By Matt Ledger
Championships are often won inside stadiums with a capacity crowd wearing colorful jerseys. However, in the sport of field trials, everyone embraces the same uniform — with variations of camouflage and fluorescent orange — as they guide their dogs through golden fields of weeds and mud.
Coming this February, hundreds of the best camo-clad competitors in the country will converge in Section.
“It’s kind of like this: You’ve got your football games every weekend, and then you’ve got the Super Bowl — this is our Super Bowl,” Jeff Ferguson says of hosting the national championship for the United Field Trialers Association.
Nearly 20 years ago, Ferguson began hosting weekend events for sportsmen on his property, especially for bird hunters. “It gave me a good chance to see that I was going to be able to do something that I enjoyed, and we’ve done it ever since,” Ferguson says. “This is saving the old Southern tradition of the quail hunt.”
Frank Kirby, from Fort Payne, has known Ferguson the entire time and works on the property as a hunting guide. One of Ferguson’s favorite dogs is named Frank, based on his longtime friendship with Kirby.
“I know they’re hard to win, and you’ve got to have a good dog and a little luck,” Kirby says of the tournament. He has trained pointing dogs for a few years and is one of several of Ferguson’s friends helping in the preparations for the United Field Trialers Association’s National Finals. More than half of the members attend the championship, with many coming from the Midwest and Northeastern states. It will be held at the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve in Section from Feb. 13 to 21.
Rules and Regimens
The sport of field trials tests a dog’s obedience and a handler’s patience. The canine and his companion are equally tasked to accumulate points within the competition and must follow specified rules to have a chance to win. Both are placed in a blind, as officials place quail in designated areas. The handler leads the dog onto the field — which can be as large as 12 acres — to seek out the three birds within 15 minutes.
Handlers choose one of two different disciplines: pointing and flushing. A pointing dog must alert the handler and hold for three seconds, then the handler flushes the bird into the air to shoot. Flushing dogs — predominantly Labradors, Boykin and Springer spaniels — pursue the quail until it flies off. The entire process is judged and timed by an official, with the most critical factor being the dog’s ability to retrieve the bird and bring it directly back to the handler.
The competition begins with the “Amateur” classification for competitors with dogs under three years of age, followed by the “Open” classification for the top dogs in the sport. An Open competitor must have run in six events during the year to qualify for the Section tournament, while Amateurs will qualify with four trials. There are also divisions for women and kids.
“Many times the young dogs will come in and surprise folks,” Kirby says. “The dog that goes by the rules and gets the birds the quickest wins. There are four or five top guys who will always make it competitive.”
Some folks work their dogs once a week and others work them every day. It can take from six months to a year to get a dog trained, with many of the dogs being trained by a professional handler, which can cost $1,600 to $1,800 on average.
In July 2014, UFTA President Frank Arnau notified Ferguson that his property was selected” We really liked his facility, and he was eager to make it happen,” Arnau says. “We had to find a place that had an area large enough that we could have eight to 10 fields to utilize at one time.” Another important factor in the selection was the birds. Ferguson’s brother breeds quail nearby, and many of those birds will be used for the competition.
“This is a family sport, because everyone is involved with the dogs,” Arnau says. Competitors have already booked many local hotels, residences and cabins months ahead of the weeklong tournament. “This will be huge for the whole area,” Ferguson says. For several years prior, the competition was held at Doublehead Resort near Muscle Shoals. But after the acreage they had been using was sold, UFTA board members began scouting several locations in Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia for the 2015 tournament. Officials toured Ferguson’s property and stayed three weekends before making their decision.
Since July, Ferguson has been upgrading some of the amenities and renovating a barn to serve as a rustic banquet hall. After the selection, a qualifying field trial on the same land — held in November 2014 — filled up with competitors immediately upon announcement. “I’ve already been to some of the local restaurants and people are excited about this event,” Arnau says.