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A Field Trial Friend Remembered

Michael William Stephens July 2, 1933-July 15, 2018

By Dr. Charles A. Hjerpe | Aug 07, 2018
Mike Stephens

An Introduction to “Mike Stephens, the Person”.

I recently received the following note, from Brad LaVerne, Sr., presently of Miles City, Mont., which sums up the life and character of Mike Stephens so succinctly that I want to start off my own tribute to Mike, who was my best friend:

“Mike will always be remembered as a contributor, a positive influence and a humble man of character. Mike left the sport better than he found it in so many ways. If you were short on entries come drawing time, the perennial question was asked, year-in and year-out: ‘Have you heard from Stephens yet?’

“Always a supporter, never a detractor, always a smile accompanied by a warm greeting. Mike loved, respected and enjoyed his dogs. They were his ‘mates’, never a vehicle-to-an-end. After a hard-fought battle to reach His Maker, May True Peace be his reward.”

Amen to that, Brad!

Mike Stephens’ social life revolved mostly around bird dogs, field trials and field trialers, especially after he retired from working as an airline pilot and navigator in July, 2003. During the last 45 years of his life, whenever he was not flying, he regularly attended most of California’s American Field-sanctioned pointing dog field trials, large and small, one course and multiple courses, open and amateur, shooting dog and all-age, sometimes judging, sometimes reporting, but usually just running his own dogs. From 2003 forward to 2014, he also regularly attended most of the summer amateur field trials held in Western Canada, Montana and Idaho.

Mike’s personal love of the field trial “game” had relatively little to do with the pursuit of personal fame or glory, or the thrill of competition. The simple truth was he ran dogs in field trials simply because he enjoyed watching his dogs enjoy themselves, and doing what they and their predecessors had been selected for and bred to do for hundreds of years, and because he enjoyed being engaged with people who loved bird dogs and horses as much as he did.

Mike was a good horseman, rarely, if ever, being dumped or bucked off, and fearlessly climbing back on and galloping to catch up with the gallery, after being dumped. Most of his “horse wrecks” resulted from his horses not watching the ground, and stepping into a badger hole and falling. I cannot recollect any instance in which Mike was ever significantly injured in a “horse wreck”.

I do, however, remember one frightening incident that occurred at Sounding Creek Ranch, Youngstown, Alberta, just a few yards from where Mike’s living quarters trailer was always parked. And I believe that it involved “Jose”, the last horse that Mike owned, but before he had owned him for very long. It was about 7:30 a. m, and I was outside of my trailer saddling up, with my back to Mike’s trailer, when I heard a commotion. I looked around just in time to glimpse what appeared to be Mike plunging downward, head-first at a 75 degree angle, and disappearing rapidly into some tall grass near his trailer, and Jose sprinting away, with stirrups flapping aimlessly.

I immediately looked for Mike, but saw nothing, because the grass around his rig was about three feet tall.  I walked over there slowly, hoping not to find what I was afraid I might find, and there lay Mike, face down, not moving, and appearing to be unconscious. When he eventually had recovered sufficiently to stand up, we found that he was missing several front teeth. That, however,  was not a sufficient excuse for Mike to take the day off from training. Instead, Mike rested for about fifteen minutes, then caught Jose, and we both went training, as if nothing had happened. I cannot recall what, if anything, Mike told me about why Jose threw him on his face that morning. But I did find out that I was training with a man who was a lot tougher than I ever was.

I do not ever recall Mike voluntarily saying anything laudatory or congratulatory about how any of his dogs, or any of my dogs, had performed, either in a training session or in a field trial stake. This is not to say that I never tried to “corner” Mike, and ask him what he thought about a particularly outstanding thing that one of his dogs or one of mine had done. Mike would never give me any satisfaction in that regard, because, in his mind, what was important was not how well the dogs had performed but, rather, how much fun the dogs had, and how much they appeared to enjoy themselves. However, Mike did enjoy winning trophies, but I think he liked them because they reminded him of a day during which one of his dogs had a particularly enjoyable “outing” that was also thoroughly enjoyed by others who had watched him/her perform.

Although outwardly friendly and gregarious, Mike was a fairly “private” person. He was never interested in arguing with anyone about anything, and he closely guarded his inner thoughts and opinions, lest he offend someone. He was definitely not a “social drinker”, and a single glass of red wine, with dinner, was always his limit. He did not relish beer or spirits and he never smoked.

During the 1970s, and to a lesser extent the 1980s, Mike would go out to bars in the evening with other trialers, and loved to entertain us by singing or reciting endless drinking songs and “limericks”, and he was, to some extent, the life of the party in those days. In recent years, though, not so much so.

As Mike grew older, his eyesight and his hearing both began to fail him. As good eyesight is key to handling dogs, judging and reporting, Mike used every medical and surgical intervention available to improve his eyesight. Unfortunately, his eyesight was only marginally improved by all of this, so during field trials as well as when training, Mike was very dependent upon others to tell him where his dogs were and what they were doing, although GPS helped out a great deal during training.

When he was speaking to someone about one of his dogs, Mike always used that dog’s “call name”, i.e., “Slick”, “Amy" or “Hoot”. However, when Mike was handling one of his dogs in a field trial or work-out, he always addressed the animal as “Nip”. I surmised that, in the heat of competition, he sometimes forgot the name of the dog he was running, so he decided to use the same name for all of them.

Back in the 1970s, Charlie Downs, an iconic setter aficionado, who lived in Santa Clara, Cal., formed a field trial club that he named “The San Joaquin Valley English Setter Club”, and it is still in existence to the present day. Mike joined this club early on, and was still a member to the day he passed away. Over a 45-year period, Mike attended nearly every one of its field trials, if he was able to, and he usually pitched in to help with the mostly unheralded and thankless jobs, especially reporting.

When reporting a trial for The American Field, Mike always signed off on it using his “nom de plume” or pen name, “I. M. Stuck”.

Mike was not the kind of reporter who got his information about the performances of the dogs by speaking with the judges, dog truck driver, gallery riders or handlers. Mike always rode every brace, and used a tape or digital recorder for recording his notes. And he was still doing this, while well into his 80s.

Although he actually hated doing it, he continued to report trials, probably because he knew that, “if he didn’t do it, in many cases, it would not get done at all.” I can recall many times watching him ride into camp, late in the afternoon, with shadows lengthening, and him appearing to be so stiff and sore and tired that he appeared barely able to dismount from his horse, without falling off.

When Mike and I got back from Canada, in the year that he fell asleep and wrecked his truck in Montana (I think 2011) Mike bought two brand new Ford pickup trucks. One was an F-450 for pulling his living quarters trailer, the other, an F-150, for local transportation (Mike, to the best of my knowledge, never owned an automobile). A summer or two later, Mike returned home from one of our annual summer Canadian excursions, to find that his almost new F-150 had been stolen, in spite of the fact that all of its doors had been locked, and that the truck itself was parked inside of a locked metal storage barn. No one was ever charged. Months later, Mike’s stolen truck was located and recovered, and Mike’s insurance paid for repairing most of the damage that had been done to it. As for myself, I have never been robbed, and have little fear or concern about being robbed, and have never locked my trailer except when I am in it alone at night, or when I am leaving camp to go to town.

Although Mike enjoyed the company of and dated women, he never married. Although we never discussed the subject, I suspect that Mike remained a bachelor because he didn’t think he could have a successful marriage, given the nature of his work and the long absences from his permanent residence that it entailed. Mike did have a long term relationship with a very attractive single lady who also worked many years for World Airways as a flight attendant, and they attended many “reunions” of ex-World Airways employees together, and frequently went on ocean cruises together, until quite recently. I remember one occasion when he brought her with him to a field trial.

Mike Stephens, most recently of rural Vacaville, in northern California, was born and raised in Madison, Wis. Mike’s father was a prominent Madison attorney and judge. His mother, a “home-maker”, enjoyed the distinction of living to be 100 years of age.

Mike was the youngest of three siblings, and there was about a ten-year gap between Mike and his two older siblings. Both his brother and his sister predeceased him by a substantial margin, and Mike is survived by a half-dozen nephews and nieces.

Mike grew up in a palatial home, located on the shores of Lake Mendota, a large lake within the city limits of Madison. Although Judge Stephens was a stern father who believed that “sparing the rod would spoil the child”, Mike experienced a “Huckleberry Finn-like” childhood: fishing, boating, swimming, hunting ducks, skating and playing hockey (and probably some “hooky”) with his friends on this lake, with minimal parental oversight of his activities.

Following graduation from Madison High School in 1951, Mike enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as a geology major and in the ROTC Infantry Program. He graduated in 1955 with a BS degree. During his years at UWM, Mike took several rigorous courses in meteorology, and over his lifetime he acquired an impressive amount of knowledge about the Universe, celestial bodies and “The Weather.” Also, while still enrolled at UWM, Mike acquired an interest in aviation and a license to fly small planes.

Not long after graduating from UWM, Mike was called to active duty as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry Corps, and was soon shipped to South Korea near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) where he served for eighteen months. Mike’s titular job was to discourage the North Korean Army from invading South Korea. His actual day to day assignment was to supervise base security and the apprehension of thieves who would often sneak across the DMZ at night from North Korea, and attempt to abscond with anything they could find that had resale value in North Korea, including scrap metals.

The Korean winters were brutally cold, and Mike was housed in buildings built almost entirely of huge stones, and lacked central heating. The heating of these structures was accomplished by scavenging firewood and building bonfires in the cellars of these buildings, so as to heat up the stone flooring, which in turn radiated heat to the upper floors of the buildings.

Following his honorable discharge from the Army after two years of active duty in 1957, Mike returned to Madison  for several years. Unfortunately for Mike, but fortunately for California field trialing, Mike was unable to find a permanent job, near Madison, that truly interested him, although he did utilize some of this time refining his aeronautical knowledge and experience, and qualifying to fly multi-engine aircraft.

Eventually, in 1960, Mike said goodbye to his parents, and he and a friend jumped into an old “jalopy” of an automobile, and set out for California to look for work and “make their fortunes”.

They settled in San Francisco, where they found an apartment for rent at a reasonable price. Mike then began looking for a job that involved flying airplanes, and was  fortunate to find such a job, within a relatively short period of time. Mike began work for a Bay Area based construction company, which was involved in industrial scale building projects that were scattered all around the West Coast, but mainly in California, Nevada and Arizona. Mike’s main job was to fly his employer and/or certain employees between San Francisco and these various job sites. And it required that Mike be trained to fly multi-engine aircraft.

At some point, this company went bankrupt, and Mike was laid off. Fortunately for Mike, though, it was not long before he landed another job as a pilot, in about 1965, this time flying really big, multi-engine aircraft for World Airways, an “industrial size” commercial airline that flew both passengers and freight, to places all over the World. During Mike’s tenure there, one of World Airways’ big “money makers” was flying muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, on their once in a lifetime “The Hajj” Pilgrimages, but they also flew a lot of cargo flights for the U.S. Military. There are relatively few countries in the World that Mike did not fly in and out of during his approximately forty years with World Airways.

In 1970, Mike purchased a 150-acre parcel of undeveloped, unirrigated sheep pasture on Fox Road in Solano County, located equally distant between Vaca-ville to the southwest and Dixon to the northeast, built a modest house there, and moved in. The name, Vacaville, translates literally from the Spanish to “cow town”. Later, Mike would also build a large metal hay barn-garage, and a large kennel building with a one-room living quarters within it. Eventually, as he acquired more horses and dogs and needed considerably more help in caring for them, especially when he was away flying, Mike moved into the kennel building himself and gave the use of the house to “semi-permanent animal care-takers,” all of whom were retired field trialers themselves or members of their families.

The first was Bob Fitzgerald and his wife Bernice, followed by Frank Kasparek’s daughter, Angelica Linbert, who has now been living there for 22 years.

Mike continued to fly for “World Airways” until reaching the age of mandatory retirement for airline pilots, which is 60, in 1993. However, he continued to fly for World Airways for ten more years, but as a navigator, rather than as a pilot, eventually retiring completely in July, 2003, at the age of 70.

From the time that Mike first acquired his Dixon property, all of the training and conditioning of his dogs that he did for himself took place on this property, from foot or from an ATV. So, except when he went to Canada, or to a field trial, none of Mike’s dogs would ever see him on a horse, as he considered it excessively hazardous to use horses for training on his own property. This was because his shallow soils were poorly drained, under-laid by an impervious layer of hard-pan clay, and cross-laced with water filled ditches and pot-holes, to the extent that it was quite hazardous for horseback riding, especially during the winter months.

Nor did Mike usually train with game birds. Except for the two months in the summer when we went to Canada, Mike’s dogs, while at home in Dixon, rarely saw a game bird or a horse, except at field trials, as the bulk of the breaking and training of his dogs was accomplished on foot or on an ATV, using domestic pigeons and electronic bird launchers. Several years into our informal field trialing partnership, I did talk Mike into using some bobwhite quail in his bird launchers, but he only used them just before a planted bird field trial.

Although Mike did most of the routine field trial preparation of his dogs by himself, he did, usually, have his young dogs broken and polished for 6 to 12 months by a professional dog trainer, as they reached 12 to 18 months of age, after which he did all of the field trial preparation of his dogs by himself. Mike used Max Holland as a trainer until Max retired in about 1999 (Max’s home and kennel were located only about 3.5 miles from Mike’s home and kennel, as the crow flies). After Max retired in 1999, Mike began using Mike McGinnis of Baker City, Ore., until about 2010, after which McGinnis quit training dogs for the public.

I first became aware of Mike Stephens’ existence from Max Holland, during the mid- to late-1960s, when I had a couple of bird dogs, but before I had a place where I could keep a horse.

On Saturday mornings, I would often load up a dog or two and drive down to Max’s kennel in rural Dixon, transfer my dogs to Max’s truck, and together, with Max driving, we would proceed to Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, where we would work dogs from horseback on wild pheasants, using Max’s horses. Every Saturday, an hour of two before dawn, we would load up two German Shorthaired Pointers, and I would always ask Max “who do they belong to?” Max would always reply “a pilot”. It would be several more years before I would eventually find out who “the pilot” was or would meet “the pilot”.

In those days, Mike was an avid pheasant hunter who drove up from San Francisco on weekends and hunted on a large ranch and “pheasant club” upon which the Sacramento International Airport would eventually be built.

In those days, Mike often hunted pheasants, ducks and doves, but by the time that I began training with him, in 2004, he no longer had much interest in shooting anything that was not harassing his pigeons. During eleven successive Januarys (2005-2015) we drove down to Arizona together, and camped out on the desert, near Oracle, in our field trial rigs, and spent four to five weeks hunting Gambel’s quail from horseback.

I am guessing that it was in the mid- 1970s when I first began to notice Mike attending field trials and got to know him, but we did not become well acquainted until the 1980s. From 1978-1982, Max Holland spent summers training dogs near Veteran, Alberta, on Stan Eck’s old training grounds near Kirkpatrick Lake, between Coronation and Veteran, and he would take Mike’s dogs with him. During those five years, during his month-long summer vacations, Mike would drive up to Max’s camp, hauling his own horses and living in his own camper, and observe Max working his dogs on chickens and Huns. Almost twenty years later, in about 1999, when the old Robertson training camp near Youngstown, Alberta, became available, Mike jumped at the chance to buy the ten-acre property, located only about 30 miles south of Veteran, in a five-way partnership with Joe Brinster, Neil Mason, John Mandell and Bob Henneman. The property was subsequently christened “Sounding Creek Ranch,” by Joe Brinster. Sounding Creek, itself, borders the southern edge of this property.

In 2004, a year after Mike retired, and ten years after I retired from U.C. Davis, I began going up to Mike’s “Sounding Creek Ranch” with him, and spending a couple of months up there, training and attending summer field trials together.

We would leave California on the day after my wife’s birthday, on the morning of July 25, and spend two full days driving to get there. It was quite a taxing journey, driving for about 16 hours per day for two days.

During one trip, in about 2012, Mike fell asleep at the wheel, while crossing the Teton River on IS-15, south of Conrad, Mont.,  and totaled his truck. Fortunately, he did not do much damage to himself or his trailer. We were not far from Great Falls where Glenn and Shawn Conover live, and Glenn was able to come to our rescue. He hauled Mike’s trailer to his ranch, Shawn fed us, and Glenn found a used replacement truck, over in Lewistown, about 100 miles east of Great Falls, and it had the right trailer hitch and was capable of pulling Mike’s trailer. So, within about five days, Mike was able put everything that was on the floor of his trailer back where it belonged, we had obtained a replacement truck, and we were soon on our way to Youngstown, again. During those five days, we drove around Great Falls a bit, and got to see the Falls of the Missouri themselves, where Lewis and Clark had parked their “pirogue” for almost a year, during 1805-1806. Thanks again, Glenn and Shawn! Mike and I will both be forever indebted to you, for your kindness, expertise and hospitality, during our hour of desperate need!

After arriving at Youngstown, we would train every day, seven days per week, beginning at 7:00 a. m. sharp, and ending when our work with the dogs that were scheduled for that day was done, usually sometime between 10:30 a. m. and 1:00 p. m., somewhat depending on how hot it became that morning, how many dogs were scheduled for work, and how long we chose to work them. Mike would usually bring five to six dogs, and I would bring six to seven. We always trained right out of camp, returning to camp after each brace to pick up the next brace of dogs. Always working together, we would run two to four braces of dogs each day (about half our dogs) one brace at a time, with each dog getting a day of rest between workouts. When both of our dogs had experienced sufficient satisfactory bird work, we would quit with that pair of dogs after an hour, and go back to camp and get two more dogs. If bird work was scarce, we might stay out for up to two hours with a brace of dogs. Generally we expected to contact from two and six sharp-tailed grouse and the occasional Hungarian partridge, per dog, during each brace, but we occasionally went a brace without bird contact. When that occurred, we knew it was a signal for us to give that area at least a couple of days of rest, and to train someplace else for several days.

Our first break from this exciting drudgery would be toward mid-August, when we would drive 500 miles down to Circle, Mont., for the Region 14

Amateur Shooting Dog Championship and Derby Stake, stay about a week, and then drive back to Youngstown for another week or two of training. We would then hop over to Mortlach, Sask., a mere 100 miles or so, for the National Amateur All-Age Chicken Championship and Region 14 Amateur All-Age Championship. After that, it was back to Youngstown again for another week or two of training, before breaking camp and driving down to American Falls, Ida., for the Idaho Open Shooting Dog Championship and the Region 9 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship, arriving there about September 23. When that trial had been concluded we would head for home, arriving there about October 1. However, in 2014, we went to Travis Gellhaus’ grounds for the Region 14 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship, after Mortlach, and from there to Austin Turley’s home near Molt, Mont., and trained there for several days before driving down to American Falls.

Mike’s Dogs I don’t remember much about Mike’s early field trial dogs, but most all of their names included the Kennel prefix “Waygoing”. By the early 1980s, Mike had quit owning shorthairs and was evaluating a couple of setters that placed occasionally in small trials. From 1985 on, he kept only pointers. During the course of Mike’s field trial “career”, he owned a total of 22 dogs that were registered with the Field Dog Stud Book. Three of these dogs had no recognized field trial placements. The remaining 19 dogs won a total of 189 recognized field trial placements, among which were eight dogs that won a total of 24 championship placements: 10 championships and 14 runner-up championships. These eight dogs and their championship placements are shown below:

(1) Waygoing Amy, PF (3 SD Championships and 3 Runner-up SD Championships)

(2) Waygoing Hoot, PM (1 SD Championship and 5 Runner-up SD Championships)

(3) Waygoing Slick, PM (3 AA Championships and 1 RU AA Championship)

(4) Waygoing Ramblin Slim, PM (2 SD Championships and 1 Runner-up SD Championship: (Winner of the National Amateur Chukar Shooting Dog Championship (1991); Winner of the Northwest Open Chukar Shooting Dog Championship (1991); and Runner-up in the Pacific Coast Open Shooting Dog Championship (1991)

(5) Waygoing Maggie, PF, Winner of the Region 12 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship (2005) and Runner-up, Region 14 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship (2005)

(6) Waygoing Fergie, PF, Runner-up, West Coast Open Shooting Dog Championship (2000)

(7) Waygoing Speck, PM, Runner-up, Region 14 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship (2003) and:

(8) Waygoing Ripster, PM, Runner-up, California Open All-Age Quail Championship (2012).

Mike’s best and most successful dog was, probably, the last one that he acquired: 3x SD Ch. Waygoing Amy. In 2009, Sheldon Twer bred his good field trial pointer bitch, Ch. Super Express Jude, to Ch. Kelly Talk’n Smak, and sold two of the pups, a male and a female, to Bob Tennant, with the understanding that Sheldon would raise and train them.

When they were about two years of age in the summer of 2011, Bob called me on the phone and offered to give me the bitch. I had plenty of dogs at that time, and one of them was Sand Creek Holly, which I believed was destined for greatness. So I declined the offer (big mistake) and asked Mike if he would be interested in acquiring Bob’s pointer bitch. He was, he did, and he named her Waygoing Amy. She turned out to be the best shooting dog that Mike had ever owned, winning sixteen recognized placements, including six shooting dog championship placements.

She was a very good bird-finder with a great nose, tremendous heat tolerance and stamina, carried herself well, and had nice style and intensity on point. You could not beat her with another dog, except when she didn’t find birds, which almost never happened in planted bird trials. However, she would sometimes go birdless in wild bird trials or beat herself in planted bird stakes, by sitting down on point, but only when Mike took too much time to find and flush her birds.

Another of Mike’s outstanding shooting dogs was Waygoing Hoot, a big, strong, rangey, white, liver and ticked pointer male with 31 recognized field placements. Hoot was sired by Joe Brinster’s 3x all-age champion Canadian Brute. Hoot had liver circles around both eyes which gave him an “owlish” appearance, hence his name.

Hoot was always extremely fast and wide, a good bird-finder with a great nose, good stamina, and was extremely stylish when running, pointing and backing. He also had great eyesight, and would sometimes back another dog from several hundred yards away. The only downside to Hoot was that he often ran an all-age race for the first 15 to 20 minutes, before dialing down to a conventional shooting dog orbit. Hoot won 31 field trial placements for Mike, while winning six shooting dog championship placements including a really memorable one where he won the 2015 Region 12 Amateur Shooting Dog Championship at Kingman, Ariz. Hoot ran in the last brace of the stake on the second course, had strong ground coverage, and pointed about six birds, in a stake in which most other dogs were lucky to find any. During the final 10 minutes, he was missing, and after time was called, the judges and the entire gallery spent a half hour (or more) looking for him. He was eventually found, back behind on the course, still pointing birds, and down in a deep gully, near where he had last been seen, and had been over ridden, because his scout (me) had failed to look hard enough for him in that location. Hoot was also runner-up five times.

Mike’s best ever all-age dog was Waygoing Slick, with a total of 14 recognized placements. Slick was a big, powerful lemon-ticked pointer male that won three all-age championships. Slick was also runner-up in the Pacific Coast Open Derby Championship (2008). Slick, sired by Mike’s own Waygoing Nick, was a huge running dog that ran mostly to the front, but would sometimes ignore Mike and run in almost any direction but the front, but only during the first 15 minutes. After that, he was (usually) huge to the front for the balance of the hour, and you could not lose him.

Slick loved Mike, and when Mike would quit yelling, Slick would get worried and would, usually, come back to the gallery to look for Mike. I scouted Slick just about every time he ever ran in a field trial, and he was so fast that there was no way I could run him down, if he was not going where I wanted him to go, nor would he usually pay any attention to me. The only thing I could do with him was to attempt to keep him in sight, if possible, in case he pointed. In training at Youngstown, however, Slick would not always go with Mike, and he might take off in any direction in which he might remember having found some birds in the recent past.

Mike was always afraid of ruining a dog by excessive or excessively rough correction, and seldom administered even the mildest of rebukes. Mike was even reluctant to correct his dogs for chasing birds or for not coming when he called them. If he decided that a dog needed correction, he would set his Tri-Tronics electronic shock collar transmitter to the lowest possible setting, and then “nick” the dog, usually once, occasionally, twice. And he would never whip a dog, or jerk them around on a rope, or even raise his voice to them. This drove me crazy, but, who was I to argue this point, as his dogs always seemed to beat mine more often than mine beat his. One advantage that Mike had over everyone else was that his dogs truly loved and trusted him, and he spent countless hours with them, grooming and petting them and cleaning their teeth. I once tried to explain to Mike that scaling a dog’s teeth is medically useless, unless it is extended to below the gum line (which is impossible to do without general anesthesia). His dogs just lay quietly on their sides, while Mike worked for hours on their teeth, as they loved and trusted Mike to do anything he wanted to do with them. They knew that he would never purposefully (or even accidentally) hurt them. Another thing Mike would NOT do is to handicap his bigger running dogs, by having them drag a check cord, or attaching bungie cords to their collars to slow them down and keep them in sight, in order to avoid any unseen and uncorrected misbehavior on game birds.

One uncorrected fault that Slick often exhibited during training at Sounding Creek Ranch was “playing” with his birds. He would crawl under a fence, run off by himself, refuse to come back, and then go find some “chickens” which he would point. After a few minutes, he would creep up on them until he caused them to flush, and they would often fly only 50 to 100 yards and pitch back down. After awhile, Slick would then creep up and point them again and crowd them and flush them again but not chasing them, until Mike would, finally, come along and take him on.

I was scouting Slick in the 2013 National Amateur  Chicken Championship at Mortlach, Sask., laying back about 300 yards behind the gallery on the first course, and Slick was doing a great job, staying well ahead when seen, and showing infrequently but regularly and always in front. About 45 minutes into the brace, I saw Slick pointing near a big sand hill bluff, 400 yards to my left. I raised my hat and called point repeatedly, but no one could hear me because the wind was blowing so hard. After a while, Slick disappeared from view, so I rode over there to see what was going on. What I found was that Slick was “playing” with a small covey of chickens, and they flushed and flew out of sight, after which Slick stopped to flush, as I watched. So I rode over to within fifteen yards of him, and with my horse facing in the same direction that Slick was facing, and with Slick on my left, I whoaed him. And because he was still looking “high and tight”, I raised my hat, gambling that some of the birds from that covey might still be present.

As I did, a judge, Mike, and a few gallery riders came charging over. As they were coming, with Slick styled up nicely on my LEFT, a small covey of chickens flushed from fifteen yards to my RIGHT, a location which Slick was not pointing toward, and where Slick could not possibly have scented them, because of contrary wind direction. But the judge DID see those birds leave, but probably could NOT see exactly where they had left from. Unfortunately, there were few birds on the courses that summer, no other dogs had pointed any, and the judges were looking hard for a big running broke dog with birds, and they convinced themselves that they had finally found one. I did not try to talk them out of it by explaining what I had seen,  deciding to say nothing, and let them figure it out. Slick finished well and, at the conclusion of the running, he was awarded the championship title.

I did not explain to Mike what I had seen, until about a month afterward, and we were back in California. At that time Mike was so excited about Slick having his photo on the front page of the Christmas Issue of The American Field, that he appeared to pay little heed to what I was telling him about his dog’s bird work, or, perhaps, he was just not willing to discuss that subject. As (bad) luck would have it, three months later, when the Christmas Issue finally arrived in the mail, there was no photo of Slick on the cover. Also absent were the customary photos of any other field trial winners. To Mike, up there in Heaven, I want to say this now: “It was not my fault that Slick’s photo did not appear in The Field, Mike! I have never told this story to anyone, except you . . . until now, when no one else still cares about what happened that day at Mortlach!”

In Conclusion

When Mike went to small, one-course, 30-minute field trials which had low entry fees, he always ran every dog he owned, regardless of how “sorry” they might appear to be to other handlers. In addition, Mike never sold or gave away or euthanized any of his dogs that were not competitive. He would euthanize an incurably sick dog, but never a healthy one. Every dog that entered his kennel was always assured of unconditional love and free room, board, medical and dental care and field trial entry fees for the rest of their natural lives, plus a decent burial at the end. So, how cool is that if you’re a bird dog?

Mike continued to regularly attend and compete in field trials, through his 85th year of life, although skipping the final event of the 2017-2018 California trial season, the Bay Area Club’s Reno extravaganza in April. By then, he was down to three dogs: “Amy” was  nine years old and “not feeling well”, and littermates “Pink” and “Black” were five years old and still not broke.

In mid June, Mike called me to inform me that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and that his nephews would be coming to California to become familiar with and assist with the liquidation of his assets, assist with final arrangements for his animals, and to accompany him back to Texas, where he would enter hospice, whenever that seemed to be appropriate.

Before we ended our call, we agreed that I would call him once each week, as long as he still felt well enough to talk with me. We spoke on the phone just two more times, and not at all after he arrived in Houston.

Mike is survived by his deceased older brother’s and sister’s children and their children, many of whom live in Texas, and it was them to whom Mike turned for assistance and advice, as his final days approached.

By July 10, Mike was in hospice in Houston, but too sick and exhausted to speak with me on the phone when I made the weekly call that I had promised him that I would make.

He died five days later on Sunday, July 15, surrounded by some of his deceased brother’s and sister’s children, and some of their children, all people who had come to know and admire Mike, and even, in some cases, to love him, but no more than did many fellow field trialers and dog people who also knew, admired and loved Mike.

Mike was stoic and conservative in nature. He was not at all religious in any of his revealed thoughts or in his behaviors, and he did not want folks “making a big fuss over him”, as evidenced by his request that there be no funeral services for him. Nevertheless, I hope that Mike will not be too greatly offended, if I choose to imagine him silently reciting “The Cowboy’s Prayer,” as he, in the words of President Reagan after the Challenger Disaster, “slipped the surly bonds of earth to Touch the face of God.”

 

The Cowboy’s Prayer

Lord, I reckon I’m not much just by myself.

I fail to do a lot of things I ought to do.

But Lord, when trails are steep and passes high,

Help me ride it straight the whole way through.

And when in the falling dusk I get that final call,

I do not care how many flowers they send.

Above all else, the happiest trail would be

For YOU to say to me, “Let’s ride, My Friend.”

The End

 

Editor’s Note. Dr. Hjerpe’s tribute to friend and fellow field trialer Mike Stephens is more than an obituary notice of Mike’s untimely death, and as such is given considerable editorial space to highlight a man’s enjoyment of his dogs, participants in the field trial pastime and the sport itself.

Remembrances (1)
Posted by: John P Lockhart | Aug 11, 2018 19:41

We remember Mike very well from Sunnyside and other trials and on several occasions  Marilyn especially scouted for him. It was well known that he did not see very well but the funny thing was the dogs be they all age or shooting dog required very little scouting. They always knew where he was and came to the front wether he saw them or not. All we had to do was say “ Mike the dog is at the front”. He loved them and they loved him and that is as much as all of us could hope for. Ride on Mike and your Waygoing dogs at the BIG Field Trial

Pat and Marilyn Lockhart



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