Any good sermon on quail hunting in the South begins in the Red Hills surrounding Thomasville, Georgia, and includes three legendary dogmen: Neal Carter Sr., Curtis Brooks Sr., and Joe Fryson. These three men are the cornerstone of the Ga-Fla Shooting Dog Handlers Club (commonly known as the Black Handlers Club), which holds its big field trial each year on the first Monday in March. This field trial has been going on for 40 years and includes about 30 pointer handlers from across the country.
While you’ll see some truly amazing dogs (and horses, too) on this field trial, it’s so much more than a competition. It is among these swamp pines that one finds a special sanctuary that nurtures the spirit of the great bird dogs and the age-old traditions the clubs seek to carry on.
In many ways, the bird-dog tradition brings me back to the memory of the singular institution to which my family was so attached. I remember one holy day, once a week, when men and women would come together to worship the gospel, and true to the roots of both traditions, there is one simple fact: everyone sings in church.
At sunrise, bobwhite quail sing in the morning to open the Sunday service, and the dogmen are the tenors of the Red Hills Choir. My own dogs bark wildly, incessantly, their barking mingling with our laughter as Joe Fryson’s voice rumbles through the woods at the start of each couple. So far Joe has handled large dogs, most from the Melrose Plantation, and he has won our trial six times, a record since we started in 1981.
Habitat for quail develops from the soot and ash from seasonal prescribed burning that was carried out just before the wild birds begin to mate and lay the eggs that will hatch into the next clutch. And we all drift to the slow, quivering beat of the long sheet, burning like hell, as black men, old and young, watch, laugh, tell stories and bet on other men’s so-called ‘trash’ dog labor .
Not all dogs are perfect, and some people lie about why their dog was never placed. There’s a lot of chatter to go around. But then there are the stark truths, the moments when the gallery of onlookers quiet in reverence to watch a special dog at work. Some dogs are a force in the woods, and some men command the energy of the terrain – no chatter or mess about that. These bird dogs “do the trick” in the Red Hills, and the men who train them make sure the dogs keep doing it, from hunt to hunt, test to test and litter to litter.
It was here that I met Carter and my dear friend Brooks Sr., and through our club’s trial, I was then connected to the greater history of Thomasville, Georgia. It was there that I met my buddy Terry James, who introduced me to his father and veteran dogman, Terry Chastain Sr.
All of these men are part of the golden nobility of the Red Hills bird-dog myth.
This area is home to the largest concentration of undeveloped plantation land in the United States, and its rolling hills, live oak forests, and stands of longleaf pine have been named one of America’s Last Great Places by Nature. Conservancy. After the Civil War, many plantations became winter homes and quail hunting plantations for wealthy northerners. But my people, the Black Dogmen of the South, have been walking their dogs here since long before that.
So I’m rocking this afternoon to the rhythm of my own memory – the baptism of my young braque. Carter had held my young pup in her tender, aged hands. Carter has over 40 years of hands-on experience training bird dogs, and I hoped his touch would be the blessing that would result in a victory in the trial.
I would be away from the trial for a year to observe and learn, and to learn more about my own special kinship with the tradition and history of my culture as I followed its thin but eternal thread through the fabric of the history of bird dogs.
By racing dogs with Brooks Sr. and Carter, I learned a great deal about my culture and bird dog lore, and modeled my own practices primarily around the teachings of these two gentlemen.
Over time, I acquired three orange and white pointers, one from Curtis’ kennel and another from the famous Loveridge Plantation. This puppy, now two years old, is my lead dog. My love for working dogs only grew, as Carter had warned me. He knows too much about a bird dog, much like his grandfather before him, who, along with his peers, transcended racial barriers in the world of bird dog training.
These men would become the architects of a niche selection of bird-class dogs. A lot of ideas about what we consider a good hunting dog come from the pulpit, I imagine, because in this church everyone sings together. In 2008, the gallery sang loudly when Carter handling his dog Sinkola Hammer took first place, with Ed Chance handling Cane Mill Sam coming in second and Terry Chastain taking third place with Melrose Rebel Buck. Terry brought Buck back the following year to take first place at Seminole Plantation.
The Qualities I Want in My Own Dogs are based primarily on the stories in the Georgia-Florida Field Trial Club Centennial Biography, as told by Charlie Chapin himself, owner of Elsoma Plantation. Mr. Chapin is the third generation owner of Elsoma, one of Thomasville’s notable plantations, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. His description of what the Georgia-Florida Field Trial Club looks for in a dog is now what I breed for at my own Cha’Ann kennel: He “looks for his three winners for ideal plantation hunting dogs, with large noses attested by birds. discovery, style and perfect manners proved stable to fly and shoot and reverse on sight, and easy handling, always in front, without shouting. Range suited to terrain and cover and uncommon bird sense mark the winners.
Chapin also notes, “It’s a poorly kept secret that the same bird dog breeders who supply the field trial pros supply dogs for shooting plantings, often from the same litters.”
In other words, the qualities that win the test are reproduced in many Red Hills bird dogs. One such dog was Curtis Brooks’ English setter in the 2019 trial. The dog found two or three broods of wild quail and pointed to them with head and tail held high, bones straight, extending beautifully, cutting through the red-tinted sheen of the afternoon sun. He was a dog to behold and remember, and he is, in our stories, year after year.
We always came to church in our Sunday best, with a feel-good mentality, and working with a bird dog is no different. Take for example the famous mule-drawn wagon that has always been a Red Hills staple. I think of my own upbringing, decked out in Chevy boxes and other classic American muscle cars that were a staple of black communities in Atlanta, where I grew up. The mule-drawn wagon and classic American muscle car indicate the driver’s personal tastes, customized for recreation and released only to steal the show on the most special days.
And amidst the cargo of the mule-drawn wagon is a string of carefully bred and selected dogs that could very well be considered as personalized as the vehicle itself. Form follows function, as most Southern wagons were simply used as a means of covering ground during a hunt while providing some form of recreation and comfort. Over the years, owners invested more and more in the craftsmanship and decoration of their wagons, pulling out all the stops for a hopefully stunning performance from their precious bird dogs.
When all is over, all said and done, and the good dogs return to the kennels, and the weary dogmen gather at the club shed, I sit among them awaiting a new year. I stood with Neal Carter Jr., with Curtis Brooks Sr., with Terry Chastain Sr. and Charlie Chapin, staring at us all on the horizon with aspirations as high as the flame of the burning pine. These men are the guardians of a long tradition strewn with trials and tribulations.
Such men ran dogs together during even more tumultuous times in American history than we see today, and they always found their way to common ground. They are role models for a new generation of dogmen like me and my peers. They inspire us and challenge us towards the perfection of our craft. We love this place, its beauty, its mystique and the spirit of red clay. I’m still not sure what this trial and this culture really means to me, but I do know this: bobwhite quail move a little differently, and we respect them, and this place, this is somewhere between the truth and belief.