by Lynn Dee Galey
Born in a small Maine cabin in the dead of winter, Firelight Setter pups Seth and Sally never saw bare ground until they had made the 1600 mile journey to our new home in Kansas, nicknamed the Coyote Den for both the address and the wild dog songs heard close by on many nights. For 26 hours Seth and his sister Sally rode crated next to me on the bench seat of the moving truck rental. I drove and the three of us howled sporadically, sometimes to songs on the radio, sometimes just to let the world know we were still there.
It was spring in Kansas, and the two pups spent their days romping the fenced acres of our new home and discovering that adult dogs, both their English relatives and their new partners, a brace of bob-tailed French Brittany boys, tolerated puppies but that their ears and tails were not chew toys. Soon enough the pups learned canine social skills and could relax in the company of the pack or at least knew enough to stay out of their seniors’ way when youthful energy brought on fits of roughhousing and tearing around.
With September comes a change in the air as everyone is loaded into the truck topper, eight dogs between my hunting partner and me: five English Setters, two French Brittanys and most importantly, the pack ruler Worf, a fourteen-year old miniature Dachshund who travels on his throne, a dog bed nestled on the front console of the crew cab. The adult bird dogs are energized. They had seen the guns and boots loaded and the travel trailer hitched up, as road veterans they know to curl quietly in their kennel boxes in the topper. A few stern glares and rumbles from their mother through the inside bars of the boxes tells the Setter pups that they too need to settle down and enjoy the ride.
The long hours of driving to the northern plains are dotted with quick stops for diesel and to air out the dogs. Seth and Sally quickly learn the road rule that each dog is given about two minutes to tend to its business before being loaded back up - no dawdling or smelling the roses allowed. At long last the blacktop roads fall behind, and the dusty gravel leads us to the far reaches of a remote ranch with only antelope and cattle - and hopefully gamebirds - as neighbors. When the veteran dogs are lifted down from their boxes, their muzzles turn into the ever present wind, their eyes closed slightly to savor the rich scents and promise of this land.
With the dawn of each new day, amid whiffs of sage and the tawny browns of grassy moguls, we put down a mix of three or four dogs in our search for Hungarian Partridge and Sharp-tailed Grouse. With faith in good breeding and instinct, I run the 7 month old pups with adults in this wide open classroom so that they can learn by doing, wild birds serving as both lesson and instructor.
On the first day the pups fall behind as the adults stretch out over the hills and they entertain themselves with Montana-sized pup toys - the white washed bones of a cow skeleton from the bottom of a basin. Proudly they carry their finds all the way back to the truck. No comment by my long-striding, plains hunting partner regarding us New Englanders on his turf, but I see his raised eyebrow and slight shaking of his head, questioning the potential of these long-tail clowns.
But quickly the instincts in the pups awaken, and they cut their bird dog teeth in the big time, Big Sky country. It's not easy being the new kids on a well oiled team, and time and again the puppies are a minute late or 100 yards off from having finds of their own.
But finally, breeding meets opportunity.
I walk up over a grassy hill. Halfway down the other slope is a Setter locked down, and yes, this time it's Seth. One of the Frenchmen also sees the puppy with the neon white coat and freezes into a back. The voice in my head quietly thanks him for his usual good form and for respecting that the pup just might have what it takes. On approach I'm hoping that it is a sharptail and not a pheasant, whose season doesn't open for a few weeks.
Walking in through the rough grass I see the telltale head of a sharpie pop up in the grass, then the rush of wings and chuckle of flight. The recipe comes together and a young prairie grouse becomes Seth's first retrieve dropped over his point.
Mustang Sally is aptly named and sows a few wild oats before settling in herself. She shows her strong nose one day when a light breeze pulls her up and over a long hill. In anticipation, her senior Frenchman bracemate and I start up the hill after her, hoping for a back and a position for a shot, only to be disappointed when instead a large group of grouse come flying over our heads with that little filly in hot pursuit.
With that chase in mind she is hunted solo the next day in thick, high grass to her withers that might slow her down a bit. She has to work for it in a field that produces only a single find. Sally pulls up into a solid puppy point and holds as I flush the bird. My partner's little 28-gauge usually drops them like a stone but as luck would have it, although he connects with this bird, it sets its wings and sails before dropping just over the top of the ridge. In light of the distance and thick grass I have my doubts about Sally’s ability to make the find, so I head up the hill in that direction, the puppy ranging well ahead. Before I make the ridgetop, I am pleasantly surprised to be met by Sally carrying to me her first sharptail, a wing dramatically flared and covering her eyes.
Lessons taught by the big dogs back home in the yard and on the road continued into the field: It is a thing of beauty to see multiple dogs spread out searching for feathered needles in a 640 acre haystack, but the magic starts when one of them jinks on a thread of scent, muzzle turned high as the dog becomes more deliberate in its search. Gunners and dogs who live and spend considerable time hunting together tune into these birdy signals from a distance and swing in for the assist. This cooperation from the entire team often cuts off running birds who are not expecting another "wolf" to come play "squeeze" and boom, instinct freezes the well bred birddog either on bird scent or the sight of a bracemate on point. The innate urge to pin game in place keeps the dogs motionless as the gunner walks in to flush the birds. That moment is the cumulative final exam of lessons produced by genes, canine mentors and the birds for whom this is not sport, but life or death.
The pups learn the hard way that galloping into these situations that are being finessed by teammates results in exploding groups of birds with the punishment of no shots fired and all involved then casting aspersions on the offender. Caution when a team member is birdy and backing others points is a must; party crashers may hear their name being used as a discouraging word. Being part of the pack requires respect and manners and paying attention. Those slow to pick up on those manners may find themselves with time on the chain gang back at the RV.
But when all is done right, prairie grouse hold for a gridlock of dogs, lifting only at the sight and sound of a gunner walking in. When a shot is fired and a bird falls, the dogs race for the retrieve. The first one to the bird is the victor who is then escorted by the others as the grouse is brought to hand.
With the pheasant season opener comes running ringnecks who taunt and teach puppies a new set of lessons: there one minute, gone the next. Tail flashing, excitedly bouncing through the draw, Seth just knows there is a bird there, and from his trembling stand, he fails to get the joke when the rooster flushes 70 yards away with its laughing cackle. Watching the bewilderment in Seth makes me laugh out loud along with that rooster.
The prairie weeks pass quickly, and when Seth and Sally and the rest of the crew return to Kansas it is time to meet Bob. Bobwhite Quail that is. And Bob has his own rules and playbook. Birds are now found in brush tangles and along edges of weedy crop fields. Bob and his covey mates require some throttling down in speed and distance compared to the Big Sky birds. These 6 ounce delights sit tight like young sharpies in the grass, but when flushed they jet through timber like miniature rockets. Game on then to locate singles who always seem to fly across a creek and disappear into thin air.
The puppies’ pheasant education translates when Seth locates a covey of quail running along the bottom of a deep, wooded drainage. When he doesn’t pop back up into sight along a grass and timber edge I head over to the deep draw where I last saw him. I can hear the covey's nervous peeping chirps from below as I pause to contemplate the steep bank for my best non-neck-breaking descent and gunning position. That’s when I see Seth: cool with caution, pointing and relocating until the birds finally hold, darned good stuff for a pup that three months ago was more focused on cattle femurs.
Sally’s own moment came in a favorite cover nicknamed The Jack Gas cover. We New Englanders tend to name our covers for easy reference and memory: at this time I choose to not share the explanation for this one, granting dignity to a great dog named Jack. I last saw Sally as she weaved through the brush along the barbed wire that separated this picturesque, hilly CRP field from the neighboring crop field and when we got to the top of the hill we can see one of the Fr Brits standing at the edge of the timbered draw below. Unsure of where Sally is and hoping that she does not stumble into the situation from the wrong side, my hunting partner and I head down toward the draw. At about 50 yards away a smile comes to my face as I see that the Fr Brit was not on point, he was actually backing Sally who was pointing a covey but was well hidden in the brush. I pause to snap the photo and the little half-masked pup stands solid as I walk in and flush the covey. A single that swings to the right drops at my shot and is returned to me by Sally: I swear that Sally and I have matching smiles on our faces as hold the little cockbird in my hand.
One of the blessings of Kansas hunting is that it extends through the end of January but finally it is time to clean and case the gun for the season. Seth and Sally are nearly a year old as the season closes. In the last 5 months they have built a nice resume with multiple species of wild birds handled, thousands of miles traveled, and became civilized members of canine and human groups. As I review the photos that I took over these months, the memories will come back to life. And as the pups snooze with the rest of the pack in front of the wood stove, I will hope that their twitches are a playback of the same memories. Sleep well pups, there is so much yet ahead.