Sunday, October 12, 2008

Champions, Runners Up, and also rans...

Bird dog field trials have been around since the pre-civil war days, and while many types of trials and hunt tests have evolved, the traditional format of two dogs going head to head in search of game is still the oldest and draws the most participation. True to American nature, it wasn't enough to have a good bird dog. You wanted one better than the neighbor's, and it's wasn't long before a competition ensued. The trial tradition is embedded in the southland where sportsmen would follow their quail dogs on horseback and the mounted gallery would actually applause when a dog pointed a covey. The war couldn't even stop the sport and there's a well known story about a Union Army captain who took a morning off from the fighting to try his setter on the quail fields of Dixie. He followed his dog over a rise and was surprised to see his setter on point with another dog, a pointer, locked up next to her. The Union captain was startled when a voice said, "I believe the shot is yours, Sir," and wheeled to come face-to-face with a Confederate officer also taking a short reprieve from the war. As the story goes, the two captains spent the morning hunting their dogs in an impromptu contest to see who's dog would best the other. When it was over they nodded farewell but were reunited later on the battlefield, with predictable results.

It took a while for the trials to find the northwoods, but grouse and woodcock trials took hold in the northeast and spread west to the midwest and Wisconsin and Minnesota. They are foot handling events where only the judges can be mounted. The first Grand National Grouse Championship took place in 1943. Grouse and woodcock trials follow the original format in that two dogs are turned loose to be followed by their handlers, then two judges and a gallery. The major trials, Championships, usually employ a reporter as well. The judges and reporter are often on horseback for a better view and to reduce the fatigue of following bird dogs 6-8 hours a day for the length of the trial, often 4-6 days.

I took part in these trials for years, and have made some wonderful friendships with folks across the country. The competion is exciting and it's hard to beat seeing good bird dogs doing what they do best. Many's the night spent driving through rain and snow to get to some faraway trial grounds only to arrive dead tired but eager to turn a dog loose. It's some good feeling to push in ahead of a rock solid dog and see a grouse thundering out over the gallery of spectators, fire the gun over a stauesque dog and get a smile and nod from the judge. Bird dogs have taken me to the backcountry of Florida up to the far corner of Maine and back. I've spent summers in dog camps on the Dakota prairies and the lifestyle is indescribable for an outdoorsman.

I recently returned from a day at the WI Champion-ship where I visited old friends and watched good dogs. Even from back in the gallery I could hear the bells on the dogs and get a look as they crossed the cover in front. It was neat to be behind a lot of good dogs -- not as good as handling one up front -- but fun just the same. One of the dogs I especially wanted to see found three grouse and two woodcock during her hour. Sometimes it can be hard to spot the pointing dogs in the thick stuff, as anyone who's chased grouse with a dog will agree.

One day of watching other dogs fired me up to run my own dog, and after a good supper and hours of conversation, I camped on the grounds and returned to MN to hunt my way home.


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