Monday, February 21, 2011

Delmar Smith: King of Bird Dogs

During the course of any given lifetime, it's not often that any one individual encounters true greatness. One of those times happend to me recently.

I had the distinct privilege of attending the first two days of the National Championship Field Trial at Ames Plantation near Grand Junction, Tennessee this week. It was truly an amazing experience, and one I'll discuss in more detail later.

But back to my brush with greatness. During my time at Ames, I spent my days with (among others) the great Delmar Smith. I'm not sure there are sufficient adjectives to describe this prince of a man. Part Will Rogers philosopher, part P.T. Barnum showman, Delmar is the most significant and influential bird dog man still roaming the earth today.

An Oklahoman born and bred, he grew up raising cattle and breaking horses, and transferred that knowledge of animals to sporting dogs. Early on, he had a fair amount of success in field trials, but it wasn't until his Brittanys started winning that he started gaining some much-deserved notoriety, and jarring the pointer-setter duopoly in the process. From there, it was full speed ahead.

Like any good bird dog man, you would expect a certain amount of bullshit, and he splendidly delivers. But this man -- a spry 85 years old -- has a mind like a steel trap and a handshake much the same. Standing next to him hearing him recount the people he's known and the dogs he's trained (or is it the other way around?) is simply amazing.

And God bless it, he's funnier than hell, too. Several people came up to him during the trial and mentioned hearing this NPR appearance. If you have an extra ten minutes, you'll understand the spell that this man casts.

Mostly though, Delmar Smith left me with a simple yet profound thought. As he tells it, many years ago, Delmar was having dinner with John Olin -- CEO of the then-Winchester empire -- and the gun magnate was having maddening issues with a new gun.

"He told me he went to the factory and started making changes to the gun, one at a time. He started with the butt plate. When that didn't work, he changed the screws of the butt plate. Then he changed the wood and the angle of the stock. And he just moved forward from there, and before long, the problem was fixed. He changed one variable at a time, and that's a lesson I took with me to bird dogs. Make single changes, and you'll be able to isolate the problem."

Simple words, but profound. And ones we'd all do well to heed -- whether it's bird dogs, our work lives, friends, or family.


  1. My favorite training book is Bill Tarrant's "Best Way to Train Your Gun Dog: The Delmar Smith Method". It's full of the wit and wisdom you experienced last week with the same overriding theme: simple is better, common sense works best. What a treat that must have been.

  2. I only meet Delmar once when I was about 7 or 8 years old. My grandfather took care of a place that was located next to Delmar Smith's kennel. One day we had a rare Oklahoma snow storm, and I was out working with my grandpa. Delmar came over with his horses and a sled. He pulled me around the pasture for about an hour. I never realized that Delmar was such a well known trainer until I got into upland hunting in my 30s and bought the Bill Tarrant book. Since then I have wanted to meet him again and see if remembers me or my grandfather.

  3. I'd be surprised if he didn't remember you. The man's memory is uncanny.