Neil L. Mace
As best I recollect, one fall in the mid 70s we are gathered at the York Pointer and Setter Club, near Rossville in South Central Pennsylvania, and soon to be elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame, Gerald Tracy is "holding court". In attendance are Claire Gross, Ernie Sanagia, Merv Eisenhart, Charlie Catauso and the usual cast of characters, with Bob Youngs, Jim Heckert, and me, as the newbies (a designation you can wear in field trials for 20 years or more), on the fringe, listening intently. The main topic, as always, was bird dogs. Someone, it might have been Merv, made the statement that the most important element in identifying the best dog is the grounds. That the venue is all significant, poor grounds equals poor dogs, great grounds have great dogs as the winners.
Gerald opines, "Yep, grounds are mighty important, but that is not what's the most telling". The game is on, a contest to see who can guess what the great trainer thinks is the most important factor indetermining the dogs worthiest of placement.
One by one, we all fail as we present each aspect of field trialingas being the most important in his learned judgement. Eachsuggestion is reinforced with good reasoning, Claire says, "Without good grounds to showcase our dogs we misze well set'em up on thetailgate and tell lies until one of us wins. A dog has to have aplace to show his talent". Someone else says it must be the clubofficials, cause you have to have someone to organize and operatethe trials. Then it is the pro trainers. Someone is sure it is theowners. I get brave and present the breeding of the dogs forconsideration. All we get for an answer is the sage shake of Gerald's head. Must be the judges, I think, as Ernie made the observation, "It doesn't matter how good the dog is, if the guys judging don't know beans, some run-off or boot licker will get the nod".
Other suggestions run the entire gamut; the reporter, The AmericanField, the bird raiser, the horses, heck, one thought it was histruck for not breaking down this time. Or the person doing thedrawing, the game and fish people, the cook, the wrangler, themarshal, or perhaps even e-collar manufactures. It went on and on,with none of us getting it right.
Knowing he now had our undivided attention, Gerald made
a bold statement, "It is the bird planter, `cept up North in grousecountry,
out West on the chickens, and a few places down South, themost influential
person in our one course trials is the guy puttingout birds". And
I think how special that must make me, because atthat very trial, I had
planted birds. Gerald goes on to say, "And you know how we
pick them, we take the newest, dumbest member of the club, put'em up on
a horse, and say ride out there and throw somebirds down".
That was nearly 30 years ago, and I believe there is even more evidence today that Gerald was right. Today, even in the covertrials; most derbies, puppies and call backs are held on plantedbirds. With the decision to pre-release birds at the Ames Plantation for the National Championship, there are few places eastof the Mississippi that we run on truly wild birds. So the person that handles the anchoring of the pre-released birds is in effectserving the same function as a bird planter. For pre-released penbirds rarely move far from the feeder, if anchored properly. And that person is selected because he has the most menial job on theplantation or state lands.
It is very difficult to explain proper habitat to someone, yethunters know it when they see it, smell it, feel it, something. Theknowledge comes from experience, but is hard to transfer. Some dogsinstinctively know, they will only hunt where their genes programthem, they remain true predators. But most run where they aretrained to go, and too seldom is that where the wild birds live. Itried once for weeks to explain to a newly transplanted Texan whereto find New England woodcock, while we ran up a staggering long distance telephone bill. I talked about aspen edges, draws, spongy ground, cane, and where you would dig for earth worms if you weregoing to fish, without any success, whatsoever. He would go out andcome back empty handed. Finally, recognizing we were not gettinganywhere, I suggested he hook up with an experienced hunter. Withina week, he was finding woodcock with an old codger in tow as hisguide.
It is often said that a judge, in order to truly understand oursport and have the experience to recognize the best dogs, most havegained that experience not in field trials, but as a wild birdhunter on the species of game bird in the same terrain where thetrial is held. That is, of course, true, but it is even moreimportant the birds be planted or anchored in the correct habitatfor that area. All too often our dogs go birdless, or only have one find, because they run outside the planted birds. Or the judges have plodding dog after plodding dog that points in the horse path,where the gallery would have ridden the birds up. Or worse the dog has 5 or 6 finds and is on point so much of the time that he doesn'thave a chance to show his run. Now I am pretty sure no one expectsthe dogs to blink the birds, that he has to point them where hefinds them, but it does prevent the dogs from showing on an exhilarating limb find. And it forces judges to determine thebetter dog with less bird work given in evidence.
Or the birds are placed where a good dog would look, near
the thickstuff, but being pen birds, they run about in circles in a briarpatch,
instead of flushing like a wild bird would. So the dogs aretempted
to break to catch what to the whole world, and for sure to awise dog, appears
to be a crippled bird. And then we have birdsanchored to feeders
in the middle of fields, so experienced handlers and dogs go from one feeder
to another, often with the dog pointing the barrel and the handler trying
to flush birds that might be, and he hopes, nearby. You can't blame
the dog for figuring out that hedoes not need to use his nose, as a smart
one soon learns that thebirds are nearly always there at the feeders.
The point being that all planted and pre-released birds are artificial to some degree, and the judges have to interpret how the bird work in such situations translates into wild bird finding. Itis a very tough job, and one made more difficult by poorly releasedbirds, improperly anchored birds, and by weak, poor flying ones.
Most judges proudly announce that they do not count the number ofpoints, the best dog is not always the one with the most finds, infact, they agree it rarely is so. But in the old days, when we hadtruly wild birds, almost always the dog with the highest bird tally,won. Normally on wild birds, or pen birds in the locations wildbirds inhabit, the best dog, by definition, should have the mostgame contact. Oh, you have to consider the time of day and theweather, but in the main, if the dog has the type race we wish toreward, he will have demonstrated it by finding more birds than theother competitors.
Not having truly wild birds or having pen birds in improperlocations, leaves too much discretion to the judges, they are forcedto determine which is the superior dog without good empirical data. For many, without a sound background in hunting, that is they have not worn out a lot of boot leather behind some good dogs, it is notonly tough, but perhaps impossible. Yet, you will find few club officials and almost no judges give any direction or training to thebird planter or the staff that controls the pre-release of birds.
All too often, the non-hunting judges think that the birds should belocated where the great dogs of today naturally run, instead of thedogs running where the birds prefer to unitize the habitat. It iscalled making the birds available to the dogs, and if those incharge of birds get any instruction at all, it will be along thelines of, "Put the birds (or place the feeders) at the end of each of the long hedgerows on the course". Is that not like putting the pin on a golf course where the golfers naturally hit the ball,instead of having the players overcome the hazards? Should not the dog have to demonstrate, beyond any doubt, that they could find wild birds?
Pen birds do not behave like wild birds, so any attempt, no matterhow well planned and executed will be artificial, but certainly wecan do better than dropping them on bare ground, on the horse path,or in a bog, etc. We can work hard to take the artificiality out of planted or pre-released birds. Call backs tend to be the worst,with someone taking a bird in his bare hand, spinning it around likea softball pitcher of old and then placing in out in the open wherethere has never in history ever been a wild bird.
So, since few people involved in field trials hunt wild birds thesedays, where are they to gain the knowledge of where to plant oranchor pre-released birds? The answer, as Gerald believed three decades ago, is to give it high importance. People are more likely to do what we inspect than what we simply expect. Instead of using the newest, and therefore most inexperienced club member, to plantbirds, we should have a committee that rides the courses todetermine where a good wild bird dog would be most likely to be taken on his casts, and that is where the birds should be planted.
And in place of allowing the lowest paid hand anchor and feed thebirds, that duty should be assigned to the most skilled and qualified. Perhaps it is time we brought some of our old timers outof forced retirement, put them on an ATV and have them show us wherebirds, if they were truly wild, would be. These guys are at every trial, often in the background, we shamelessly put them out to pasture when they could not ride and handle a dog anymore, but they know where birds would be if we still had them. Let's utilize them.
Only by marshalling all our knowledge and ability can
we overcome this pervasive problem, we have the resources, we just need
the commitment. So as to not have dogs that run in the wrong places
and stumble on a bird to point, we can put the "bird" back in bird dog.