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

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