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NSTRA Isn't Real Bird Hunting, But It Comes Pretty Close

Tuesday, June 10, 2008
by John Johnson

If you're an enthusiastic upland bird hunter, then chances are you're a "dog person" too you enjoy spending time with your four-legged hunting companions both before and after the bird seasons have closed. Many clubs and organizations conduct "dog games" (hunt tests or field trials) that can provide an incentive to train year-round, and that reveal to a hunter the areas that he or she needs to emphasize for the dog to reach its full potential in future seasons.

I've tried several different games with both my Lab and my English setter, and those that most simulate a real bird hunt are the ones I like best. I'll admit it; I prefer the games in which live birds are shot over the dogs, and I like to do the shooting myself rather than stand by while an "official gun" performs the triggerwork.

A lot of local hunt clubs put on annual competitions in which one or two hunters and a dog attempt to collect as many planted birds (pen-raised pheasants, chukar or bobwhite quail) as possible from a designated area in a specific amount of time. There's also a nationwide organization the National Shoot-To-Retrieve Association that conducts several field trials each year under that format in each of 32 regions around the country.

Photo: Julie Johnson
Mazie, the author's 3-year-old English setter, seems to have all the tools to become a good NSTRA dog.

I've been a NSTRA member for almost a year now. I've only participated in two trials (I skipped pretty much the whole fall season because I preferred to hunt wild birds, and I encountered some work, weather and logistical issues in the spring), but I enjoyed both and am hoping to compete in at least twice that many in 2008-09. It isn't real hunting, but it might be the next-best thing.

Chance to Advance

NSTRA was formed in the 1960s by some bird hunters/bird dog enthusiasts who were looking for a way to extend their season. The format caught on pretty good, and nowadays dogs that excel in trials in their home regions move on to regional championships, and from there to national-level competition.

Only pointing dogs are eligible and a dog must have the ability to remain steady (on point) until its human partner flushes the bird. Once the quail (or chukar) is in the air, the dog can break; thus NSTRA dogs don't have to be fully "broke" (steady to wing, shot and fall).

Dogs are run in braces (two at a time) in fields that normally encompass about 40 acres. Five birds are planted prior to each brace, and the two dog/hunter teams have 30 minutes to find as many of them as they can and perhaps a "leftover" or two from a previous brace.

Dogs can be awarded a maximum of 100 points for each find, and another 100 for each retrieve. Even if a dog doesn't find a bird, it'll still be scored from zero to 100 for ground coverage, and zero to 75 for obedience. There's also an opportunity for an additional 75 points for a "back" (a dog honoring its bracemate's point).

The scoring is done by two judges who roam the field on all-terrain vehicles. Most judges are extremely helpful toward newcomers who are unsure of how to proceed in a particular situation encountered in the field.

Play to Win

A NSTRA trial is truly a game in the sense that many of the competitors are playing to win. There's strategy involved primarily centered around how to cover the relatively large piece of ground in the allotted half-hour and a savvy player's dog might cut off his or her bracemate's dog at every turn (that's what happened to Mazie, my 3-year-old setter, and I on our initial run, the only one we've gone birdless on thus far).

There's also a good deal of sportsmanship and camaraderie, though. On or second run, Mazie and I were braced with one of the top dog/handler teams in our region. and the handler gave me a tip midway through the run that resulted in us collecting our first bird.

A lot of trials are double-doubles, which basically means two fields with separate trials running simultaneously. The same dog can run once on each field per day, so if a trial is a weekend double-double, a dog can get two runs on Saturday and two more on Sunday.

The only real drawback I've encountered with NSTRA is if you've entered just one dog, there's a lot of sitting-around time between runs. A full trial consists of 16 braces, which is 8 hours right there. Plus there's a few minutes expended between each brace as the fields are re-planted.

At a double-double, you're likely to have an early brace on one field and a late one on the other, and there might be several hours in between. But others are waiting, too, which affords the opportunity to strike up a conversation on just about any aspect of dogs or hunting or on another subject entirely.

Mazie and I haven't placed (finished among the Top 3) yet, but with the exception of one run, our scores have progressed along with our level of experience. I've been told by some judges and veteran competitors that my dog has all the tools required to excel in that venue, but we're both still learning the game.

I don't expect us to win the regional championship next year, but qualifying for that meet seems like a reasonable goal.


> For more about NSTRA, click here to visit the organization's website.

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