The Quail – Chapter 2

His next five steps brought him to a brush pile made up mostly of mesquite and willow branches. For old times’ sake, he rested one foot on the edge of the brush and pushed down hard. He had done this twice when out from the other side popped a cottontail. He smiled while watching it bounce and zigzag across the gap between the pile of brush and the closest clump of grass. He thought of the rabbit hunts with his Dad and older brother — of his Father positioning his sons on either end of a brushpile while he kicked on a third side. It was always exciting waiting and wondering if a rabbit would bolt from the cover. He had been amazed at the way the rabbits nearly always turned somersaults when hit. Of course he didn’t hit many, more often than not shooting at a spot that used to have a rabbit bounding through it. This was the whirlwind of thoughts as he watched the rabbit disappear. He felt a bit guilty about kicking the little animal out of its warm hide just to see it run, but he also felt a warmth from the good, solid memories from his childhood.

The icy edge of the December morning was beginning to soften with the rays of the sun. He pushed through the frost-covered underbrush and felt the coolness as the moisture made its way through his pants legs. As he crossed an old fence row, minus the fence, four meadowlarks shot out from under his feet. As usual, his gun was nearly to his cheek before their identity made it through to his consciousness. How many times had he NOT drawn down on these quail mimics? Of course they didn’t really look or fly that much like quail, but they were still able to fool him. As a boy he had come close to shooting them at the end of a frustrating day of bird hunting. This morning he just laughed at making this same old mistake.

He was pushing up the fence row when a group of bobwhite whirred off from the other side of a well-positioned (from their perspective) mesquite. He tried to get his gun on them, but was lowering it from the lack of a target when a pair shot out to his right and began flying/gliding across the open field. He swung on the trailing bird and fired both barrels in quick succession. The birds continued gliding. He reloaded, started walking and kicked at a tightly clumped patch of grass. The three quail lifted as one and flew straight away from him. He fired at the trailing bird and watched as two fell out of the air. He wished that he had meant to take the double with one shot, but he would accept providence as it was given. The two-for-one shot reminded him of a time hunting quail with his brother. His brother had shot quickly at a flushed bird. In fact, he shot so quickly that he brought the bird down when it was less than a foot off the ground. As they went forward to retrieve that one quail, they followed a linear path of death and destruction along which were six bodies. He had been unmerciful with his conscious-stricken brother. They both knew that ground shooting those birds had been an unfortunate accident, but he had really enjoyed tormenting his older sibling.

He now had five quail. Five quail were taken and he was less than an hour into his hunt. His Dad had been right; this was a phenomenal year. He decided to keep walking up the line of trees to the point where they made a right angle with another fence row. He did not jump anymore quail, but his heart nearly stopped when he pushed apart a grass curtain with his foot and revealed a very agitated, striped skunk. The skunk began drumming its front feet on the ground as he slowly backed away. He remembered a similar fright when, as a child, he had shoved his face into the opening of his Dad’s brick barbecue stand. In that instance, his face had been one foot away from the angry black and white marauder. He remembered feeling very fortunate that he did not have to take a bath in tomato sauce to try and rid himself of the odor.

As he swung around the occupied clump of grass, he stepped into another group of 10 or more quail. This time he was only able to snap off the lower barrel before, as a unit, they veered around a tree. However, the bird at which he fired dropped a leg as it continued to glide. He hated wounding animals, and thus he was almost jogging as he followed in the flight path of the quail. When he had moved 40 yards into the trees, he discovered that the unit had not run when they touched down. Once again they exploded, but this time he dropped a single as it did a credible imitation of a towering woodcock. The bird went straight up over his head and he had to lean back slightly to bust the quail before it could veer away behind him. As he retrieved what turned out to be a small male, a bird broke from cover to his right and attempted to take off. The quail only managed to jump and flutter to a height of about three feet before falling back to the ground. The hunter waited until the running animal was 20 feet away, aimed high and rolled the hurt creature. He felt relieved and knew that he now wouldn’t spend the next two or three days feeling badly about leaving a wounded animal in the grass.

After collecting his sixth and seventh birds, he broke his gun, slipped off his vest and sat down with his back against a cedar anchor post at the corner of two fencelines. He dug into the game pocket and carefully laid out the seven quail – three males and four females made up his collection for the morning. As he gently traced the feather patterns, he wondered at the beauty of these small animals. He knew many of his friends and family could not understand the significance that hunting held for him. Yet, he knew it to be one the most fulfilling passions of his life. Indeed, each hunting experience contained all of the components of the best and most challenging life events. There was the dream, the planning, the uncertainty of success, the honing of necessary skills, the physical and emotional challenge, the recognition that the moment of fulfillment had come, and finally the capture and possession of the object of your dreams. Today the object was an animal that weighed so little, but meant so much to one who loved the thrill of a successful chase. He hoped to be back to this place next year, but regardless, this was a captured time that would remain.

quail-photo

Quotes of Note: Books and Grizzly Bears

Image result for theodore roosevelt photos

“All in all, Roosevelt’s interests in arts and letters were almost unique among American chief executives. To Louis Einstein…he seemed to reincarnate the Renaissance ideal of “the well-rounded life of thought and action.”  Einstein thought that the president was like Italian princes of the sixteenth century in combining a thirst for learning and adventure – mastering both books and grizzly bears.” (Theodore Roosevelt A Life, pg 427, Nathan Miller)

Plenty of Pronghorn – Part 2

HighDesertSunset

The first morning of our hunt dawned crisp and clear, and with the pit-of-the-stomach excitement that feels at once so good and yet so worrying.  The previous day Mike had proclaimed Randy and me sound in the shooting department after we hit his paper-plate target from both sitting and prone positions.  I wasn’t so sure.  I have never had trouble placing shots onto an uninteresting paper object – it’s the breathing, beautiful, long-dreamt-of, big-game animals that cause me to shake and make bullets soar in unwanted directions.  But the truth-testing was now at hand.  On the drive to Casper, Randy had lost (won?) the coin toss and so I was to have the first crack at a trophy Pronghorn.  As we drove away from the camp in Mike’s four-wheel drive pickup, we were never out of sight of pronghorn bucks minding their harems.  Some of the same groups from the day before were around, but as we moved further away from camp, new groups began to appear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The area into which we drove had both open, high-desert vistas, as well as breaks with deep, tree-lined ravines.  We left the truck about 7:30 with the intention of only having to top the closest ridge in order to see a buck Mike had spotted several times.  Randy and I waited below as Mike carefully crawled up and peered over the ridgeline.  He turned around and motioned for us to join him.  “Not here” he said, but added, “How about if we climb the next ridge to have a look?”  We followed the same game plan: our guide led, we waited below, and then we followed him up.  Though there were no Antelope in the ravine on the other side of this ridge either, there were several bucks, at different points of the compass, working their way around the countryside.

After assessing each of them in turn, Mike dismissed them all with “Not first day shooters.”  So, we headed for the next ridge, but before we could reach it, we spotted two bucks in a cut that we had been unable to see into while on top of the previous ridgeline.  Randy and I crouched in our tracks, while Mike tried to get a look at their horns.  “I can’t see them well enough because they are staring straight at me!” he mouthed back at us.  And then, looking disgusted, he stood and said in a whisper, “They took off.”

We made our way up and then over the next ridge.  However, as we descended, I happened to glance to my right and up the next slope.  I hissed to Mike, while at the same time slowly pointing at the buck that had just materialized from the other side of the hill in front of us.

PronghornBuckSkyline

Again, we all crouched where we were, while Mike raised his binoculars to study the buck as intently as the buck seemed to be studying us.  Mike turned his head just enough so that I could read his lips as he mouthed, “I think he is a shooter!”  I lay down and flipped the short legs of the Harris bipod into position.  Mike was still sizing the buck up as I placed the crosshairs behind the animals left shoulder.  The buck began to walk across the slope just as Mike whispered, “We want this one.”  I quickly asked, “Where do I hold?”

To go back a bit, Mike had told me that he would range the animal he selected.  However, he also told me that he would not tell me the distance, but instead, knowing where I told him the point of impact would be for various distances, he would coach me where to hold.  This would, hopefully, take the necessary calculation out of my hands when I was likely to be the most nervous.  Also, knowing that I was not enthused about shooting at long distances, I would be less worried by him stating, “Hold so many inches below the animal’s backline” as opposed to “It’s three hundred yards.”

So, back to the first trophy Antelope at which I had ever aimed, Mike’s response was “Hold three inches below it’s back.”  The problem was, the Antelope was still moving, albeit slowly, and I could do the math enough to realize that I did not want to take a 300 yard or so shot at a moving animal.  But my guide’s “Wait for him to stop”, took that decision away from me as well.  The problem was that the buck didn’t stop before he had crested the ridge, disappearing over the other side.  As previously instructed in the safety talk, I removed the cartridge from my chamber, pushed it back down into the magazine and then pushed the bolt closed onto an empty breach. (All the guides seemed to have an aversion to an overexcited client putting a round up their backside as they followed them up and down slopes and across ridges.)  We then headed up the slope with our guide’s whispered, “He should be standing right over this ridge.”  But, he wasn’t.  I confess to being very disappointed, but at the same time I realized there were many more Antelope left in the bushes.

Next Week – Plenty of Pronghorn – Part 3

Doves 1 : Hunters 0

On Stand earlier.jpg

Though we saw our quarry in the distance, today the Mourning Doves were victorious. But, then again, we hunters won by just being in the field to witness such a beautiful, North-Georgia sunrise.

Thank you again to Jérôme Lanoue (Verney-Carron) and Ken Buch (Kebco), along with our South Fork hosts, Colby and Jacob.

We will return to South Fork at the end of October for the European-style Pheasant hunt, and I’ll be carrying the Verney-Carron Azur SD Eloge Grade 20-gauge once again.

Until then!!

Closeup of me holding shotgun.jpg

Bubba and the French Aristocracy

Bubba and the French Aristocracy.jpg

I thought the time had come to introduce two of tomorrow’s companions who will accompany me on a Georgia Dove hunt with our friends at South Fork Hunting Preserve.

In a past story, I named that padded bucket in the above photo my ‘Bubba-Stool’.

So, “Bubba, meet the French Aristocracy in the form of the Verney-Carron Azur SD Eloge Grade Shotgun.”

“V-C, this is Bubba.”

“O.K., you two, let’s go collect some Mourning Doves!”

The Quail – Chapter 1

He bent double and pushed down the next to the bottom strand of barbed-wire. As he did so, he used his free hand to lift first one, then the other, shell pocket of his game vest over the pointed wire. Each pocket was an irregular bulge that felt of ridged plastic and brass. He experienced only minor irritation as he carefully reached behind to unsnag a barb from the limp game pocket. It was gratifying not to hear tearing fabric as the vest already possessed multiple, strategically placed safety pins.

After the crossing, he walked past two cedar fence posts to where his 20 gauge over and under shotgun lay just under the fence. He was still surprised by his choice of the Browning Citori. When he was young, he had never been much of a shot with his Dad’s Belgian-built over and under. But this gun seemed different. His new shotgun did not carry nearly as pretty a piece of wood as that old Belgian. Yet, he could hit most of the 25 clay birds in a round of skeet, even the left to right shots (he was right handed) at those atrocious middle stations. Now, however, it was time for him to try his skills on quail.

He could count on one hand, the number of quail he had killed during his 30 years as a hunter. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried to hunt them, particularly as a young boy, but his part of West Texas never had more than the occasional covey. Because of that, he found it hard to believe that he would see, let alone collect, any on this cold December morning. However, his Dad and Mom said that this year was different. They spent most evenings watching a large covey feeding in their backyard. They had also jumped what appeared to be multiple coveys on walks in the mesquite scrub behind their house.

In spite of their reports, he wasn’t paying much attention as he weaved in and out of the clumps of Johnson grass growing among the mesquites. His gun was cradled in the crook of his left arm as he tugged at the seeds in the top of the tallest stalk of grass. They exploded while he was in mid-tug. Oddly, at that moment, he remembered being told that quail took off more slowly than Mourning Dove. These, however, seemed to be in an awful hurry. He threw his left arm forward as he grabbed the checkered pistol grip. A straggler lifted just as his cheek made contact with the polished comb and his safety slid forward. He didn’t remember slapping the trigger, but the quail puffed into an expanding ball of feathers from which the center fell to the ground.

He walked slowly, as he popped the spent shell into his hand, bent his arm behind his back to drop it into the game pocket and quickly filled the empty chamber with another shell. The bird was a female. The brownish-yellow slash mark on either side of her head reminded him of the tobacco stains at the corners of his Father-in-Law’s mouth. He felt the warmth from his first quail in more than 20 years. He knew that it would cool and stiffen, but at the moment she felt like one of the kittens from the hay in his parents’ barn. He dropped the bird into the game pocket, feeling the rounded lump settle on his tailbone.

He made his way toward the levee that acted as a dam for the large stocktank in which he had fished, gigged frogs and shot snakes as a boy. He had felt, more than seen, that a part of the covey had settled into the base of the levee. The first quail he spotted was running, but the next six were in the air as his shotgun rose. He took the furthest left, and then the one closest to it as the seven birds spread out like a southern belle’s fan on a hot summer afternoon. “A double”! He was so surprised by his first double on quail that he forgot to break and reload as he made his way to pick up the birds. They were both males. As he traced the bleached white stripe on the side of the second bird’s head, the single erupted from a spot of grass not much bigger than a quail. He dropped the dead bird, swung on the single and felt the flinch as he pulled on the empty chamber. He wasn’t sure what was more embarrassing – the flinch or the fact that he had forgotten to reload. “Oh well, maybe we won’t mention either of those things when we get back to the house”, he said out loud.

At that moment, a dazzling ray of sunlight lanced through the mesquite branches in front of him. He squinted and once again marveled at the different kind of beauty found in this parched scrubland, compared to his adopted home in the hardwoods of Georgia. He would always feel more at home in the midst of mesquites, in spite of, or maybe because of, the punctured hands, arms and legs obtained while climbing this Mexican invader.

Next Week – Chapter 2 of The Quail

Quotes of Note: Lawyers and Cape Buffalo

My lovely wife, Frances, suggested that I start a Blog series on quotes that have caught my attention and imagination. Since Craig Boddington has been a great mentor, I decided to begin this series with a quote from his book, Where Lions Roar.

 

“In today’s society, I liken hunting (Cape) buffalo to shooting lawyers: they’re dangerous, mean, nasty, ugly, treacherous, smart – and there are lots of them, they are easily replaced, and you don’t get too attached to them as individuals.” (Where Lions Roar, pg. X, C. Boddington)

Plenty of Pronghorn – Part 1

Fifty years ago, Jack O’Connor published a story in Outdoor Life magazine in which he recounted a tale of overconfidence, bad weather and missed opportunities.  This combination added up to a [nearly] futile attempt at collecting the prairie speedster known as Pronghorn Antelope to non-natives of the Western U.S., but as “Goats” by those who happen to live around them all year long.  He titled his story, “Antelope Aren’t So Dumb!”  However, his tongue-in-cheek, take-home message was that telling his hunting partner, among other things, that “We have allowed three days for the antelope…That’s probably two days too many” was dumb.  I thought about this story more than once as my brother, Randy, and I drove from his home north of Seattle – traveling across Washington, through the northern tip of Idaho, slantwise down through Montana, and then due south through Wyoming toward Casper.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had never hunted Pronghorn before, and actually had seen them only once, and then from a moving car almost three decades earlier. But the memory was strong.  Their beautiful tan and white skins, their coal black noses and eyes, and the dark grey-black horns that seemed to curve and jut in a hundred directions at once spoke of the Old West.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As Randy drove us along one of the stretches of highway I reflected on this feeling in my diary: “As we drive south toward Sheridan, the countryside opens wide into rolling shortgrass prairies broken with winding, willow/cottonwood lined waterways.  How bleak it must have seemed for some of the first white people, while the openness spoke of tremendous opportunity to others.  For me, it sings of beautiful wildness, of vistas occasionally occupied by the lone warrior, horse soldier, buffalo hunter or cowboy.”  A bit romantic, I realize, but that is what the West does to many – especially those of us, like me, who have never had to face the winters!

So, were we going to find the Antelope to be almost non-existent, like Jack O’Connor and his hunting buddy?  Or would we instead be in constant contact with the animals as I had been assured would be the case by our soon-to-be-met guide, Mike O’Leary of SNS Outfitter & Guides?  Time would tell.  However, overrun with animals or not, I had a bigger worry.  This related to my doubt about hitting an animal smaller than the whitetail deer I hunted in Georgia, but at distances I never encountered in the dense woods of my adopted state.  Mike had advised that we should be prepared for “Shots averaging 200 yards, or so”.  I told him that I had been practicing mainly by kneeling behind the 225-yard bench at my gun club, but that I would really prefer that he call the Antelope in to 50 yards or less!  He had laughed at my quip, but I am sure he wondered if he would have yet another client that couldn’t hit a barn from the inside.  So, while we motored through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, I fretted.  Mike had also asked about my rifle and loads.  Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I heard a tone of skepticism in his voice after I told him that the handloads I would be using in my 7mm Remington Magnum would be topped with 175 grain Nosler Partitions.  I knew that these were tough, heavy bullets for such a small, thin-skinned animal, but I also knew that when I had worked up lighter, faster loads, my rifle did not group nearly as well as it did with the heavier bullets.

From the moment I shook hands with Mike and the other guides, I felt that we had landed in a quality outfit.  As in our phone conversations, they once again assured us that seeing Antelope would not be a problem.  If true, that left my shooting ability as the only variable to be factored into the “see the trophy, collect the trophy” formula.  As we made the hour-long drive to our camp, Mike’s assurances concerning the quantity and quality of Pronghorns in their area were confirmed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The author checks out the bands of Pronghorn Antelope near camp

In truth, I couldn’t tell a mediocre buck from one that would earn a hunter a place in the Boone and Crockett awards, but I could see the many herds of antelope as we worked our way deeper and deeper into the countryside surrounding Casper, Wyoming.  And as we pulled up in front of the trailers that would, for the next three days, act as our sleeping, eating and toilet facilities, the presence of four different herds of does within 300 yards of our camp, all being minded by four dominant bucks, and all being watched eagerly by other, less-dominant bucks, finally settled the question of whether we would have to endure a Jack O’Connor-esque famine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A dominant buck and his harem

 

Next Week – Plenty of Pronghorn – Part 2