Throughout this week and for more than 30 years, Lake Murray State Park has been the home for a highly trained group of athletes.
A few miles into the park, four-legged competitors from the western half of the United States have been testing their training, skills and cooperation while their handlers participate with conservation efforts at the park.
“There are clubs all across the country,” Will Barbee, national chairman of the Shorthair Pointer Quail Championship, said. “We don’t actually hunt quail during the field trial runs, it’s a simulated hunt. It’s all about the dog, about getting championships and to improve the bloodlines for breeding purposes. We liberate quail on the trails daily, but we don’t kill anything. They don’t allow us to kill anything out on this property.”
As tradition, modern hunting and hunters often take on the role of conservationist, using their love of the sport and their reverence of the land to restore damaged ecosystems while providing checks to otherwise unrestrained invasive species.
“We are actually helping all the predators survive with all the coyotes and hawks and anything that like the quail,” Barbee said. “We put out 575 birds in a 10-day period.”
Barbee said the field trial associations that visit the park on an annual basis release more than 5,000 native species birds into the park yearly, most of which are taken by the park’s predator population.
Barbee said the Oklahoma Field Trial Association has a 50-year lease on the property, guaranteeing that the trials will continue for another 20 years, though that’s not what keeps the competitors coming back.
“Quail Unlimited worked with us clearing land and cutting trees down to try and reclaim more of a native habitat and they did birds with the the Noble Foundation over the years to improve the grounds out here for us,” Barbee said. “A few of the clubs put money together to get a building put in. The first time I was here, we had a tent. That was our facilities.”
The camp site now has an insulated building with full amenities.
While the building remains secure throughout the year, the campsite remains open to the public when not in use by competitors.
While some participants train, breed and compete professionally, for most it’s a hobby, one started from another form of competition.
“Most people got into this by arguing whose dog was better,” competitor James Messer said. “This ended up being a way to test and prove who had the better dog.”
Barbee said the dogs range in price from $750 to $4,000, and that doesn’t include training which can be as much as $500 a month, adding that like any other hobby, expenses can balloon depending on the individual.
Barbee’s day job is as a hair stylist, Messer is an MRI tech, others are doctors, lawyers and a range of other professions.
Kevin Temple has been an avid hunter since he was 15 years old. Now in his 60s, he still hunts as often as possible, but Friday saw him assume a new role in the sport. Temple spent his time this week retrieving the dogs, and sometimes judges, from the course.
During the competition, hunters follow their dogs through a course that snakes its way several miles through the park. Judges follow closely behind the hunter, all on horseback, judging the dog’s performance along the way, each trial taking about an hour to complete.
When not helping out at competitions, Temple — who works for Southwest Airlines — likes to hunt in west Texas with his friends, family — which includes two daughters — and his hunting buddies (his German Shorthair Pointers).
“I thought I was shut out of that (hunting with his children) when I had two girls,” Temple said. “But as they got to be teenagers, they both showed an interest in hunting, which made me happy.”
For Temple, hunting is a long-held family tradition. He began hunting with his grandfather and father as a teenager in Vermont. Temple has a number of hunting stories to tell, including a face-to-face encounter with a bobcat.
“My grandfather had a bunch more, stuff that campfires are made of,” Temple said. “But back in the day, they did it to put food on the table. During the Depression, or shortly thereafter there wasn’t any money, there wasn’t any food, so everyone hunted year-round.”
Now living in Texas, his youngest daughter hunts birds with her own German Shorthair Pointer, while his oldest daughter prefers to hunt deer. While some hunters keep their dogs in kennels, Temple’s dogs have a special place in his heart and his home.
“I have five that live indoors, they coexist with us, they still hunt trial and they don’t lose anything from it,” Temple said. “I believe the bond that you build inside the house carries over into the field.”
While most hunters today still hunt for food, competitions like the Shorthair Pointer Quail Championship offer other coveted prizes, including cash, belt buckles and trophies.
“Not everyone in this game is a hunter,” Temple said. “Some of the dogs on this circuit will never see a wild bird.”