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Posts Tagged ‘valley quail’

Good boy!

Good boy!

Whirrrrrrr! A long, dry slog down canyon went from relaxed camaraderie to high alert as four valley quail flushed wild on both sides of us. Manny’s attention was seized, he arrived at the scene of the crime quickly, snuffling the lingering scent like a starving man picks crumbs to ensure there were no stragglers.

The remainder of the downhill stroll was like a night patrol in a Vietnam jungle, eyes and ears wide open for every peep and rustle in the pungent sage. Our Texas visitor thought birds had hooked left, so we sidehilled in that direction a hundred feet above the swampy creek bottom, sometimes on hands and knees. Then, barely perceptible, a rustle in the juniper preceded the bird’s fleeting escape, downhill and over the cattail swamp at the bottom of the ravine.

One shot, bird down. Right in the middle of a football-field-sized tangle of mud, creek, beaver dams, cattails and berry vines … the sharp, thorny kind. The graveyard of forever-lost quail, I thought. The shooter marked the bird and stayed put, eyes glued on the spot where the bird had fallen.

Hmmmm. This looks familiar. A classic NAVHDA duck search, sans duck. Manny and I slid to the bottom and I sent him into the mess with a “dead bird – fetch!” He was daunted by the head-high stalks that fought back, mud that sucked at his feet and berry canes that tore his hide. A few minutes and he emerged, dirty, wet, birdless. But he stood calmly facing the web of vegetation, waiting for direction. I sent him again.

It was then I remembered training advice from an Idaho trip. I scrambled to the canyon wall before finding throwing-sized rocks, whose plunks and plonks tempted Manny farther and farther into the mire. We all listened, intent, to brush rattling, panting dog, mucky footfalls. Sometimes he was so deep in the vegetation all we saw was the faint quivering of cattail tops marking his route.

Then, nothing.

Stillness.

Rustle of stalks, splash of feet, but no panting … but I soon breathed easier. A long two minutes later Manny emerged with – I swear – the most humble look on his fuzzy face I’ve ever seen on a dog. Maybe because he was gently holding the quail in his mouth.

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Hard-earned birds. Good boy Buddy!

Hard-earned birds. Good boy Buddy!

Wild birds? Yah, we got ’em. The newest show in our archives was shot at Flying Double F Ranch near Vale, Ore.  If you love burning boot leather and shooting while huffing and puffing, go here and enjoy!

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Where the retrieves are always a challenge.

I try to visit this spot twice a year, near the opener and to put a fork in the season when it’s done. But this year, duty called and I was in Illinois (or was it Nebraska?) or somewhere else for all I know, when our season launched.

A chance remark at the feed store led me to invite one of my training club friends to this special spot, which now that I think about it, is also becoming a tradition. Joel brought his French Spaniels Hank and Dottie; it would be my first chance to see this rare breed work. Weather, spectacular: azure skies with wisps of cloud to make the photos pop. Cool enough for good dog work but not bad enough for another layer of clothing.

But Mother Nature’s promise was, for our first stretch of streambed, unfulfilled. Dogs worked well (one  of Joel’s, one of mine), cover was varied and challenging. But the quail hadn’t received my memo, I guess. We regrouped at the truck and headed for the next stretch.

Truck by Columbia Overland. Scenery by Mother Nature.

Manny got the call from my kennel; Dottie from Joel’s. Soon, a quail burred out of the blackberries, dropping to Joel’s 28 gauge. Marked well, it was still a puzzle to both dogs, splashing back and forth in the creek and bucking the tangle of roots and willows along its banks. That’s when another pit-pitted from a cottonwood grove, falling to my instinctive shot (maybe you, too, shoot better when totally surprised). She dropped in the short grass on top and Manny skidded to a stop, grab, and retrieve to hand. He soon reinforced my admiration when I asked him to go back to the matter at hand (paw?), demonstrated a strong search and find on Joel’s bird and then we were back at it.

Watching the spaniels move so elegantly, I was reminded in turn of an English Setter’s grace, then the exuberance of a Springer (until they pointed, of course, for these spaniels stand birds just like their Brittany brethren).

Apparently, blackberries were the shelter du jour, because our first bonafide find was Manny’s, downwind of a head-high hill of the tasty fruit. From above, we watch his tail twitch into rigidity and one front leg come slowly to his chest. Birds up! Shots boomed! One tumbled into a ten-foot high tangle of alder, where I could see it, but would need a cherry picker to get it. Another shot dislodged it, and Manny slithered through the roots and branches and again presented it to my outstretched hand, where I held it while he inhaled more of the delicious scent.

French. Spaniel. Points.

On the way back, Joel dropped another quail in exactly the same spot as my first. A certain German Wirehair dashed from the streambed, ruffing toward the fluttering bird. A mouthful of feathers, race to his master, and another express delivery. Woo-hoo! I wonder if Manny realized he’d been there and done that just an hour before?

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Mine? Beyond my wildest expectations. That was our chukar and valley quail opening weekend. Our annual “Boy’s Weekend” at 1) our usual camp spot (unoccupied); 2) weather threatened but skies brightened; 3) a gigantic quail covey not 50 yards from camp – woohoo!

Highlights: Buddy worked hard, finding down birds when nobody else could. Dave’s pup Buster joining the fraternity of bird dogs – the light went on when he understood what retrieving was all about. Manny’s elegant point on that big covey – where’s a camera when you need one?

Buddy hunted along the stream with Dave and Mike while I got Manny out of the truck, and I don’t know if there’s a more gratifying feeling than watching your dog help someone else by pointing, then retrieving chukars. Now, if only our shooting matched the dog work!

And only at Fields Station in southeast Oregon can you run into old friends from New Jersey!

Finally, after passing by for decades, we stopped to hunt a new canyon: steeper than everything nearby, the toughest climbing up and down dangerous scree slopes … but all was forgotten when the fourth, fifth, and sixth coveys of chukars thundered aloft.

This is the place.

You'd be tired, too, if you retrieved so many birds!

When we started hunting this patch, it was a whole, dead cow.

Good boy!

Maiden voyage for the Aliner Expedition ... sweet!

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What do you think this means?

I was beginning to wonder how the long, wet spring had affected hatch rates on our local valley quail population. For weeks, I’d been woken up by their calls, from every direction around the house, and watched pairs coming for the water in our backyard. But no chicks.

On a post or a plate, wonderful!

Here’s where it gets eerie: our monthly gabfest of guys was that night, and I was marinating some valley quail breasts taken from that dark corner of the U.S. I can’t tell you more about. Buddy’s turn to run, so the gate opens, he lights out, and … vanishes!

As I get clear of civilization, the telltale pitt-pitt of a panicked covey breaks the silence. Rounding a corner, there’s Buddy locked solid and a quail cock doing the distraction thing – three-foot flights that drive a pointing dog crazy. Then, the best thing that happened to me all day: a covey flush of tiny, feathered bumblebees – chicks not a few days old, all scattering to tree limbs, sage brush and the far horizon.

Buddy still locked, looking to me for direction.

Praise, heeling away, and a great run for us both. And then …

Driving to the barbecue with my marinated quail (see below), the black pavement of my country road is suddenly striped with an animated line of more chicks, mom riding point and dad riding drag.

It’s gonna be a great quail season.

Do you seek meaning in the little things? What’s your season looking like?

My go-to game bird marinade:

– Some red wine.

– Some Italian salad dressing (no parmesan cheese)

– Some Grey Poupon mustard

Mix them all in a Zip-Loc bag. Soak birds or bird pieces for a couple hours. Throw ’em on a hot grill until rare.

Serve with your favorite beverage and good friends, and bring enough to share with non-hunters.

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So, what does a guy who makes TV shows about bird hunting do in his free time? Goes bird hunting, of course.

I had a hall pass for the day, not enough time to head for my usual haunts. It forced me to visit some trout fishing country that was closer and pioneer some new country, ostensibly for chukars. Some bonuses: saw the truck of a training partner, avoided the frozen fog that was plaguing higher elevations and ran into another giant covey of valley quail (the topknot gods have smiled on me in recent weeks). And while the chukars hadn’t gotten the memo, it was not a total bust, as you’ll see.

For those who haven’t been on a chukar hunt, here is a typical afternoon, boiled down to a couple minutes by an executive producer (me), not an editor (like Wingshooting USA’s Tad Newberry). Tighten your bootlaces, hydrate well and enjoy!

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The canyon yawns, and yields a few quail

The canyon yawns, and yields a few quail

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.]

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