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Should We?

Tom Word | | All Hunting Articles
Posted 04/19/2024

Hurricane Hattie had requalified with a third place in the last qualifier of the season. Should they enter her was the question occupying her owner, Sam Slade, and handler, Mack Bain. Both were ambivalent and unsure of their judgment on the issue.

Hattie was nine years old. She had won the National Championship as a four-year-old. Could she go the three hours now was the issue. Both Sam and Mack judged she could, but they worried about the toll it might take on her. Neither wanted to shorten her good years left. She had won four major all-age championships for them and the Purina All-Age Dog-of-the-Year Award the season she won the National. Why stress her? both asked.

But she loved to compete. Her veterinarian said she had the body of a five-year-old. "If she were mine, I'd run her," he said. "She tells me by the way she stands on the table to be examined-she wants to go."

And so, they entered her.

It was January 3. Sam had secured working rights on a large farm near Holly Springs to ready her. It had a few wild quail and there had been a fall release of brooder-raised quail on it. How many of those still survived was unknown. But it had the essentials to ready Hattie, the same cover, terrain and ground scents as the nearby Ames Plantation. Those were the essential things, Mack knew.

Who would scout for her was the next decision. Mack had a " helpin' each other" deal with a handler with no National entry, so he was out. Mack's grandson, Billy, a high school senior in Georgia who had worked with Mack three summers in North Dakoda, was his choice. Sam consented in deference to Mack.

Billy was a good student and secured a leave of absence from his high school to scout Hattie and help ready her. Fortunately, he attended school where bird dogs were understood and appreciated, in Lee County.

In designing Hattie's training regimen, Mack decided he wanted to just keep her fit, not wear her down with repeated long training heats. He figured she was wise enough to figure quickly on her own she was down for a marathon and not to burn herself out. He coached Billy on this view as well, but he wanted Billy to keep a close eye on her through the workouts. And they had the benefit of Garmin GPS tracker technology, though they would not in the National. That was a two-edged sword, many old-timers argued: having it in workouts led scouts to be less vigilant in competition.

Once Mack and Billy were acquainted with the terrain and boundaries of the farm, Mack made Billy leave the tracker-receiver off and turn it on only when he lost visual track with Hattie several minutes or they were running near a public road boundary. Mack hoped that would keep Billy from depending too much on the tracker. He kept his own tracker-receiver on constantly but didn't tell Billy.

In addition to Hattie, Mack brought to the training grounds five pups that would be coming derbies in the fall, to keep his and Billy’s time occupied. They were from shooting plantations in the quail belt, and whether they would be trial or wagon dog prospects was as yet unknown. They were bred in the purple (from Kentucky and Indiana) but largely untested.

Mack decided to work Hattie every other day to start. As her time to go down in the National neared and if her physical condition was peak he would rest her longer between outings.

The first three weeks only Mack and Billy were present at the farm. They soon figured out a good number of released birds were still present but were unpredictable, as history showed they would be at the Ames Plantation. Hattie’s chances would depend largely on luck in her draw: would she get to run at a day and time when the birds were active on her course.

But her team knew a good one could sometimes make her own luck, and Hattie was one of those: a strong bird finder with the brains to figure out where on the course to search, based on the day’s conditions. That was why Mack wanted to condition her for her three hours in territory near and like Ames. Their rented farm at Holly Springs was just that.

For their last week of preparation Sam Slade joined them. He was as excited as a kid before Christmas. So was Billy. Mack was just wary, aware from three decades experience how slim Hattie's chances were and how dependent on factors outside his control.

On Wednesday before Saturday's drawing at Bryan Hall, owners of the three plantations that had sent their derbies with Mack arrived. They would stay and ride some of the National. If Hattie drew to run before Thursday they would get to see her race (they would ride Monday through Wednesday). Sam Slade would be at Ames whenever she ran (if she drew a late brace he would fly home to Atlanta from Memphis Sunday after the drawing and return for her day).

The farmhouse that came with the Holly Springs training grounds was now filled but with Billy and Mack sleeping on couches in the living room, was adequate. Sam Slade's wife was fixing breakfasts and the whole group was eating suppers at different steak houses within a twenty-mile radius. It was a jolly bunch in the evenings though Mack was nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers.

Saturday finally arrived and Bryan Hall was packed for the drawing. A Boy Scout color guard
marched in with the US and Tennessee flags and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited (the Under God version). A prayer for safe running and riding was said by a Grand Junction Baptist Church preacher. The local Congressman was introduced and spoke briefly.

The judges were introduced and many announcements made. Finally, the drawing commenced and was quickly dispatched, using a ping pong ball bingo calling machine. Twenty-eight were drawn and Hattie drew the last brace. She would go down the second Monday if there were no weather delays.

Monday after Saturday night’s drawing the running began. The courses were muddy, skies overcast, temperatures moderate. Sunshine peeped through the clouds occasionally. Birds were scarce.

Brace after brace ended unfinished, its entries picked up before mid-point. The galleries dwindled. Mack, riding every brace (he wanted to know every find site when Hattie’s time came) recalled the glory days and was saddened. Billy was having the time of his life. He had got to know every handler and scout and marshal, and all the barn hands. On the Sunday night before Hattie’s Monday, he had gone with Mack and Sam Slade to the Manor House for the traditional dinner (scouts were usually not included in the invitation but Sam had made a special request). His good manners and lack of shyness had impressed the judges and other guests. A reporter from the Memphis Commercial Appeal would feature him in an article about the National Championship the following week.

When Hattie was led to the line on a rein by Billy for the final brace, only two other entries had finished the three hours. They had scored two and five finds respectively. The five-find entry had run an adequate race and would be declared the winner for sure unless Hattie or her bracemate, a setter male that had won three championships this season on its way to eligibility, bested its three hours.

Mack was hopeful but knew the odds were still long. Sam, riding front for Hattie, was so excited his mount could sense it and pranced nervously at the line. The judges were looking forward to getting home. It had been far from a thrilling stake. But that was about to change.

From their opening casts, Hattie and the setter thrilled. Each had a find on the limb at the end of its opening cast and deep at the front, the setter on the right edge, Hattie on the left. Both were stylish and unmoving at flush and shot, the location of its bird exact.

They would hunt purposefully, using the wind and staying forward in the cone cast after cast. Billy dragged the appropriate edge for Hattie and found he pointed dug in four times, raising his cap and screaming “ point” loudly in his high, young voice on each. Meanwhile the setter was matching her finds, mostly on opposite edges.

Mack and grandson Billy were watering Hattie after each find and exchanging whispers about the plan for the coming casts. Hattie was showing her long experience but not her age and seemed tireless . But at 2:35 Mack detected she was tiring. They were approaching a sharp turn in the course, and Mack knew a way Billy could use it to rest Hattie a few minutes undetected. He and Billy had discussed this possibility in planning her race.

At the chosen spot Billy drifted into the woods on the left edge and silently signaled Hattie to cast toward him. He gathered her to heel and whispered “woah,” stopping her and his horse. They would stay hidden at this place as Billy listened to his grandfather’s singing. Five minutes later when Mack had ridden the edge of a horshoe turn in the course, Billy cast Hattie onto the course in front of Mack. To the judges and gallery, it appeared Hattie had arrived there unaided. Billy returned to the course a hundred yards behind the judges and unnoticed.

At 2:50 Hattie and the setter were tied with eight finds each. Their races were hard to distinguish and both admirable. In the gallery most had them dead even. So did the judges. Mack decided on a bold gamble. He sent Hattie into woods a quarter mile dead ahead. It was 2:57 on his stopwatch. The judges halted on a rise . Mack rode to the senior judge. “How long?”

The judge knew he was asking, “ How long do we have to show her ?”

He answered, "Twenty minute." Billy knew that the standard convention was that a handler had a third of a heat's time to show a dog out of sight when the heat ended, measured from when the dog was last visible to the judges-so twenty minutes in an hour heat. But for the National with its three-hour heats, the judges made their own rule, and not always the same one.

The setter had also entered cover to be unseen by the judges at time.

Now the game began. Mack and Billy rode into the woods where Hattie had entered them. Mack knew a covey location and rode toward it, signaling Billy to ride left toward another KCL.

When Mack reached the KCL where he hoped he might find Hattie pointed, she was not there. He spurred his mount toward the next area he thought was promising, searching and knowing his dog horse was too.

The minutes ticked away. Mack felt sure the judges would give them a few minutes more than thirty if neither dog had been found by then. They would want to name the setter or Hattie National Champion, for their races had clearly been superior to any others. But how much more? It would be a tragedy if neither was found in time.

The announced thirty minutes passed. Then thirty-five. Mack expected to hear a marshal's whistle announcing time up any second.

Then he heard far ahead and faintly Billy's high pitched scream of "Point!"

He knew the judges could not hear it, so he put his horse in a canter and rode toward them yelling "Point, Point, Point!"

A marshal responded with his own call of point, relaying in the news. Soon the judges and gallery arrived and followed Mack to Billy and Hattie. She was pointed and had the wild covey pinned.

An hour later Hattie would be declared 2025 National Champion from the front steps of the Ames Manor House.

Billy, Mack and Sam would never forget the day, nor would the judges, marshals and gallery. Hattie was retired that day. The setter would compete again.

Of the five derby's worked by Mack and Billy at Holly Springs as they readied Hattie for the National, one made a field trial prospect. Mack and Billy won the Continental Derby Championship with her. Billy had taken a leave of absence from his freshman year of college to scout her.


About the Author : Tom Word
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Tom Word is a lawyer who represents individuals about managing their assets and for amusement writes fiction and non-fiction about bird dogs and humans obsessed with them.




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