There's much to see and do at the Wildlife Expo. There are more than 50 seminars on topics ranging from mules and Texas horned lizards to bats and bluebirds.
There are also dogs: bird dogs, squirrel dogs, retrievers, coon hounds. No beagles this year, however, which is a little disappointing. It's a hoot watching beagles chase rabbits.
The dog seminars and demonstrations are perhaps the most popular of all at the Wildlife Expo, because who doesn't love dogs? Hunters do for sure.
Oh, they aggravate us. They cost us thousands of dollars in vet bills and dog food, but they are our hunting companions. When the tailgate is dropped, they are always excited and eager to go.
Just take a few minutes and talk to some of the dog men who will be showcasing their breeds at the upcoming Wildlife Expo. You will quickly understand that for them, the hunts are not about the quail or the ducks or the coons, but about the dogs.
There is a line in Old Yeller about one good dog being worth several good men. Michael Bergin of Yukon loves the dog like the one described in Old Yeller because that mongrel was the kind of dog from which mountain curs were born.
Mountain curs are great squirrel dogs. They are an American breed that developed out of necessity on the American frontier and in the South.
These medium-sized, stocky mountain dogs were an all-purpose dog, used to tree game for fur and meat, work and round up livestock and guard the homestead and gardens.
“It really wasn't a ‘breed' of dog,” said Bergin, who is conducting a seminar on squirrel dogs at the Wildlife Expo. “It was more of a ‘type' of dog that happened to excel on these homesteads. These were the dogs the poor people had, the mountain people had. They were dogs that could hunt and guard and survive whatever conditions they faced.”
In the late ‘50s, about the same time Old Yeller was published, a group of men who cared about these historic dogs began working to preserve them. They wrangled up about 200 of these types of working dogs and formed the mountain cur registry.
Today, mountain curs are primarily used by sportsmen for hunting small game like squirrels and raccoons.
“You can really tree a lot of game with a good cur, because they are natural hunters that adapt well to hunting the type of game you want them to hunt,” Bergin said. “They are often silent on track, meaning they don't bark until they are right under the game animal in a tree, and that may give them some element of surprise.”
“I have seen thousands of dogs on point,” said Wade Free, owner of Gun Dog Kennels in Sharon. “To this day, every point is still like the first one. It never gets old.”
Free loves all dogs. He owns a Chihuahua, a Jack Russell and Labradors. But it is his bird dogs, English Pointers and German Shorthairs, that he is most passionate about. He was hooked at an early age on quail hunting.
“I have been messing with bird dogs since I was a kid,” Free said. “Find out what a bird dog can do and why they do it is 80 percent of the reason you like the sport. I guess what intrigues me is the ability of a dog to smell where a quail has been 30 minutes ago when there is no visible sign of that.”
Free gives a demonstration of bird dogs at the Wildlife Expo, hiding a tethered pigeon in the tall grass in a remote control launch and letting the bird dogs work to find it. When they do, he releases the bird so it will fly in front of the dogs, then shoots a blank to simulate the quail hunting experience.
On real hunts, Free has searched for bird dogs with flashlights after dark, only to find them still on point.
“I am thinking I will be the last guy not to have bird dogs,” Free said. “I have been accused of having the bird dog disease. A serious dog man has a hard time resisting a new puppy.”
Ace Pinson is 76 years old and still chasing raccoons with hounds.
He has been hunting with coon dogs more than half of a century but remembers his first coon dog like it was yesterday: a black-and-tan, three-legged dog.
“Good tracker, good tree dog,” Pinson remembered. “He would give you everything he had.”
The owner of True Timber Kennel in Lawton has produced several champion dogs, but Pinson feels like he is the last of a dying breed. Less access to land and tougher laws that restrict retrieving dogs from other people's property has led many to give up the sport, he said.
“The biggest thing is finding someplace you can turn your dog loose on,” said the former president of the Oklahoma Federation of Coon Hunters. “That's the hardest part. You just don't have places to hunt anymore like you used to.”
But Pinson still loves his hounds.
“I just never got interested in bird hunting,” he said. “I tried the beagles for a while on rabbits. I never did get really attached to them like I did a coon dog.”
Pinson said his grandson was once interested in coon hunting. He even won a prestigious competition hunt in Texas with a dog that his grandfather had given him as a pup. But that changed when the boy turned 16, Pinson said.
“They get more interested in cars and girls and everything else,” Pinson said of teenage boys. “They need to learn that a good dog will be more faithful to you.”
As a young man, John Amico of Choctaw would put on his old Red Ball waders and go duck hunting.
“The sons of guns were like wearing ice cubes,” Amico recalls.
Amico owned some bird dogs, but they couldn't swim. So, Amico would shoot ducks where the wind could blow them back to the bank, or he would retrieve them with a fishing pole and a Lazy Ike top water lure.
This was before Amico discovered Labrador retrievers, a dog that would actually go get the ducks in the chilly waters and return them to him.
Amico bought several labs “that wouldn't do anything” before he found a good one. He read some dog training books and began teaching the lab himself.
“The dog was so dadgum smart,” Amico said. “It would learn so fast. I got enamored with training.”
Amico then traveled and learned from some of the best dog trainers in the country. He became a professional trainer in 1978. The owner of Deep Fork Retrievers is now on Cabela's national pro staff.
“I am just kind of a schoolteacher for dogs,” he said. “I kind of approach it that way.”
Amico calls Labradors “the trainers' dog ... They are capable of learning so many different things that you don't become bored.”
For Amico and most waterfowlers, leaving a dog home on a duck hunt would be leaving your hunting buddy behind.
;“Trained dogs are assets on a hunt,” he said. “It's an absolute joy to watch them. It makes it more fun. If you don't kill any ducks, at least you can sit there and talk to your dog.”
OKLAHOMA WILDLIFE EXPO
When: Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29-30. Friday is school day only at the Wildlife Expo.
Where: Lazy E Ranch and Arena in Guthrie.
What: The Wildlife Expo features more than 150 activities and seminars, including kayaking, archery, sampling wild game, mountain biking, shotgun shooting, fishing, falconry, dog training, duck calling, horse and mule packing, deer management, bird watching, basket weaving and more. For a complete schedule, visit www.wildlifedepartment.com.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
WILDLIFE EXPO BY THE NUMBERS
59,100 — People who attended the Expo in 2011
122 — Number of Oklahoma schools that took field trips to the Expo
242 — Miles traveled by Swink Public Schools, the school that traveled the greatest distance
25,000 — Worms used at the fishing pond
220 — Gallons of buffalo chili served at the Taste of the Wild booth
2,500 — Pounds of catfish stocked in the Lazy E Ranch pond for the Expo
60,000 — Pellets fried on the rifle range
1,325 — Number of Wildlife Department employees and volunteers who work at the Expo
27,945 — Clay targets that were shot on the shotgun range
375 — Number of bluebird boxes made at the Expo
7,000 — Number of Dutch oven samples eaten