By Darron Hendley

The 2021-2022 field trial season kicked off in the Field Trial Capital of the World, Union Springs, Alabama with the drawing for the Conecuh Station Open stakes at the Union Springs Country Club. A record 125 entries were accepted, 62 shooting dogs and 63 derbies. Tony Gibson, Ben Chancellor and Lisa Courson handled the drawing with proficiency. Some of the most well-bred professionally trained dogs in the country were drawn to compete.

A placement in the shooting dog stake qualifies the dog for a spot in the National Open Shooting Dog Championship to be held in 2022 on Sedgefield Plantation in Union Springs, Alabama. Weather was pleasant for people throughout the trial, but a little warm for dogs and horses in the afternoons. Temperatures generally ranged from the 60’s to the low 80’s. It was mostly sunny. It was typical October weather for central Alabama.

Handlers and owners from near and far started rolling in on Sunday afternoon and setting up shop before the Monday morning start. After all their dogs and horses were fed and put away, they were welcomed by the Alabama Field Trial Association which hosted a pleasant cocktail party and dinner. AFTA President Hunter McDuffie and Darron Hendley manned the bar while AFTA Secretary Renee Peek, Lisa Courson, Becky Blanton, Amy Johnson, Connie Hicks and others helped lay out a delicious spread for everyone to enjoy.

The field trial grounds at Conecuh Station have never been better! The landowners, Tony and Becky Gibson have spared no expense in making their property an absolute showcase. They are such gracious hosts and make everyone feel welcome. Six different continuous courses meander through the 4000+ acres of gently rolling hills. Towering loblolly pines spread as far as the eye can see. Sandy creek bottoms fed by crystal clear spring water drain the high ground. Golden sage carpets the landscape. Magnificent old oak trees are scattered about making for easy landmarks through the courses.

The Conecuh Station crew, led by Bo Brewer, spent the spring and summer thinning mowing, plowing, and planting feed strips. Miles of brown-top millet, partridge peas, teosinte and love grass rows provide excellent cover. A network of roads have been expertly graded to make getting around a breeze. There are wild birds on the property, but thousands of quail were pre-release which accounted for lots of bird work throughout the trial. The released birds were hatched and raised right on the property. Coveys were large and flew strong when flushed. After one of the wettest summers on record, cover was high and thick. However, nearly the entire plantation had been blocked-out with bush hogs to make for easy hunting.

Chef Ban Stewart serviced delicious lunches daily to all in attendance. The breakfast crew consisting of George Cole, Faye Duncan and Renee Peek served a hardy meal every morning at 7:00 a.m. sharp to get the day started right. A special thanks to Purina for donating dog food to the winners.

Good judges make the trial. Judging for several days in a row is hard work and not for sissies. The judges get up before daylight every morning feeding and saddling horses. They must ride all day, stopping only for lunch and short breaks between braces. They have to make tough decisions. For every handler that is happy with the decision, there are usually several others that are unhappy. But that is just the way it is.

We were pleased to have experienced and qualified judges for all the stakes. Two very capable and astute judges, Allan York and Ron Lambert, who both hail from south Georgia, evaluated the shooting dogs. Ron is retired from Georgia Power. He started bird hunting as a young man, and once his children were grown, made the natural transition into field trials about 20 years ago. He proudly trains his own dogs for amateur competition. Allan is a retired USDA office manager for Jefferson County, Georgia.

He is best known in the field trial circuit for his multiple shooting dog champion, Beckworth’s Firefighter. Under Allan’s hand, Firefighter won two amateur regional championships, one of them at Conecuh Station. Firefighter also won the National Amateur Invitational Championship. At age 10, Firefighter is still going strong. Ron and Allen are both very active in their local field trial clubs. They looked for a true shooting dog range and pattern for the conditions the dog was presented with. Too much range or not quite enough range knocked out some otherwise commendable performances. Front running was also a key ingredient to victory.

Bullock countians Todd Montgomery and Steve Hutto teamed up to judge the derby stakes. Todd and Steve have similar backgrounds when it come to birddogs. Both train and compete with their own dogs. Both have spent summers with the professionals on the northern prairies. Many believe you haven’t experienced the ultimate in birddog training until you have done it on wild native birds, such as Hungarian Partridges, Pheasant and Sharptailed Grouse. All our judges knew what to look for, where to look for it and when to look for it. They rode hard and were very attentive to every dog that hit the ground.

CONECUH STATION OPEN SHOOTING DOG

When it was all said and done, the top placement went to pointer male Miller’s War Bonnet handled by Mike Tracy of Glenville, Pennsylvania and scouted by Jack Kimbrell. Bonnet is a second-year shooting dog owned by Joe McHugh. Having placed in multiple smaller trials, this is his first big win. Bonnet punched his ticket to the big dance in the 13th brace scoring perfect finds all out front, at 7, 10, 34, 37 and 46 minutes. He also backed his bracemate to 23.

Pointer female Nella’s Belgium Brew laid down an outstanding performance for south Georgia handler Tommy Rice. She handled like she was on a string all the while exhibiting perfect style and manners. Her finds were spaced out throughout the hour at 20, 26, 30, 37 and 40 minutes.

She was always out-front hunting and needed very little scouting. She finished her hour with the same desire and drive as she started with. Brew is a second-year shooting dog, a consistent performer and proudly owned by Vegas Mathison.

The third-place dog came out of the very first brace. Pointer male, Iron Bully with Mike Tracy, carded an amazing 8 finds at 4, 6, 10, 13, 30, 35 , 57 and 59. Casey Foster scouted. Bully is also a second-year shooting dog with several notable placements, but this is his first really big win.

It earned him a spot in the super bowl for shooting dogs. It will be fun to see what these three exceptional hunting dogs do in the National Championship, which starts January 31, 2022, in Union Springs.

Many thanks are owed to Todd Montgomery, Robert Moorer, Bo Brewer, Anthony Martino and Andrew “Yank” Dawson for marshalling and taking care of any needs that popped up. Kenneth Newman was always Johnny-on-the-spot with the dog wagon.

Hundreds of guests attended a Saturday night party hosted by the gracious landowners, Tony and Becky Gibson. Ban Stewart expertly prepared a scrumptious Quail dinner. Justin Green, Robert Moorer and others chipped in to help. Guitarist and singer, Lennie Trawick entertained the crowd with a wide arrange of musical genre to satisfy most any taste.

OPEN SHOOTING DOG DERBY

The ever-competitive Doug Ray took the top spot in the Open Shooting Dog Derby stake with Wiggins Pree Dawn. Mississippi professional trainer and handler, Steve Hurdle guided A Carolina Sport to a second-place finish. Seller’s Lucious Lilly, earned the third-place spot for Tennessee amateur handler Chris Sellers

OPEN ALL-AGE DERBY

Pineywoods Legacy, handled by south Georgia pro Tommy Rice and scouted by Hannah Wright, won the open all-age derby stake. Legacy, call name “Will” is owned by locals Darron Hendley and Renee Peek. Florida amateur Bobby Dubose took second with his handsome pointer, Dubose’s Good Luck, call name “Ben”.

Steve Hurdle got another piece of the pie with his mostly white English Setter, Smoke Roll, owned by renowned Tennessee breeder, Buddy Smith.

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