Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Thursday, December 30, 2021

That Most Important Thing

By Randy Lawrence

Not long ago, I read a wonderful epitaph for a companion gun dog.  This dog had had a rather indifferent history, finally landing in a home he could share with a family who understood him, doted on him, got him more time afield than ever in his past lives and, frankly, put him on to the fast track toward Living Happily Ever After.

When the dog passed on, a discerning friend wrote, "He passed away finally loved.  That's the most important thing."

Understand that this isn't coming from some fur-baby-besotted twit, but a member of the cognoscenti, a veteran handler who runs a short string of hard-going gun dogs... who share most every aspect of their handler's life.

"The Most Important Thing"... It occurs to me that in the realm of working dogs, particularly our world of sensitive, responsive companion English setters,  a higher order "love" for our dogs deserves a thoughtful review.

It should go without saying that we provide the creature comforts - quality food, clean water, dry shelter, regular vet care and grooming.  Doing so shows concern.  Responsibility.  Humanity.

But what about love?

We can admire a dog that cruises the woods with brio.  We take pride in a staunch point, a great mark on a downed bird, a tail wagging parade of a retrieve.

But what about love?

Maybe we keep a dog-friendly household arranged around our dogs' comfort and safety.

But what about That Most Important Thing?

The expression "Quality Time" has been reduced to a cliche in our culture.  I would suggest that it's not a cliche to our dogs.  Beyond their absolute pleasure in their work, created by an upbeat partnership with a savvy, collaborative, clear communicator human, maybe the thing most dogs want (and one of the reasons we invited them fireside, prehistory) is our Quality Time.  They relish our focused attention -  having their needs respected, being played with, petted, enjoyed as companions supported in ways that make them a pleasure to be with, rather than neurotic, furry crosses to be borne.

A guy named William of Wickham founded Great Britain's New College in Oxford in 1379 (dubbed "New College" to distinguish it from another academy founded fifty years earlier - leave it to the Brits to persist in referencing a 650 year-old school as "new").  The founder gave permission for the school to use his personal coat of arms and motto, "Manners Makyth Man."   That idiom remains on the ornate wrought iron entry gate of the school to this day.

Understand that for Wickham, Lord Chancellor to two British monarchs,  "manners" related both to personal character as well as etiquette.  What could better describe education's role in shaping students' lives?  What better backdrop for a loving relationship with our bird dogs?

In that sense, both "character" and "etiquette" are about thoughtfully, routinely, helping our dog with boundaries...which starts with our own decisions regarding, to paraphrase another Englishman, Winston Churchill, "up with what we will or will not put."

Frankly, it's easier to do this one person-on-one-or-however-many dogs with whom we share our lives.  If we bring our gun dog into our family setting, all members have to be coached on things like toilet training etiquette, door etiquette, leash etiquette, furniture etiquette, family meal etiquette, counter surfing etiquette, trash can etiquette, bed time etiquette, car etiquette, kid and cat etiquette, barking etiquette, etc., etc.  

It becomes a matter of character, of wanting Quality Time with our dogs in the woods and in our homes enough to be clear, consistent, firm and fair, looking at it from the dog's perspective in order to establish order that suits our own.  Consistently managed, house manners can be the linch pin of our field connection with our dogs as well.  Makes sense, right?

It's only natural that we bird dog people spend a lot of time thinking about performance.  The too-often-unspoken bottom line is that that dogs that adapt to our sense of manners in the field get hunted longer and more often because, quite frankly, they are more pleasure than pain to take into the woods.  

Likewise, dogs that get the "house rules" get more house time.  More petting time.  More talking time.  More everything, which means more of us, more of them for us.  More Quality Time.  Love.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, could have been talking about molding the manners that makyth men, women, and bird dogs in his famous list of love's most vital components: Patience. Kindness.  Trust.  Hope.  Perseverance. A snail-slow fuse to anger...all ingredients to a more fulfilling relationship with other people, let alone building a better companion bird dog.

As Partner Handlers, what better New Year's assessment than to step back and re-evaluate our relationship with our bird dog?  Are we holding up our end of the dog/human partnership?  Are we willing to do what needs done in a thoughtful, humane, dog-centered manner to make our lives together informed by, buoyed by, heck, made meaningful by being filled with that Most Important Thing?  


Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Bird Bright As Christmas

by Randy Lawrence

My earliest Christmas memories come through fog on the storm door to my grandmother's hot kitchen.  I would press against the glass watching the men gather in the barnyard, my grandfather and his brother, his brothers-in-law, two sons-in-law, and his only son, my mother's brother Ronnie.  Most of them were dressed in the same grey and off-white striped railroader coveralls they wore farming.  

Over top they shrugged into brown duck hunting coats and vests like the ones men, and sometimes even women, wore in the Field and Stream magazines Grandpa kept in a stack by his overstuffed living room chair.  To a man, they sported dingy red ball caps or ear flapped, red plaid Stromy Kromers, their sole concession to safety color.  

The impossibly long guns they pulled from the trunks of their family cars - nobody in my family had a pickup truck back then - were all repeaters, pumps mostly, and I can still see our menfolk cramming red or green or yellow shells in spring-worn magazines, the clacking racking sound of closing actions loud enough for me to hear over the kitchen bustle behind me.  They talked and laughed in puffs of white steam and cigarette smoke while Grandpa's farm dog, Rover Deeds, all wriggle and wag, moiled around their legs.  

Rover Deeds was a beagle-collie mongrel named after an erstwhile beau of my mother's from years ago. Grandpa insisted that while Rover Deeds would run rabbits, what the dog loved most was to chase pheasants,  the trophy of these annual Christmas Day hunts.  

My Uncle Ronnie liked to claim Rover Deeds would even point pheasants "like a real bird dog."  If he did, nobody else ever saw him do it.

My grandfather and his brothers all had town jobs, several of them alongside Grandpa at the foundry in town.  During the Second War, they had worked years without a day off, 12 hour shifts and overtime, back when overtime was only half pay.  When the winter weather was bad, they stayed in town for days at a time, which meant it was up to their wives and children to keep a house with no running water and tend sheep, cattle, and hogs until someone could get a tractor and plow county roads.

(The Marion Power Shovel Company where my grandfather worked for so many years building excavation machinery.)

But those backbreaking, lung fouling hours shoveling coal into furnaces to make steel to build the big steam shovels was a means to an end - a steady paycheck that propped up what they really wanted most to do: farm the land.   

I don't know that any of them ever owned his own place, but my grandfather and his brothers were never happier than when they were working their rented ground or raising swoop-horned, half-wild Hereford cattle they bought cheap off the boxcars in from the western states.  Their saggy, woven wire fencerows studded with Osage Orange fenceposts were rough and wide.  Sheep pastured in small woodlots that were never overgrazed.  Cranky antique combines and corn pickers proved indifferent about making a clean harvest of grains coaxed out of poor soil.  

An unintended consequence of those hardscrabble farming practices was the creation of nearly ideal cover and feed for cottontail rabbits and ringneck pheasants...and after farming, the thing my grandfather and his kin loved best was hunting rabbits and pheasants.  The one time they for sure could get out with the gun was Christmas morning before the big dinner, before the afternoon gift exchange in Grandma's crowded living room.

Once the hunt was out of sight from the kitchen door, I could scramble up the wooden steps to a freezing upstairs bedroom and watch much of the action from a bedroom window.   Our men walked up game in a line, Rover Deeds not so much quartering as just dinking around and snuffling a few dozen yards ahead.  At least twice I got to see the big dog start a rabbit, sparking a fusillade that echoed off the slumping barn and machinery sheds.  Only once did I actually witness pheasants come up in front of the guns, only to batter away toward a far tree line while the skirmish line stuttered to a halt.  Some of the guys reloaded, shaking their heads, and I could well imagine the grief they were getting from the others.

But they didn't always miss, especially my Uncle Earl and Grandma's brother George.  There were always rabbits to clean in my grandparents' mud room, and if I stayed back and didn't ask too many questions, I could watch Grandpa or Uncle LeMoyne make deft cuts across the rabbits' stiff backs with their pocketknives, blades ground away to thin slices of steel, pulling fur to reveal red meat pressed against bluish skin membrane.  I am sure I recoiled at steaming entrails tumbling down into a galvanized bucket for a later trip to the hog lot, but I hung in, desperate to be some small part of the hunting I knew I would love if ever I had the chance to go.

For me, the most wondrous of Christmases were when the the men came into the mudroom to pull pheasants, gaudy as bright holiday wrapping paper, from game pockets of those stiff canvas jackets.  We kids were in awe of the big birds and clamored for tail feathers we could parade back into the warm kitchen or use like swords in mock duels until somebody's mom evicted us from the flurry of last minute dinner prep.  I do not remember anyone dressing those pheasants on Christmas morn, instead drawing and hanging them to age for a couple of days until my grandmother could pluck them in time for a special New Year's Day meal.

(Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum: "Birds In Art")

My grandfather died the year before I bought my first English setter, four years before we hunted our first Elhew pointer, more than three decades before the first Firelight setter came to live with me.  He never got to hear about our trips to the Dakotas and Iowa, about ringnecks posed like Christmas ornaments in bare trees, about the golden eagle we once watched stoop on a snow plastered copse, scattering pheasants in all directions.  I did not get to tell him about the piebald bird that cackled up in a spray of snow, pinned by a hoary-coated old setter, two of his get locked down to honor his last stand of one freezing New Year's Eve, or how warm and full the game pocket of my own canvas vest was on the long walk back to the truck.

That pheasant is one of only two pieces of taxidermy I own.  This time of year, I can see the glow of my front porch Christmas lights on his window perch.  He is anchored in flight off a chunk of Osage Orange, much like the pile posts he flushed from in the late afternoon gloaming.   I doze in the shadow of that holiday bird, my Luke or Deacon or our buddy Seth clambering up to wedge in with me in the easy chair.  

I can pet a silky, chiseled setter head and conjure the aroma of turkey and sage in my grandmother's crowded dining room, my mind's eye watching the adults find their seats around the long table the older kids had stretched with pegged wooden leaves and covered with tablecloths embroidered with mistletoe and Christmas wreath patterns.  I can still see my cousins and me parked at a couple of card tables off to one side, our pheasant tail feathers confiscated, our plates made for us by our moms.   That's about when Grandma would glare us into silence so Uncle George could give thanks on Christmas Day, the most magical of which always began with pheasants.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Flood Tide

by Randy Lawrence

In an earlier blog, we wrote about a precocious little setter, Firelight Kyah, and about the opportunities provided for her in the field.  Admittedly, she had maybe more than her share of the Right Stuff at birth, but, metaphorically speaking, she has entered into the last weeks of her first season runnin' with the Big Dawgs when most others her age are still just venturing off the porch.  

With her smooth, athletic gait, she hunts tirelessly, gradually to more likely cover, staying found, naturally backing her elders, finding her own birds, crowding those birds, learning with every ruffed grouse she couldn't manage to set, and finally pointing, and holding, and retrieving birds she handled correctly... under seven months old.

So let's acknowledge right off that Kyah's partner is Not Your Average Hunter of Grouse.  Nope.  He is what Lynn Dee refers to as a "One Percenter," someone who has arranged his work and his life around a high level pursuit of his favorite sport.  

He knows cover, because he knows ruffed grouse with a naturalist's almost insatiable curiosity about food and cover, habits and habitat.  He has open mind about what constitutes a "birdy spot," and hunts in times and places others simply drive by because it doesn't fit their stereotyped sense of "good cover."  He finds new and different grouse coverts because he has a good set of legs and lungs underneath the keen will and curiosity and, dare I say, pride, in finding more places that give his dogs and him the best main chance.  

He is a minimalist handler, consulting the GPS tracker when one of his setters hasn't come around in a bit, then heads that way, expecting (and this is important), EXPECTING to find his dog or dogs standing a bird.  He doesn't speak to the dogs locked down on scent, loads his double gun when he gets on the scene, and walks in ready to kill a grouse for his dogs and, frankly, for the edge to his hunter's soul.  That he is a crack shot completes the resume.

In short, Kyah's partner makes Real Grouse Dogs in the woods, letting his older dogs and the birds and cover and conditions do the training.   Which brings us to another metaphor, this one from another guy familiar with passionate ambition.

In the play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare writes, "There is a tide in the affairs of men/Whick taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.  Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows..." 

The bard wasn't writing about bird dog prospects, but he nailed it anyway.  Pups like Firelight Kyah, bred from generations of well-tempered Real Grouse Dogs, come with all the ingredients.  It's up to the people to add ruffed grouse and patience and lots of boot leather, getting them into coverts they can handle on serious numbers of wild birds that they probably can NOT least in the beginning.

Owners who stay positive, who can accept puppy gaffes as something interesting rather than something vexing, who can carve out enough reps in good country, will succeed.  I would venture to say they will have a Real Grouse Dog sooner rather than later, in fact.  Maybe not Kyah soon, but sooner.

Seems obvious, right?  Unfortunately, it must not be.  Or at least it sometimes exacts more from owners than they are willing or able to give.  How many promising young gun dogs, left on shore during the flood times of their canine learning period, never make it out of the shallows, their owners content to keep them as beautiful side pieces to go with the fancy shotguns and the latest in unscarred boots and upland tactical vests, to pose with the occasional wild bird scratched down any way, any how.

I'm not the first hunter to make the Shakespearean gun dog connection.  Datus Proper did it in his intriguing book Pheasants of the Mind: A Hunter's Search for a Mythic Bird.  But I think of that excerpt every time I see a young dog trying to find herself in the grouse woods, too often with a handler who doesn't really have a clear idea of what he wants the young dog to accomplish.

One must feel for breeders whose labor of life and love is producing exceptional gun dog prospects.  How hard it must be for them to see What Could Have Been turned into a furry fireplace andiron or Santa-hat-wearing honorary family member on the annual Christmas card?  What the best breeders are hoping for from us, beyond a loving, healthy, and involved home life with our dogs, is commitment to do our homework:  establishing a solid, loving, working connection with our dogs, conducting a safe introduction to gunfire, then extricating ourselves from our workaday travels and travails to walk in times and places that give our puppy every chance for wild bird contacts, for learning from mistakes, for going to school on the birds that are to be its life's work.

Lynn  Dee tells about a social media post with a veteran Grouse Hunter posed with his young dog.  The caption read something like, "Yep.  Another pair of boots, the next truck, and he'll make a dog," meaning that only productive time afield can make a Real Grouse Dog.  Our obligation to that goal is to launch our puppy at flood learning tide, making a pact with her to do whatever it takes in helping her use her genetic inheritance, paddling out of the shallows and wag-dancing down off the porch to keep time with The Big Dawgs.

"Better three hours too soon," wrote that unwitting sage of bird doggery in The Merry Wives of Windsor, "than one minute too late."


Thursday, December 9, 2021

Royal Flush

by Randy Lawrence

Dateline:  Somewhere in Kansas.  I was not an eyewitness.  

No matter.  The heavy breathing came through the text:

"All I heard was, 'Covey!' from somewhere in 'straight up' overhead.  Steep dirt cliff.  No alternative.  Higher than I am tall.  Threw my empty gun over the top and climbed.  My friend, who'd had the birds blow up around him looked over to see me scrambling over the top, grabbing handfuls of grass to pull myself up on my hands and knees.  Picked up my gun and said, 'Which direction?' LOL."

Understand, Dear Reader, that this is one very keen Gun.  She has seen her share of covey rises and generally ambles/moseys to dogs on point, teetering always on the horns of the "Camera or Shot Shells/Shot Shells or Camera" dilemma. 

I say "teetering."  She loves to shoot second only to "loves photographing her setters in good country, standing game."  When she typed "No alternative," she meant it.  If the dogs are locked down on birds, she will get there to shoot a shutter or shoot her double gun...regardless of the obstacle.

My point being that she is decidedly not given to bursts of Marine Corps-like assaults on the high ground.

But we understand the hand-over-hand haul up that slope to where the quail had flushed.   There is something about a bevy of wild bobwhites hurtling out of the bunch grass that routinely inspires mad feats of otherwise unseemly behaviors.

Part of that rests in the fact we are ruffed grouse hunters by trade.  Our birds are most generally rolling thunder solo launches.  No matter how many trips we make to quail country or the years lived there, two dozen buzz bombs detonating out of the landscape never become commonplace.

We have seen reliably cool customers, some with only faint barrel bluing left just ahead of the forearm on a double shotgun they know far better than ever they did their first husband or wife, behave, when a covey flushes, as if a generous dollop of molten glass has been poured down their brush pants.  

In the motel the night before, we can whisper ourselves to sleep with the mantra  "Pick one.  Just pick one" - and still shoot in ways to suggest we'd have been just as well served pulling two shells from deep pockets and hurling them into the flurry of wing blur and shape shifts.

So rich, the word "flush."  Both Merriam and Webster remind us it's "to expose from a place of concealment."  The same word, they are quick to remind us, also describes the intense sensation of  blood rushing to one's face from exertion, excitement or, on occasion, embarrassment, all of which can derive from that first definition.

No matter how we parse it, Grouse Hunters travel to quail country for the covey rise.  For follow-up searches that give the dogs a chance on a single or two.  For the deep satisfaction of knowing when "enough" is "enough," understanding that the fragile treasure that is a bevy of bobwhite quail needs numbers to survive the winter.  For the rightness of whistling the dogs off surviving skulkers buried in the deep brush and hunting in another direction, praying someday we can come back to this place and be dazzled all over again in the raw thrill of a covey's flush.