and trees.

Modest in size with white clapboards and slate shingled roof, the windows, surprisingly intact, she showed only darkness inside. A small red barn was tucked behind, another hint that at one time this was part of a homestead.

Musty-scented plat maps pulled from the wide shelves at the town clerk's office showed that only seven acres remained with the house. In an area where new residents were rare, everyone seemed to know only that the house belonged to someone who lived in New York City. There had been no known visitors in decades.

Tumble-down, moss covered stone walls marked the boundaries of the seven acres as they did most Vermont properties.  Such walls were demarcations, not built to keep people out. Any acreage surrounded with shiny new “No Trespassing” signs usually announced that an outsider had “purchased tradition” but did not want to share it.

Countless times our bird hunts brought us across the back of those seven acres just to the north of our farm. The land rose up in a staggered manner across ledges and brush, from the old house to the wall at the top and back of the property. From the wall, part of the Adirondack mountain range could be seen, far across the valleys below, into the next state. The setter and I would stop and breathe deeply as we took in the view that was as old as the rounded mountains but that never grew old to us.

The random wild apple trees, gnarled junipers, tangles of grapevines and even token patches of alders were classic Vermont grouse habitat.  Birds used the northeast corner as their exit, their gliding away signaling that the day's lessons were done. Being adjacent to our farm these birds shared home covey protection and only rarely was a shot fired.

Their role was teacher to several generations of my setters as they schooled the youngsters and did their best to humble the adults. So rarely did they play a predictable game that when almost 6-month-old Ditto went on point 10 yards from an apple tree I knew that there would not be a bird there. Too easy.

But the young pup’s serious demeanor deserved the pretense of respect so I casually walked in, gun broken over my arm. And yes, of course a grouse came bursting up from the ground presenting a clear view as it banked over that little tri-color setter and headed for the corner exit. On such days, gunners joined puppies in the lessons but it was the pup at the head of the class.


Not two weeks earlier the Seven Acres had first shown unusual favoritism to this particular pup. Ditto was uphill merrily working some brushy cover and a woodcock came flying in from below and dropped down not 40 yards from me. I raised my eyes to the blue skies and gave thanks for this gift that was better than any with ribbons and bows. I was silent audience to the pup eventually working over in that direction; the breeder in me wanted to whoop with pleasure as Ditto crossed that scent and froze into a point worthy of the camera that I did not have with me.

A thousand miles and several years now separate me from my farm and those seven acres, but the memories remain so near. Most of the setters who crossed those walls as we roamed are but memories themselves. Like so many lost coverts, no one walks through the farm or the vine covered house and its seven acres any more.  But I am certain that the birds are still there, and if I close my eyes I am right there with them.

Foster, W. H. (1983). New England Grouse Shooting. In New England Grouse Shooting. Oshkosh, WI: Willow Creek Press.