A good bird dog is as much a part of the traditions of Georgia's plantation country as peaches, tobacco and quail. Names like Mary Montrose, Warhoop Jake, Home Again Mike and Palamonium are often better known to local citizens than Mickey Mantle or Carry Back, and it has been said that one may insult a Georgian's wife or children or even his mother, but to insult his dog is unpardonable.
Early this month, a small army of Georgians, together with their wives, their children, their mothers, and—above all—their dogs, gathered at Albany with like-minded enthusiasts from many other states for the National Amateur Quail Championship. Unlike most field trials in which highly skilled professionals handle the dogs for (often) absent owners, this is a stake purely for amateurs. Old folk and youngsters, parents, and even grandparents turned out on horseback or in mule-drawn wagons to follow the six-and-a-half-day running.
Children as young as 10 and old ladies of 70 spent eight-hour days on horseback and galloped to points as swiftly and as skillfully as the men over stump-spotted sedge fields. Even local nondoggy residents were caught in the excitement of the event, and where the trial grounds occasionally crossed a back road, they waited in groups to glimpse the dogs and horses going by. Often they were rewarded by the sight of a point at close range, followed by the sudden, sometimes startling, burst of birds when a covey was flushed.
The 48,000-acre area over which the national was run is one of the finest quail habitats in America. Dwight Eisenhower shoots here regularly, and the enormous numbers of wild birds which may be found on the grounds have attracted sportsmen from all over the world. An average day's hunt on any of the three plantations used for the trial—Richard K. Mellon's Pineland, W. Alton Jones's Blue Springs and John Grant Jr.'s Wildfair—will turn up 30 to 40 coveys of quail. A dog physically able to cover more area might well turn up twice this number because the birds are certainly there.
At this year's national, a 5-year-old white-and-orange pointer named Pineland Johnny proved beyond doubt that he knew how to find them. Johnny was decidedly a newcomer in the company of such favorites as Just Rite Roz and 1960 Champion Seairup. The national, because it is the most important trial run by the Amateur Field Trial Clubs of America Inc., requires every dog entered to have won a lesser amateur stake. Last year Johnny, who has run only half a dozen trials in his 3½-year career, failed even to qualify. In a field of 64 entries, many of them already celebrities, Johnny's experience looked meager indeed.
But Johnny is a hunter, a big-running, tireless quail dog who has spent countless days finding birds for Owner Murray C. Fleming's gun. A local International Harvester dealer, Murray himself has raised and trained and shot over dogs for most of his 48 years, but his field-trial experience, like Johnny's, has been limited pretty much to events around home. As a hunting team, however, Murray and Johnny have ranged over every plantation in the Albany area. Ever since Fleming acquired Johnny as an 18-month-old puppy in a trade, they have been practicing together. When the test of this partnership finally came at Johnny's first national trial, he was ready to give the best performance of his hunting career.
Johnny ran in the third brace on the third day of the trial. For weather, it was the worst day. A heavy mist settled on the grounds early in the morning and by 11, when Johnny was put down after three hours of jouncing about in a dog wagon, a torrential rain began to fall. Unmindful of weariness or weather, he located a covey of quail on his first cast and in the subsequent hour and a half went on brilliantly to five more finds.
"It's mighty hard to scent the birds with rain coming straight down," Fleming said afterwards, "but that Johnny-dog didn't seem even to notice. He was giving me everything he had, rain or no rain."
Everything Johnny had was just what the judges wanted, and the gallery, following Pineland Johnny on that third day, knew it was watching a new champion.