I am at the mouth of a canyon that harbors the bones of prehistoric horses and mastodons, an ancient seabed now covered with sage and juniper. The trickle of water in the tiny creek is, ironically, the only moisture in a place that was once awash in saltwater. The rugged spires of lava at the junction of stream and canyon, resembling giant teeth for titanic prehistoric residents of the area, serve as sentinels for the beautiful little birds we seek.
Generations of valley quail have come to that series of tiny pools seeking life-giving water. We come too, seeking a connection to this ancient place, and of course, quail.
We were working “unplugged,” as the e-collar is lost in the ether of my shop somewhere, and it was a refreshing change. I love my Tri-Tronics, and the beeper has proven its worth over and over. But going without means you have to pay close attention to everything around you: Buddy’s footfalls in the dry leaves. The rustle of grass as he bulls through a field, the deafening silence as you anticipate a flush, heart pounding.
Without artificial aid, you become 100 percent predator. Your senses are focused, you become one with the environment in a way you cannot during the week. You live entirely in the moment. The real “real world” absorbs you, and vice-versa. And the visceral bond between hunter and hunting dog is sealed.
I approached the steep edge of the streambed to find Buddy searching for me from the corner of his eye as he pointed a jumble of blackberry vines. My approach cued the valley quail to a whirring flush, and one presented a left-right crossing shot even I couldn’t muff.
As stragglers squirted out in ones and twos, I fumbled for more shells until the covey was a fond memory. Buddy is getting more keen to retrieve, and once going in the general direction he belly crawled his way through a pile of downed alders to deliver the cock bird, proudly plumed and vividly colored.
Winter’s premature darkness threatened, so we drove past a number of other nooks and crannies on the to-do-someday list, heading for the bend in the creek that promises on every visit. Going upstream and upwind, we crashed through wild roses and head-high Canada thistle. Buddy locked, then the tail quivered. A re-set, then abandon of the birdy-looking hold. A ground track produced a solid point, and soon birds erupted in a cloud from the muddy ground while I was still admiring the tabelau.
This covey was bigger than the last and rose in two waves. I took my reprieve gratefully, dropped a hen bird on the other side of the swampy stream and sent Buddy for the retrieve. Where to cross? Deep water, mud, thicket … and thankfully a beaver dam. Across, down, a floating quail and a retrieve to hand.
Back when this was the edge of an ancient sea, every animal was oversized: giant hippos, beavers the size of bears, even the dragonflies dwarfed our present day eagle. I’ve not seen historical records of quail from back then, but doubt they could be any bigger – in our minds – than they are on the days our dog performs joyously and beautifully.
[Where would you hunt in your new Irish Setter boots and jacket? Tell me, below, and you might win a pair.]