What better way to start a summer morning than settling in for a conversation with Bob Cook about bird dogs while sipping coffee and listening to the call of Bob White Quail.
On this cloudy day threatening rain, Cook holds forth from his office overlooking the green hills and wide valleys of a private shooting club along the Yadkin River in Davie County, a two hour drive west of Raleigh.
Known as River Ranch Sporting Club, this is where some 40 members will hunt quail, pheasants, chukar and doves come fall and winter. The 500 acres also represent much more than a place to follow bird dogs afield. It is a club ground in the tradition, spirit and love of English Setters, Pointers and retrievers. Cook, manager of the club since it opened 14 years ago, is viewed as the creator of much of the upland sporting aura engulfing River Ranch.
At age 78, he feels the best days are ahead for bird dog field trialing and hunting. Cook owns a 10 week old Setter pup sired by Shadow Oak Bo, who made bird dog fame by winning back to back national championships at Grand Junction, Tenn., in 2014 and 2015. That was the first time in 112 years that an English Setter had accomplished such a feat. Bo also was the first setter to win at Grand Junction since 1970. Now Cook feels he owns a part of history.
“I may be living in a fantasy world, but I’ve never had this much enthusiasm and excitement over a litter of pups,” Cook said.
He traced pedigrees, studied talents and abilities before breeding his bitch, Brook, with the champion Bo. The result was a litter of seven without a runt.
“I could have sold 15,” Cook said. “The litter was so uniform in size and color. I didn’t pick out a pup to keep. I decided to take what was left. It didn’t matter because they all were so much alike. It was important to me to place the pups so I can keep track of each, watch them come along and develop.”
Cook named his pup after triple crown winner American Phaedra with the call name “Bo.” In another month or so he will start Bo’s training, much of which Cook says is “bringing out the dog’s natural ability. Ten percent of it is training. The rest natural potential.”
The key to bird dog training, Cook explained, is exposing the pups to plenty of birds and maintaining a calm demeanor.
“It takes a lot of patience, controlling your emotions,” he said. “Turn the pup lose and let him chase, catch and play with the birds. Put’em in thick cover and eventually fire a blank pistol over them. Before you know it, one of the pups will be pointing and the rest backing.
As the pups mature, Cook emphasizes obedience commands such as here and whoa. The crowning achievement is a bird dog that points, is steady to wing and shot and then retrieves.
“That’s real beauty to me. It’s magnificent and coupled with a big running dog that is the ultimate. It turns me on; that’s what attracted me to bird dogs,” he said.
Cook points to an old bird dog axiom as a rule to follow. “Fall in love with a dog’s performance, not in love with the dog. There’s much truth in that. We all have to be careful not to be kennel blind.”
At age 25, Cook experienced his first taste of bird hunting.
“When I was coming up, we hunted a lot of rabbits. I didn’t know much about quail. When I went bird hunting with a friend in the mid 1960s, I knew I had to have a dog. He had a red Irish Setter, an all-around dog. I thought he was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.”
Cook’s registered his first bird dog in The Field Dog Stud Book in the early 1970s. He was hooked and soon discovered field trials. After spending much of his adult life in biomedical engineering and building houses, Cook went into the hunting preserve and bird dog business 25 years ago.
“The fun thing about dogs,” he said. “Is you have good times and meet some great people. I never won a lot of field trials but I had a lot of fun. There’s just not anything better in life than fooling with dogs”
Cook has owned and trainer both setters and pointers but finds little distinction between the breeds.
“I see very little difference as far as athletic ability, I personally think a setter has a better disposition than a pointer and maybe is a little easier to train. When pointers dominated, some believed they had more endurance than setters, but that’s not true anymore. I just don’t think there is much difference ability wise.”
As for the future of the bird dog sport, Cook said, “I see the amount of participants and entries today and in the future the same as it was. The overall interest is still there and I’m optimistic it will be the same in 20 or 30 years from now.”
In the meantime, Shadow Oak Bo may make a third run at the national title. He automatically qualified after beating 75 other contenders. His offspring, Cook’s Bo and his litter mates, also may be well on their way to stardom when 116th running is held at the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tenn., in February of 2016.