The largest gathering of shooting-dog enthusiasts in America is charging up hills, over streams and through pine patches this week after a field of pointers and setters in pursuit of game birds and gun-dog glory. The scene is the 13,000-acre Sedgefields Plantation near Union Springs, Ala., where the artistry and grandeur of yesterday's Old South reaches across the decades, melting the present into the past. The people, almost 2,000 in number, are millionaires and manual laborers, businessmen and farmers—an incongruous group made one by an age-old preoccupation with the perfection of fine dogwork. Probably the most unusual of all stakes, the National Shooting Dog Championship is not an event for the big-time, big-circuit performer, the impeccably mannered product of the professional handler. Rather, it is a shooting-dog stake in the broadest sense—its goal is the highest degree of hunting-dog excellence. It honors the dog which in hunting is mindful only of game and the gun; which moves at a pace and range natural in the field and pleasing in style; and, most important, the dog which would therefore be the most valuable asset on an actual shooting trip.
Since the real reason for a bird dog's being is the hunt, emphasis in this trial is heaviest on the natural qualities demanded by the average sportsman of the dog over which he might shoot regularly. Pride in a really fine dog rests, after all, on the manner in which it meets all circumstances afield and locates birds under all conditions of terrain. A champion is further distinguished by the enthusiasm of its hunting and the style and intensity of its points. At Sedgefields a breach of manners may be excused, as it would be in the field, as long as the dog's performance is touched with brilliance and heavily weighted with responsiveness to handling.
Unique, too, is the ruling that all handlers must be amateurs. (Most bird hunters, of course, are.) By club definition, a professional is anyone who has received compensation in any amount for handling or training dogs during the preceding five years. Scouts as well as handlers come under this taboo. Three-quarters of a century ago, when field trials were born in this country, scouts were assigned only when a dog was believed lost on point. Over the years the initial concept of scouting has changed, but at Sedgefields, in keeping with tradition, scouts are sent into the field, at the discretion of the judges, only when conditions indicate that they are absolutely needed.
Sedgefields' regulars still chortle at the newcomer to the Championship who once asked a judge how many scouts he could have. Succinctly, the oldtimer replied: "Just as many as you take with you when you go bird hunting."
Almost from the beginning, Sedgefields Plantation symbolized for shooting-dog men the finest field-trial country in the South. Its thousands of acres of rolling cover, sprinkled with patches of pines, hardwoods and hundreds of tiny streams, shelter some 900 coveys of quail. Each year more than a hundred miles of sesbania, lespedeza and other bobwhite foods are planted to supplement the natural broom sedge. This is quail farming on a grand scale, and game is everywhere. Such abundance, coupled with the uniformity of the countryside, eliminates any necessity during the trial of running dogs over courses used previously by other braces. Each entry is thus assured fresh terrain and undisturbed birds.
Though major trials were first run at Sedgefields in 1937, it was not until 1950 that the Alabama Shooting Dog Field Trial Club inaugurated the National Shooting Dog Championship. When, two years later, negotiations for affiliation with the Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America failed, the National Shooting Dog Championship Association proclaimed its independence and charged into the future with increased vigor. Its unprecedented success in the years that followed must be attributed to the many people—sportsmen, businessmen and local citizens—who helped shape the policies under which the Championship is run.
Largely because of these policies the Union Springs stake has a charm which permeates all phases of the week-long activity. It is neither a race nor a dog show, but rather a contest of quality, reaffirming skillfully and sensitively the ties which bind man to his oldest hunting companion.
"Without a dog," Henry P. Davis, spokesman of field trialers, has said, "upland game and waterfowl hunting is like eating a frankfurter without mustard—it will appease hunger but is lacking in flavor." And it is this flavor—basic, understandable, realistic—which lures so many people to Union Springs each February, exciting the imagination of everyone who has ever loved dogs.
To the citizens of Union Springs and surrounding Bullock County, the Championship each year means the beginning of a special kind of holiday. Shops close, farmers put away their tools, children (and even teachers) joyously abandon books. With the festivity of a Mardi Gras, the week-long party begins. From windows of stores, banks and homes elaborate decorations peep out at gaily dressed youngsters anxiously awaiting the annual avalanche of visitors from more than a dozen states.
Down the roads to Sedgefields Plantation, caravans of wagons and straw-covered flatbeds announce their coming with laughter and song. At a huge bonfire an army of white-capped cooks feverishly struggles over half a ton of pork for the opening barbecue. Smartly dressed women wander among the gathering throng, the slickness of their outfits in sharp contrast to mud-splattered denims and dungarees. A dozen honey-colored, fuzzy-headed children play tag around huge caldrons of Brunswick stew, flashing quick, mischievous grins at an audience of elderly ladies. Above the slow, rhythmic refrain of a muted Dixie melody the buzz of a hundred conversations mingles with approaching evening, sprinkling fragmented memories of past glory over the milling crowds.