Gladwin Field Trial Area earns its top-dog reputation

Tired dogs, their handlers and judges return to their trucks after running a course.

October 4,2012

Michigan's extraordinary natural resources are so bountiful statewide that sometimes residents can take for granted the things that make outsiders ooh and ah. That may just be the case with the Gladwin Field Trial Area.

A 4,940-acre tract nestled in the Gladwin State Forest in the northwest corner of Gladwin County, the field trial area looks like an ordinary patch of north woods, but is known across the northern states as one of the country's most outstanding field grounds for cover dogs - dogs that work grouse and woodcock. Unlike most field trial stakes, which are held in grasslands with planted birds, cover dog trials make use of natural forested habitat with dogs trying to find and point wild birds. Tired dogs, their handlers and judges return to their trucks after running a course at the Gladwin Field Trial Area. (Image on the right.)

"The grounds are unique," said Roger Johnson, president of the Beaverton Grouse Dog Club, one of five groups that use the area to hold their events. "There are two trout streams, four lakes and it's rolling ground, kind of hilly, especially the eastern part of the grounds.

"It's a different venue, set aside as a field trial area nearly a century ago."

Established in 1916 for the express purpose of providing a place for field trial enthusiasts to run cover dogs, the area is managed largely with grouse and woodcock in mind.

Tom Fruchey lets his dog take the lead on a Gladwin course as a judge looks on.

"In the cover-dog world, this is the number one venue in the country," said Bob Wheelock, who wears two hats - president of both the Michigan Amateur Field Trial Association and the area's grounds association, which maintains the courses. "This place is special."

The field trial area includes 14 courses that are set up for dogs to run in about 30 minutes each. At trials, the dogs are released in pairs and they run consecutive courses, giving them an hour on the ground. The dogs find and point birds and, when the birds are flushed, the dog handlers fire cap guns to show that the dogs are holding steady to wing and shot. No birds are killed; the grounds are off-limits to bird hunters, though deer hunting is allowed here.

Cover-dog field trials are only run in northern states - from New England to Minnesota (and up into Canada). Unlike the bulk of field trials, which are held all over the country and where dogs look for quail, cover-dog events are designed for closer-working grouse/woodcock dogs. Dog handlers walk with their dogs at these events, instead of riding horses, as they do at most field trials.

At cover-dog events, only judges ride horses.

Bruce Barlow, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who oversees the area, said three DNR divisions - Forest Resources, Parks and Recreation and Wildlife - have a part in managing the grounds, but Wildlife takes the lead because of the emphasis on grouse and woodcock.

A thirsty dog stops for a drink of water midway through a Gladwin Field Trial Area course.

"Timber management is on a shorter cutting cycle than other areas to keep more young aspen on the ground," Barlow said. "The field trialers have a great respect for this area, for the traditions and history here.

"I kind of feel the same way."

Wayne Fruchey, a 77-year-old retired grocer whose father was involved in field trialing at the area in the 1920s, has high praise for the DNR's management of the area.

"In the early '60s, everything was pole timber and you could see the dogs running, but to get a bird find in there was pretty tough," he said. "The DNR came up with a cutting program and within 10 years we started seeing birds.

"There were a lot of people who were upset about (the cutting), but it's really improved our grounds. We were fortunate to have biologists who understood birds."

Because much (though not all) of the original land came into DNR ownership through tax reversion, the department has been able to make rules that allow the field trials to go on without interference from other recreationists. For instance, deer hunting does not begin until Nov. 15 - opening day of firearms season - after the field trial season has finished.

Tom Fruchey and Dave TerHaar release their eager dogs at the start of a course.

"Trapping is restricted, too," Barlow said. "Only beaver and otter trapping are allowed and the season begins later and ends earlier so they're not out trapping during the field trials."

The area had a history of horseback riding by locals and, at one point, word got out in the horseback-riding community that it was an excellent riding area. There were some conflicts with horseback enthusiasts who were riding during trials, interfering with the events.

"The Natural Resources Commission restricted horseback riding to one section that is the least important to trialers," Barlow said. "In the last couple of years it hasn't been much of an issue."

Dave TerHaar, an Allegan manufacturer whose English setter Elvis won a national championship at the Gladwin venue last year, said there's no place in America that compares to these grounds.

"In terms of number of birds, the no-hunting rules and the connectivity of the course, this is the best course in the country," he said. "I guarantee it."

Field trials begin in late March or early April, run until the quiet period in early July, and then pick up again in August and run through October, when there are dogs on the grounds almost every day, Wheelock explained. The area hosts 13 events every year, including national grouse and woodcock championships every few years.

Wayne Fruchey and his son, Tom, hold a photo of Wayne's grandfather from the 1960s.

Wheelock said $4 of every entry fee is earmarked for grounds maintenance and improvement. The Michigan Amateur Field Trial Association owns machinery (a heavy-duty mower, chain saws, etc.) to maintain the pathways at the courses and has constructed a fence along one side to keep dogs from running out onto the highway.

Field trials are headquartered out of Alibi Hall, an old barn that serves as meeting grounds and meal hall during events.

The Gladwin Field Trial Area is a place rich with tradition and history. Year after year, it draws people from all over the country, and for good reason. Handlers say the courses are top-notch, and watching beautiful dogs work the courses is quite a sight to see.

The DNR website has more information upcoming clubs' trial dates at the Gladwin Field Trial Area. To learn more about the Michigan Amateur Field Trial Association, visit coverdog.blogspot.com .