Some of the shrewdest enthusiasts in the world will be watching next week as the top bird dogs in the U.S. compete in the National Field Trial Championship in Grand Junction, Tenn. No observer on the spot, however, will get a finer view of a top dog at work than that provided here by Photographer Hanson Carroll. Just after last year's championships, Carroll focused his camera on the winner, Bethea McCall's English pointer, War Storm, going over the ground again. Working in close cooperation with the dog's trainer, John Gates, he succeeded in getting closeup shots of a champion practicing his art that have seldom if ever been equaled. Sadly enough, they can now never be equaled with this dog, since he died of a kidney infection before he could defend his championship.
A CHAMPIONSHIP GAMBLE THAT MIGHT HAVE PAID OFF BIG
Buying, rearing and training a bird dog for the big-time field-trial circuit is at best a gamble, and one that may require a stake of $10,000 or more. Only a fraction of the 12,000-odd pointers and setters registered every year in The Field Dog Stud Book have the style, stamina and bird sense to become champions, and the right trainer-handler to bring them to fulfillment. Yet the prizes and stud fees that may accrue to a National Field Trial Champion are more than enough to make the gamble worthwhile.
John S. Gates of Leesburg, Ga., at 47 one of the most successful trainers in the country, recognized the potential in War Storm the moment he saw him back in 1959. "He carried his head and tail high," says Gates, "and he liked to flash point and then knock those birds out and chase them all over the country. It made no difference to him whether he ran 100 yards or 10 miles, just so long as he was sailing. If you can bend a dog like that without breaking his spirit, you've got one that may make it to the top."
Gates recommended the purchase of this promising pup as a sound investment to Bethea McCall of Birmingham, a wealthy manufacturer of dog foods who makes a businesslike hobby of raising potential customers for his products. On Gates's advice, McCall bought the dog sight unseen for $1,250, as unsentimentally as he might have bought a share of A.T.&.T., and with no closer contact.
There was never a question of making a pet of this potentially fine hunting machine. A basically standoffish animal whose only real interest was in his work, War Storm was not invited into a house to play with the master's slippers or curl up by the fire. When he was not sailing along through a field of broom sedge, filling his nostrils with the scent of quail, he was kept in a sterilized concrete kennel, with a bed of straw and a bitch to keep him warm.
War Storm's formal training, which cost McCall another $5,400 in "tuition" alone, began on the prairies of Manitoba, where Trainer Gates and his son John Rex take their dogs every summer to escape the oppressive heat and the rattlesnakes of south Georgia. (To insure a field dog against the constant menace of rattlesnake bite alone can cost an owner some $2,500 a year.) There Gates began War Storm's lessons with a check cord and a choke collar, teaching him to hold a point on prairie chickens. By the end of three months the pupil had learned enough field etiquette to carry off the first prize in a prairie chicken derby trial in Saskatchewan, but he was still far from what Gates calls a "finished dog."
"No trainer is a miracle worker," Gates explains further. "The dog has to have it in him, and no dog is any better than his nose. What this dog had was a nose like a magnet. He was the only dog I ever blew a whistle on who never made game [i.e., never had to quarter a field trying to pinpoint bird scent]. He'd pick the scent up and take off and you never knew when he was going to stop in midair and come down in a staunch on point. He was a cocky dog who absolutely trusted his nose. There have not been many like him."
It took Gates five years to turn this raw material into a finished product. He campaigned War Storm in 10 trials a year, from September to April (which cost Owner McCall another $5,500-plus in entry fees), shot hundreds of birds over him to teach him steadiness and ran him through a field three times a week every week in the year. This regimen finally proved its worth last year, when War Storm won not only the National Championship in Grand Junction, Tenn. but the prestige-laden National Free-for-All Championship in Canton, Miss. three weeks earlier. Some field trialers consider this stake an even better test of the ideal field-trial dog, since its stress is less on bird finding and "subservience" to a handler (or the gun) and more on "admittedly impractical range and endless endurance." Only six dogs in 49 years have managed to win both the National and the Free-for-All in the same year.
The feat proved 6-year-old War Storm beyond question the top bird dog in the country, and more than proved the wisdom of McCall's original $1,250 investment in him. As National Champion, his intrinsic value soared. In five years he had collected some $12,000 in prize money by winning four championship stakes and winning or placing in eight other trials. If he never won another stake, his stud fees (at $150 a service) over the next five or six years might have brought his owner and trainer another $15,000 a year. "He was a valuable dog," said Gates last week in a model of understatement, "and he had a lot of trials left in him." But to both trainer and owner the untimely death of War Storm from a sudden kidney ailment was just one of the many bad breaks a dog man must expect. "There is a lot of luck involved in winning any trial," says Gates. "If a dog hasn't been bitten by rattlesnakes, hit by cars or kicked by horses, he may still have to make his bid on a day when scenting conditions are bad. Not infrequently a cut footpad or a pulled muscle may force a handler to take his dog up. No matter how much money or training you put into a dog, there are still a lot of things that can go wrong. No dog, not even a dog like War Storm, is a sure thing."