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Posts Tagged ‘quail’

I have a confession to make. I am not a gun geek. To me, they are tools. I live for bird dogs, so if it’s history, heritage, performance or aesthetics, that’s where I make the emotional and financial investment.

That said, guns are an integral part of my chasing-after-dogs-and-birds life. If after a tail-stiffening point, I don’t shoot a cackling pheasant as it towers skyward, I’m disappointed and my dogs are devastated. Guns are the ticket to a wild ride that gets better every day.

Shotguns become currency in my world, and while not at the level of Bill Gates, I am lucky enough to be able to give some away in hopes of cultivating the love of hunting in others. My first “real” gun went to a down-on-his-luck printing press operator whose only firearm had finally shaken to pieces. When we next talked hunting, his downcast eyes said it all: it was over for him. I hope he’s still jump-shooting ducks off that river we both love, with the shotgun that had gathered dust in my safe.

My brother was a reluctant co-star on one of my TV show episodes and at the end of that day, I gifted him the over-under he’d borrowed. Thousands of sporting clays rounds, my first pheasant, and two loyal dogs were like deep scratches on the stock of that sleek American-made beauty … memories that will never be erased. We will reunite next fall in the field, is my promise to my brother and that shotgun.

At a shooting clinic, a young high schooler was missing more than hitting, surprising for a “natural,” as I’d been told. She was trying hard to learn from a master, shoot better and represent her school proudly, but was hampered by an ill-fitting and malfunctioning shotgun. I lost sleep that night, thinking about her long soul-searching drive home, the after-action report to her coach and teammates, and her slackened hopes for competition in the coming school year.

I sent her one of mine. An elegant Italian over-under that deserved better than I could ever offer. Intricate engraving, the lines of a sports car, I hope it served her well; asked her to pay it forward when she got her next one and give it away – again.

Shotguns from television sponsors have become prizes in my ongoing effort to recruit newcomers to our sport. Often, they’re lent to youngsters on their first hunt. Each helped tell a story, about mothers and sons, rekindled childhood memories, of brothers and friends, teens and middle-aged beginners. I’m hoping those firearms are helping create life-long hunters and conservationists – who then recruit their own new hunters.

I have visitation rights to the only shotgun that I might regret having given away: a Spanish side-by-side that served me well for almost a decade. Functional like a Ford F-150, no bells or whistles it was built by craftsman to be “workmanlike.” I carried it up countless draws in chukar country, dinged it chasing quail, Huns, pheasants and ducks. It suffered indignity after indignity, including a failed attempt to learn to shoot left-handed when a friend and I bent the stock.

Light and whippy, it was the gun I learned to really shoot with, one lesson tallied 1,000 rounds in a day. I hit more than I missed that day, and was indebted to that sublime example of Basque metalworking for many birds pointed, then retrieved, by four different dogs.

But I’d moved on, was using “better” guns by the time my hunting buddy asked about it while we caught our breath on a desolate mountain top. Sure, it was in the truck. It was the third string on that hunt, should my two “good” guns fail. The look in his eye, the longing he had for a gun that had been his companion as much as mine in those scabby hills, well, that said it all. And he was left-handed.

Twice a season, we meet again on some scabby piece of the West. I re-acquaint myself with that example of simple elegance, usually as the gun, me, and my friend are huffing and puffing up another volcanic slope in pursuit of chukars. He shoots it much better than I ever did, which I guess is proof it is now in the hands of its rightful owner.

Taking good care of my guns, even if they’re only a means to an end, makes sense. They are then ready, willing, and able to serve their higher purpose: helping others in their own pursuit of birds and beautiful places in the company of good friends and family.

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I doubt he knows the difference.

I doubt he knows the difference.

Why do you hunt?

“Being able to watch your young dog come into his own.”

“My Springer Bonnie. It’s not a day in the field without her.”

In my viewer surveys virtually all of you said something similar. Dogs rule, and we hunt so we can watch them perform magic in the field.

So why condemn pen-raised birds?

One reason might be our own biases. I’m not judging your leanings, mine are probably similar. But if we’re honest about the pre-eminence of dog work to our experience, why aren’t well-raised planted birds just as valuable?

Do dogs ignore the scent of a liberated bird, while pointing a wild bird? Show me the evidence. For that matter, can you distinguish a well-raised planted bird from a wild bird without looking at the peeper hole in the beak?

Does your dog’s tail droop when pointing planted birds? At a preserve, does he trot instead of gallop, boot-lick rather than range? When you command “fetch,” does he spit out planters?

“Watching a setter work in a beautiful field on a gorgeous day is always the best day.”

Maybe it’s all in our heads, and I get that. We love wild places, untrammeled ground, off-the-grid coverts. But that’s not what we’re talking about (or is it?). Unless a covert resembles something from a Mad Max movie, I wonder if your dog cares whether it is aesthetically pleasing or simply a bird-holding environment.

But how wild is wild? Beyond the quails and grouses, virtually every upland bird we shoot at was planted at some point. Do you shun chukar hunters because their birds were planted in Nevada in the thirties? Wild pheasants are simply descendants birds Judge Owen Denny “released” on his Oregon farm in the 1880’s, or similar, later efforts in Redfield, South Dakota, etc. Gotta problem with that?

“Wild hatched” might be a better description of the birds some cherish more than their domestically-reared cousins. But why can’t we value a released bird that acts just like its wild counterpart, much as our dogs do.

“Seeing the dogs do what they were born to do.”

We’ve all encountered bad planted birds, bad apples that spoiled entire barrels of good introduced birds. They flounder instead of flushing, our dogs catch them on the ground, and nobody’s happy, especially the birds. But many of us have also encountered released birds that thunder, tower and jink just like wild birds.

My dogs don’t seem to know the difference and truth be told, I’ll bet yours don’t either.

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Proud pup. I mean, pop.

Proud pup. I mean, pop.

There was no point. No quivering tail, lifted leg. Not a single fluttering nostril or bulging eyes.

I didn’t take a shot. Didn’t even have a shotgun. No anticipation and certainly not any expectation.

But the lone valley quail we encountered today was responsible for one of those moments. You know, one of the rare, fleeting moments amateur bird dog trainers hope for.

All the work, the drudgery and drills, mind-numbing practice sessions came together when Manny crashed into the tall sage from upwind. A hen bird whirred out of the bush, jetting right over Manny’s stationary head.

You read that right. Stationary, as in stopped to flush. Just like the books and videos, the very situation magazine writers brag about. The sound and sight of a flushing bird anchored Manny’s paws to the ground in our real world, just like everyone says it’s supposed to happen. If he wanted to, he could have opened his fuzzy, bearded muzzle and swallowed her whole. But he watched the feathered rocket sail off, calm and collected and waiting for his next command.

I’m hoping it will someday be such a common occurrence I’ll get blase’ about it. Until then, WOO-HOO!

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california_quail_glamorI shot one quail today, and it kind of spoiled the hunt.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that often the best part of the hunt is not the killing, it’s everything else. And we had some of that.

Cobalt blue sky, a couple inches of snow glistening like diamond dust as the dogs dashed back and forth, grateful for I don’t know what, but they were on fire. No competition, the place abandoned on a Thursday after Christmas. The white blanket softened ambient sound, footfalls muffled. A raven complained about our presence half-heartedly before flapping off in a sulk.

We motored from spot to spot, exhausting my inventory of birdy spots on this patch of public ground. I rotated dogs, disappointing one every time the other got his chance. By the end of the day, just one cover harbored a small covey. They’d been sunning on a snow-free south-facing slope under a juniper tree, flushing well before Manny got a whiff of them. That’s a wild covey for ya.

The lingering scent put him into high gear, galloping up the ridge and slip-sliding into the shadows of a steep draw. Sidehilling in snow is never easy, but I’ve had worse. So when Manny locked up at the base of a sagebrush I was actually close to ready, shotgun at port arms. The quail was two trees away by the time I swung on her, a hard left-right crosser at 40 yards downhill.

She tumbled, Manny careening toward her before the trembling stopped. When he delivered to hand, the tone of the day was changed. It wasn’t better or worse, just different.

You know what I mean.

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We'll see, won't we?

I was issued a hall pass for the day before Christmas Eve … are you jealous yet? Just one day, so close to home was the number-one criterion. Someplace undiscovered was my second priority. Hmmmm. Tough list already.

A chance glimpse at one of the dozens of maps lying around the shop sealed the deal: a famous steelhead river beckoned … well-known for its aquatic denizens, its side draws and finger canyons might hold valley quail and chukars. And this time of year, if I encounter anyone it’ll be a lonely, shivering steelheader not a bird hunter.

I’ll be celebrating, in a way. Not only is it the day before we quaff eggnog and finish decorating the tree. It’s just one day removed from the winter solstice. The longest night of the year, followed by the shortest day.

Our hunter ancestors feared the dark, long nights. We who live in homes, not caves, merely tolerate the inconveniences. But we revel in the longer days, even if the sun only gives us one more minute of its presence each day, even if those days portend the end of hunting season, even if in one way summer has started.

A lump of coal in my stocking couldn’t spoil this Christmas gift.

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