Austin hosts national hunting dog event for the first time

An English Springer Spaniel races past a shooter on her way to deliver a pheasant to her handler in a field north of Austin on Thursday (Nov. 17, 2017) during the National Springer Spaniel Open Championship. Christopher Baldus/chris.baldus@austindailyherald.com

Knee-high grass trembles slightly as the white and black, floppy-eared dog darts beneath it to the left about 10 yards, then back to the right, circling back to the left.

It has the scent of the pheasant it rousted moments ago. One of three elite shooters, walking along with two competing sets of handlers and dogs, wounded the rooster and it glided to a crash landing. That could mean the bird is on the run.

The dog’s professional handler, Paul McGagh, blows his whistle to send out instructions. A blaze orange gallery of spectators, dog owners and dog handlers look on from the cart path. The lineup stretches at least a football field deep, and is hushed as they watch for the retrieve.

Professional dog handler Paul McGagh of North Dakota sends an instruction via whistle to his dog Thursday during the National Springer Spaniel Open Championship in Austin.
Photos by Christopher Baldus/chris.baldus@austindailyherald.com

The second day of competition at the National English Springer Spaniel Open Championship began at about 8 a.m. Thursday north of Austin, which is playing host for the first time, according to Dean Koehler, the open championship president this year. A total 114 dogs were registered to compete. The amateur and professional dog handlers came from across the nation he said, “From Maine to California.” There are some local amateurs as well as a bunch from the Twin Cities, he said.

The open is put on by the National English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association, and it’s held under the rules and procedures of the American Kennel Club. It’s open to dogs age six month and older who qualified through other competitions. The crux of it is to find the top dogs that find and retrieve birds.

“It’s just all about finding good hunting dogs,” said Koehler, who is from Shakopee. “It’s a teamwork deal. You need to let your dog be independent enough, but like you saw, when you blow a whistle they’ve got to do what you tell them to do.”

The open was last in Minnesota 10 years ago near Owatonna, he said. Every five years, it’s held somewhere in the Midwest. Southern Illinois has been a popular place.

“We’re kind of pushing it being this far north this late because of the weather, but it’s worked out just fine,” he said.

The field, owned by Charles and Lois Fawver, has proven to be a good choice.

“People love the field,” Koehler said. “Obviously … if the landowners let us back we just may end up back here again.”

The Association connected with the Fawvers through the Austin couple’s participation in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, Lois Fawver said. They were looking through CRP land in Minnesota and found the Fawvers’ field, which provides enough space that competitors don’t have to drive from field to field, she said.

Fawver’s brother Jay owns the farm next to the field that is the parking and staging area for the competition. He has been “super accommodating,” Koehler said.

The birds the dogs are after are not from the field. The Association has the birds delivered by a game farm. On Tuesday, 400 birds were dropped off.

“In the course of the five days, it’s going to be right around 1,000” birds used in the open, Koehler said.

During competition, the birds are placed by trained handlers before the dogs are sent out. Some do escape the hunters.

The birds that are bagged are not wasted. Organizers have made arrangements with people to take and use them. In at least one case, a church will use them to put on a wild game supper, Koehler said.

“We just do whatever to make sure they get used,” he said.

After the field trials, and the number of competitors is winnowed, the remaining dogs will wrap up the open with water trials at East Side Lake. There won’t be any shooting of birds, although dead birds will be launched into the water for dogs to retrieve.

“We could get done Saturday, but most likely Sunday,” Koehler said.