Patience on the Fly
John Marsh liked his work, mostly. At age sixty-three, he worked as assistant dog trainer and hunt manager on Hopscotch Plantation, a Southwest Georgia spread owned by Mark Mason, the great grandson of its assembler. In 1890, that assembler was a robber baron of the Gilded Age who’d come from Cleveland to Thomasville, an early snowbird, to escape the harsh Cleveland winters. He’d discovered quail shooting and, using a local as straw man, bought up 30,000 acres from cotton farmers and turpentiners at $6 an acre. He’d built it into a shooting estate. Miraculously, it had survived in the family despite the ever-present threat of overspending, wrongheaded investment, divorces and estate taxes.
John had begun life as the son of a Yankee Plantation hand. His father had managed Hopscotch for Mark Mason’s father and grandfather. As a young man, John had decided he did not want to be a rich man’s employee. He’d elected instead the riskiest of endeavors, a for-the-public field-trial handler on the all-age bird dog circuit. He’d pursued that career with middling success over thirty years, then with a horse-fall injury gave it up for the current job on Hopscotch, obtained he suspected because of Mason family gratitude for his father’s long service.
He’d worked on Hopscotch seven years, adjusted to the “yes Sir, yes Mam” demands and the suffering-of-fools when green urban shooting guests showed up in Orvis togs with high-dollar doubles that in their hands were potential weapons of mass destruction — destruction of dogs, horses, mules, hands, fellow guests, and even the host. Remembering his father’s lessons from childhood, he’d quickly rekindled the skills required to manage the uninitiated on quail, dove, turkey, and duck shoots. It was the experienced but cocky SOB’s who thought they knew it all in the shooting field that truly worried John and his fellow hands. These types were constantly liable to unleash tragedy with one thoughtless swing of the barrels.
John Marsh had a second occupation for which he’d gained the nick name “Mr. Fix ‘Em.” Known when he traveled the circuit as a wizard at curing problem dogs, John now took a dog occasionally from a pro handler for rehabilitation.
Often a promising, or even an accomplished, field-trial dog developed a hole, a performance defect that made it no longer a contender. Dropping on point, blinking birds, unwillingness to back, gunshyness, bowing on point, running off, breaking at flight or at shot . . ., the list was endless. John often got calls from pros facing these problems asking John to take on a dog for remedial work. Three out of four he declined, and of those few he accepted many resulted in calls to the handler to come get his prospect. But the few John fixed kept alive his rep as master fixer.
His current patient was a small pointer bitch named Fly. A daughter of Funseeker’s Rebel out of a daughter of Miller’s White Powder, she’s been a phenomenal fall derby. Then something had changed her completely. She’d suddenly become crate bound — if you reached in the dog box to remove her she’d bite you — hard. And she refused to hunt. In short, she had become worthless, and her handler had come close to shooting her in the head and going home with her collar. But he knew her owner and his wife insisted that failed trial prospects be given a chance to live a life after field trials. It was Fly’s owner who approached John Marsh about taking her on.
When she arrived at the Albany airport in an airline crate, John knew better than to attempt to pull her out by her collar. Instead, he put her crate in a kennel run, opened the crate door, and left the run. In two hours, she came out for water and settled herself into the box at the back of the run. When at night fall John came back to the kennel, he ignored her, leaving a pan of food at the gate of her run. For a week he did not speak to her, leaving it to the clean-up man to feed and water her and clean her run. Then when she was accustomed to seeing him around the kennel, he began stopping at her run and, staying at the door away from her box, kneeling and sweet talking her, just a few words of kindness, after which he left the kennel area quietly.
After a week she came out of her box and crawled on her belly a few feet toward him. He did not move toward her, just continued to kneel and sweet talk. After two days of stopping mid-kennel and running back in her box, she crawled to John. He lay his hand on the surface, but did not reach out to her. Only when she had sniffed his hand and put her nose on it did he maneuver his fingers to scratch her nose. A few days more, and they were friends, with Fly greeting John happily at her kennel gate when he came to check on the inmates.
A week after that, she let him snap a check cord on her collar and lead her to his pickup, where she jumped in back and entered an airline crate. He took her to a hunting course, just the two of them. He released her in the truck bed and walked away in silence. She jumped to the ground, made a big cast, then came back to him.
“Good girl,” he said mildly.
He put a Garmin tracker on her, but no shock collar. She accepted it without reaction. He used it to watch her pattern, and was surprised when she didn’t point at known covey locations. He suspected she was finding but blinking the plentiful quail. He let her run a half hour, then walked back to his truck. He ignored her blinking without comment.
The next day he followed the same routine, but on reaching a KCL, he sat on a stump. She came back to him in fifteen minutes. He then returned once more to the truck.
For a week he followed this procedure. The following week, she pointed. When he saw her stationary on the Garmin, he walked to her, flushed her birds, then walked back to his truck without comment. She stayed on point five minutes, then followed his tracks to the truck. He put her in the crate and drove to the kennel.
The next day at 4:30, he rode horseback to the kennel and asked the kennel man to turn her out. She got in front of his horse and looked to it for where the front would be. Without whistle or call, he guided her to a hunting course and let her do her thing. She stood a covey after five minutes. He dismounted, flushed, remounted and reined his horse back toward the kennel. Again, she stayed on point five minutes, then tracked his horse back to the kennel. He was waiting to let her in her run.
“Good girl,” was all he said to her.
Next day at the same hour, he repeated the routine, choosing another hunting course. After he flushed her first covey, she whined as he walked to his horse. He smiled.
Instead of heading back to the kennel, he remounted and hit his whistle. She lit out down the course, hunting happily. On two more finds, he flushed and fired, and Fly stayed a statue. Then he put her in harness and roaded her back to the kennel. She pulled all the way, happily.
That night he called Fly’s owner.
“I think it’s time to put her back on the circuit,” John said. Her owner cross-examined John on what he’d done to help Fly. All he would say was, “I just tried to help her get her confidence back, let her know she would not be whipped.”
The owner mentioned a handler he was considering sending Fly to. John met that suggestion with silence. He would not suggest another handler to the owner.
Finally, the owner said, “How about you run her in the Continental Derby.” It was only two weeks away.
John started to decline, then said, “If she gets drawn on a day we hunt here on Hopscotch, I won’t be able to.”
“How about if I come ride with you when you work her, and if you cannot run her, maybe she will let me?” the owner asked.
John thought a minute, then said, “Sure.”
For the next two weeks, John and the owner gave Fly a short workout every other day just before dark, after John completed his regular work. She improved each time they put her down. The second week, John had the owner handle her and he scouted.
The Continental was drawn on Saturday afternoon before its Monday start, and the results were posted on the internet. Fly drew a brace that would likely run on a Hopscotch Plantation hunt day.
“Good luck to you and Fly. Call me after she runs,” John ended the call after he told her owner of the draw time.
Tuesday afternoon John felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket as he walked two guns up to a point. After the covey rise and while the retriever carried two birds back to the skinner on the hunt wagon, John returned the call. The voice on the other end was excited.
“Fly had three finds and a heck of a race. Despite of me, I think she may be in the money.”
“That’s good. She’s a real nice dog. I’m glad for you and Fly,” John said, and he meant it.
Author’s note: This story was inspired by a true story told to the author by Donald McCaig, an avid sheepdog handler whose current contender is a Border Collie from Scotland named Fly which on Saturday came first at a sheep-dog trial held at historic Tuckahoe Plantation in Goochland County, Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson’s father tutored the Randolph children. Donald McCaig is the author of Nop’s Trials, Jacob’s Ladder and Rhett Butler’s People, the authorized sequel to Gone with the Wind. He will shortly publish a memoir about his experiences preparing for and competing in the World Trials in Wales.