Friday, April 16, 2010

Bo's Big Day II- Installment Five

By the second run on the final day, only four dogs were left. Nervously, we endured another drawing to determine the order of the last two braces- the highest scoring dog would win. Bo and I drew the second brace, so we would run in the third and fourth slots. We were drawn against a dog that was incredibly talented. He was a German Shorthair Pointer, a mature male, and these were his home grounds. It was a tough draw, but I knew we would have a small advantage. Our opponent did not like briars. This eighty acre field was mostly broomsage grass, but there were some really nice areas in the interior of the field that were sprinkled with a low growing briar. On the other hand, he was fast, smart and very knowledgeable about the fields. The first brace with two very powerful English Setters took off for one hour in the double sized field. For the finals, the field size was doubled and twice the number of birds was hidden. After running five previous times, this last brace, for the championship, was a test of endurance for the dogs, as well. These two hit the field as if they had been resting all day! The level of competition in a national trial is on a plane far above the local trial- all the dogs (and most handlers) are polished professionals by the time they get to a "'big one". The first brace dogs covered every square inch of the field with speed and class. Bo and I couldn't watch. We went behind some cars and sat down and pondered how in the world we managed to get to the finals. I came to the conclusion that sometimes men are successful in spite of themselves, rather than because of anything they did. Bo wasn't talking. Every shot increased my concern. At the completion of the two braces, after all four dogs had run, it was the final scores that counted. Bo and I were running not only against our bracemate, but against the two dogs on the field, as well. The tension in the gallery was high. Men and women talked in low voices and even the wives and friends of the competitors on the field were reserved in their excitement. It reminded me a little of a funeral!
The weather was beautiful. It was about forty degrees with a little breeze from the south and puffy clouds and bright blue sky. The broom sage, a tall, brown grass the original settlers used to tie in bunches and sweep out the cabins, was moving with the breeze. One of the setters in the first brace swung by the gallery and, within the blink of an eye, froze on point- the breeze ruffling the long hair on his vertical tail. He was a beautiful dog and I admired him, as his handler flushed the bird and shot. The dog's retrieve was equally flawless- right to hand with speed and class. "We are in over our heads, Bo!" I muttered. Bo still wasn't talking.

The first brace ended after an hour. One dog found and scored four birds and also was scored for a back. The other found four birds, but was not scored with a back. Out of ten birds hidden in the field, only eight were found. According to the rules, another ten birds were put out, regardless. That was good for us, but we still had to find the birds and, then, beat our bracemate. We took to the blind like we'd been doing this all our lives. A little "devil may care" saunter was thrown in there for good measure. I gave a wink to my friends wishing me good luck- as if to say "No luck needed today, my friends. This one's in the bag!" Inside, it was a different story. The fact that I kept checking my pockets to make sure I had shells, whistle, shotgun and dog seemed to be lost on everyone but Bo. When we sat down in the blind, he sat quietly by my knee and put his head on my leg and looked right at me. "Calm down, boss. All you need to do is shoot them; I’ll do the rest!" My bracemate and his dog sat a few feet away. While this was the handler's first final, his dog had been here many times. So, I asked him to at least leave one bird for me and my broke down dog and wished him "Good Luck". The Head Judge yelled, "Bring 'em out!" and we both left the blind for the start line. I was on autopilot but Bo was fired up. He pulled and jumped and twisted as I walked to the line. I stared hard at the field, looking for movement; anything to gain an advantage at the last second. The breeze was about ten mph from the left so I lined up to the left. When we released the dogs, any bird upwind of Bo would send scent right to him first. I learned a long time ago to take care of the little things I could control- lining up was one of them. We stood at the line, held our dogs by the collar, and waited for word to start. The judges were astride their horses behind us and I could hear them discussing which dog they would ride behind and score. I heard Jimmy, a National Judge and the Head Judge, say he would take the setter (Bo) while the other judge, equally qualified, would take the shorthair. They rode up behind us and Jimmy asked, "Handlers ready?" We nodded and he yelled, "Turn 'em loose!” We both released our dogs and off they went.

The shorthair sprinted out front and stayed in a straight line with Bo only a few feet behind him.  After about twenty yards of that, I whistled and Bo cut to the right and headed back to me. Suddenly, the shorthair spun around locked up like a statue! "Point!" the handler yelled; "You got it!" the judge answered. As the other handler walked to his dog, I had a choice. Should I leave the scene and try to find another bird while he was tied down with his find, or should I bring Bo in for a back and the lesser points associated with that? Bo made the decision for me when he looked to his right, saw the other dog on point, and stopped to a point himself.  "Back" I yelled and walked over to Bo to take his collar and hold him while the other handler flushed and shot his bird for the retrieve. Bo looked good. I could tell he would listen to me today, and that was a good feeling. Some days, you could see wildness in his eyes. "When I saw that, I knew he was going to be a handful  But, today, he looked all business. Bo was a bird dog with birds in front of him- an animal in the situation for which he was bred and trained. This was the "perfect storm" - all the hard work, hunting, genetics and situational training came to focus on this day and time. Right here-right now. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's a beautiful thing. The other dog completed his work and the judge told me to turn Bo loose. As I did, I started walking to the left, into the wind and towards the larger part of the field. Bo flew by me, moving back and forth and maximizing the amount of area he covered with his nose. Remembering what an old bird hunter told me, "Son, a bird dog is nothing more than a life support system for his nose!", I tried to put Bo in a position to work upwind as much as I could. On a day like today, he could scent a bird thirty yards away, if he was downwind of it. He was fast; he quickly worked out of sight in the broomsage. I followed his progress by watching the judge on horseback. The judge stopped, raised his arm and shouted "point!". Bo had his first bird, but he was two hundred yards away. I picked up the pace to get to him and not waste any time. By the time I got there, I was out of breath and sweat was running in to my eyes. I was thinking I'd never see the bird if it got up. I scanned the area to make sure the shot would be safe and then I stepped in front of Bo. The bird exploded out to my right and the gun was on my shoulder and the bird dropped. Bo was on it the second it hit the ground and ran it to me, dropped it in my hand and took off to the back corner of the field; one down. Then, I heard a shot from the front of the field- down two to one! I can picture the day like it was yesterday with the blue sky and white puffy clouds. Spring in the south can be really pretty- once you get past the weather extremes and tornadoes. The breeze was blowing from the south and it was still cool and dry with just enough humidity for the dogs. Part of the field was planted in sorghum strips with a few rows of three or four year old planted pines. There was a section along a bottom that held some stunted oaks with large patches of a low growing briar. Along the  other end, the field bordered a pine forest. All this was separated from the surrounding land by a  plowed strip of land perhaps twelve feet wide. (Bo competed enough to know that when he reached a plowed strip, he would turn and head back into the field. Some dogs never figured that out and the frustration was evident in the handler's voice tying to get them back on the field.) The gallery disappeared. I would think of where Bo had been and where we needed to go next. I would watch the judge, Bo, the other dog, when he was in sight and the other handler's orange when he wasn't, and always head for ground not yet swept by that nose. The hour passed by so quickly, I was sure there was a mistake. After twenty minutes, we had two more birds- three now. I knew we needed at least five on the scorecard to have a chance. We already had the scored back and five finds and a back would beat the first two dogs and, hopefully, our bracemate. I started working Bo around the edges of the field. Typically, the birds will walk away from the commotion in the center of an area. Eventually, they will reach the edge up against the plowed strip. They won't want to expose themselves to hawks, so they will stay in the grass along the edges. We were in the downwind, northwest corner of the field, when I turned into the wind and started along the edge. I whistled Bo along with me, and he fell right into the routine- hunting from the plowed strip back in to the field about thirty yards then back to the strip. We moved along, into the wind, hoping we'd made the right decision. "Point" I yelled! Bo was working back from the strip into the field, when he spun around and froze. Yes! It was working! Bo had a big, fat, male quail pinned down. The flush, shot and retrieve were classic and we were on our way again- four birds on the card. We combed the edge for another half-mile and found another bird in the southwest corner of the huge field. This one was in the last, little piece of grass before he was safe out of bounds. But the bird counted and Bo had five birds! We had ten minutes left and we were a long ways from the start line and gallery. I could see the trucks in the distance and barely see a few folks watching with binoculars, I thought. I knew that every shot would bring the question, "How many has he got now? How about the shorthair-how many for him?" We worked along the short southern boundary and then turned north to the gallery. We only had about five minutes left, now. I was trying to remember, in my concentration, if I’d heard any shots from my bracemate- and I couldn't remember hearing any. I was concentrating so hard on my own handling that I blocked out the other stuff. I asked the judge about it when he was close enough to me, but he couldn't remember either. I knew the trial was over for us, as we walked to the finish and the last few minutes ticked down. We'd done all we could do. My raggedy, old knothead setter- my school dropout- and I had done our best. I chatted with Jimmy, the judge, and relaxed as we covered the last few yards waiting for the  seconds to pass. Point!  Bo swung around and locked up! He wasn't ten feet from the boundary and two ladies talking about the long drive back to Indiana! "Time" yelled the judge. I was allotted one minute, in this situation, to finish my work and get a score. I quickly moved to Bo. He was twisted like a pretzel just in front of the gallery- wound tighter than a coiled spring and, I swear, he had a grin on his face! This was the "money bird" I knew it, the crowd knew it and my bracemate, who was just coming off the field, knew it. I kicked the clump of grass five feet in front of Bo's nose and out the quail came! He flew straight at the ladies from Indiana- they screamed and dropped to the ground- worried about a load of birdshot. I yelled, "Safety" and let Bo chase the bird through the gallery and into the woods beyond. I let him go, knowing with six birds and a back on the scorecard, we had just won the big one- the 2001 Quail Unlimited National Championship! Bo came back with the bird, unhurt, in his mouth and handed him to me. "We're not quitting yet, are we?  There's still daylight left!"  he looked at me.

Every dog has his day, they say. Bo had his in Bronwood, Georgia.