The Soggy Bottom Shootout ~ A Tribute to a Sportsman
During the 2010 running of the National Championship at Grand Junction, a group of us gathered at T. Jack Robinson’s Soggy Bottom Plantation in Northeast Mississippi near Rienzi. We were there to prepare Chinquapin Andy, co-owned by T. Jack and Ted Baker, for his appearance at Grand Junction. More importantly we were gathered to enjoy wild bird hunting, good dogs and horses, great companionship, and stories with germs of truth about the many characters and events of our sport.
As is often the case, Andy ran on a blue bird afternoon during which the quail at Ames were not available and was picked up about half-way through his three-hour heat. That evening, over dinner prepared under the supervision of Fred Robinson, the idea for a Soggy Bottom Shootout was conceived and planned. This is the story of that last hunt at Soggy Bottom for the 2009/2010 season, a celebration of the sport of quail hunting with good dogs and good friends; a celebration of the sporting life of a unique individual, a patron of the sport, a member of the Bird Dog Hall of Fame, a wonderfully generous friend, a sportsman, T. Jack Robinson.
T. Jack often compared a field trial to a stage performance; the handlers, dogs, and quail as the actors, the judges and gallery as the audience, and the grounds as the stage. Any good stage performance requires, in addition, an appealing plot and a talented director. The Soggy Bottom Shootout had all of these elements with T. Jack ably filling the role of producer/director.
The concept or plot of the shootout was that Fred Robinson, Joe Hicks and I would each provide our best dog for a final hunt at Soggy Bottom for the season. The hunt would be for a minimum of three hours. The dog judged to be the best performer would win a cash purse provided by T. Jack in a “winner-take-all” format. The only stipulation for the hunt was that when a dog pointed the other dogs would either be brought in for a back or would be held until the action was completed. The action to include finding and securing/retrieving birds killed over the point. The clock would be stopped during such activities to ensure a minimum of a three-hour heat for the dogs.
As anyone who has attended the Florida Championship in recent years can attest, T. Jack loved to add drama and challenge to the sport he loved so well and long. As the leading lights of the Suwannee River Field Trial Club, he and his long-time friend and co-conspirator, Ted Baker, have made the Florida Championship an event that transcends simply a field trial and has become the “can’t miss” event of the sport. The Soggy Bottom Shootout is a classic example of how T. Jack could take a simple quail hunt and transform it into an “event” that would produce for its participants a grand experience and lasting memories.
Characters ~ The People
The group gathered at Soggy Bottom that February included T. Jack as the host and his long-time friend Howard Brooks, also of Dayton, Tennessee. The two of them had shared many adventures during a sporting life spanning decades. The stories from those adventures, some versions of which could be told in polite company and some not, provided many evenings’ entertainment at Soggy Bottom over the years. The depth of their friendship was demonstrated by the family’s selection of Howard to deliver the eulogy at T. Jack’s funeral. He did so admirably. For the Shootout, Howard and T. Jack were the arbiters of the dogs’ performances and would select the winner. Howard also was one of the two designated gunners.
Fred Robinson is the farm manager for Soggy Bottom Plantation and for the Robinson holdings at Dayton Tennessee. He is T. Jack and Winnie Robinson’s oldest son and, as such, had the opportunity to accompany his father on many sporting adventures. The quality of that experience can perhaps be best appreciated by a comment attributed to Winnie when T. Jack took Miller, the youngest of four sons, to his first field trial. Her comment was “well you’ve ruined another one!”
Joe Hicks is the farm manager of Chinquapin Farm in Branford, Florida and is the developer and handler of Chinquapin Andy. He is the son of Pete Hicks and has a lifetime of unique experiences as a consequence. He shared with us, during evenings at Soggy Bottom, some of the stories of the colorful life of his father and of growing up in Bisco, North Carolina. Joe is a very congenial companion. Jadie Rayfield accompanied Joe. Jadie has years of experience in the field trial sport in South Carolina and North Carolina. Jadie owned Stateline Showdown, the sire of Chinquapin Andy and bred the litter that produced Andy. For the Shootout, Jadie was a designated gunner and occasional second scout. Fred Robinson, Joe Hicks and I were the dog handlers.
David Johnson was the designated scout for all three dogs. David is one of the greatest scouts in the history of the field trial sport. A superb horseman, David does his job in the unassuming manner of the best scouts, helping the dog show to best advantage without attracting attention. David always lends a helping hand to whatever task is required. The other supporting characters for the Shootout were Marty Lambert, resident foreman for Soggy Bottom Plantation and Kenneth “Monk” Smith.
Fred Robinson (2013 Florida Open All-Age Championship)
John Russell (2013 Florida Open All-Age Championship)
Howard Brooks and Joe Hicks (2013 Florida Open All-Age Championship)
David Johnson (2013 Florida Open All-Age Championship)
Characters ~ The Dogs
The main characters of the Soggy Bottom Shootout were, of course, the dogs; for Fred Robinson, Soggy Bottom Reward; for Joe Hicks, Chinquapin Andy; for John Russell, Hilltopper Duke Boss. Each of these are big, strong dogs developed not as gun or hunting dogs but as all age performers — each of them a winner in major circuit competition. Soggy Bottom Reward sired by Solid Reward is representative of the Robinson dogs, from a sire line of Endurance, Evolution, Redemption, Redemption’s Reward, Handsome Reward, and Solid Reward. Hilltopper Duke Boss is a grandson of Solid Reward in both the sire and dam lines. Chinquapin Andy through Stateline Showdown and Chinquapin Slam to Miller’s Chief on the sire line benefits from the Builder’s Addition influence through Chinquapin Flirt mated with Miller’s Chief. Each of the dogs were developed on wild birds on the prairies and at Soggy Bottom for Tom and Duke and the quail-rich Chinquapin Farm for Andy. Each was bred for endurance, to meet in good measure, the gold standard for all age performers — the three-hour heat.
T. Jack Robinson loved an all age dog. More important, he understood the nature of an all age performer and the Robinson dogs exhibited that understanding. He understood that the measure of all age class is not just how fast and how far a dog can run but much more. He knew that the important measures of class includes strength, power, courage, and intelligence. A dog requires strength to hunt through the varied cover conditions encountered in the quest for upland game… the rolling hills of the northern prairies, the high desert of the western states, the shinnery of the southern plains, the brushy and briary draws of the Midwest, the piney woods of the southern states. He needs power to endure and continue though marathon heats, heat or cold, mud and rain, courage to face any condition of environment or cover; to willingly go where lesser dogs would wilt; to exhibit boldness and independence not just in easy footing but through the habitat in which wild birds can be found. And he needs intelligence to go to logical objectives; to pattern in a manner to maintain contact to the handler; to go to the limits of the course but not beyond; to handle game under all conditions. T. Jack knew that the true all age performer is a rare jewel to be diligently sought and joyously celebrated.
The Robinson dogs were all age dogs. They were big, tough dogs bred to go the distance and more. They were invariably strong bird finders. T. Jack often said that you could breed Evolution to a cow and get a good bird dog. Redemption, Redemption’s Reward, Handsome Reward, Solid Reward et. al were all known for their ability to find birds. They were strong. Solid Reward was arguably the premier endurance dog of recent vintage, always able and willing to go the distance and the muddier the better. They were intelligent and trainable. The Robinson dogs contributed important qualities to the all age class.
Wild birds!…birds with inherited instincts for survival keenly honed by constant threat from predators…birds made elusive by integration into their environment for food and escape. T. Jack believed that wild birds were necessary for identification and development of great dogs. He understood that the ultimate measure of the all age performer is expressed by the ability to find game. Finding quail marked in location by use of feeders or other artificial means does not provide the sort of challenge necessary to identify and develop great dogs.
To have wild quail there must be suitable habitat. T. Jack well understood this and worked diligently to provide and improve the habitat on Soggy Bottom Plantation in order to have and enjoy native quail. The quail available for the Soggy Bottom Shootout were wild — they were there — they had to be found not simply pointed. More importantly, they had to be found in the variety of cover and weather conditions encountered during the hunting season of Northeast Mississippi — a suitable challenge to man and dogs.
Soggy Bottom Plantation was established in 1985 in Northeast Mississippi below Corinth near Rienzi. Northeast Mississippi is an area rich in bird dog history and lore. Throughout the history of the sport of bird dogs this area has consistently produced notable dogs, dog owners, and dog handlers. Certainly, a detailed description of the contributions from the area to the sport would be interesting but is far beyond the scope of this story. Names such as Nash Buckingham, Clyde Morton, Hoyle Eaton, Billy Morton, Martin Davis, Tommy Davis, and Randy Downs would be prominent in the telling as would dogs such as Riggins White Knight, Red Water Rex, Doctor I J and many others.
For those not familiar with Northeast Mississippi, this is country with an edge to it. Creek bottoms used extensively for row crops; soy beans, corn, wheat, and cotton, result in open areas in which a dog can stretch. Ridges covered in a variety of hardwoods and pine. Erosion ditches and draws with brush, briars, and honeysuckle cause challenges for horses and dogs. T. Jack was fond of a quote attributed to General Ulysses S. Grant during a movement between Ripley and Rienzi, “there sure are a lot of ditches in this country”. There sure are! The variety of cover and weather conditions produce challenges to measure the quality of a dog.
T. Jack was attracted to the Northeast Mississippi region through his friendship with Howard Brooks. Howard had established a quail hunting lease in the area and an association with Martin Davis. T. Jack accompanied Howard on several hunting trips to the area and encouraged Bill Rayl to take Builder’s Addition to the area in preparation for the 1980 National Championship. The proximity of the area to Grand Junction, Tennessee and the Ames Plantation was an additional attractant. When a tract of land became available in 1985, the foundation of Soggy Bottom Plantation was established. Subsequent acquisitions resulted in a holding of just under 3,000 acres.
Initially, much of the land purchased was rough, heavily wooded hills with brushy erosion ditches and draws leading to creek bottoms. It was difficult to simply ride through much of the area much less work a dog. T. Jack established a program of improvements that continues through the present. Heavily wooded area were logged, brushy area were cleared by dozer, annual burning encouraged weedy growth, food plots created feeding areas, ditch culverts provided crossings, year by year improvements in habitat and access were accomplished. Throughout, his vision was constant — a place for family and friends to enjoy quail hunting and other sporting activities, a place to identify, challenge and develop all age bird dogs. Throughout, the vision was constant — no shortcuts, just habitat development and improvement to support and maintain a population of wild birds in an area in which others rely on pre-release and feeder programs. Throughout, T. Jack was ever mindful of the need to challenge a dog’s courage, strength, and intelligence. When you worked dogs on Soggy Bottom, if your dog was seen too often on easy footing you would soon hear a familiar growl “get him off the path!”
Today, Soggy Bottom Plantation invokes memories of the greatest days of quail hunting in the upper south. Stands of hardwoods and pine interspersed with weedy fields overlooking open agricultural fields along creek bottoms provide a variety of challenges for the dog and feed and escape opportunities for the quail. Three to four acre food plots — T. Jack referred to these as bird gardens — with lespedeza, ragweed, and partridge pea, managed on a three-year rotation, provide favored feeding and nesting areas. Brushy draws, areas of blackjack oak, and briar patches provide physical challenges for the dog but sufficient open areas exist to allow ambitious coursing. Numerous culverts provide crossing points to eliminate ditches as obstacles. Copperhead Ridge, the Baby Cemetery, the Duck Pond, the Lakes, Turkey Bottom, Sweeney Hill, the King Place… these are among the favorite locations on Soggy Bottom. If your dog can properly handle the Charles Eaton tract then he is a sure enough “good one”. Attribution, Handsome Reward, Solid Hilltopper, Solid Reward, and Hilltopper Duke Boss are among the “good ones” to have proved their mettle on Soggy Bottom. Fred Dileo brought Funseeker’s Rebel to Soggy Bottom to prepare for the National Championship. Fred Robinson prepared Solid Reward for his several memorable performances at Grand Junction. This year, Joe Hicks brought Chinquapin Andy to Soggy Bottom to prepare for the Quail Championship Invitational. Soggy Bottom today is a testament to the vision of T. Jack. To have had the opportunity over the years to witness the unfolding of that vision is an experience to be treasured for a lifetime.
Cast away at 8:30 am, the dogs quickly settled into their work on a typical February day in North Mississippi — cold early but warming quickly. An all age dog is a finished dog, “broke” around game but also finished with regard to pattern, handling response, recognition of “birdy” objectives etc. Throughout the history of the sport it has always been easy to find dogs that would run far and fast. The challenge has been to find the true all age dog, the individual who could run far and fast and could also exhibit the other requisite qualities of a high class bird dog.
The Shootout was about all age dogs. It was at the same time a quail hunt and a competition among friends. The dogs were not “hacked” but instead were “sent away” to make bold, sweeping, independent casts. They were sent in search of birds, through the challenging habitat that is home to wild birds. If they simply sought the easy going, the open fields, the paths, they would not be successful. If they failed to exhibit style and happiness and enthusiasm for their work, they would not be successful. If they did not exhibit strength, courage, and endurance, they would not be successful. The Shootout was, in many ways, the epitome of the sport of bird dog field trials — no tricks — nothing artificial — just “show me what you got; let the best dog win.”
Quickly across the pond levee and through the first weedy hillside, the dogs were gathered for the road crossing, the first find at about 10 in the Odle bottom. Continuing on, the dogs making bold sweeping casts, heads high, tails cracking, responsive to the handlers but independent nevertheless… no pottering, no path running, no backcasts. On across the King place and onto the challenging Charles Eaton tract, the dogs continued in the manner begun, always to the front, always exhibiting style and strength. Howard Brooks later remarked that he could not remember seeing dogs more consistently to the front for such an extended period of time. Birdwork! Each dog found game throughout the morning — finds characterized by style, intensity, excellent location, bracemates honoring — no mistakes, no softness, no excessive cautioning. Birds downed and retrieved, good shots acknowledged, misses bantered. A quail hunt in the best manner… not about results but always about the experience.
The format called for at least a three-hour heat with the clock stopping during time required to find and retrieve downed birds. Endurance has always been one of the most important characteristics of the all age performer. Knowledgeable bird dog patrons have always recognized that the major endurance stakes; the Continental Championship, the Southern Championship, the National Free-For-All Championship, The National Championship, and the Quail Championship Invitational, are very important to identify the truly great all age dogs. The three-hour heat is the gold standard for endurance dogs. The format for the Shootout was intended to measure our dogs; Andy, Tom, and Duke against that standard.
Did they meet the standard? You better believe and in wonderful form! At 12:30 pm we crossed the road for the final portion of the hunt. Sent on, all three dogs exhibited willingness to continue hunting. All three with heads high and tails cracking. Each dog still willing to face the cover and not seeking easy footing. Each with courage and class passed down from Rip Rap through John Proctor, Muscle Shoals’ Jake, Air Pilot’s Sam, Fast Delivery, Riggins White Knight, Paladin’s Royal Flush, Warhoop Jake, Evolution, and all the others. Each with strength and determination created through breeding programs of enthusiasts such as Tate Cline, Lee West, Ferrel Miller, Jack Huffman, T. Jack Robinson and many others. Each with intelligence resulting from the developmental programs of Fred Arant, John S. Gates, John Rex Gates, Bill Rayl, Hoyle Eaton, Clyde Morton and all of the many trainers and handlers who devoted their lives to the development and exhibition of high class bird dogs. Each demonstrating in good measure the validity of the sport of bird dog field trials as a means of selecting desirable individuals for improvement of the breed.
At 12:45 pm, after 4 hours and 15 minutes of excellent hunting, with perhaps 30 – 45 minutes of “time-out”, on a piney hill just east of the plantation house, Duke provided the exclamation point for the shootout (I have to brag just a little). Standing just as proudly as he had on his first find with head up, tail up, intense, birds exactly where he indicated, motionless for the flush and shot… providing a picture etched into the memory of those present as so many of his ancestors have provided through the many decades of upland bird hunting with pointing dogs. A final find providing a fitting end for the Shootout in which seventeen coveys and a woodcock were perfectly handled.
Who won? We did. Each of us able to enjoy a sport that is almost uniquely American — upland bird hunting over high class bird dogs — a sport sadly in decline in our nation. Each of us able to share our love of the sport with good companions of like interest…and each of us able to benefit from the generosity of a good friend and sportsman, T. Jack Robinson. Which dog won? The judges, T. Jack and Howard, were experienced and astute judges, having judged championship events at the highest level. Each had been witness to many great performances by great dogs. After due deliberation and possibly libation, they ruled that it was appropriate to award equal firsts and split the purse. It was a fitting decision as Joe Hicks later said… “on that day all three of the dogs were champions!”
Joe Hicks and Fred Robinson standing with quail; Jadie Rayfield with Chinquapin Andy, John Russell with Hilltopper Duke Boss, David Johnson with Soggy Bottom Reward and T. Jack Robinson
To be able to hunt wild quail over high class bird dogs is an experience that only a relative few ever get to enjoy. Soggy Bottom Plantation exists as a quail hunting plantation through the love of the sport by a unique sportsman. His vision and perseverance transformed what was rough country of little value into a place where wild, native quail could exist, where high class bird dogs could respond to their genetic instincts. Soggy Bottom Plantation is a place where T. Jack could invite his friends and family to enjoy the sport he loved well and long. I was very fortunate to be among his friends.
The Soggy Bottom Shootout was a wonderful experience for the participants. On that day all of the elements aligned in such a way as to produce a lasting and special memory. The dogs performed at a high level throughout, the weather was enjoyable, the birds were available, even the shooting was pretty good. We did not know then that it would be the last quail hunt for T. Jack on Soggy Bottom. That fact makes the memories even more special.
Thanks to John Russell for recalling this wonderful story. T. Jack Robinson died on on June 25, 2010 at the age of 72. He was inducted into the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 2004. He will be forever remembered as a giver to this sport and his name associated with many great field trial champions.