F&S Report: The National Championship for Field Trialing Bird Dogs

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 11½ 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 on 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."

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 reward 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."

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 Museum 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 Schoolfield died suddenly (possibly of ptomaine poisoning) 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 number 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 than 20 years. "But those dogs still ate that country up. Every time we thought they were about to shut down, they just got stronger."

So strong, in fact, that they completed the course in less than the allotted three hours and blistered back across the starting line, hunting for the last 15 minutes in the sprawling cornfield where they had begun their stake. In all, they posted seven finds, with two shared between them.

That performance put the duo firmly in the spotlight, but three days later a star turn by a Floridian, Funseeker's Rebel, added a third dog to the mix of headliners. Running against the 2006 champion, Shell Creek Coin, Funseeker's Rebel notched six immaculate finds on another day of frozen mud and freezing winds. Strictly by the bird count, Rebel would take the stage. But many observers figured Rebel's run lacked the strength and grit shown by Wild Agin and Pike. So the question becomes: How much weight will other factors have in the judges' minds? And what might they have seen, riding forward of the gallery, that other spectators missed?

WHAT'S THE POINT?

If you're a bird hunter accustomed to knocking off for a Saturday morning of chasing feathers, the thought of a big-running dog that covers upwards of 25 miles in a three-hour stint might seem out of touch with standard-issue bird hunting (not to mention the idea of spending 10 grand a year to feed, train, and schlep the animal thousands of miles across the continent). But there is relevance in the National Championship for Field Trialing Bird Dogs.

"This is the foundation of breeding great foot-hunting dogs, and that's why traditional bird hunters should care about what we're doing," says Lori Steinshouer. Based in Reno, Nev., Steinshouer is the only woman ever to run a dog at this competition. "We breed these almost out-of-control, mud-slinging bird dogs because every now and then, out of a litter of 10 puppies, we might get one fire-breather that goes on to field trials. But the rest are still great bird dogs that will make some hunter very happy. And their genes are passed around the country."

This is Steinshouer's sixth attempt at the championship, an event, she says, that defines her year-round calendar. A slim figure with dangling silver earrings, Steinshouer grew up in a family that raised show dogs. She and her sister had to feed the kennel, which sometimes numbered 100 animals.

"By the time I could live on my own," she says, laughing, "I was done with dogs." Then she married and took in a German wire-haired pointer. "The next thing you know, I'd started training that dog. Then my husband and I got more dogs, and here we are, nine years later."

At the moment, Steinshouer's entry, Redrock High Country, is tearing across the Tennessee fields in the 17th brace. The pointer is accustomed to running huge expanses of BLM land in Nevada, where most of the time he's merely a dot against a distant swath of chukar country. There are times, Steinshouer says, when it takes her a half hour to reach the craggy ridge where High Country has gone on point.

But whether they are weaned on wide open spaces or the brambly warrens of the Deep South piney woods, the "fire-breathing" dogs of the Ames Plantation field trials have to contend with elements that have little to do with weather or birds. There's also chance. "Field trial dogs are the pawns of destiny," wrote one early observer of the event. It's a lesson High Country is about to learn.

An hour and a half into the stake, High Country is alone on the course, blistering ahead of the gallery. Suddenly shouts come back from the front--"Point!"--and the observers gallop to the action. High Country is as rigid as hardtack, facing back toward the oncoming gallery, muzzle into the wind. Steinshouer dismounts and wades into a low stand of sedges, confident of raising a covey. What she finds, however, are piles of feathers from a freshly killed quail. Some predator had just feasted here, and High Country, catching the bird's scent, locked up as expected.

It's a confusing scene. Steinshouer walks around the dog, who remains staunch, disbelieving that his nose has been foiled by such bad luck. Then birds flush 25 yards downwind. High Country will be charged with an unproductive. This dog will not have his day.

On the ride back to the kennels, Steinshouer is dispirited. It's a 2,000-mile drive back home to Reno. But ask her about the disappointment of coming so far only to lose, and she brightens at the very notion of such a wrongheaded question.

"Are you kidding?" Steinshouer says, with a wide smile that belies the last 15 minutes of frustration. "This isn't the end of anything. Now I have a year to place in a major field trial. This is just the beginning of the road that will bring us right back to next year's National."

Just another year in the life of a competition bird dog.

"WE BREED THESE OUT-OF-CONTROL, MUD-SLINGING DOGS BECAUSE WE MIGHT GET ONE FIRE-BREATHER THAT GOES TO THE TRIALS." "THE DOG STOPPED SO HARD HIS LEGS SLID OUT FROM UNDER HIM. I FOUND HIM LYING ON HIS SIDE, STILL LOCKED ON POINT."

ELEVEN DECADES OF DOGS

HISTORIC PHOTOS FROM PAST NATIONALS

{1} EARLY DAYS At a time when English setters were considered the premier breed, this male, Commissioner, won the 1912 National Championship. His handler was the esteemed J.M. Avent of Hickory Valley, Tenn., who also won the first National in 1896.

{2} LAST OF HIS BREED An English setter named Johnny Crocket, along with scout Earnest Allen (left) and handler W.C. Kirk of Richardson, Texas, claimed victory at the 1970 National. There hasn't been a setter since to take the title.

{3} MASS TRANSIT Instead of following the brace on horseback as is the tradition, a portion of this gallery trailed the competitors in a wagon at a 1950s National.

{4} A REAL PRO Ray Smith, sometimes called the "pro's pro," competed from the 1920s to the 1940s, winning the National in 1948 with his pointer, Peter Rinski.

{5} A WINNING PAIR English pointer Satilla Virginia Lady and Herman Smith from Hatchechubbee, Ala., were the 1967 national champions.

{1} REDROCK HIGH COUNTRY From Reno, Nev., this dog, with owner and handler Lori Steinshouer, made his second attempt at the title in 2007.

{2} CYPRESS GUNPOWDER From Jackson, Miss., this pointer, with handler Andy Daugherty, was the 2005 national champion and ran in this year's fourth brace.

{3} HEYU TWO PETE From Norman, Okla., this pointer, with handler Allen Vincent (kneeling) and owner Preston Trimble, has already requalified for the 2008 National.

{4} WHIPPOORWILL WIZARD From Michigan City, Miss., this dog, with handler Larry Huffman, has run in three Nationals.

{5} SHELL CREEK COIN From Catherine, Ala., this pointer, with handler Steve Hurdle, was the 2006 national champion and ran in this year's 11th brace with current champ Funseeker's Rebel.

{6} MURRAY'S RUSTLER From Boise, Idaho, this setter, with handler Rich Robertson, suffered two unproductives in the third brace.

NOW ON FIELDANDSTREAM.COM

GAME DAYS Because you can never get enough dog pictures, we've posted "then and now" photo galleries of the National Championship for Field Trialing Bird Dogs at fieldandstream.com/dogtrials

EPILOGUE: After 11 days of competition involving 41 dogs from all over the United States, the "immaculate" bird work of Funseeker's Rebel carried the day. The 6-year-old pointer was crowned the 2007 national champion on the historic green steps of the Ames Plantation. Check out a brace-by-brace synopsis of the entire 2007 event at fieldandstream.com/dogtrials.