That old saying “You can never go home again” is never truer than when you’re locked out of favorite hunting spots. When you’re blocked from other nearby coverts, the phrase burns deeper into your consciousness, begins to have real meaning on a personal level.
That was yesterday’s leg of the Awesome Upland Road Trip.
One of closest reliable quail and chukar coverts to me, the Deschutes River is better known for its summer steelhead fishing this time of year. Anglers were out in force. The winding road that parallels this mighty desert stream was choked with parked trucks, and every good drift had a wader-clad hopeful bracing himself in its currents.
Curses, foiled again. And again.
Smug in the belief that if the steelheaders were occupied, I’d have the draws and side canyons to myself, I hurried to my first hotspot. Fresh, bright “No trespassing” signs were sprouting like dandelions in my lawn.
A second canyon harbored two Jeeps at its base. A third hosted four deer hunters glassing the slopes.
Another set of no trespassing signs and a bright new barbed-wire fence across a favored cleft in the rocks eroded my optimism further. It also begged the question: why are so many patches now off limits? Was it the (realistic) fear of range fire? Inconsiderate litterbugs? Too many fellow hunters spilling the beans? Kids partying late at night? Leased to a rich doctor-hunter from the city?
I never inquired at the small café upstream, where the coffe’s always hot, if weak. We know that all of the above are true too often, and we are left to shift for ourselves, extending our range just as a covey must when conditions require.
Best for last
Ever hopeful, I’d saved the best for last. This magical draw held promise and magic and it was all mine. I always feel a little funny suiting up for a hunting trip in front of a bunch of anglers who may not quite appreciate the catch-and-cook ethic hunters must (rightly) embrace. But the sun was out, air brisk, we were there, Buddy was pacing in the back and life was (soon to be) good.
In the desert, every drop of water brings life. The banks of the Deschutes are still vivid green, cottonwoods and alders soon to turn gold and red. This draw, my draw, hosts a series of massive blackberry thickets nurtured by and hiding a trickle that starts in the cattle country at its top, and tumbles downhill as a foot-wide creek before adding its flow to the Deschutes. Even a low spot on a flat rock collects life-giving water for a few animals until it freezes or evaporates.
If you’re lucky, there are birds at the bottom and the top. The two miles in between have never produced. In a good year, chukars and valley quail at both ends. In a bad year, a few quail hold on by their claws near the few remaining pools of life-giving water the desert begrudgingly gives up.
Buddy was primed and more than ready. Unclip the lead and he’s off! Swirling winds old-timers call “boxing the compass” portend a weather change, as well as urging Buddy to swap canyon sides regularly, sussing out the subtle currents near the bottom.
All the way up, and nothing but false points borne of anticipation, not bird scent. Near the bottom again, a quickening in Buddy’s attitude. The telltale prancing gait slowing into a lockup. Marveling at the pointer-like posture – right foreleg tucked, tail and head high – the birds erupted from the vines, clattering through thorns and dry leaves, clearing the thicket and rocketing up canyon. A top-knotted quail cock tumbled into the sage at my shot, a straggler rose while I was reloading, safe for now.
The rest of the small covey was given a hall pass to ensure a remnant population over winter and into breeding season. I’ve crossed that canyon off my list for the rest of the season, wondering if maybe, sometimes, you can still go home, sort of.
[Tell me in the comment section below where you’d wear a new pair of Irish Setter boots and hunting jacket, and you might win them. Thanks to Irish Setter and Tri-Tronics for making the Awesome Upland Road trip possible. See you out there.]
[And listen to Field & Stream Radio for audio postcards from the Awesome Upland Road Trip.]