Raising Champion Bird Dogs
Meet western Kentucky's Ferrel Miller, one of America's top trainers and breeders
In the pantheon of Kentucky sports champions, names like Muhammad Ali, the Kentucky Wildcats, and Man O’ War are etched in stone. Less famed, but equally fierce competitors, are Ferrel Miller and his two most recent top-notch quail dogs, Miller’s Silver Bullett and Miller’s True Spirit.
“No dog, living or dead, has performed better in field trials,” Miller once boasted of Silver Bullett. “He is a shoo-in to make the National Bird Dog Hall of Fame.”
Bullett wasn’t eligible for this most lasting honor until he bounded into Quail Dog Heaven when he died two years ago, August 2001. He was the top vote-getter for the award a year later.
Miller beat Bullett to the Hall of Fame, as an outstanding breeder and trainer, 10 years ago. On September 25, 1993, Miller was summoned before a throng outside the Bird Dog Hall of Fame to receive a scroll, which signified his election to the prestigious society. Tears of pride, accomplishment, and humility trickled down the cheeks of this gentle Kentuckian. The scroll praised his extraordinary contributions to bird dog breeding and field trial events.
Today True Spirit is cock of the walk at the Miller kennels.
Last year True Spirit earned his claim to immortality when he won the 103rd National Bird Dog Championship at Ames Plantation outside Grand Junction, Tennessee.
As cameras flashed, Miller savored his first National win with True Spirit. It was a victory that had eluded Bullett and Miller’s earlier entry into the Hall of Fame with Chief. True Spirit has had 90 field trial wins, 25 championships, and 12 runner-up placements. With his National win, his portrait seems assured of someday hanging in the Hall of Fame, like that of Bullett.
Miller has been described as “the most famous bird dog trainer in the world.” Although it is usually expensive to participate in the field trial circuit, Miller has attained success breeding his own dogs, acting as his own trainer (he is regarded as an amateur because he doesn’t work for owners), and selling puppies that he raises.
As teammates, Miller and True Spirit are the nemesis of pheasant, grouse, quail, and prairie chickens from Moose Jaw, Canada, to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. But True Spirit has competition from his own kennel mates. His sister, Miller’s Kentucky Bell, was one of three Miller dogs in the 2003 National, along with True Spirit and Miller’s White Powder.
While True Spirit, dogged with freezing rain, failed to win a back-to-back victory, Miller is confident that his career is far from over. And there are other dogs at the Miller kennels that are showing great promise.
Japanese sportsmen have taken to field trials like otters to spring water. One offered $50,000 to take Bullett to the Land of the Rising Sun. While Miller has sold more than 50 prize English pointers to Japanese aficionados, Bullett’s chances of spending his declining years in Japan is, of course, zero.
True Spirit is now king of the kennels at Miller’s sprawling 2,500-acre farm near Lynn Grove in western Kentucky. In a secluded nook, Bullett now sleeps in a bird dog graveyard along with other champions.
Although Miller is a modest man, he will tell everyone that he plays to win. “And I win,” he explains, “because I am better prepared than my competitors.” Good luck is, in his words, “a crossroads where opportunity and preparation meet.”
The drive to compete still sparks Miller, at 70, as it did when he was a basketball player at Western Kentucky University under the legendary Ed Diddle. Diddle taught his Hilltoppers, “You will play like you practice.”
Winning field trials is the same, Miller is convinced.
Miller worked 32 years with the Kentucky Department of Conservation as a soils specialist. He covered the 14 most western counties of the state. As he gradually added acreage to the farm, he put nearly all the land under conservation programs.
Entering the home where Miller lives with his wife, Eleanor, is almost as exciting as touring the National Bird Dog Hall of Fame at Grand Junction.
Bullett himself (who demanded a stud fee of $600, as does True Spirit) collected trophies galore. He sired 57 champions and more than 600 winners. Three of Bullett’s sons won the National: Miller’s Silver Lining, Whippoorwill Wild Card, and True Spirit. While Bullett competed in the National seven times without success, he won 18 championships.
True Spirit has 25 championships to his credit, more than any dog that ever lived.
Miller’s record as a breeder and trainer includes more than 100 field trial championships and better than 1,200 placements. His video, Ferrel Miller’s Common Sense Bird Dog Training, is widely sold across the nation. Commenting on it, Bernie Mathis, editor of The American Field, wrote, “No one can argue with success, and Ferrel Miller’s success with bird dogs is well-documented.”
Miller was born in the hamlet of Lynn Grove, near Murray. The seventh child of 12 offspring, he learned early about hard work. The children were awakened before daylight. Mules plowed the tilled portion of the 100-acre farm. Cattle, chickens, and hogs provided the basics of life.
Today Miller reserves a portion of his 2,500 acres for his family to hunt. “I lease other parts of the farm to five different hunting clubs, for deer hunting. This is the only type of hunting I allow.”
One of Miller’s favorite hunting partners was the late Dr. Harry Sparks, president of Murray State University. “He liked to hunt,” Miller remembers. “He was both a deer hunter and a quail hunter.”
Grand Junction has been described as the epicenter of a hotbed of sanctioned field trials. Miller agrees that there are more field trials within a 250-mile radius of the Ames Plantation (where the National is conducted) than anywhere in the world.
“There are major field trial grounds at Paducah. Also at Rend Lake in Illinois. There are grounds in Brownsville, Tennessee, and at Fort Campbell (near Hopkinsville). I’m only 50 to 70 miles away from a lot of trials.”
Miller is quick to point out that the popularity of field trials is on the rise (like quail being flushed) in Kentucky, all across America, and even in faraway Japan.
There are more women attracted to the sport too, those in the galleries (horseback riders following the dogs), and “those who participate as breeders, trainers, and scouts.” Former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley has been in the gallery more than once at the National.
Miller, who enjoys a special camaraderie with other trainers, paused to reflect when asked to name the three best Kentucky trainers other than himself.
“Probably,” he answers, “Gregg St. John at Fulton, Joe Don House at Clinton, and Gary Lester at Gracey.”
Lester is an old friend. His House’s Ice Man was supposed to compete against True Spirit when the latter won the National. When Ice Man died of a twisted intestine three days before the drawing for braces, Miller called Lester to join him as scout. “Ferrel is an excellent bird dog man,” Lester commented. “To us, he is known as the ‘King.’ I hated not to be competing, but it felt better helping him with his big win.”
Another honor that touched Miller was when he received the Top All-Age Handler Award. The recognition from Biskit Food Company included a banquet in his honor, a cash prize, and a year’s supply of dog food.
It was at the Invitational Quail Championship at Paducah that Miller says Bullet is credited with the best performance in a field trial he ever witnessed. “He competed there three days with 11 of the top dogs in the nation. He had seven finds in three days—and repeated his performance 10 days later in Grand Junction at America’s National Amateur Invitational.”
Miller has judged most of the major trials in North America, including the Amateur Shooting Dog Championship in Georgia, the Border International Championship in Canada, and the Pheasant Championship in Ohio.
Eleanor travels with him frequently. When his three children were at home, they used to go along. “My son rode behind me when he was small enough to put his feet in the saddlebags,” says Miller. “Field trials are a great family sport. They bring all members of the family closer together.”
One of the first sights visitors see when they drive up to the Miller home is a one-acre exercise pen. Greeting guests with wagging tails are “three competitive dogs (including True Spirit), five mama dogs, and 10 puppies, 7 months to a year old.”
If age someday drains the high-octane stamina of True Spirit, there are youngsters to follow his noble example—all with champion bloodlines and trained by the top breeder in America.
KENTUCKY QUAIL FIELD TRIALS
Field trials are competitions to showcase a bird dog’s ability to successfully point out hiding places for quail. Ferrel Miller says Kentucky has as many as 35 field trials each year, mostly in November and December.
The three major Kentucky trials are the Invitational Quail Championship at Paducah, and the Open All-Age Championship and Region IV Championship Field Trial, both in Richmond.
Three Wildlife Management Areas in Kentucky are used for field trials as well as for bow hunting, gun clubs, and riding trails. “There is one at Paducah, around the atomic plant area. Another is in the Berea area near Richmond, and the third is at Crittenden, across the river from Cincinnati,” says Miller.