June 03, 2011
I'm always a bit apprehensive when asked to take a look at an obscure breed. A few are good, but many are fair to middling at best. My recommendation -- not that anyone actually listens to it -- is that those looking for their first pointer would do well to stick with breeds already established in this country: English pointers and setters, Brittanys, German wirehairs (and probably griffons), German shorthairs, you pick the flavor. So when a friend of a friend invited me to hunt over his Irish setters, I had mixed feelings.
Everyone knows that story -- Irish setters, a hard hunting and respected breed a century or more ago, had been show-bred into tall, gangling, feathery shadows of their former selves, vapid beauty queens with no nose, drive, or intelligence.
But over the years, a handful of dedicated individuals have made it their passion to return the breed to its roots. One of those individuals is Rupert Colmore. Colmore owns a ranch he manages exclusively for wild Huns and sharptailed grouse, and in addition to his place, he's got smile-and-a-wave access to thousands of acres of land on surrounding ranches.
There's not much I like better than chasing Huns and sharptails, so when he graciously invited me to hunt over his dogs, I gave it some hard thought -- for about three seconds -- and then threw my gear into my truck and hit the accelerator before someone could talk sense to the guy.
Colmore, our mutual friends John Palmer and Ryan Sones and I rendezvoused at Colmore's restored home, drank some coffee, talked bird dogs, drank some more coffee, and then repaired to his front yard, which sloped down to a small pond. A second later, Colmore returned with Nelly, a small, racy dog that looked like an English setter with Ann-Margret hair. Colmore had a retrieving dummy dangling from one hand.
"Watch this," he said. He tossed one of the dummies into the center of the pond, and in a flash the little setter was after it, making a water entry that would have done a Lab proud. He threw several more, and it was always the same: a big entry, a snappy retrieve and a quick return to Colmore's side for more.
"She's been this way since she was little," he said. I couldn't resist asking, of course, if the rest of his red setters loved the water. "No," he said, "just this one." An honest man.
Colmore has a kennel full of red setters on his ranch and another couple on the field trial circuit in Alabama, where they compete against English pointers in horseback field trials. We loaded up two of his dogs into his jeep-like ATV, piled our guns and gear in the back, and set off for the lower 40.
I like Colmore's style of bird management. When he bought the place a decade ago, the first thing he did was remove the cows and let Mother Nature take over. The grass returned, and with it the Huns and native sharptails. Even without grainfields, there were plenty of birds, and it wasn't long before his dogs were making game.
Both the red setters I saw that day were small and fast, much more like the fast, quick English setters I've long owned and hunted over than the oversized and jowly Irish Setters I've run into elsewhere. They hunted hard and were right quick about it, too, pointing with high tails and a lot of style. And their range was good -- very comfortable foot-hunting range, usually around 200 yards or so. Both animals checked back in, a blessing in any bird dog.
At one point as we crested a ridge, one of the dogs got birdy, and within a minute had locked up on a small flock of sharptails, caught out in the open feeding on wild rose hips. Three birds got up, panning across my line of vision as I followed them with my camera. Sones missed, but Palmer wing-tipped one of the birds, which he downed with the second barrel of his venerable Hardy side by side at an honest 60 yards. That may well have been the longest shot on a wild bird I've seen. No retrieves, though. Like most American pointing breeds, red setters need to be trained to fetch.
In any event, we decided to call it a morning. It was unusually warm, and the beautiful red coats of the dogs were soaking up the sun. Both dogs were anxious to hunt, but both were panting hard in the heat and needed a rest, whether they wanted one or not.
"My family had always owned English setters, and when I went away to Vanderbilt in 1959 as a freshman I missed the dogs," Colmore told me later in his soft Tennessee drawl. "But the advertisements I saw for English setters were too expensive, and then I saw an advertisement for an Irish setter for $35. So I bought a 35-dollar puppy and to this day I've never had a better dog."
Colmore admits he got lucky. There were very few lines of field-bred red setters in those days, and his dog Molly, he believes, was a fluke.
"She was a throwback to something, Lord, I don't know what," he says. But fluke or not, she burned up the Tennessee countryside, and he's owned red setters ever since, breeding them, hunting them, and trialing them across the South. Today he's got around 12 to 15 of the dogs, as well as a pair of Gordons. At 69, he's retired from breeding, but still hunts every day his increasingly painful knees will allow. "This getting old stuff is no fun," he says.
Colmore thinks the breed has come a long way in the last 50 years. "They've greatly improved, really improved," he says. That's due to the efforts of just a handful of breeders, a fraternity Colmore estimates at around a dozen.
"The Irish (red) setters I've got have a lot more style and they're just quicker," he says. "I've had people, when I put my dogs down, say, man, they make my dogs look like they was in slow motion. But yet they don't run over the birds; they're smart about it, once you get one broke and it's got a little experience. The ones I've got are very quick and stylish, high tails and high heads."
Colmore also told me that before his rickety knees started to fail him, he chased ruffed grouse in Appalachia, birds he claims are tougher to handle than any other gamebird in North America. And his red setters, he says, adapted to them in short order.
His dogs certainly didn't seem to have any problems handling the two coveys of Huns and two flocks of sharptails we saw that morning, although to be fair, his dogs have hunted his ranch so often they probably know every bird on it on a first-name basis. Colmore rarely carries a gun these days. Instead, he runs his setters until he gets a point, flushes the birds, and lets them live for another day of sport. I would be hard pressed to suggest a better way to fine-tune a bird dog.
Colmore has two of his dogs with pro-trainer and field trialer Jason Williams of Georgia. Williams took on Colmore's red setters initially, he told me, because he had to -- training dogs is what he does for a living. But it didn't take him long to turn the corner.
"I trial pointers, but I trial these red setters along with them and I like them," he says. "Those dogs will run. These red setters will run dang near as much as a pointer, some of them will run more than a pointer," he says.
"I had a little dog named Frozen Creek Rose and I placed her second in a derby in Montana one summer. If there's a hole in these dogs for me it's that you have to be real careful getting them to point and getting them steady. But as far as runnin' and huntin''¦you'll never see a better dog runnin' and huntin'."
Perhaps surprisingly for a field trailer, Williams says (and Colmore agrees with him), that red setters are people dogs and do best when kept in the house.
"He keeps those dogs with him," Williams says of Colmore, "and I think that makes a big difference. They're not just kennel dogs, they're personal dogs. They've done pretty good here and they're gonna do better because they're treated like part of the family. But I like the dogs, I sure do. I think there's a place for them."
Over lunch later in the week, Colmore invited me to the plantation he's part owner of and
manages for quail in Alabama. I just may take him up on it. I'd love to hunt over his dogs again. In my line of work, that's called research.