Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

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...

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Fit For A King

Firelight Seth

by Randy Lawrence

The very first one came off the nose of a bouncy Norwegian Elkhound named Britt (for those of a certain Rod Stewart/Britt Ekland vintage, all Elkhounds were "Britt," even though their namesake, sadly, wasn't even Norwegian).  She was hunting for, I don't know, moose ("elg") or rabbits or moles or whatever through a boggy thicket edging a freshly plowed field.  

I would not have even known it was a woodcock except for Aldo Leopold, whom I had stumbled across in a college lit class.  That twitter tweet rise meant Britt had to give it a good rip for about four bounds.  I watched it corkscrew away, then veer back into the thicket about forty yards ahead.

Britt went on about her business. I was marked for life.

American Woodcock (John James Audubon)

When the birddog bug bit me,  Britt was in her dotage, so she never made the mad runs to the Lake States as my friend Lyle and I tried, tried, tried every year to time the trip with the woodcock migration.  What we said we were, were grouse hunters.  We told each other and anyone who would listen that the woodcock were just for training, sort of the AA minor league to get our little string of setters and pointers ready for the Ruffed Grouse Big Leagues.  

But I was lying the whole time.  I loved the grouse, but it was the woodcock I came for then, just as I do today.  

Locals in the Log Cabin Bar and the little gas station sports shops had told us about 100 bird days, of dogs hunting from point to point to point to point.  But we were always in the "Shoulda Been Here Last Week" class, until the two years we weren't. 

Once was just above the banks of a destination trout fishing stream, and the birds were so thick that our young goofy dogs bumped as many as they pointed.  We became almost dizzy trying to mark the flights.  We shot poorly and staggered out of there as if a fever dream had broken over all of us.

The second time, I was alone.  I'd agreed to a week sharing a Wisconsin cabin with three other men and, as much as I liked them personally, we had very little in common in terms of how we wanted to hunt our dogs.  When the chance came to break off and bushwhack back to the truck, the big white and orange pointer and I peeled away to the east...and found a flight of woodcock that kept us busy for several hours.  Moxey was fast and experienced and stylish;  two of those three qualities got swamped in that woodcock tsunami as we battled through the nastiest, gnarliest, leg-cramping, step-over, crawl-under cover we'd ever tackled.  I finally unloaded the gun and focused on getting to where the bell had last gone silent so I could get the bird up and gone.

There had been a fair bit of shooting from the line the rest of the party had taken, and when Moxey and I spilled out into the road, my friends were waiting, still shaking their heads.  The birds were in where they had hunted as well, and we all stared at the numbers on one fellow's lanyard flush counter before loading the dogs up for another covert.

They fascinate me, woodcock.  The whole upside down brain thing.  The eyes with the 360-degree field of vision, sited above the ears,  that ridiculously long probe of a beak with its articulated end.   The plumage that so perfectly blends with the autumn woods floor.  That battering, erratic flight through tattered alder stands.  The savory prospect of woodcock as table fare.

Speaking of which, we're all semi-adults here, right?  Let's agree to honor personal taste and culinary skills on the issue of whether or not woodcock "eat good," as my Appalachian neighbors say.  My thought has always been that if folks don't like to eat them,  they shouldn't shoot this bird that's under so much pressure from the forces of modern life.  

Carry a blank gun on your hip.  Enjoy the dog work.  And if you do chose to swing that good shotgun on a woodcock wraith, err on the side of restraint.


Valery Siurha: "English Setter On Woodcock"

Surely part of the connection between woodcock and me is the so-called Sky Dance, the spring mating rituals that Leopold wrote so evocatively of in his Sand County Almanac.  When finally I returned home from cancer surgery in March of 2018, my first teetery, one-kidney walk on my farm was at dusk out the oil road to see if "my" birds were back yet.  It was cold and wet and I was so lightheaded that I was not certain I could make it to the singing grounds.  But then a brazen roading bird buzzed the Labradors and me not fifteen feet overhead before landing in the gloaming to buzz and strut.   I breathed a clumsy prayer of thanks to Someone Somewhere and decided maybe I was going to be OK after all.

So maybe you'll forgive me when I get a little weird over woodcock.  I bristle at disrespectful diminutives for any gamebird (spare me your phezzes, sharpies, and ruffs).  But what I loathe most are the woodcock tags:  Mudbat.  Timberdoodle.  Bogsucker.  Night Partridge.  Bog Snipe. Bug Eye.  'Doods is a double disservice (surely coined by a man-bunned hipster with a Versatile Pointing Airedale and a cut-down home defense pump gun).  

I blame Burt Spiller for "Lil' Russet Fellers."  "Labrador Twister" is one I can grudgingly admire, though I've never heard it in person.

They are woodcock, dammit, and their long migrations and mysterious comings and goings and their knuckleball, tweetery flushes, the way they drape from the flews of my English setters on a happy retrieve stir me more than any other gamebird save the prairie grouse, both dear to me in large measure because of the places and times they have lifted into my life.

Firelight Bo with a woodcock retrieve (L) and the painting done from that photo. (R)

Twelve years from my first woodcock with Britt, on a working vacation, I was sent with an eager, collie sort of farm dog to fetch cows in for the morning milking.  This was in Devonshire in the south of Great Britain, and when Dugal paused on the brushy edge of a rocky little creek, I wasn't at all prepared for the bird that burst out of the cover.  No Lil Russet Feller, he.  Nossir.  This was 'CockZilla, that nose piece, the snipey wings, the barred breast feathers making the tribal ID easy, kin to the jaw-dropping XXL stuffed woodcock clamped to the wall of our favorite pub down in the village.  At dinner the next evening down at that little bar, I stared at the woodcock the size of our ruffed grouse, and thought of King  George VI, father of the current queen.  His Majesty favored matched pairs of Purdey hammer guns and kept a meticulous shooting diary.  On those many pages, only the woodcock are recorded in royal red ink.   

Cheers to you, Bertie.  Woodcock, great and small, make for red letter days.

 Eurasian Woodcock in Flight

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Pride (In The Name of Love)

by Randy Lawrence

Over the years, my rule of thumb with firearms, vehicles, camera gear, and guitars has always been, "Just past halfway 'tween entry level and Pride."

That works for me.  My shotguns and rifles fit, go bang when they are supposed to, and are never to blame for my inglorious misses.  My trucks get me where I'm going; my camera gear fetches images I cherish.  The guitars?  They are tons better than I can make 'em sound.  But in another arena that matters to me - bird dogs - I have to confess, the mantra doesn't hold.  Regarding gun dogs, the needle is way over toward the pride end.  

That would figure - those other things are tools.  The bird dogs I love most feed my heart.

A word about "pride."  Don't misunderstand me.  My dogs have never been a "look at me" deal, for starters because my four decades'-long list of canine collaborators and I have embarrassed each other in times and places where the last thing we wanted was for someone to even glance in our direction.

The second reason is because, to date, my most beloved brag dogs were all bred by someone else.  Other than being clever enough to stay the heck out of their way, I can claim no credit for them being the kind of performers that almost glow with athletic beauty, tractable brains, and bird sense...other than I did my homework and knew where to place a good bet on getting that special kind of dog.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon this quotation by a noted British poker player named Victoria Mitchell, writing about the pleasurable escape she derives from the natural world.  She writes, "The key to nature's therapy is feeling like a tiny part of it, not a master over it. There's amazing pride in seeing a bee land on a flower you planted - but that's not your act of creation, it's your act of joining in. "

So this sort of "pride" isn't about me, other than I succeeded in learning where to "plant my flower," so to speak, the pride in getting to be part of something much bigger than my own contribution to the dog I'm following.

Bred-in ability to learn that translates into bird sense comes at a premium.  That's because to get it requires generations of thoughtful trial and error breeding that is totally based in time spent afield proving out bloodstock the hunter can enjoy as a companion year 'round.  That kind of commitment, passion, and wild bird hunting background is not common. 

But that's the prospect some of us believe we have to have, the one that pays dividends in developing more quickly and with comparatively fewer chances on wild game.  After all, the returns we're angling for are the ones that matter most to folks like us - that bit about sustenance for the heart mentioned earlier.

My stained hunting vest won't pass muster in polite company.  I can look out my office window and see the rear bumper of my truck is currently held in place by Gorilla Tape.  My favorite boots need resoled, and nobody's going to stop me in the grouse coverts to take a picture of my Italian over-under with the pistol grip sawn off and the comb raised with green molded fiberglass.

But my English setter?  I'd be proud to tell you how special he is.  

Better yet, let's go hunting. You'll see.