Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

Friday, November 25, 2022

Rough Fall

by Lynn Dee Galey

Hunter's blogs are typically about glory days, full of birds, steady dogs and steadier guns. Like many others, I have a huge catalog of photos from so many of those days across the many years. And there will be many more to come, I'm sure. But this years entries are not as plentiful as most years and I have come to discover that I'm not alone.

We don't read much about are when things out of our control fail to align yet have considerable impact on our hunting.   This piece has been percolating in my brain after similar conversations with several very good grouse hunters.  Three of those hunters are friends that I consider "1 percenters" on ruffed grouse. These are guys who know grouse and habitat inside and out and talk about the diet and habits of grouse as thoroughly as some do their children. Their bar is set high for how their dogs handle birds and the dog is to set them up for efficient, productive gunning.  But the common thread heard in each of our conversations is that this has been a very rough fall on ruffs for each of us with fewer hours on the ground and fewer birds in the bag. 

Weather came up as a big player this year with temperatures much too warm, many days getting into the 70s.  It was possible to get out for a short hunt early in the day, coming back to the truck sweaty and hot and dogs played out by the water buckets.  But to those of us who typically hunt 50+ days in the early season it felt wrong.  We couldn't get into the usual rhythm of the Fall, when this year we would wake in the morning and feel in the air that it was already warmer than we like to hunt. Too often we would pull on shorts and a tshirt instead of hunting pants and boots and disappointed dogs would sigh and go lie down.

Conditions were dry, too.  Bone dry. The rustling of leaves on the ground makes for good word play but serves as a loud alarm for wildlife, and birds were heard but not often seen as they blew out far ahead even in front of solid dogs.  The warmth however seemed to attract an ever-increasing number of out of state and downstate hunters and every pull off was well worn from truck tires.  Tailgate photos from those folks showed numbers of woodcock and maybe a single grouse.  It apparently was a good year for woodcock hunters.

Employment and jobs this year played a bigger role than usual for friends. I'm not sure if it is a reflection of the instability of our country's economy or perhaps a phase related to the age of my friends, but job losses and job demands devoured many hours for several friends.  These are folks who normally have their work and hunting schedules ironed out months in advance for a seamless number of weeks of hunting.  

Personally this fall I struggled with multiple dog injuries which is very unusual for my crew of 7. I literally go years without any dog issues but this fall some of the dogs spent all of their allowance at the vets and weeks at home on the DL.  With my vet being an hour drive each way, each visit interrupts a whole day.  My vet is a bird hunter herself and just yesterday when she walked in and saw me sitting there again asked, "What are your dogs doing to you lately?!!"


I don't write this to whine or complain and conversations with friends were not whine sessions either.  Just an observation, more of a surprise, or disappointment. We  each still had memorable days this year, just not as many, and it all felt a bit out of sync.  We each hope that late season in December will offer good days yet to come.  The 18" or so of snow out my door is taunting our optimism, but the collars, boots and gun are all still sitting near the door.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

They Don’t Know…

“They tell you not to cry.

They tell you he's just a dog, not a human.

They tell you it will pass.

They tell you that animals do not know that they must die.

They tell you that the important thing is not to make them suffer.

They tell you that you can get another one.

They tell you it will happen.

They tell you there are more unbearable pains.

But they don't know how many times you've looked your dog in the eye.

They don't know how many times it was you and your dog that looked in the dark.

They don't know how many times your dog was the only one by your side.

They don't know that the only one who hasn't judged you is your dog.

They don't know how scared you were the night his moans woke you up.

They don't know how many times your dog has slept next to you.

They don't know how much you've changed since the dog became a part of your life.

They don't know how many times you hugged him when he was sick.

They don't know how many times you pretended not to see when his hair was getting whiter and whiter.

They don't know how many times you've talked to your dog, the only one who really listens to you.

They don't know how good you were to your dog.

Little do they know that only your dog knew you were in pain.

They don't know what it's like to see your old dog trying to come over and say hello.

They don't know that when things go wrong, the only one who isn't gone is your dog.

They don't know that your dog trusts you, every moment of his life, even at the last moment.

They don't know how much your dog loved you and how little he needed to be happy, because you were enough for him.

They don't know that crying for a dog is one of the noblest, most meaningful, truest and purest things you can do.

They don't know about the last time you rocked him hard ... being careful not to hurt him.

They don't know what you felt when you caressed his face in the last moments of his life"

- author unknown

I probably need to add that I have not experienced a recent loss at my kennel but I share this for all dog lovers and especially for two dear friends whose own tears are streaming this week.  

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Beeps and Bells, Tech in the Field


Friends will recognize this as the ever-present mess at the end of my kitchen table. But what it represents is my conflicted participation in technology in the field.

I started using GPS collars many years ago when my finest grouse dog ever, Patch, was almost 12. I watched her one day in the woods as she stood paused on a check back to where I was and I realized that her hearing was failing. Her increasing deafness meant that she was unable to track my opposite-of-deer-stealth through the woods and if she could not catch a glimpse of my movement then she didn’t know where I was. I figured that if she was unable to locate me then I had better be able to find her.  So an ugly, clumsy Astro collar joined her simple leather collar with the brass bell, and a handheld unit took up space in my minimal vest.

After Patch passed, the Astro was used only in Montana and Kansas where the dogs range far and wide and can be on point 400 yards away without me knowing.  Many visitors feel that the woods here in northern Michigan are vast and remote but in reality, roads and atv trails are crisscrossed throughout and never far away. Being able to look at the handheld and see where my dogs are has become a crutch of sorts and I use the collars daily.

This year I added a Fenix watch which works along with the Garmin handheld and despite my initial thoughts that it was overdosing on technology I have to admit that it actually simplifies things. A quick glance at my wrist tells me distance and direction for each dog and I just leave the bulky handheld in my pocket.

I still don’t use the stimulation/shock option on the collars; I simply don’t need them for my dogs. However, I have trained them to come around when I tone (beep) them on the collar which works well on windy days when they cannot hear my somewhat puny lip whistle and I am making a turn or heading back.

So, each day I come home and dump the mess of gadgets on the table and dutifully plug them into their chargers. When ready to go again the collars beep as I turn them on, I put the handheld into the vest, the watch on my wrist, and the dogs all dance at the door, each hoping that it is their turn to have a collar strapped on and be loaded into the Jeep.

I still, however, truly miss the countless days when I simply pocketed a few shells into my jeans pocket, slipped the bell collar over the chosen setter head and walked out the door.

Bells now sit as dusty memories on a shelf.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Hunting and Taking Photos

 By Lynn Dee Galey

Of the human senses, studies show that smell is the most strongly tied to memory.  To this day if I catch a whiff of black cherry pipe smoke, I half expect my long gone Dad to appear.  

But it is my hunting photos that most often take me time traveling, and I can remember exactly where the photo was taken and the experience of being there.  

This is the reason I take hunting photos -  try to hold on to those moments, to be able to refresh my memory of them even years later.  Happening across a photo off season of a point or of a view or natural landmark often leads to me opening folders on the hard drive to once again touch the memories.  The heat or cold that day, or the drought, or how the dog was soaked from dew.  How that dog sounded as it moved through the grasses.  Being in awe of a forever horizon, or the sound and colors of the leaves beneath my feet. Hunting partners, some no longer with us.  That pup’s first point and retrieve. 

Social media and high tech cameras and phones have turned hunting photos into a competition. “ I killed more birds than you.”   “I shot my first bird 10 minutes into the field and posted it right away.”  “My dog’s tail is higher.” “ My rig is more serious looking.”

I encourage my Firelight folks to take a lot of photos of their dogs and hunting but instead of seeking affirmation from others, I hope that their photos:

1. Provide a flood of memories of the experience for many years to come.  

2. Allow photography to slow us down and use making photos as a training tool. Taking photos of the dog on point reminds us to take our time, don’t rush into a point, expect the dog to do its job. Meanwhile, photos taken can reinforce steadiness as our dog must hold the bird as long as it takes the gunner to take the pic, stow the camera and walk in for the flush.  

Take your camera or phone along hunting and use it.  What you experience on the hunt today can be vicariously enjoyed for many years.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

What's With the ©Firelight on the Pics?

by Lynn Dee Galey

I hate thieves. They impact our every day lives in so many ways that we don’t even think about it: lock up your doors, cars, children, dogs, guns, crates, wallets, bicycles and anything you don’t want to lose. And unfortunately, unscrupulous behavior extends into dog breeding.  Online scammers are stealing photos of quality puppies and dogs – and write ups about the dogs and breeding – from good breeders and use them to create fake websites and lure in unsuspecting buyers.  It all looks and sounds good until the buyer sends in a deposit and bam, the scammer blocks them and their money is gone. This is happening across all breeds. People are too trusting in their excitement about a puppy and the internet has made it even easier to steal both photos and people’s money. 

I have had photos stolen and used by others. Years ago I even had a kennel logo stolen and used by a trophy company. So, with puppy scams becoming even more frequent I am trying to prevent my photos from being used by putting ©Firelight as a watermark on them.  Sure they can photoshop and remove my watermark but hopefully they will be less inclined to bother. Or, if someone sees my watermark photo being used somewhere unauthorized, maybe they will notify me.  So yeah, I hate thieves and this is one small step I am taking to make their lives a pinch more difficult.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Pre-season, Naturally

 by Lynn Dee Galey

“I haven’t seen the dogs, have you?” We were just taking a short 15 minute walk to look at a possible cover so didn’t have any bells or GPS on the two dogs.  After a few minutes, at the far end of the clearing I thought I saw a familiar sight buried in the thick green cover; some black and white of my 12+ year old on point.  We silently walked up and sure enough a large brood of ruffs flushed in front of her, strong flight scattering left and right.  She released after they flushed but moved forward only 30 feet and froze.  As we walked further, we saw that she was now backing the 16-month-old who was not far ahead, solid on point.  Our silent approach then caused a second brood to flush in front of the youngster and both dogs released and happily scoured for stragglers.

Points, backs, and steady into the flush on wild birds in our first walk of the pre-season. This. This is what I want and expect from my dogs. (And I hope is a good bird omen for the upcoming season!) No “pre-season training” or “tuning them up.”   For my dogs, it takes two parts to get to days like this: genes and me.

First is to have a dog bred for instinct.  I want both parents to be dogs who, as youngsters themselves, showed the ability to handle wild birds. Parents who naturally developed to staunchly hold point, no whoa or check cords or ecollars. Dogs whose teachers were the birds and dogs who were eager, precocious learners who remembered their lessons. 

Second part is the owner. Wild birds are the best teachers, not us and definitely not pen birds, so it is our job to get our pups into wild birds so they can learn.  Watch as pup blows through their first birds, don’t shoot and don’t shout. Just watch and do it as often as you can.  If your pup has the genes you will see them learn, progressing from busting to pointing, taking steps then finally standing staunch. Then, when they are staunch, get to work and shoot that bird for them.

Seven month old Firelights learning from sharptail grouse in Montana

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Sailing the Grassland Seas

By Randy Lawrence

"Last Chance" by Charles M. Russell

West-bound pioneers called them "prairie schooners," ox drawn freight wagons, their billowy, sail-cloth canvas rigged to voyage the seas of prairie grass that covered our North American midland. 

That's only fitting, because those grasslands, in not so distant geologic time, were once the floors of mighty oceans caught in the squeeze of tectonic plates.  The inexorable continental shifts that jutted the vast spine of high mountain ranges from today's Alaska to Patagonia alternately filled, drained and dried mighty oceans on their eastern flanks.  

In that wide country, we chase Sharptailed grouse, Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens, and ponderous Sage Hens, our dogs coursing search patterns above the fossils of crustaceans and fishes and jagged-toothed carnivorous sea monsters that died with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

"Prairie Shooting - Find Him" by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905)

For the Easterner who gets but fleeting glances of her dogs stitching aspen brakes, alder jungles, field edges or dense thickets, just being able to see the dogs at work is a welcome novelty.  At first, it feels like haystack needle futility- to the novice, the grasslands overpower with sameness.  But after a time, there are features - deep coulees, ridges and rises that beckon us to keep putting one foot in front of the other, tacking into the wind under that big prairie sky.

That wind.  The grass swirls and heaves in staggered waves.  Even stopped, waiting for the dogs to come around for a drink of water, there is a sense of being gathered up, of movement without making one more boot print, at times, a vertigo we remember from the last time in a boat on open water.  

But move we must.  We go in humility through low hills and draws as foreign to us as moonscape, consoled by the notion that every step taken in good game country is one step closer to birds. 

Sometimes, the dogs' point will be sudden, a gut punch, a skidding freeze.  Other times, points break like fever dreams.  The dogs' heads drop and tails crack into a narrowing search that oozes into a stalk, then a tall stop, the dogs almost lifted by scent.  

As we swing toward the stand, we fish for the camera first, then two brass-bright shells that slip into the gun without our even looking down.  Often, the first birds get up before we have a chance to flush, but we keep moving in.   No matter how many grouse chortle and cackle up into the air, we are always certain there is a lay bird or two, uncertain and still under a setter's spell.

The big country swallows even a 12 gauge's report.  If we've become separated from a companion by dog work and game contact, sometimes a bird will tumble in a shower of barred feathers before the thud of a gun shot can reach us.

In the early season, we make ourselves check, check, check to ID chickens vs. out-of-season young pheasants loafing with their native cousins.  When the pheasant law comes in, a saucy rooster interloper under a point, albeit in the wrong place at the right time, can count as a bonus.


The best retrieves come from pointing dogs excited by the chore.  Sometimes the dog's grip on the fetch will put a prairie grouse wing over its eyes.  The dog will zig zag back to the gun then, navigating to hand out the corner of dark eyes crinkled over a mouth full of game.

Tucked into a hunting vest pocket, the bird feels warm, an assurance as the dogs moil around, waiting their turn for more water.  We must take time for a swig or two ourselves, before the arid grasslands pull us back into currents of wind and game and time.

Near Scott's Bluff Nebraska, one can still walk in the 150-year-old wheel ruts of west-bound prairie schooners, the ferries of an occupation army of dreamers come to break the sod and crowd out native people, native game.  General Philip Sheridan, bent on subduing the tribes,  supplied ammunition for the buffalo hide hunters and welcomed the immigrant flood so that "the prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization."

"Wagon Train" by Charles M. Russell

We birdhunters walk these grasslands with dog and gun not as forerunners, but heirs, stewards if you will, to the remnant flocks of prairie grouse that the plow and market hunter, herdsman and shepherd, miner, driller, and  developer have grudgingly left.  We're not looking for food for the pot so much as food for our sporting souls.   

To that end, William Awkwright could have been writing about Great Plains grouse hunters in his landmark study The Pointer and his Predecessors (1902).  Awkright followed his beloved Blackfield pointing dogs across the Scottish moors and believed "(T)he chief glory of the sport is to shoot over a brace of raking pointers, matched for speed and style, sweeping over the rough places like swallows, and passing each other as if they were fine ladies not introduced."

We follow, our passage swallowed by grass and sky and Time.

"Pointers in a Landscape" by Thomas Blinks (1860-1912)

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

What's In A Name?

 by Randy Lawrence

Juliet Capulet had it all wrong.  Actually, she had a bunch of stuff turned 'round, but this one thing in particular.  

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare has her asking Romeo, "What's in a name?"  

She answers for him (Juliet has always struck me as REALLY annoying):  "That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet."

Names don't matter, she is reassuring him, decrying the Capulet/Montague blood feud keeping the hormonally heated lovebirds apart.  Of course all of that goes haywire until (spoiler alert) the stage is littered with dead bodies at play's end.

When I was teaching, we read "Romeo and Juliet" as a comedy.  All of those folks are too dopey to be taken seriously enough for drama.  But the name thing bothers me because, dear Juliet, names DO matter!

Take my friend Pocket, for example.  Pocket is a firecracker of a Firelight setter puppy soon to enter her first hunting season.  Her name is "Pocket" because of her diminutive size at birth and because Lynn Dee simply couldn't bear to add another female human name to her pack.

"We are starting to sound like a chapter out of 'Little Women'," she complained.

After much discussion and name bandying, Pocket became Pocket after "Trinket" was judged to be too evocative of some tourist trap tchotchke.  

Thus, Pocket.

Lynn Dee asked me at the time if I liked the name.  I lied and said I did, all the while thinking, "Pocket?  Are you serious here right now? 

"You're naming this beautiful little dog after the thing I always forget to empty before doing laundry, where spare change, horse treats, fence staples, gas pump receipts, the wingnut off a dog crate, and breath mints are mushed and melded by washer and dryer into grotesque proof of geriatric oblivion?"

But several months later, I've come around (on the puppy, not laundry).

Today, I love Pocket's upbeat, confident charisma, her fascination with the pigeons she stalks when she visits her friend Bryan, the way she has settled into the Firelight pack hierarchy.  Photos of her around Firelight HQ show a certain demeanor we labeled in less enlightened times as "tomboy":  rough and tumble, adventurous, smart, sensible, and unsinkable.

I have come to love her unconventional name, too.  

Lynn Dee had never heard the old grouse trial jargon about a dog that's always hunting "in the pocket."  But I think of that when I think of Pocket's mother Annie's fast, useful range, and what I imagine Pocket's hunt will be like.

I love the name "Pocket" because it doesn't sound like the names of any of her packmates  or mine or other dogs in the Firelight totem.  I love it because it rhymes with "rocket" and "sprocket" and "Johnny Crockett" and "hock it" and other bits of tripe that can contribute to silliness when she and I are out of earshot of others this fall.  

I even love it because "In The Pocket" is my favorite James Taylor album.

Mostly I love the name "Pocket" because it's as fresh as she is, as in both "original" and "cheeky."

In their little picture book entitled "Bless The Dogs," the Monks of New Skete write, "Part of the joy in getting a dog is naming it.  In Eden, Adam was given the responsibility of naming the animals, and we have inherited his task."

"A name not only defines," the monks insist, "it expresses the hopes we bring to the relationship."

What's in a name, fair Juliet?


Sunday, July 3, 2022

Life As A Work of Art: An Osthaus Tale

by Randy Lawrence

When our bobwhite quail staged a mini-comeback in the mid 1990's, my friend Tom's family owned the most prosperous hometown bank in southeastern Ohio.  Tom's dad and grandfather had always had English setters, good ones.  They'd even done some horseback field trialing up on the Kildeer Plains back in the day.  

All that was before the great blizzards ravaged Ohio's bobwhite quail and pheasants.  Tom's people, being hard-bitten, bottom line guys, thought coal country grouse hunting was far too much hard hiking for not nearly enough shooting.  The setters got old, pacing in their posh runs.  When the last of those dogs died, the kennels stayed empty. 

But Tom's family still moved in gun dog circles, including the fellow who owned the hardware store. He had campaigned one great dog to two National Bird Dog Championships in the late '80's.  At breakfast  in the town diner, he had backed the local scuttlebutt about there being a few quail around.  That's when Tom gave me a call.

His dad's birthday was approaching.  For the occasion, Tom had lined up permission with several local farmers and wondered if my dogs and I would be willing to join them for the Saturday morning hunt his dad thought they "might could" spare from making money.    

 I remember the one covey find.  It was on the second farm we hunted, a delicious rolling tangle of overgrown pasture, one small woodlot, and a swath of scraggly field corn that had yet to be picked.  Tom's dad had laid out our line of march, and we swung into the light November breeze.

The day had long gone off the rails.  At the tailgate before the first hunt, Tom's dad learned that my dogs lived with me in my home, sparking a lecture on soft house dogs who "can't smell their own butt."  In the field, I spent most of the morning staring down the careless gun barrels of both companions.  That's why when Riley finally went solid and setter Dusk slid to a hot back, I stayed with the dogs, waving father and son on to flush.  

A good bevy of birds buzzed out of a multiflora rose spread, and there was a lot of shooting.  Tom emptied both barrels of his over under before the quail had barely cleared the brush, while his father pumped a svelte Model 42 like he was working it for a late mortgage payment.

Tom's dad thumbed more shells into the .410's magazine.  He said he had a line on some singles, but was convinced he'd dropped at least one bird. To his disgust, Riley and Dusk snuffled and scoured until they were just as convinced that he had not.  I sided with my dogs and urged them on.

Within minutes, a single got up in front of a Dusk point before I could hustle Tom into position.   We kept pushing, and Riley went missing.  I finally found the nearly all black pointer crouched into a "Right...THERE" pose on the edge of the woods.  

I waited for Tom's dad to step up wide to our left before I walked a fast arc to the right, trying to come back in toward the pointer's nose.  On about the sixth heartbeat, a brace of bobwhites clamored up and away through another pump gun fusillade.  

We circled back to the truck, where Tom gently checked his father from shoving his loaded shotgun into a soft case for the ride back to town.  By then, I'd had quite enough and politely tried to beg off lunch, but Tom said he’d ordered lunch brought in, and that we would eat up in the bank boardroom.  There was something there he and his dad wanted to show me.

"Tom tells me you're a gun guy," his dad said.  "You're gonna love this."

The room was upstairs, an opulent contrast to the spare, Mayberry-style bank setting - a beautifully appointed room centered with a gorgeous walnut table that matched dark wainscoting, all crafted from trees harvested on Tom's grandfather's farm.  What they had wanted to show me was the 1887 Colt lever action shotgun hanging on one wall, the barrel hacksawed short in its role as security weapon for the bank's early days.  Tom's dad was taking the gun down for a more personal show-and-tell when my eyes drifted to one of a dozen or so vintage bird dog prints lining the boardroom walls.

I had to step closer to be sure, but there it was.  A simply framed, original DuPont Gunpowder Company print of Lady's Count Gladstone from a painting by Edmund Henry Osthaus.  The National Field Trial Champion of 1900 is rocked back against scent coming in over her shoulder, the signature "Osthaus Tail" plumed at just above 45 degrees.

Hanging next to her was two-time National Champion Sioux.  Count Gladstone, winner of the inaugural national title, was down the way.  There was the print of Prince Whitestone and another of Joe Cumming, heirs to the great Llewellin invasion of the late 19th century.  The sole pointer portrait in the lot was of Manitoba Rap, the dog who broke the setter stranglehold on the Ames Plantation in 1909.  His haunches coiled like an African lion's, muscle and sinew rippling right off the print.

Sioux - National Champion 1901 and 1902

Count Gladstone IV - National Champion 1896 

Prince Whitestone -  National Champion 1907

I am not sure if the collection hanging upstairs in that backwater bank comprised a complete set of National Champions painted by Osthaus between 1896 and 1910.  Tom's dad knew little about what he called "the bird dog pictures," other than his own father had framed the DuPont ads over time and that they were "supposed to be worth something."  He had that old Colt repeater over his shoulder, following me as I made my way 'round the room, drinking in one beautiful piece after another.  When lunch was wheeled in, I reluctantly sat down to eat.

Joe Cumming - National Champion 1899

Manitoba Rap - National Champion 1909

I spent the next several weeks reading everything I could find on Edmund Henry Osthaus: German immigrant  - teacher, painter, field trial devotee, consummate gun dog man and bird hunter - whose art bankrolled his pursuit of sport, not to mention earned invitations to the finest wild bird shooting over the most acclaimed bird dogs the early 20th century had to offer.   His work hung in the salons of folks with names like Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, Pierre Lorillard, and of course, Hobart Ames who made his money in Boston and lived out his bird dog passions in Grand Junction, Tennessee.  

Osthaus was a charter member of the National Field Trial Association in 1896 and actually judged the National Championship stake in 1898.  For many years, he escaped Toledo, Ohio, winters for his own shooting grounds in Florida.

Edmund Henry Osthaus

One detail of Osthaus's life has haunted me ever since that forgettable quail hunt chanced into a most unforgettable art exhibit.  Osthaus had proudly served as Vice-President of the Continental Field Trial Club until 1917, donating a portrait of the group's annual champion as a coveted prize. But that year, as American doughboys marched off to the Kaiser's War, there was an ugly stateside backlash to all things German.  Edmund Osthaus, a naturalized United States citizen, was asked by club members to resign and leave the club.

In his 1990 book "George Bird Evans Introduces," the author shares bits from correspondence with the artist's son Franz.  Franz Osthaus writes that the cruelty of his father's ouster from the Continental Club marked "...a rugged period in our lives and it left an indelible impression on me."

But the man who had made his life a work of art quietly kept his faith.  According to Franz in a letter to George and Kay Evans, the older Osthaus spent his last years "enjoying an ideal arrangement, painting every morning and shooting quail every afternoon with dear friends and over the dogs he loved...I recall gathering after dinner at the shooting lodge fireplace, with the dogs toasting too, and the endless conversations about field trials, particular dogs and their performance, people, and places."

Franz remembers that his father "shot a Daly and a Remington, both twelve-gauge doubles, and he felt that two shots at a rising covey was definitely enough."

Oh, and one more thing.  "My father," Franz Osthaus writes, "refused to shoot with anyone who used a pump gun."

"Generations Have Used DuPont Powder" by Edmund Osthaus.  According to George Evans, the model for the boy in the print was Osthaus's son Franz.

PS:  My current favorite Osthaus, one that I fancy, without provenance, to be a "self portrait," is the piece below.  It is a signed oil that sold at auction in May of 2021.  Osthaus would be horrified at the title assigned to the work by the gallery ("Hunter With Spaniels"), but the dancing setter and pointer, larking while the gunner lights his pipe, could not care less.   They are going hunting with Their Guy.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Slo-Balls, Rollers, And Breeding Better Setters

 By Randy Lawrence

They are relics from another time, another kind of dog, other ways of thinking, training, and hunting, four artifacts streaked white from the swallow nests generations of birds have built from the low ceiling.   

For  more than thirty years, they have hung, unused, on the top board outside the horse stalls, mute testimony to the long journey this old farm has witnessed.

Back in the 1970's, this farm was consecrated to training and hunting dogs from horseback.  There were wild quail here then, as well as birds raised in seclusion, live trapped, and released in a designated "dog training" area.  This canteen watered the first truly great dog to ever hunt here, a dog from Sam Light's breeding named Willie.  When we hunted away from the creek that snaked through the Flagdale Road bottom, Willie would come in, put his front paws high along the fenders of my friend Bob Thompson's saddle, and drink enough to hit that next big lick along a long field edge.

The heavy hunks of iron, the bell shaped one a converted canoe anchor, rode in Bob's saddlebags.  When a dog went on point, Bob dismounted, pulled the weight out of his saddle bag and clipped one rein to that metal loop.  The shooting ponies Bob rode were conditioned to "ground tie," but the anchor was a reminder should a horse take a notion to meander off while his rider was walking up quail the dog had pinned.

The big bracelets of hard wooden balls are "action devices” rollers meant to irritate a horse's pasterns so that he picks his front feet up higher.  The slightly exaggerated leg lift, coupled with driving the horse into the long-shanked bit, can enhance the desired four-beat gait that walking horse aficionados covet.  Rollers are frowned on everywhere, outlawed in some places, consigned to a dark era before more thoughtful breeders focused on bloodstock whose smooth-riding gait comes naturally.

The fourth "museum piece" hanging on that weathered board is a lead snap tied to 8" of nylon cord, each threaded through a heavy rubber ball.  Marketed back in the day as "Slo Balls," this other sort of "action device" were fastened to the D-ring of a dog's collar so that the balls dangled between the animal's front feet.  As the dog ran, the balls rapped and bounced and battered the forelegs, ostensibly to distract and intimidate a dog for whom the far horizons were simply too much temptation.

I suppose they were left over from the "pro broke," horseback field trial dogs that hunted here when Bob first owned the farm, before he began to breed and train his own, before he selected for dogs that would take a fencerow to the end, but would check back and work in partnership with the handler.

I never saw the "Slo Balls" on a dog, thank God, just as I never saw those heinous rollers tied above the hooves of one of our shooting ponies.  But those tools of a different trade still hang in my barn, grim reminders of a time when my friend Bob and his peers thought we should force animals to our will and tastes.

Instead of discriminating breeding practices to shape a better pointer or setter, one genetically shaped as a companion working dog for whom The Right Stuff came naturally, hard, heedless men and women from another time, another sensibility, jerked, tripped, shocked, pinch collared whipped, and bullied dogs and horses into some semblance of what they were never bred to be in the first place.  More than one of the vintage training books from Bob's library shelves offer detailed instructions of how to "warm up" a disobedient dog with a "well-placed load of chilled #9's."

The ugly cruelty of "breaking dogs" never took root on this farm.  As the years and the dogs and the quail changed the soul of how things were done here, this place became a haven of "frictionless learning."  We devoted more time and thought to putting dogs and horse partners in positions to succeed, a philosophy built around the mantra of Delmar Smith, one of Bob's very few heroes in gun dog training:  point of contact, association, repetition... and marking time on the dog's schedule, not our own.  The inevitable gaffes by man and beast were turned into chances to learn, never excuses for losing composure and meting out punishment.

My friend Bob died three years before any Firelights came to live on his farm that I now call home.  But Lynn Dee's English setters, bred for discerning people who want to get with, and hunt through, their canine companions are, out of the box, everything Bob Thompson came to admire:  beautiful dogs that could step straight from the Rosseau or Frost or Wyeth prints he hung on his farmhouse walls; dogs that can fly in open country, then motor down to meticulously scour the thick 'n' thorny;  bird dogs that point with intensity and classic style, retrieve naturally, handle deftly...and share hearth and home between hunts with an ease and devotion that can take a little of the edge off Real Life Stuff. 

What more could we ask from dogs bred  for covert and gun?

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

J.F. Kernan and My Friend, The Gent

By Randy Lawrence

 He may be the most recognized artist/illustrator whose name you do not know.  But if you love an upland tableau painted for the devotee of the companion English setter gun dog,  J.F. Kernan's easel is a portal to sweet reverie.

In his heyday between the two World Wars, Joseph Francis Kernan (1878-1958) made art that glowed from the covers and pages of virtually every popular American publication, not to mention hundreds of advertisements, calendars and other promotions.  His 1932 oil on canvas, College Football, painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post that same year, is considered by some to be the inspiration behind the most iconic trophy in college sports, the Heisman, sculpted by Frank Eliscu two years later. 

 In 2021, the original painting entitled College Football along with a tear sheet from The Post's cover, would fall under the auctioneer's hammer at $75,000. 


Less than a year later, another oil painting made for a Saturday Evening Post cover entitled "Tying On A Fly" would be auctioned from a private collection at $126,000.   Despite industry insiders slapping him with the damned-with-faint-praise nickname, "the poor man's Norman Rockwell,"  owning an original piece of J.F. Kernan's art has become anything but a poor man's game.

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, J.F. Kernan reportedly was an uncommon team sports athlete who loved the outdoors.  He paid his art school tuition by playing professional baseball, stayed on at Boston's Pape School of Art for two years, teaching, then headed for New York City to further his illustrator's career. 

                              ***(see at bottom)

One quotation comes up again and again in online research on Kernan, his explanation for his particular story-telling angle.  Kernan said his beat was "the human side of outdoor sports, hunting, fishing, and dogs."   Happily for me, when Kernan painted a dog, that dog was most likely to be an English setter.

Critics tout Kernan's sense of humor in his work.  He wasn't above playing to convention, the standard gag featured on the covers of sporting magazines everywhere being the hunter surprised by his quarry.

Kernan was the pro's pro of commercial illustrators, forever playing to the crowd.  In selling magazines, beer, tires, or calendar art (like the first one below, published by the venerable Goes Lithographing Company, and entitled "Seven New Playmates"), what could have broader appeal than a litter of English setter puppies?

A recurring motif in Kernan's puppy portraits can be seen in the second Saturday Evening Post cover of this blog post, as one or more of the parents is lead away from the litter, supposedly headed for a day afield.

In Kernan's world (and mine), all English setter breeders worth painting are hunters.  They enjoy spending time with the litter, constantly weighing merits of the youngsters against the day when Pup goes into the game fields and shows that she's a chip off the ol' block...and a natural for hawking Grain Belt beer!

There may not be a hoarier upland cliche than The Dilemma of the Posted Covert, a quandary for Dog and Gun that Kernan believes can sometimes be solved with a good will offering.

The proferred cigar painting above became a cover for Capper's Farmer which, since 1893, has been printing "Practical Advice For The Homemade Life" in Canada and the US. Capper's Farmer is still in publication ( ).

Certainly one of the hallmarks of Kernan's portrayal of English setters is his depiction of them in our lives, and not just during hunting season.  For example, those who may occasionally or even habitually commit fishing, will appreciate the English setter visualizing a smokey streamside brag about "the big one that got away."

Maybe more than anything, though, what makes Kernan's work endearing to a gun dog aficionado is the affection apparent in each scene.  His men (and I could find no women painted into Kernan's upland world) love their dogs, and vice versa.

Kernan's portfolio includes several stock examples of the "lacing up the boots in front of the psyched and pleading gun dog" genre.  This was the only one that depicted a pointer.  Because it is of the old style, heavily marked, head-full-of-brains-not-wind pointer, I felt deputized to sneak it into a setter blog.

Part of the humor in Kernan's illustrations rests in the dogs' expressions.  In this Outdoor Life cover, the "Now what?" look on that setter's face says it all.

My favorite model for Kernan is the white mustachioed, dapper fellow who appears in numerous paintings.  I've dubbed him "The Gent," and he exudes everything that is my imaginary New England grouse gunner from another time,  a guy who could've been a charter member of Corey Ford's Lower Forty Hunting, Shooting, and Inside Straight Club.  

The Gent is dapper in his double-knotted Bean boots, battered fedora, and the necktie he always wore into his coverts.  I suspect his hunting coat reeks of pipe tobacco, his breath tart from the nip of hard cider taken for medicinal purposes back at his shooting brake, his team of horses drowsing in the October sun, the leg o' mutton case for his Ithaca or Parker double tucked under the buggy seat.

He's an easy character for my own made-up tales around Kernan's art.  The painting below is my current favorite.  

Maybe that's his grandson, home on leave from the service.  The young man has killed a ruffed grouse over The Gent's setter; as the old man admires the bird, he's thinking of other grouse on other days when he was the young man, palming a soft-mouthed retrieve from the grand sire of the dog hunting with them here.  

He handles that bird, admires that bird, in a way that says every ruffed grouse in hand is a wonder, a great good gift that, for him, can come only one way - from his coverts,  his worn double shotgun, and an English setter bred to work and look and behave just so.

Sure it's maudlin.  But that's the popular illustrator's hole card, to depict us they way we fancy ourselves, the way we wish we were.  I am far closer to the Gent than to the ramrod-straight, ruddy faced younger fellow and maybe that's the bottom line of my love of Kernan's art:  a yearning for a simpler time of sportsmanlike mores, of grouse and woodcock-rich coverts bare of bootprints and carelessly discarded shell casings, of fast, keen, feather-tailed English setters working for the Gun without bells, beepers or Elon Muskian GPS antennae.  

More than anything else, Kernan's art speaks to me in its depiction of devotion to and from the dog.  The fact that he painted setters reminiscent of the Firelight dogs I love most only seals the deal.  I may never be more than a Gent wannabe, but, like my imagined version of him,  I by gadfrey know what I like.

*** I so badly wanted the Corey Ford piece touted on Kernan's baseball player magazine cover to be an upland hunting story.  Instead it was a long piece of sappy (even for Corey) romantic fiction.  Sigh.  More promising was an article entitled "Dogs In A Big Way," featuring a full page head study of two English setters by the ubiquitous Lynn Bogue Hunt.  Sadly, the article was about a wire-haired terrier fancier's trials and tribulations in the show ring, grooming shed, and in a trans-Atlantic search for a suitable replacement for the animal repeatedly referred to as "the dog Dick."   Arg.  

Anyway, here's the full page Hunt painting from The Saturday Evening Post, 5/28/1932.  I had never seen it before researching this blog: