“Awesome,” my new friend Jimbo says sotto voce. “Intense. Vibrant.”
He is describing, believe it or not, a mixed-breed dog named Alabama, a smaller version of Ole Yeller, who is in the bay pen at the sixth annual Uncle Earl’s Hog Dog Trials, trying to “control” a 350-pound feral pig.
Jimbo has taken me under his wing, and over one long, hot weekend in the winn parish fairgrounds, he has been educating me in the finer points of judging hog dogs. (There is a reason for everything, a friend once told me, but not always a normal reason, and I think that applies here.)
“Good cadence,” Jimbo says. “And real good slobber! Look at it fly!”
Slobber, you see, is good. Very good. It means the dog is holding nothing back, giving (the always elusive and laudable) 110 percent, leaving it all on the field. Well, the bay pen in this instance.
You could almost say that slobber is one of the “intangibles” of a good hog dog, except for the fact that, unlike Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, there is so much there there.
“It’s possible for a dog to get a perfect score without a lot of slobber,” Jimbo says, “but all other things being equal, it is definitely going to come in second to a dog that’s really letting it loose.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
Uncle Earl’s Hog Dog Trials are named in honor of Earl K. Long and were inaugurated in 1995, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. “Uncle” Earl was the most colorful and well-liked governor Louisiana has ever elected, which is saying a mouthful. He and his more (in)famous brother Huey P. Long (at least he was until Paul Newman played Earl in the movie Blaze) came from the nearby town of Winnfield. Unlike “the Kingfish,” as Huey was known, who seemed to hunger only for power (every man a king, indeed, starting with him), Earl K. often had a hankering for some sugar-cured wild-hog meat with his morning eggs and grits—before he started showing everybody who was boss. He liked to hunt and kill his own hogs so much, the trials were a natural tribute to his memory.
The organizers of Uncle Earl’s (to use the familiar diminutive) say it is the largest event of its kind in the world, and I, for one, take them at their word. The record attendance is the 3500 folks who showed up in year two of the trials, and while the crowds this year didn’t match the record, in my estimation, it wasn’t missed by much. An awful lot of people were there, with an awful lot of dogs—catahoula hounds, plot hounds, treeing walkers, mountain and black mouth and Florida cracker curs, and a passel of mixed-breed curs that have the blood of any or all of the aforementioned, plus bird dog and bulldog, and I don’t know what else. From the sound of them, it seemed like dogs outnumbered humans.
Webster tells us that the intransitive verb “bay” means “to bark excitedly and continually,” and I cannot stress hard enough that last word, continually. For four long days and nights, the air at the fairgrounds was filled with the baying of hundreds upon hundreds of hog dogs from all over the country. Approximately 600 of them would compete against each other for the title of “Best of the Best” and a seven-foot-tall trophy. The rest were there to be shown off, traded, sold, or simply to keep their owners company.
Whenever I had mentioned to someone that I was going up to Uncle Earl’s, to a person they had two immediate questions: What is a hog dog? And, what are hog dog trials? The first question was easy. Hog dogs, also called bay dogs, hunt wild hogs. More specifically, they chase them down and corner them—keep them “at bay”—until their owners arrive on the scene and decide whether or not they want to “take” the hog. The second question was more problematic, as I had never attended any hog dog trials. The answer I settled on was that they were kind of like a hog-and-dog rodeo, which seemed to satisfy everyone, and as it turned out was pretty close to the truth.
The bay pen at Uncle Earl’s is a regulation rodeo arena that has been cut in half with a temporary fence that serves as the eastern boundary. Bleachers stand just outside the north and south fences. The hogs, captured in the wild by local hunters who use them for training their own dogs and for dog trials, are released into the bay pen, in their turn, through a large wooden gate in the middle of the western wall. Above this gate is a raised and covered platform where the five judges for the trials sit.
After the hog has had a little time to limber up, an owner brings his dog into the bay pen on a leash. When he or she releases it, the dog has two minutes to show its stuff before the timekeeper blows his whistle.
Of course, the hogs have a say in how good—or bad—a dog’s stuff adds up. Some hogs just sidle up to the fence, or head to a corner of the arena, and refuse to budge. Others are full of piss and vinegar, refusing to be cornered, charging again and again at the dogs, occasionally getting their snouts and tusks under a dog and tossing it into the air like a stuffed toy.
Judging bay dogs is a very complex thing, not something you pick up in a weekend, even with a knowledgeable mentor like Jimbo. The simplest explanation is that dogs are judged on how low they are to the ground when working the hog; their closeness to the hog; the constancy (the cadence) of their baying; their discipline and concentration; and most importantly, their ability to control and contain the hog without injuring it—if a dog bites a hog and holds on to it for longer than five seconds, it is disqualified, end of story, hit the showers, better luck next time.
Thirty points is a perfect score. (Don’t ask.)
Every dog that receives a perfect score in the prelims is eligible for the Best of the Best Bay Off. Owners pay a $200 entry fee that goes into a winner-take-all pot. Twenty-four dogs started the Bay Off, all of them damn fine hog dogs. Out of that 24 came 15. Out of 15, five moved to the next level. Three dogs, one out of Georgia and two from Texas, made the finals: Billy Long’s Bubba, Randall Wiggins’s Coushatta, and Robbie Nugent’s Useless.
Bubba was a four-time winner at Uncle Earl’s, but Jimbo and I had felt he was off his championship form all day. He didn’t do anything you could deduct points for, but he got a soft 30 on our scorecard for lack of intensity and swinging too wide as he worked the hog.
Jimbo was partial to Useless because his owner was a friend. The dog had been fantastic all day, but his bay for the gold was not his best performance. He got another soft 30 from us, but we gave him the edge over Bubba.
Coushatta, however, a feisty little mixed cur out of Texas, made such hairsplitting unnecessary, turning in a performance that a blind man would have known was perfect. He moved in on the hog immediately and went nose to nose with it, his chin practically touching the ground. His eyes never left the hog. His cadence was like a metronome, and his front paws stabbed the ground in perfect time with each bay. That hog tried over and over again to escape, but it could not move from the spot where Coushatta held it. The cur had it bayed solid. As good as it gets.
And yes, slobber was flying with every bay. You know it was. There was actually a terrible beauty to it, thin ropes of slobber hanging for a moment in midair, suspended in time, sparkling in the sunlight like a nimbus around the heads of dog and hog.