by Charles Upchurch
photographs by Geoff Wood
Field trial champion Robert Vaughan, 18, has hunted since he was 9 years old.
“The first time I went quail hunting, in the fourth or fifth grade, I remember two English pointers getting the birds up, “ says Vaughan, who lives in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood. “They flushed a big covey right in front of me – I loved everything about it.”
It’s a love that has only grown, compelling the Ravenscroft senior to train his own dogs, hunt ducks every day before school during the season, and amass a series of field trial ribbons.
It wasn’t long after that first time in the field that Vaughan told his father, Bob Vaughan, that he wanted a gun dog of his own. A native of Lynchburg, Va., Bob knew the yearning. He and his wife Meredith had both grown up in hunting families, with fathers who ran bird dogs over woodland, grassland, farm, and thicket from Virginia to San Antonio. And he raised Robert and his two brothers Christopher, 14, and Chase, 10, to know their way around woods and wetland.
But it was a book that really sealed Robert’s fate. When Robert was 13, Billy Carrington, a family friend and hunting partner, gave him a copy of Gun Dog, the 1961 illustrated volume by Richard Wolters, considered by many to be the bird dog bible. Robert read it cover to cover. Then read it again. Ten times through, at least, he says. He saw in its pages a world that he was called to join.
“Dad, when can I get a dog?” he asked again and again. When his father said the magic words: “I think you’re ready,” it was as if a secret door had opened. But Robert did not want just any dog. He had read enough to know the importance of breeding. He wanted a gun dog, and he wanted one with bloodlines.
So he researched, and found Nolan Huffman of Valdese, N.C. Huffman’s outfit, Beeline Brittanys, is built upon the lineage of a three-time field trial Grand National Champion, “Nolan’s Last Bullet,” fondly known as Buddy.
“Robert reminded me a little of myself at that age,” Huffman says. “He seemed to have a lot of heart and drive, and I really wanted to help him.” Huffman didn’t have any litters at the time, but introduced Robert to John Thomas of Boone, N.C., who had just bred Bull, one of Buddy’s four male offspring. There were puppies on the way, and it wasn’t long before “Robert’s General Lee,” an orange and white female with a stubby little tail, was on her way home to the Vaughans’ house.
Robert and “Lee” became inseparable. The lessons learned from Gun Dog helped Robert teach Lee a few basic field commands. She accompanied Robert and his dad on family hunts. Neighbors would watch their training sessions in the Vaughans’ front yard. “I can’t tell you how many times I chased her through traffic in Five Points,” Robert says. Despite the usual frights and growing pains, the bond between the boy and his dog grew deep.
“He’s going to ruin that dog,” Robert remembered hearing someone say when he first took Lee on a hunt. “You always ruin your first dog.”
Maybe so, thought Robert. But not me. Not Lee.
Robert called Clay Moose, a trainer from Conover, N.C. The former college football defensive tackle is larger than life in both size and reputation. Moose took Lee on a two-month road trip, introducing her to field trials around the Southeast. “Lee needed time in the field,” Moose said. “She’s just a little thing, but she’s got tons of personality and loves to hunt.”
With Moose, Lee started to show her potential. Robert began researching local field trials, leading him to the National Shoot To Retrieve Association (NSTRA), which holds events in towns like Kittrell and Spring Hope, an easy drive from Raleigh. Bob began to take them, just to watch, and there he says he saw something special emerge in his young son.
The teenager spoke courteously and confidently to the men “running” dogs at the competitions. The old hands, seasoned competitors who make up the fabric of a tightly knit community of breeders and trainers, were impressed with the young man. Without a grain of self-consciousness or reserve, Bob says, Robert devoured every scrap of knowledge he could.
“The gentlemen at these events were very happy to have a young person so interested and passionate about their sport,” Bob says.
One of those gentlemen was Ken Sykes, 62, of Rocky Mount. Sykes, a real estate man who breeds and schools English setters in Nash County, took Robert under his wing. He worked with Robert and Lee on obedience, ranging and quartering, pointing style and retrieving. At Odell-Adams Bird Dog Club near Benson, Sykes worked with Robert to help Lee develop her nose and field technique, working with pen-raised quail. She soon became gun-steady and flushed birds as she was born to do.
When Bob drove Robert and Lee to compete in their first NSTRA trial in Lynchburg, Sykes made the drive up – only to see his young friend and the little Brittany finish dead last. Sykes coached them up, and they entered more trials. There were third-place finishes. Then, a second. Finally, in Kittrell, Lee flushed and retrieved all five quail on a round of flawless shooting from Robert. They won. “Lee knew it,” said Robert, smiling broadly. “We were both real happy.”
Robert now has three dogs, including Belle and Boone, an English pointer. Last summer he worked for Matt Behe at Rocky River Gun Dogs, in Bailey, N.C., driving from Raleigh every morning at 6 a.m. to work with Labs, Brittanys, pointers, English setters and Boykins, taking Lee and Belle with him.
Over the coming year, between playing football and lacrosse at Ravenscroft and keeping up his grades as he prepares for college at Hampden-Sydney in 2014, Robert will work as a guide at Andersen Creek Hunting Preserve in Lillington, getting paid to run bird dogs and hunt quail.
Somewhere, ranging out for a scent will be Lee, wagging her stubby little tail, bounding happily through the broom straw.