Retrievers Compete For A Shot At Dog Of The Year Field Trials

Saturday, March 10th 2007, 3:08 pm

By: News On 6

FORT RENO, Okla. (AP) _ At Kenneth Wohl's barber shop in the small Dewey County town of Leedey, the topic of conversation is often about good bird dogs and good bird hunting. Or, as happened this past quail season, the lack of it.

``It's just unbelievable how sorry it was,'' Wohl said of Oklahoma's recent quail season, which ended Feb. 15.

``Terrible,'' agreed quail hunter John George of Oklahoma City. ``Even if you found birds, they were real small coveys. Places where we would find 10 coveys, you might find four, and there might be 10 or 12 birds in it.''

A commercial game breeder, Wohl knew it was a bad year just by sitting by his telephone. Wohl and his wife, Tarena, raised 20,000 birds but could have sold 80,000.

``I would get three to 10 calls a day, people begging me, begging me, for quail,'' Tarena Wohl said.

It was so bad, hunters are killing more quail in Wohl's field trials this spring than they did during the season. Wohl is president of the Oklahoma region of the National Shoot-To-Retrieve Association, which holds field trials for registered pointed breeds.

Field trials are contests among bird dogs. In NSTRA field trials, six pen-raised birds are put out in a 25- to 40-acre field at the start of the day.

Two bird dogs with their handlers go afield to find the birds and judges follow in four-wheelers. The dogs are judged and earn points on the number of finds (locating the bird and holding on point), obedience, retrieving the bird, honoring or backing the other dog, and ground coverage.

``How hard the dogs are hunting, not how hard they are running,'' said Wohl, a certified judge. ``There is a difference.''

Each hunt, or brace, is 30 minutes. Then five more birds are added to the field and two more dogs are released. This continues all day, each Saturday and Sunday for the next few weeks, until the Oklahoma NSTRA regional championship April 14-15, where the best dogs advance to the ``Dog of the Year'' field trial in Indiana.

George's 2-year-old black and white German Shorthaired, Rusty, has been hot in this year's field trials, winning first in the last two events.

But like most field trialers, George joined the NSTRA to extend his bird hunting season and spend more time afield with his dogs.

``This is the closest thing to real bird hunting you can get,'' George said.

NSTRA is one of the few field trial organizations left that still uses live ammo, so it helps if the dog's owner is a good shot.

Autumn field trials begin in September and end just before the start of quail season on Nov. 15. The trials begin again when quail season ends and continue through spring until the Oklahoma sun makes it too hot for working dogs.

No field trials are held during quail season because no one would be there.

``These guys are all wild bird hunters,'' Tarena Wohl said. ``That's what they do.''

Kenneth Wohl would rather hunt birds than eat.

``Most of us got into this because we just love bird dogs and we got tired of seeing our dogs have to sit in the kennel nine months out of the year,'' he said.

Oklahoma's NSTRA chapter has 125 members, including bird hunters from Mangum to Bartlesville. And the membership keeps growing as the quail population keeps declining. Five new members signed up at Fort Reno at a recent event.

``A lot of the new membership now is because there are so few quail,'' Tarena Wohl said. ``It's so hard for these guys, especially with young dogs, to work them and keep them trained.''

For Nathan Nash of Albuquerque, N.M., field trials are a family event. Nash and his wife drove hundreds of miles with two 5-month-old twin boys and three English Pointers to compete at Fort Reno. He did so primarily because of the people.

``Oklahoma folks are real nice and they welcome you,'' he said.

And they came for their bird dogs, who live to work. Zack, Dazzle and Peso always know when they arrive in quail country, howling when the truck starts to slow.

Oklahoma's barbed wire fences, however, were something new to them. Zack had to be sewn up after jumping into one.

``Where we are living in New Mexico, there are not any fences, so he didn't know what it was,'' Nash said. ``He just hit it at a dead run.''

Bird dog owners from ages 16 to 81 gathered at Fort Reno. Nash's father, Norman, the oldest of the group, credits bird dogs for his long life.

``As long as you handle dogs, you will never get old,'' said the Sherman, Texas, resident, who brought his English Pointer, Trigger. ``We don't win, but we show we are still around.''

Apparently, there is no sex discrimination either. Rhonda Heskett of Bartlesville was there with her English Pointer, Lucy, who is in contention for dog of the year.

``It's like playing a game. It's pretty fun,'' Heskett said of field trials. ``When my husband goes out wild bird hunting, he goes out with his buddies. I am about the only wife that really enjoys to go, so he always says, 'It looks funny if I take you.' Nobody looks down your nose at you out here. I am just one of the guys.''

No cash prizes are offered. It's all for bragging rights, although it is easier for kennel operators to sell a pup from a champion dog.

``For a lot of these guys, winning championship points is important to them,'' Tarena Wohl said. ``But for the majority of our members, what's really important to them is getting to enjoy those dogs 18 more weeks out of the year.''

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