Firelight Bird Dogs

Firelight Bird Dogs

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.