Bird Dog Revival
It’s hard to imagine, in these days of limited opportunities to hunt wild quail, when pursuit of white-tailed-deer is far and away the most popular hunting sport in our state, but at one time in the not too distant past, the sport of horseback field trial – where purebred working dogs such as English Setters and their handlers are judged for their abilities at finding and pointing “birds” (meaning bobwhite quail) was, as a certain presidential candidate might say, absolutely HYYYUUGE in South Carolina.
In the 1930s and 40s, crowds rivaling those for small college football games gathered to watch professionals and amateurs alike participate in horseback field trials put on by storied clubs such as the Mid-Carolina Club or the Sumter Gamecock Club, and each trial was a major, sometimes weekend-long social event, with parties, music, food, dancing…you name it. The fun and crowds lasted into the 1970s, but with the landscape-level changes in habitat and farming practices that resulted in a steep decline in wild quail populations, the sport receded into the background, with a few die-hard folks like three-time National Champion and American Field Trial Hall of Fame member John Ray Kimbrell from Fort Mill left to keep the flame alive.
Last Saturday at Magnolia Farm Lodge in Ridgeway, South Carolina, a number of groups and people dedicated to the task of rekindling interest in the sport (and in rebuilding wild quail populations in South Carolina) came together with the express purpose of exposing more people – both potential participants and potential fans – to all the sport offers. The Association of South Carolina Field Trial Clubs [@ASCFTC ] is the governing body for the sport in our state, and they hold their annual organizing meeting in late September each year in advance of the Field Trial season, which runs roughly from October into the spring. ASCFTC (and Mid-Carolina Club) member Tom Hall is a relative newcomer to the sport, having only gotten started with it about five years ago, but he has a passion for it, and a burning desire to see more people once again involved in it. For the second year in a row, he’s hosted the annual meeting at Magnolia and opened up the grounds for a celebration of all things field trialing-related. Kind of combination Chautauqua, concert and picnic that has been christened the “Bird Dog Revival.”
The idea behind the Revival is simple, says Hall, to inject some of the old spirit of fun and fellowship from the old days and have a party that brings folks who might be interested in field trialing (if they only knew more about it) together with folks already involved in the sport.
“We just really want people to understand what we do and come out and see it and enjoy it,” said Hall.
And by a little after noon on Saturday (September 24th), a pretty good-sized crowd had gathered at Magnolia. The line for pit-cooked barbeque and grilled quail plates stretched around the corner of the lodge, and the first of a really stellar lineup of bluegrass and countrified rock bands was taking the stage to provide entertainment for both the bird dog faithful and the bird dog curious.
It was a dog-loving crowd, no doubt. Many participants showed up with their four-legged friends in tow.
“Does that Boykin belong to you?” I overheard someone ask about a snow-faced retriever who’d been hanging around.
“No, I think he just stays around here.”
Someone turned out to be Kerry Vail, a military officer from just up the road near Camden who’s involved in the Boykin Spaniel Field trial scene and wanted to see what this group was all about. Like a number of the participants, young and old, he had heard about the Revival on Facebook. And like many of the older generation, he could still remember when quail in South Carolina were plentiful.
“I remember hunting in the 1970s when you could still walk farms and jump 10 coveys in a morning,” said Vail.
At the other end of the spectrum, generationally-speaking, was Tyler Combs, a twenty-something from Charlotte who also read about the Revival on social media and made the drive down with his visla breed pointer to check it out.
“We don’t have anything like this up there,” said Combs, an enthusiastic newcomer to quail hunting who is trying to train his dog on his own. “Coming out to a place like this is great.”
Before the day was over, Combs had connected with some other dog owners in the Fort Mill area and had learned from them about public lands available for dog training (like Sandhills State Forest Wildlife Management Area) and was making plans to get together.
After lunch, a series of speakers held forth on a variety of topics related to field trialing, quail hunting, and the state of the sport and the bird, including the SCDNR’s Small Game Project Coordinator, biologist Michael Hook. Hook was there to talk about South Carolina involvement in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, http://bringbackbobwhites.org/.
The SCDNR is deeply committed to making this initiative successful in South Carolina, and is spearheading s a statewide effort established in 2015 to restore bobwhite populations to early-1980s levels. For more information, visit www.scbobwhites.org. or see the post “Bobwhite Quail Restoration Effort Gets New Website” from May on the SC Natural Resources Blog. Not only will this initiative have a positive impact on quail, but other small game species and birds will benefit from it as well, Hook told the Revival audience.
“A lot of different species use that habitat,” said Hook.
Participants also heard presentations from Stuart White with the Congaree Land Trust, and other folks with expertise in land management issues and quail habitat. It was truly an amazing amount of information presented in an extremely entertaining and casual format.
Also very popular were the interviews with field-trialing champions John Ray Kimbrell, Dr. Roger Duerksen, Charles Young, Marion Yarborough and Carl Owens, conducted talk-show-style, with Lawton Huggins of the Bulls Bay Field Trial Club (one of the state’s oldest) acting as moderator. Lots of fun and interesting stories were shared, and a wealth of information.
All-in-all, the Bird Dog Revival was terrific (and terrifically fun) event. Hopefully this sport will continue to grow, and if the South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative and the ASCFTC’s continued outreach efforts are successful, perhaps one day a new generation of South Carolinians will put on their finest field clothes, pack a picnic lunch and watch in awe from the gallery as the judges holler “let ‘em Go!” and these dedicated sportsmen and women, horses and amazing hounds do their thing. It’s a tremendous legacy and a part of our sporting heritage that shouldn’t be allowed to fall by the wayside.