Spaniels splash into Nelson Lake

This fall, Minnkota once again played host to the water portion of National Cocker Spaniel Championship.


Emily Windjue


December 20, 2022

An early morning chill on Nov. 7 didn’t dampen the spirits of eager pups waiting to show off their water retrieval skills. The warm waters of Nelson Lake were the perfect remedy for the foggy fall day.

For the second time, Minnkota’s Milton R. Young Station and the adjacent Nelson Lake recreation area had the opportunity to host the water series event for the 2022 National Amateur Cocker Championship (NACC) – a competition that started with 52 cocker spaniels, before being narrowed to the top 15 ready to jump right in.

The average water temperature of Nelson Lake is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and can be enjoyed year-round by anglers, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

Jon Hunke, chair of the event, has been working with the American Kennel Club (AKC), who sponsored the NACC, for close to 20 years. The AKC had used Nelson Lake for the water series event during the Amateur Cocker Field Open Championship in 2020. So when it came time again to find the perfect location for this year’s water event at the national championship, Minnkota was Hunke’s first call.

“It’s the partnership with the community that made us choose Nelson Lake,” explained Hunke. “Looking around at locations, I knew that cooperatives are part of their communities, so I reached out and we made it happen.”

Hunke explained the water portion of the competition helps demonstrate the skills of an all-around good hunting dog. The dogs must remain steady until they are given a command by their handlers. Once the gun fires, the dog waits for its cue to jump into the water to retrieve the bird.

Owners pose with their pups after a successful plunge into the water. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

One major obstacle Hunke has encountered when hosting this early November event in North Dakota is finding an open body of water that has not frozen over. Luckily, Minnkota has just the place to help. Nelson Lake was built to provide cooling water for the Young Station. The water is tested, processed and returned into the lake at well-above freezing temperatures so the lake rarely freezes over in the winter, making it a perfect year-round recreational area. In addition to winter water sports, the lake also boasts premier bass fishing.

“The Young Station’s dedication to environmental excellence and stewardship allows us to give back to our community,” said Scott Hopfauf, Minnkota’s plant environmental superintendent. “It is very satisfying to see Nelson Lake used for various purposes outside Minnkota.”

Cheers can be heard for every dog as they make their jump into the water to retrieve their bird. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)
Jumping in paws first

The NACC brings handlers and pups from across the United States to compete in rural North Dakota. From Seattle to Colorado, 20 states were represented at the start of the competition. Walt Leytham and his pup Jesse came from Virginia for their chance at

a second national title.

“Two years ago, I was at the Nationals and she [Jesse] just had one great run after another. During the fifth series, everything complicated that happened to her, she just handled it,” said Leytham. “It was a very special experience to win the nationals.”

Back in the 1990s, John Bishop began training and competing with dogs because of his love of bird hunting. Bishop mentioned that while the genetics of a dog play a significant part in the overall temperament, developing a strong bond with a dog is what creates a winning team.

The competition is designed to test a dog’s overall hunting ability over the course of five events. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“I have won some big trials with this particular dog who is 10 years old. She’s going deaf, but she is a sweet, powerful dog that’s still going at it,” said Bishop about his dog Kona.

Jesse and Kona were both successful during the water series and advanced into the fifth and final series of the NACC. Watching their dogs skip like rocks to snatch their birds from the lake, several handlers were thankful for the warm water this time of year.

“These dogs are good dogs, but they are not ice breaking dogs, so it’s good to have this resource, no doubt,” said Bishop.


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