Journey into the overlooked world of African-American field trial history in the South
Being a native of Georgia, I’ve found that there is something truly majestic about the culture and history of the plantation bird dog culture. Being an African American bird dog trainer, I’ve managed to penetrate an even deeper layer of Southern plantation culture embedded in the history of many undocumented black figures in the bird dog training world who have laid much of the foundation of our understandings and methodologies to truly and properly getting a pointing dog “broke” — namely, Pointers and English Setters.
Since the early 19th and 20th centuries, there has been a long line of African-American field trialers and bird dog trainers who have quietly passed down their oral legacy to their sons, grandsons, nephews, and novices keeping true to the tradition of Southern, plantation-style hunting and trialing in pursuit of wild bobwhite quail.
“Back in I believe 81′, we were at a white trial and at that trial we couldn’t run with them. So we came up with idea of getting this trial started for ourselves.”Neal Carter – Hard Day Riding
The anticipation of meeting field trial legends like Neal Carter Jr. and Curtis Brooks Sr. kept me up the night before the first Monday in March, and leaving Atlanta at 2 a.m. to make the 4 hour drive down to Thomasville, Ga. It was only my first step to fulfilling a personal dream: to document a story that for so long had only been briefly observed and very seldom (if at all) mentioned.
Upon arriving at Mayhaw Plantation, we pulled in to the misty grounds, greeted by what could have very well been mistaken for an old school family reunion. With the settling of the dew, laughter filled the air just as the rays of Red Hills sunlight crept through the longleaf pine. It was early, though tensions were high as we watched participants mount gaited horses. Not long after, whistles signaled the start of the event as Wil, Hunter and I mounted the jeep.
What I didn’t know was that we were being escorted by a five-time champion of the Georgia-Florida Shooting Dog Handlers Association, Joe Fryson. I found that as entertaining as he was, wisdom poured between the lines of his wit and sarcasm as he proclaimed love for the dog throughout the stories of trial and tribulation. Being in the back seat of a champion’s vehicle gave us front row access to bird dog antiquity.
To better understand the significance of these annual trials, you have to appreciate the persistence, intensity, and compassion that lends itself to Neal’s character as he tells the story of adversity and achievement that is so synonymous with African-American field trial history. For so long, many minorities were not permitted to compete with the majority. We were relegated to being scouts at best, though day in and day out our jobs were to produce a perfect, non-slip bird dog for the trialers and plantation owners who facilitated employment.
Gentlemen like Neal Carter finally came up with the idea to start a field trial just for African-Americans, sharing the land with courteous plantation owners who believed wholeheartedly in the efforts of these men. As the years went on, their efforts prevailed and more handlers began to cut more dogs loose. From 1981 to 2019, the dogs got better and the competition grew tougher — but respect and admiration flowed throughout the gallery of trialers and onlookers.
Nowadays, Neal Carter and his son, along with Curtis Brooks and his son and many other black handlers seek to continue their legacy and pass down the knowledge that has brought them this far. If you can make it down to south Georgia, you might even find yourself in their bird dog school for young, aspiring trainers much like myself. Their practices will have you reconsider your definition of a good running dog, and their dogs’ performance, much like this year’s champion, Curtis Brooks Sr., might leave you a field short of birds.
What these trainers expect is nothing short of perfection as false points simply don’t put numbers on the board. The time that these fine men have put into their dogs speaks to the standard and level of expectation that is maintained each year at the trials. But before setting forth on their pursuits, it’s well-known — and demanded — that folks have a good time. Sharing a laugh, cracking jokes, and offering insight and criticism is all part of a hard day riding over good dogs. Trophies, plaques, and money mean nothing if we all can’t contribute to the history that keeps these bird dogs running far and wide in pursuit of our beloved game.
If you spend a little time in south Georgia with the Ga-Fla Shooting Dog Handlers Association, you’ll find yourself embraced into a family of men and women who have all come together to continue writing a narrative that so many have yet to experience. All I’ve got left to say at this point is simply, “Welcome to the South . . . welcome to true bird dog history.”
Durrell Smith is a 28 year old Georgia native, visual artist, wing shooter, and dog handler. While creating compelling ink and watercolor illustrations based on his field experiences and hunting dogs, he also runs a podcast called The Gun Dog Notebook, which can be found on iTunes and Soundcloud. Aside from hunting upland game and waterfowl, he participates in Hunt Tests with his Labrador Retriever. As a first generation hunter, Durrell seeks to learn and contribute to the community by connecting with visionaries and veterans within the bird dog community who are willing to share stories and knowledge about the various breeds, creating a bridge to welcome new and novice dog handlers to the gun dog community.