Trials point to best bird dogs

CARLTON, Ga. - It was close but no cigar - or in this case, no shotgun - for a Watkinsville man in a national field trial for bird dogs. In a field of 128 dogs and their handlers from as far away as Montana, two of Kevin Johnston's four bird dogs made the final 16 in the trial, held on 4 Star Plantation in Oglethorpe County near Carlton.

But neither Katie nor Lefty made it to the final four of the trials, in which dogs compete at finding and pointing quail, then retrieving them after a hunter shoots the birds. By the time a Michigan dog named Fritz emerged as champion of the four-day trials that ended this weekend, Mr. Johnston was gone.

But not winning didn't matter that much, said Mr. Johnston, 42, co-owner of a family business in Oconee County.

It was a good week overall for 10-year-old Lefty, a German short-haired pointer soon to retire to a life of luxury, and for 3-year-old Katie, an English setter who made it to the final eight, a good showing for the young dog.

"I was really pleased with (Katie)," said Mr. Johnston, even though her exit from the field trials was pretty abrupt.

"He got me down pretty quick," Mr. Johnston said of his opponent, "and she was pretty tired."

It's no accident if Mr. Johnston sounds like a football coach.

"They're just like athletes. They go just as hard as football players," Mr. Johnston said of the bird dogs, who can be any of several breeds that will find, point and retrieve birds.

"This is the closest thing I can get to actually bird hunting," Mr. Johnston said. "I don't do it for any kind of money or any kind of fame, just to enjoy it."

The opportunity to hunt in an increasingly quail-unfriendly world is why these field trials exist at all, said Gary Thompson, a national vice president of one of the organizations that sponsored this week's trials, the National Shoot To Retrieve Association. The Georgia trial, co-sponsored by a new Georgia conservation group called Quail Forever, is the group's newest.

QUAIL COUNT

Quail populations have plummeted in Georgia and nationally, limiting the opportunities to hunt wild quail.

Georgia once was the quail-hunting capital of the United States, but no more, said David Healan, a Braselton real estate agent and president of the year-old Georgia chapter of Quail Forever.

In 1962, hunters killed more than 4 million bobwhite quail in Georgia, but that number declined drastically to an estimated 541,922 birds in 2003, fewer than 130,000 of them wild birds, according to the organization.

- Morris News Service