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How to Extend Your Hunting Season with the NSTRA

by Mark Roberts

It is the first weekend in May and my Britt has just found his first quail of the day. A kick at the brush encourages a single to rise. The shotgun barks and the bird drops. Ranger runs out for a nice retrieve. There is nothing quite like quail hunting over pointing dogs, is there?

The alert reader is agreeing while simultaneously wondering “May? Am I reading about somebody poaching?” Of course not! Poaching is unsportsman-like, illegal and can be very expensive. Instead, the dog and I are busy at an NSTRA field trial. Don’t tell Ranger though — he thinks we are hunting!

That is what NSTRA field trialing is all about: hunting. Last year when the seasons ended I was just not ready to put the gun up yet. It had been a great season with lots of birds but still the desire for just a bit more was there. I called Ed Orms, owner of a good-sized kennel operation in East Texas and the host to several NSTRA events each year, and started asking questions about field trialing. I knew I was in the right place when I told Ed that I was really only trying to extend the hunting season a little. “Son,” he drawled, “that’s what we’re all doing.” I am not an old-hand at this by any means, but it did not take long to realize Ed was telling the truth. You can extend the hunting season by several months by “hunting” at field trials. “That is what NSTRA is all about”, says president Wes Barr. “The prime objective of this association is to extend the enjoyment for the upland game hunter and his dog through organized field trial competition. If you have one bird dog or ten, whether you are an amateur or professional, NSTRA has something to offer.”

Yet, some are surely thinking of the negatives of trialing. “Trials are for all those high falutin’ dogs, with stylish points and having to curl their tails up just so.” I had those prejudices, too. Those impressions come because there is a myriad of trialing groups, all with different goals and ideas. With some organizations, “pretty” may count for something or even get a dog a title. In the NSTRA it is finding birds that counts, not beauty or style. Every bird found by your dog earns up to 100 points. An average find runs around 70-75 points. The extra points come when a dog really slams on a point, or nails a bird hidden in deep cover. That is not style, that is substance. We all appreciate seeing our dog racing across a field full tilt, and then suddenly stopping on a dime, head turned hard to the side, and frozen rock still. It does not happen every time in the field or in a trial, but just as we are extra pleased when we see such a point in the field, it should and does earn a few extra points in an NSTRA field trial. Again, and for emphasis: your dog can choose to point birds by standing on his head. That is fine with NSTRA, as long as he is consistent and he holds tight. It is not about style. It is about finding birds.

NSTRA Field Trials will not only extend your hunting season but keep your dog active year round.
Photo by: R. Michael DiLullo
“But they use pen raised birds. They don’t fly like wild birds do.” No, they do not. Nothing flies like wild birds. On the other hand, you cannot hunt wild birds in May (without being arrested), so why not take the next best thing? Organizers of field trials want their birds to fly and simulate wild birds as much as possible so they look for bird raisers who stir their quail up and do some flight pen training. The result? Quail that will usually jump quicker than you thought, and fly farther than you would have dreamed. Yes, I’ve seen some trial birds that didn’t exactly simulate their wild brethren so well, but they are the exception. Bad birds do not bother me too much, though. I am in the field, with my dog, carrying a shotgun. Do you have something better than that happening on Saturdays in May?

“Great, the birds fly. Then you shoot a starter pistol and go find another one. How is that supposed to be like hunting?” This is a common misunderstanding that could not be more wrong. Some field trial organizations do not actually shoot any birds. They flush, shoot a blank and move on. That won’t work for the NSTRA! Real shooting is part of this outfit’s name. NSTRA stands for National Shoot to Retrieve Association, and that means you shoot and your dog retrieves. You read that correctly. You shoot real shells at real birds. Now do you see why so many think it is like hunting? When that bird comes out, the adrenaline fires, your heart pounds, you swing the shotgun and forget very quickly about that bird having grown up in a pen. It feels like hunting!
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