September 23, 2010
Quail hunting was once the sport of the common man.
We had dogs to put up against those of the finest
We called it "patch hunting" but it was much like running a rural mail route. Come opening day of quail season, we would set out on a circle tour (more or less) with stops at all the birdy places we'd noted during off-season and at any suspicious looking new coverts. Whatever this activity might be called, the only resemblance it bore to the gentlemanly pursuit we read about in southern sporting journals was that we were in the South.
For one thing, we did not have the luxury of a well-tended plantation with miles of groomed pathways on which to ride groomed walking horses. Instead of mule wagons and mint juleps, we drove rusty trucks and drank stale coffee. And we hardly ever wore ties and shooting jackets to the field.
Forty-percent blueing was exceptional color for the guns we carried, and if there was a classic side-by-side or two in the gun rack it had a dinged, oil-soaked stock. Most of us shot 12-gauge autos and were not in the game to look classy.
The prevailing opinion of the grits 'n gravy set was that the more birds killed over our dogs, the better, and that was about all the training they needed. The best of the pups I followed had a couple hundred or more wild bobwhites to fetch every hunting season, and they were as birdy and canny as a pointing dog can be.
Typical hunting grounds for us were about 20 acres, not 20,000 as for the plantation gentry. There were some half-section and larger tracts but we looked to those for more than one or two coveys. In those days, we could pattern the birds' location throughout the day with pretty remarkable accuracy, it being common to put dogs on the ground within a few yards of the birds. But then, the bobwhites of that era seldom "shuffled" more than a half-mile in autumn, whereas today's quail have adapted to their changing environment by sometimes migrating to new coverts more than 30 miles distant. My friends and I could identify quail-occupied cover with boring certainty while barreling past it at highway speed. Then, I knew at a glance which habitat held birds but, for the life of me, I could not explain to anyone else what to look for. And nowadays I have no idea what to look for, myself.
It took a lot of wild coveys to supply a kennel full of bird dogs. I mapped them. Beginning with opening day each year, every covey I flushed or heard was marked down on detailed maps. For the first half of the season, new coveys were added and I rarely, if ever, revisited those pinpointed coveys until after Christmas.
That's usually when my dad and other dignitaries showed up for a visit expecting to see birds and bird dogs at work. And that is when we would start over again at Map Coordinate One. Most years, we had identified from 60 to 100 coveys by mid-December, but other hunters always managed to displace a few of "our" coveys while we were off adding new Xs to our map. Of course, avian and four-footed predators, and other environmental disturbances kept us from revisiting a few of the marked coveys, too. By and large, we were able to find enough new replacements with which to finish out the season, and it always amazed us how to see how many birds remained undisturbed until we returned a month or two after first registering them. That there were next generation coveys near the same Xs year after year attests to the soundness of our scheme of leaving some birds for seed--right up until developers built condos and strip malls all over our map coordinates. So much for posterity.
Before 12 o'clock tails became a fashion statement for pointers, our pups found birds with their tails set at all hours.
Don't get me wrong. Neither we redneck yahoos nor the plantation dandies of the time were without sin. One custom I'll like to forget was that of gaining the upper hand over headstrong pups by peppering them with birdshot, a tactic no longer favored by most gun dog folks. Not surprisingly, there were some bird dogs out there with so much lead in their hides that they could have served as X-ray shields, and some were accidentally made gun-shy, injured or killed by this imprecise practice. Latter-day hunters, handlers and their dogs are much better off for improved correction methods and electric training aids.
Ingress could also be a forgettable issue. As an attorney, one of my hunting associates resolved contentious domestic and business disputes with his heart-warming charm and winning smile. A bit careless when it came to protocol perhaps, but he was remarkably persuasive. I didn't give it a second thought when he proclaimed he had permission to hunt a tract that I knew required the equivalent of a congressional invitation to access. It was crawling with quail, and the lawyer invited me to come along.
It didn't occur to me to question our standing on the citrus grove we crossed on our way to the private hunting grounds, either, even when my chum stuffed his pockets with oranges and began leaving a long trail of peelings behind him. We saw the dust cloud at almost the same time we heard the pickup truck coming at us, its engine screaming like an open-wheel Indy car. I could tell that the driver was out of sorts even before he skidded to a four-wheel slide-stop in front of us. His face was bright lavender as he sprang from the cab and the veins in his neck were about to pop.
As I looked around for a tree to climb, the lawyer rushed to greet the seething landowner, switching a half-eaten orange to his left hand while extending his right. The owner didn't seem to believe his own eyes when he found himself shaking hands with the object of his intense ire.
Holding the dogs, I watched from a safe enough distance that it was hard to hear just what the man was growling at the attorney through tightly clenched teeth. But I could make out the words "maggot" and "jail" among a few unprintable ones. Almost in mid-epithet, the owner's demeanor started to change and the confrontation suddenly seemed more like a reunion. I don't know what was being said, but the hot-headed landowner got a bag out of his truck and gave it to my friend, at the same time pointing toward the far side of the grove. The two were chatting amiably as he got in his truck and drove off.
"He says there's a covey at the other end of the grove we ought to try," the lawyer explained as we resumed our trek. "Have an orange. He said we should pick a sack full on our way back."
With young legs, lots of wild birds with which to train, and well-bred trainees to start with, we h
ad bird dogs to put up against those of the best plantation kennels. They learned how to find wild birds in the impossible cover quail prefer. They were not the ground-gainers of present day all-age field trials, but they were lightning fast and covered all the right places.
Take Doc for example. He got his start in life as the casualty of a broken home. His best friend had to leave home and could not take Doc with him. So, as the divorce proceeded, the pup got mangy and wormy. Though it was hard on Doc, it was lucky for me, as I could not have afforded such a blueblood pointer except at the distress sale price.
What set Doc apart from all the others in my gun dog database was his compulsive desire to know what I wanted of him. Most socialized sporting dogs are eager to please their teachers. But after I took Doc to raise and trained him to "come" and "whoa," he began to constantly search my expression and tone for clues to what I wanted him to do. If I wasn't happy, he wasn't happy. But when I was Doc was the most cheerful performer I've ever followed.
Because of Doc's unusual need to do my bidding, he was always learning. I taught him hand signals, which he executed like a non-slip retriever. Doc mastered that and other show-off stunts, as well as the usual obedience stuff with little or no repetition. In no time at all Doc learned that bobwhites made me happy and he set out to find them all.
People tend to stare toward the heavens when someone reminisces glowingly of images from a long time passing. But, when it comes to old-time, potluck quail hunting, the good old days really were better.