The Field Dog Super Bowl

These canines cost up to $40,000, have bizarre names, and compete year-round just doing what they love best - finding birds.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Click here to see a gallery of historical photographs from the National Championship for Field Trialing Bird Dogs
Click here to see outtakes from photographer Michael Sugrue's shoot of the 2007 championship
Click here for a brace-by-brace synopsis of the entire 2007 event

Just seven minutes into the cast, Heyu Two Pete locks up tight. The liver-flecked Oklahoma pointer stands staunch at a sumac thicket, paws riveted to the west Tennessee soil. He doesn't move a muscle. Not when a 35-degree wind ruffles his coat. Not when 300 horse-mounted spectators and judges rumble up from behind. Not when the dog's handler, Allen Vincent, dismounts and wades into the brambles, blank pistol in hand, hoping to raise the covey of quail that has turned the dog to stone.

A hundred feet away, Two Pete's owner, Preston Trimble, sits in his saddle and chews on his lip. A lot can happen in the next few seconds.

Suddenly, a coyote leaps from the brush-he'd been hunting birds, too. For a second Two Pete's eyes shift to take in his wild cousin.

Then it's back to the business at hand. Vincent fires the pistol, and half a dozen quail slant into the air. Trimble beams as his pointer streaks off for the next piece of cover. It's precisely the kind of bird work expected of an animal vying for honors as the best field dog in North America.

Every year over a two-week stretch of February, the continent's top pointers and setters gather with their owners, handlers, and a throng of gawkers at the historic Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tenn. This is the National Championship for Field Trialing Bird Dogs, the culmination of a months-long circuit of competitions that stretches from California to Saskatchewan to Florida.

All told, there are approximately 2,000 recognized field trial clubs in the country, overseen by groups such as the Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America and the American Kennel Club. But there is only one National. "This is the Super Bowl of field trials," says David Smith, executive director of the Bird Dog Foundation. "Grand Junction in February is where everybody wants to be."

The competition is intense; neither money nor pedigree guarantees a kennel at Ames Plantation. To qualify, a bird dog must post first-place wins in at least two of the 75-odd qualifying events. To requalify for a return to the championship, a former contestant must place first, second, or third in a qualifying event. Dog owners vie for a chunk of a payout worth $16,000, but a win here barely covers food and lodging for a year's worth of field trialing. This title is about prestige, honor, and good ¿¿old-fashioned bragging rights.

During the opening ceremony, the roughly 40 competing dogs are paired in a random drawing of brace mates. Once the contest opens, two of these braces-one each in the morning and in the afternoon-run per day in a three-hour "stake" on a course that unwinds across 111⁄2 miles of broken farm country. Behind the running dogs are mounted trainer-handlers and scouts. Next comes a trio of orange-jacketed judges-again, on horseback-who keep track of the dogs' performances. Following all this action is a gallery of spectators. It's not uncommon for 400 or more horses and riders to follow a pair of quail-crazy dogs across miles of west Tennessee. It's a bit like a moving Kentucky Derby. Except there's a lot more camo.

The animals are judged on the number of birds they find and the style and stamina they display on the hunt. Notes are made on how well the dogs work cover and whether they back (go point) a brace mate on point. Penalties and sometimes disqualifications are assessed for bumping birds without pointing, pointing at birds that aren't found, breaking point when birds flush, or displaying a "flagging" tail that isn't rigid while on point. It's as much an endurance test as a skills course; contenders are asked to run like greyhounds for up to three hours, over as much as 25 miles of cover.

"It's the greatest sport in the world," says Trimble, a retired district court judge, "and I'll tell you why. It's the only sport I know of where I could be out there trying to kick your butt this morning, and this afternoon, I might be scouting for your dog, trying to help you kick mine. This competition isn't about the owners or trainers. It's all about the dogs." [pagebreak] A Burning in the Chest
An hour after his first find, Two Pete still runs with the speed and intensity you'd expect of a racehorse 5 feet out of the gate. The morning course at Ames Plantation winds through a checkerboard landscape of food plots, timbered ridges, and big fields where the tin roofs of ancient barns rattle in the wind. The gallery, strung out for half a mile, is knotted up in small groups of riders, chatting. Far ahead, scouts and handlers range back and forth. Horses break ice in puddles on the trail, their hooves flashing. Only briefly do the spectators actually get a glimpse of the dogs.

Already Two Pete has run for 10 miles or more. He vaults across a brambly ditch, tunnels through a thick broomsedge tangle where old stone chimneys stand in the thickets, then hits a 30-acre field. The open space seems to kick in his afterburners: Two Pete explodes around the field edge and in moments he's ¿¿three-quarters of a mile away.

Trimble likes what he sees. "That's what the judges are looking for, right there," he says. "A burning in the chest for the bird. A big-running dog ranging back and forth, looking there, there, there, and there, never stopping, never slowing."

In fact, while there's no doubt that finding birds during their 180 minutes in the spotlight is why these dogs are here, there's a lot more to a national champion bird dog than raw numbers. Judges re¿¿ward dogs with heart, style, and power.

"There's no question that part of this is subjective," explains judge Doug Vaughn, a straight-talking Saskatchewan native. "It's not like we're looking for the first dog that crosses the finish line. A dog runs for many, many miles in a single brace, and they have to end up with all the energy and enthusiasm they showed when they started." [pagebreak] Then and Now
Field trialing in America began in the 1870s, after British hunters ¿¿derisively challenged Americans to produce a dog "broken highly enough to compete with our English celebrities." America's first National Field Trial Champion Stake was run at West Point, Miss., in 1896. Eleven dogs pounded the course, and the $300 top prize went to Count Gladstone IV, a white, black, and tan Llewellin setter who sired a line of national champions.

The history of the event is told at the National Bird Dog Mu¿¿seum in Grand Junction, just a few miles from Ames Plantation. If the pomp and pageantry of field trialing tradition is ever in question, a visit to the museum will put all doubts to rest. There, front and center, the mounted body of Count Gladstone IV is on perpetual point on the far side of a split-rail fence in a huge glass case. Behind him is room after room of portraits of dogs and owners and handlers, and photographs of the "immortal domain" of the Ames Plantation, as the writer Nash Buckingham called it.

During the midday break between trials, Freddie Epp is roaming the halls. He's a slightly older version of his portrait that hangs in the museum. Inducted into the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 1998, Epp started running dogs as a hobby in 1954, in the hours he could spare from his Tennessee country shop. He'd first been invited to Ames Plantation by Clyde Morton, one of the early greats in the sport. "Naturally, I was honored to have those fine rich folks ask me to come," Epp says, eyes twinkling. "What I didn't know was that they were asking us ol' country boys to bring our bird dogs so they'd have somebody to beat. But soon enough, I figured out what it took."

Over the next three decades, Epp would become a full-time trainer, with dogs winning more than 40 major circuit trials. And of course, he has lots of stories. Once, a dog he was running had to make a hard turn around a fence. The dog was going flat out, Epp recalls, "but he smelled a bird right at the turn, and he stopped so hard his legs slid out from under him. I found him lying on his side, still locked on point." Fearing that the judges might not give his dog the benefit of the doubt, Epp leapt from his horse, stood the dog up, then remounted and called point. "He stayed tight the whole time, and I won the trial!"

High drama often attends the running of the National. In 1934, a much celebrated pointer named School¿¿field died suddenly (possibly of pto¿¿maine poi¿¿soning) just before the contest opened. And only last year, moments after owner Bud Moore and trainer Steve Hurdle ascended the green steps of the plantation manor house to claim the trophies (their pointer Shell Creek Coin had notched eight perfect finds in his winning race), Hurdle collapsed with a ruptured aorta. Evacuated to Memphis by helicopter, he underwent a successful eight-hour operation that required 44 pints of blood (he was back at Ames to compete this year).

So far during the 2007 meet, conditions have been difficult. A lower than average num¿¿ber of quail has the dogs working hard for a handful of finds. Still, three pointers early in the running set a standard so high that every handler and owner knows it will take an amazing run to bypass the mark.

On the third day, two dogs went head-to-head in a race that was a "once-in-a-lifetime event," says Terry Terlep, an owner of one of the brace mates. When Whippoorwill Wild Agin and BB's Pike hit the ground, it was 26 degrees and snowing. Heavy horse travel had already chopped up the course, and the mud had frozen into swaths of jagged ice. "It was brutal," says Herb Anderson, a field trial veteran of more than 60 years. "Everything was frozen solid. I remember thinking: This is no day for man or beast. But the dogs showed tremendous strength."

Even after the skin was stripped from their paw pads, Wild Agin and Pike streaked across the morning course. On one point, Wild Agin's tail was so encased with ice that he couldn't raise it to its usual upright position. "Their whole bodies were slicked with ice," says Brad Harter, a horsemanship instructor and videographer who has taped every National here for more tm his Tennessee country shop. He'd first been invited to Ames Plantation by Clyde Morton, one of the early greats in the sport. "Naturally, I was honored to have those fine rich folks ask me to come," Epp says, eyes twinkling. "What I didn't know was that they were asking us ol' country boys to bring our bird dogs so they'd have somebody to beat. But soon enough, I figured out what it took."

Over the next three decades, Epp would become a full-time trainer, with dogs winning more than 40 major circuit trials. And of course, he has lots of stories. Once, a dog he was running had to make a hard turn around a fence. The dog was going flat out, Epp recalls, "but he smelled a bird right at the turn, and he stopped so hard his legs slid out from under him. I found him lying on his side, still locked on point." Fearing that the judges might not give his dog the benefit of the doubt, Epp leapt from his horse, stood the dog up, then remounted and called point. "He stayed tight the whole time, and I won the trial!"

High drama often attends the running of the National. In 1934, a much celebrated pointer named School¿¿field died suddenly (possibly of pto¿¿maine poi¿¿soning) just before the contest opened. And only last year, moments after owner Bud Moore and trainer Steve Hurdle ascended the green steps of the plantation manor house to claim the trophies (their pointer Shell Creek Coin had notched eight perfect finds in his winning race), Hurdle collapsed with a ruptured aorta. Evacuated to Memphis by helicopter, he underwent a successful eight-hour operation that required 44 pints of blood (he was back at Ames to compete this year).

So far during the 2007 meet, conditions have been difficult. A lower than average num¿¿ber of quail has the dogs working hard for a handful of finds. Still, three pointers early in the running set a standard so high that every handler and owner knows it will take an amazing run to bypass the mark.

On the third day, two dogs went head-to-head in a race that was a "once-in-a-lifetime event," says Terry Terlep, an owner of one of the brace mates. When Whippoorwill Wild Agin and BB's Pike hit the ground, it was 26 degrees and snowing. Heavy horse travel had already chopped up the course, and the mud had frozen into swaths of jagged ice. "It was brutal," says Herb Anderson, a field trial veteran of more than 60 years. "Everything was frozen solid. I remember thinking: This is no day for man or beast. But the dogs showed tremendous strength."

Even after the skin was stripped from their paw pads, Wild Agin and Pike streaked across the morning course. On one point, Wild Agin's tail was so encased with ice that he couldn't raise it to its usual upright position. "Their whole bodies were slicked with ice," says Brad Harter, a horsemanship instructor and videographer who has taped every National here for more t