Some years back on a chilly but clear October afternoon I was in South Dakota hunting pheasants with friends. Among these were Chuck and Loral I Delaney, and Loral I as usual had a trailer full of dogs that she scattered ahead of her, a couple at a time.
A few of these were Labradors, one an English pointer, another an English setter, and sprinkled in was a Chesapeake Bay retriever or two. The dogs were good, the pheasants plentiful, and when a rooster rose into the autumn sky, Loral I was polite enough to give others in our group a crack at it.
After which, if the florid bird was still climbing into the wild blue yonder, she would shoulder her Beretta and somersault the feathery escapee into a distant patch of milo, corn or soybeans.
The benefit of these seemingly impossible shots, in addition to adding a bird for the pot, was the long, challenging retrieves they provided for Loral I’s dogs.
“I’m sure I dropped a leg on that bird to slow him down for you,” I would say.
“I’m sure you did,” Loral I would say.
I was recalling those good times the other day as Loral I reached into her dog trailer to tap a couple of her current charges for a pheasant-seeking mission.
She alreadyhad tasked a few Labradors with that responsibility. Now she called to heel Reagan, a German shorthair, and Clooney, an English setter.
This was at Traxler’s Hunting Preserve near Le Center, Minn., and was more a training exercise than a hunt.
“The dogs need work occasionally where I can be sure there are birds in the area, and visiting a hunting preserve now and then provides that opportunity,” Loral I said.
Now 82, Loral I, like most everyone, will be happy to see 2020 in her rearview mirror. Game Fair, which she and her husband, Chuck, produce each August on the 80 acres of their Armstrong Ranch Kennels near Anoka, was, like other fairs and festivals, canceled last summer because of the pandemic. And she’s battled breast cancer for about a year.
Yet because on this day she is with her dogs — as she has been since 1943 when, at the age of 5, she first appeared center stage with two black Labradors at the Northwest Sportshow in Minneapolis — she is upbeat.
Loral I’s dad, Fred Armstrong, established Armstrong Ranch in 1926 in what was then Ramsey Township, on the outskirts of Anoka. Raising mink and foxes and training dogs, he eventually opened a kennel and founded, in 1956, the state’s first shooting preserve on what was then the ranch’s 360 acres.
“That sport show promoter in 1943 actually wanted my Dad to do a hunting dog act for him,” Loral I recalled. “But Dad was shy, so I did it.”
Among other tricks at that 10-day show, Loral I sent her Labs on long retrieves over a series of jumps on the sport show stage. The dogs would pick up raw eggs and return them to Loral I over the same obstacle course.
“Which is when I’d crack the eggs to show how softly the dogs carried them in their mouths,” Loral I said.
When she and her dogs returned to the same stage the following year, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune effused, “The tiny daughter of Fred Armstrong put her two beautiful black Labradors through a retrieving act that literally brought down the house.”
By 9 years of age, Loral I was making 5-mile treks around Armstrong Ranch, accompanied by Tony, her cocker spaniel, and armed with a Stevens .410 single shot. Fascinated by anything that walked, crawled or flew, she kept pet raccoons and skunks in addition to dogs.
At 13, she took over management of her dad’s kennel, while expanding her sport show performances nationwide over six decades, from New York City to Los Angeles and every large city in between.
“My first sport show outside of Minneapolis was in Spokane in 1956,” she said. “I was still in high school and this show was with dogs I had trained myself. In one act I had a dog take a balloon to a distant target and I would pop the balloon with an arrow using a recurve bow. Then the dog would pull the arrow out of the target and bring it back to me.”
The Spokane sport show was also where Loral I showed up with two coyotes she had trained.
“Actually, they weren’t full-blooded coyotes,” Loral I said. “I had a female coyote I had bred to a husky and the offspring looked like coyotes enough that I could call them that for the show.”
The half-husky-half-coyotes weren’t the oddest thing she took on the road.
That would be a bear.
“I was doing the Seattle show in 1960 and one guy knew another guy who knew a guy at the zoo who could get me a black bear cub,” Loral I said. “I put it in the dog trailer, drove to Los Angeles to do a show there, and eventually trained it to ride a surfboard with a golden retriever, a Chesapeake Bay retriever and me, pulled behind a boat.
“The two dogs sat in front of the bear, the bear stood on his hind legs holding the rope and I stood behind the bear. It was a pretty big hit at summer water ski shows.”
Reagan, the German shorthair, is opening his legs now, moving fast, while Clooney, the setter, works closer to Loral I, his body twisting one way, then another, following his nose.
Watching the dogs hoover the swath of cover ahead of her, Loral I hikes happily behind, smiling, a shotgun in her hand. The scene is a replay of thousands that have passed before. Yet for Loral I each is new because the dogs are so passionate about their quests and their passion is infectious, particularly for their trainer — or more accurately, partner.
Having molded multiple field-trial-champion pointers and retrievers and two national champion retrievers, Loral I doesn’t train for the public anymore.
“I still give lessons to people and their dogs,” Loral I said. “The dogs are fairly easy to train. The people not as much.”
Working ever closer to Loral I, Clooney is in mid-stride when, as if flash-frozen, he hits the brakes, his head held high and his nose full of pheasant. Honoring the point, Reagan also quickly locks up.
Standing stiffly in a sea of russet-colored grasses, framed by the cobalt sky, the dogs are picture perfect as Loral I approaches and the rooster whose location has been pinpointed by Reagan and Clooney flushes.
As quickly, a shot rings out, the bird crash-lands, and the action of Loral I’s Beretta ejects one shell in favor of another.
So it has been almost since the first time she picked up a shotgun.
Target acquired. Target hit.
At 19, she won the women’s championship the first time she competed at the Minnesota State Trapshoot, breaking 197 of 200 targets. At the same event in the handicap, in which shooters stand at least 18 yards from the trap house, she tied with five men, breaking 95 of 100 targets, before winning the title in a shoot-off.
In the years since she’s won seven Grand American World Trapshooting Championships, include five years consecutively, and is the only woman to win more than two in a row and more than four total.
Named to every All American Trapshooting Team between 1966 and 1981 with the exception of one year, she’s also won the Women’s World Flyer Championships four times and shot for the U.S. Women’s Trapshooting Team before women’s trapshooting became an Olympic event.
In 1989, she was inducted into the National Trapshooting Hall of Fame.
All of which to Reagan and Clooney means ... well, nothing.
They’re happy enough just to be with her, to hear her voice, and to be cast ahead, to find another bird.