In March of 2001, I received an invitation to enter Bo in the Quail Unlimited National Championship in Bronwood, GA. He was a little over 2 years old and we were at the end of the hunting season. We'd been all over the country, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Nebraska, hunting anything and everything that flew and could be pointed. In addition, Bo had been field trialing some, on and off- when we could get time on the weekend. The entry fee was pretty stiff, but this one was close to home and they had some great prizes to the winners. I figured Bo could run with any dog on a good day, so we entered the trial. The "beat your bracemate" format meant you would only need to outscore the dog/handler you were running against in your 30 minute brace in order to advance to the next round. This meant after every round half the field advanced, or didn't, and it only took a few days to cut the field down to one dog- from well over a hundred.
Thankfully, Bo wasn't intimidated by the level of competition at the event, because I certainly was! I met handlers and dogs that were only words on paper up until then. These were "the big boys" - professionals in every sense of the word. There were dogs with ten and twenty Championships and handlers that did nothing but travel the country to enter these dogs in major field trials. They had motor homes dragging all stainless steel dog trailers with All Terrain Vehicles loaded on top! And, they all knew each other. Conversations typically made reference to the "that Champion of Champions Trial" or "the Quail Invitational Trial", or just "Amo" (where the biggest trials were held in Amo, IN). Not only was I an outsider to the conversation, but had no idea what in the world these guys were talking about! "Bo, we are in a heap of trouble here, boy! I'm pretty sure we bit off more than we can chew!" I'd mutter. Bo just smirked and curled up to get some rest.
I remember the very first brace we ran in that major trial- on a huge, flat, square field. The gallery, as the on-lookers were called, could see everything and there were plenty of comments, both complimentary and not. A field trialer's nightmare was to really mess up in front of the gallery- maybe miss the bird on the rise, or have the dog run right over the bird without pointing. The hoots and catcalls would travel for what seemed miles as the peanut gallery would get their licks in while they could. And the better you were known, the worse the abuse. Of course, some of it was meant in jest. It was acknowledged as a time to get even between the "big boys" and it seemed the bird planter, as the guy who put the quail in the field was called, would always put one somewhere right in front of the gallery. Bo and I had an early brace and there was still a chill in the air. It was cool, but humid, and that was good for the dogs ability to scent the birds.. Bo was likely to strike scent a fair ways off from the bird, I realized, and that meant we should be OK in finding birds. The problem here was this "beat your bracemate" format meant our competition had the same advantages. It simply boiled down to outscoring the other dog over the next thirty minutes. We were nervous, waiting in the little area called the "blind", while the bird planter set out five more birds after the previous brace finished. I don't remember my bracemate, but I do remember stroking Bo's head and making small talk about the weather and scenting and how the opponent's dog looked real tough and "I hope you guys will take it easy on this old country dog!" It was the usual talk, trying to appear cool, calm and unaffected by the situation. An unknown, I really had an advantage because they didn't know me or my dog. It was assumed we were one of the local meat dogs that entered just because we wanted to get out of the house. It was also assumed we would be eliminated in the first round. To be sure, I wasn't certain that assumption wasn't correct. I really did feel out of my league- although I had perfect confidence in Bo.
After the birds were hidden, we were called out ("Bring 'em out!") and went to the start line with dogs pulling in eagerness and judges waiting. We stood apart at the line waiting for the start and the head judge called down from his horse, "Everyone ready? Turn 'em loose!" I slipped Bo's lead and he took off like a shot- full stride, it seemed, in three or four steps! He veered to the left, while the other dog went right. That was good; I didn't want the other dog trying to footrace Bo around the field. I took two or three steps in to the field to follow him, loading my gun and watching his progress at the same time. Suddenly, he spun around and locked up in classic Bo fashion; body twisted, tail at the 10 o’clock position, legs spread to support himself and head absolutely still. He went from what seemed a hundred miles an hour to zero in the blink of an eye! We were only 10 seconds into this thing and Bo was already on a bird! I yelled "Point!" as the adrenaline surged, and I walked quickly to his front, checking the position of the judge, gallery and other handler and dog. I consciously noted the direction of the breeze, realizing the bird would be upwind of the dog's nose, and I headed for that spot. I was about 20 feet from Bo when the ground moved and a whir of wings came up from a clump of grass and headed out away from us. I shouldered my gun and pulled the trigger while watching the bird. It kept flying! I shot again, but now the bird was in full fight and a long ways off. I missed! The first bird on the first day of the biggest trial I've ever been in and I missed the bird! I shook my head as the gallery crowed and watched Bo chase that bird all the way across the field- maybe a half mile. The rules don't say you must kill the bird- only that the dog must retrieve the bird. Bo chased that bird down, found it, gently picked it up and ran back to me with an unhurt bird in his mouth. He put it in my hand with a disgusted look and took off again. All I could do was act calm and remark to the judge what a good retrieve that was and he laughed a little as took the bird out of my hand. "Amazing how these little birds can fly with all that lead shot in them, isn't it?” he remarked grinning. I did notice the gallery was very complimentary of Bo and his retrieve, though. “Maybe we can salvage this." I thought, as I watched Bo cover the field. The rest of the brace flashed by; we managed to have three birds to our opponent's two and we beat him on points. We advanced and he went home. Only half the dogs returned the next day. Win or go home is brutal and fair. I knew every time we took to the field we could be heading home in thirty minutes. To advance we would need to win twice this day.
The next brace was in a different field with lots of trees and cut corn, lots of little ins and outs and hills. It was a lot like the kind of hunting we’d been doing all year. I felt very comfortable from the time I left the line. One thing a dog must demonstrate to win a major trial is the ability to "back" or honor another dog's point. He does that by pointing himself at the other dog. In bird hunting, this is a very useful trait since occasionally the pointing dog will be out of sight in bush or swamp, etc. His hunting mate may see him and will "back" him. Now, the hunter may see the --backing" dog and finally find the pointing dog and the birds. I never did work Bo a lot on backing, but during the second run an opportunity presented itself and I called Bo in so he could see the pointing dog and back him. He flew around the corner, responding to my whistle, saw the other dog and skidded to a stop! It wasn't fancy or even elegant. It was a back- pure and simple- and it satisfied the requirement. In the unlikely event we made it to the finals, the judges would be checking the scores to make sure Bo had demonstrated at least one back during the trial. We were tied at two birds apiece and both of us had a back, also. My opponent was a good friend and professional trainer with a great dog. But, here we were, tied up with fifteen more minutes to find another bird in the field. We worked along the edges of the field, hoping to catch a bird either heading for the shade of the trees, or a bird walking back onto the field. As we moved around the back of the field, alongside a row of pine trees, Bo was in full flight along the mowed lane that was the boundary of the field. If he was standing in the mowed lane when he pointed a bird, he would be considered "out of bounds" and the find would not count, even if the bird was "in bounds". I whistled a command to turn and he immediately jerked left back into a clump of tall grass that was in bounds. As I watched, he never came out the other side! "Point" yelled the judge from his vantage point on top of his horse. Adrenaline shot through me as I checked the area for safety and eased into the clump of tall grass looking for Bo. There he was-frozen. His eyes were glazed and his breathing was fast! Intense! I kicked the grass in front of him and a big, fat quail shot up and headed out to the pines for safety. The gun was on my shoulder and fired before I remembered doing it and the bird crumpled dead to the ground. As soon as I shot, Bo released from the point and, when the bird hit the ground, he was only five yards away. He snatched up the bird and ran back to put it in my hand. Three birds on the card now, with a back, too. Bo had done it one more time and we advanced to the third day. The dog was on a roll, the shooting was better, and the "luck factor" was most definitely in our favor. Every trialer knows ability and good nose and perfect training can only go so far. Eventually, choices have to be made, "Do I turn right or left, turn back or head on?' I always figured, for field trialing, about 60% was the dog, 25% was the handler and 15% was blind luck. This weekend, this day, this trial we were firing on all cylinders. Bo was on fire, my shooting was perfect, we were working as a team and every decision we made paid off.
(Next installment soon. See archives to start at the beginning!)