After two long years of planning, a blizzard the weekend prior to the start, a judge canceling five days before the start of the trial and the bird planter also being replaced due to a family illness, the Cocker National Championship finally began. It ran from October 17th through the 20th (2008) - and the weather couldn't have been any better. Montana is often referred to as the Last Best Place and she didn't disappoint us. It was Montana at it's finest: azure blue skies, purple Bridger Mountains looming above the courses, elk bugling in the background, geese, ducks and deer everywhere - along with aspen and cottonwoods in full autumn glory.
The events began with a Welcome Wagon dinner at the restored 1894 barn belonging to our hosts, Johnny and Kiku Hanes.
The first order of business on Saturday morning was the opening ceremonies. These included a welcome speech by Kiku Hanes, followed by the reading of the Sportsman's Code. Bill Kluchko's jazzy saxophone rendition of the Star Spangled Banner followed as Johnny Hanes and Larry Michnevich raised the American flag. By now, there were few dry eyes as the flag was silhouetted against a still inky blue-black morning sky and purple mountains. The guns saluted followed by a three hundred pigeon release! What a sight. Hurrah.
The first and second series were held on the Hanes farm. The weather was sunny and actually got quite warm by mid-day. But, the dogs did well and we were able to complete the first two series.
The courses followed three stream beds, which divided the 160 acres into three separate fields. These were named The Grizzly Stomp, Crane Dance and Elk Meadow. The courses accommodated a full 40 dogs before reusing any field.
That night was a banquet at a location some of us termed "a secret place", as it was somewhat difficult to find! While it was remote, it was well worth finding and offered a perfect venue for our evening. We enjoyed a magnificent array of hors d'oeuvres while a talented country music band played great music. The silent auction had some of the best offerings we've seen in years! And the food was delicious. The evening highlight was the drawing for the 1929 Parker shotgun which was won by Danae Steele! Another highlight was the presentation of the Bixby Award to Paul McGagh.
The gunning was great and this year we saw a new idea of combining two different dun teams and captains. Both groups did a great job and made some terrific shots! Jess Sekey captained the Cranefield Guns: John Wright, Chris Maxcy, John Dartt and Alan Roberts - while Dave Barto led his group with Don Murray and Don Wagner.
Without a doubt, the pheasants used this year were spectacular. Hats off to Karl Bear and his group for providing us with such great birds, all of which had tails and were strong fliers to boot. Great job!
The 2008 NCC Committee changed ranches for the third series, running in true pheasant cover. While the beats were much shorter than those we encountered in the first and second series on the previous day, they proved challenging and full of wild birds. The first dog, Spook, had more than four contacts when sent for a reasonable retrieve, that eventually proved to be too much for him to complete. It was a great run in true "hunting cover" and it was great to see our dogs progressively challenged.
The fourth series found us on the move, again! This time, we ventured into a mature aspen grove. These grounds, located the previous week due to cover damage caused by a two foot snow blizzard, were downright difficult and made an excellent test for selecting our championship dogs! Hats off to the planters for the great job they did, which must have been particularly difficult in this series.
The offering of these differing covers really showcased the different pace needed with true hunting dogs. The Hanes' property for the first and second was open grass and was lovely for the gallery, as it offered unlimited viewing. The third and fourth series were much less gallery-friendly, but they provided realistic hunting scenarios and the handlers who successfully completed these series must have felt great pride based on the difficulty of the cover.
Dinner that night was "on your own", but many of us just took the night to get ready for the fifth and water series. There were several folks camped at the Hanes' and they enjoyed another beautiful evening overlooking "Ross' Peak". Most of us awoke to the announcement of the eleven dogs called back to the fifth. We returned to the Hanes' property for the last land leg.
This time, the series work was held along the creek beds with only cock birds being shot - as would be done on a "days hunt", leaving the hen birds to fly away!
Again, a field trial series based on true hunting scenarios. Among so many great virtues of the Hanes property is the size and we were able to use virgin land for all but one dog, all following the creek. The dogs were required to hunt into the creek bed and then, up on top, illustrating a dog being willing to hunt not only open ground, but also woodlands - all on one beat. This series was easy to walk and provided easy visibility to all in the gallery.
The trial would not have been possible without the generous support and contributions from corporate sponsors and patrons. The committee would like to thank the following: Purina, Tri-Tronics, Organic Valley and Organic Prairie for food donations, Filson's for discounts on the Patron's gift, Sportsman's Warehouse, Big Sky Carvers for 50% off the trophies and a very special thanks to the Hanes for the use of their land, donation of the Parker shotgun, the Welcome Evening and all that they have done for the cockers. Very special thanks to the very hard working committee: Sue and Alan Wilson, Bob and Tawney Crawford, Dede and Robert Griffin, Olivia Steele-Mortimer, Larry and Anne Michnevich, Shaina and Jonathan Long, Mark and Bridget Mentel, Joel Ledbetter, Judith Strom, Leslie and Tom Donnelly, Bill and Katy Kluchko.
Without the generous support from multiple land owners, who kindly offered us the use of their lands, we would not have been able to offer such a variety of cover. Thanks to Tim Crawford and Kathy Hanson, Kiku and Johnny Hanes, Harry Wilmerding and Dave Richards.
Montana remains the Last Best Place... come visit us.