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.
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
While Colby and Jacob again swapped equipment, I acquainted myself with one of the leaders of the next stage of our hunt, an 11-month-old “Rockstar” (Colby’s descriptor) named Louise. Indeed, watching Louise (Brittany) and Venus (German Wirehaired Pointer) working together was another sight-to-behold. Truthfully, Louise used some of her excessive, adolescent energy to rocket around. However, she came when summoned, and backed up Venus (a.k.a ‘V’) when the latter was locked on a bird.
Though this last session was a bit shorter, there were still plenty of opportunities to watch their magic. On the last bird, V again was the first on-scene, with the Rockstar blocking the escape route. There was absolutely no movement from either the Brittany or Pointer as our group of four moved onto the dogs’ stage. The bird launched from between the two dogs’ noses. It was another beautiful chukar, and this time the shot caught up with the bird as he tried to zig into the treeline to our right. Like all her compatriots with whom we hunted, Venus dashed to the downed bird and then, head held high, trotted proudly back to deliver the bird to her master. We called it a day. There were birds and a shotgun to be cleaned, but, most of all, there were six lovely dogs to spend time thanking for providing such a wonderful day in the field. It may sound like hyperbole, but it is clear, even to this novice, that their handlers have trained up a set of artists who are masters of their craft. If these wonderful canines from South Fork are ever again willing, I will happily trail behind them through the rolling fields, bottomlands and open hardwood stands of the Georgia Piedmont.
Josie and Jessie, much to their dismay, were placed into their enclosure while Jacob suited up as the backer and Colby prepared to act as the guide. Sadie, the German Wirehaired Pointer and Jo-Jo, the Setter, were to accompany us on the second leg of our hunt on the South Fork Hunting Preserve, or maybe better put, we were to accompany them. Instead of wheat fields as our destination, we would head into the bottom land adjacent to a wide creek. However, our journey down did include our new companions coming across another bobwhite that took off like a rocket and was last seen heading toward South Carolina. Both barrels of the shotgun missed this time, and thus the retreating form was sent on its way by a ‘two-gun salute’, colorful language from the shooter and a “tsk tsk” from his incredibly-talented photographer/wife, Frances…
As we reached the bottomland, the dogs went ‘birdie’, or at least that’s what the trainers-cum-guides called it. There did seem to be a definite uptick in the urgency of the dogs’ movements, from no zig-zagging, to darting back-and-forth near water’s edge. It was Jacob who said, “I wonder if the birds heard us coming and flew across the stream?” Just then Sadie froze in front of a tiny clump of dead grass that didn’t appear large enough to hide even a small mouse. Colby signaled Jo-Jo to a halt, while Jacob led us toward Sadie’s’ position. The [significantly-larger-than-a-mouse] chukar exploded straight up, doing a very passable imitation of a towering woodcock. With the report from the first barrel, the bird descended back through the slowly-expanding cloud of feathers. Sadie had to wind her way through some dense groundcover to reach the downed bird, but appeared to relish the chance to bring back the game to her proud handler.
Our group headed out of the bottomland towards a grove of trees adjacent to another wheat field. As we made our way up the hillside, the beautiful surroundings – the green, gently-rolling farmland, the distant treeline and the azure sky – came into focus. There could be no better backdrop for the beautiful dogs that were once again working to-and-fro through the young wheat plants. We did not make it to the trees before the duo locked up once more into that lovely attitude seen in paintings.
Have you ever seen a melanistic form of the Chinese transplant that North Americans call, Pheasant? When the rooster exploded with a squawk, and with that feathers-in every-direction appearance, he looked like a small tom turkey. The series of photographs that Frances captured shows the shotgun being mounted and the hastily-departing rooster dropping from the sky after the first barrel was fired.
The bird was impressive in flight, but even more so when Sadie brought him back and we were able to examine his beautiful plumage and impressive spurs. The chukar and quail were beautiful, but this guy definitely took first prize. The taking of the rooster marked the end of our time with Sadie and Jo-Jo; we headed back toward the kennels, and the next set of dogs awaiting their release from pointer-prison.
Check out Chapter 1 here.
Next week: In the Company of Artists – Final Chapter
They gave fair warning. In fact, it seemed that they exchanged a look, shrugged their shoulders and then looked back as if to say, “Please don’t look for the bird on the ground. Look up.” ‘They’ were two beautifully-poised Brittanys, named Jessie and Josie Wales, heads cocked, eyes locked onto ‘their’ bird. It really was their bird, well, theirs’ and Jacob’s. Jacob was the guide, using hand signals to silently shift the two dogs one way or the other. Pellets from the top barrel dislodged some feathers, those from the bottom brought the chukar down. Jessie led the charge towards the falling body. Her retrieve was redolent of Robert Ruark’s wonderful renditions of his boyhood hunts for quail. As a matter of fact, just like Ruark’s dogs, the Brittany spat out the loose feathers before heading back into the midst of the wheat field, and her next bird.
The wheat fields, river bottoms and hardwood stands – all to be traversed in this outing after chukar, pheasant and bobwhite quail – were located outside Danielsville, Georgia. The hosts for this hunt were Colby Phillips and Jacob Nash, co-owners of South Fork Hunting Preserve. They were the reason for the wonderful cadre of spaniels, pointers and setters. Jacob and Colby train all of the dogs used on their property, currently 21 in number. We would be hunting behind three pairs of their companions/co-workers. Now, don’t get me wrong, Colby and Jacob were fantastic guides, but their dogs were something special.
It seemed that there was only a minute-or-two to briefly hold and examine the lovely chukar. Jessie and Josie wetted themselves in one of the small water tanks used as cooling-off stations for the dogs during warmer weather and then were once again on the move. It seemed to take only another minute for the two pointers to lock up on another bird. Once again, the bird was mostly missed with the first barrel of the 12-gauge, but at the report of the second it dropped. This time the dogs retrieved a hen pheasant. Again, there was only a moment or two for admiring the beauty of the creature before the dogs again took off. Crisscrossing the field in a way that looked like a choreographed dance, heads sometimes held down and sometimes in the air, they worked as a team to cover the most area. It was indeed choreography; the dogs had been trained by their handlers to ‘dance’ together, in a manner most likely to locate the game. This time the bird got up from directly under Josie’s nose. It was actually amazing that she chose not to snatch the bird out of the air, instead of waiting for the report of the shotgun. This time the pellets brought down a male bobwhite quail. The tobacco-stained coloration of the little bobwhite females is beautiful, but the bleached-white appearance of the cheek patches found on the males is even more striking. The downing of the quail marked the end of the two Brittanys’ work-day.
Next week: In the Company of Artists – Chapter 2