Thursday, February 19, 2015

Yellow shells

In the beginning there were reds, greens, blacks, blues and even an occasional purple. Whatever was in the box, and often whatever was cheapest.

There was one gun in the closet, a 12 gauge, and it served its purpose well. Anything with wings got the business end of it. The pump action never jammed and I lugged it through fields and swamps and woods and prairies through all seasons. We were inseparable.

And then came the lure of two barrels. Too many magazine articles, too many pictures of a man and his dog and his gun and that gun wasn't a pump action 12 gauge. For some reason I just had to have one, couldn't possibly be complete without one.

So pennies got socked away until a decent Browning came into the picture, a lighter gun than the 12 which seemed like a fringe benefit at the time. Part by chance and part by design this smaller gun took only one color.

20 ga shells

Over a period of years it became the gun that gets the call on nearly every outing. It was lighter, easier to tote all day, and when a shooting slump came along it emerged as the franchise player. Ducks and turkeys, on the rare occasions they are the main event, still demand the bigger stick. But for all else the pockets are filled with those yellow shells.

And now we are, for the most part, inseparable, although I've heard that once you try a 28 you'll never be the same.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tennessee Red

It's not whisky, as far as I know, and the BBQ joint in Portland with that name closed last year. More on this in a bit.

There are a number of places around our state, mostly well off the beaten path and not well-publicized, where a few intrepid souls have done the hard work of making the land friendly to quail. Through many, many conversations with wildlife and forestry people I'm slowly learning each of them, and learning that they're mostly on the other side of the state. Lick Fork Lake is one of these.

Sunrise through the trees
Conflicting weekend schedules sometimes demand pre-dawn departures, which isn't the worst thing that can happen to a guy and his dog. Scent conditions are ripe in the early morning hours and the birds are out feeding, casting their airborne trail in broader paths.

Got one pinned
We pulled in around 8:15 and by 8:30 the dog was locked up on point. A single bird flushed, I knocked it down, and it vanished in a gulley.  We looked and sniffed and poked around for 15 minutes and never found it.

Back to work and pretty quickly the dog was on point again and another single got up. And I whiffed with both barrels. Bag still empty.

A few minutes later another point, this time on a pair. I knocked down the first and missed the easy double, but marked that first one well. When I picked it up I noticed how well-fed it felt, a hefty bird for this time of year. Looking more closely I saw that it wasn't exactly what I thought it was.

Not quite a wild bird
These are what we call Tennessee Reds, a strain of quail bred in captivity and preferred by some breeders because of their hardiness. The chest and head feathers are a rusty brown on the hens and a cotton-white patch dominates the throat. After another hour of hunting the area and not finding any more birds, I started piecing it together. Someone must have been working his dog and put these birds out to train with. They were all good fliers, good enough that I thought they were wild until I picked up this one. They'd obviously been out for a while, maybe since last fall, and whether these were the lone survivors of a larger group or the lone survivors of that training session I don't know, but they put a smile on my face for one morning. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


If you do anything long enough, eventually all of the pieces line up for a performance that you never thought possible. Chamberlain scores 100, Bo Jackson on a Monday night in '87, Tiger at Augusta ten years later. Sometimes things just click and then keep on clicking and you feel like you couldn't ruin it if you wanted to, so you revel in it knowing the next time will be a long way off, if ever.

Reports out of South Texas last fall were beyond encouraging. Factoring in the standard embellishment and overexcitement multiplier they still suggested a pretty good season, so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit optimistic when I got the nod for an early January trip. I put off writing about it these last few weeks mainly to avoid sounding like a 7 yr old who's just spent a day with the Justice League, and I'm not sure I succeeded so just indulge me.

In quail hunting success is relative, geographically speaking. What passes for a good day here in SC would be considered somewhat of a disappointment in TX, so a good day in TX - and we're talking in terms of coveys found - is nearly unfathomable where I'm from. With the exception of one or two places where they take intensive management to a different level, and where I don't have hunting privileges, it just doesn't happen that you'll find 4-5 coveys an hour for as long as you choose to hunt. And just to be clear, I'm talking about wild birds.

What's truly surprising is that the only management done for these birds in TX is a little supplemental feeding on the roads during the season, and this is only to make them easier to find. The property is managed for trophy deer and the birds are simply a byproduct of proper cattle grazing and nature's benevolence.

Any day I can ride around big open country and find a few coveys of birds gets filed with the keepers. Any day I can find so many coveys that I stop counting gets its own file. Sure, after the first few coveys it's easy to keep up, but eventually you just lose yourself in finding the last bird someone shot or locating the dog on point. Each day I had to ask the handlers for the tally, which I've come to consider a good sign.

Without horses, GPS units for the dogs are a necessity.  You just can't see them even from the top of a rig, and once you get in the grass on foot they can disappear twenty yards in front of you. Every day we'd have a stretch when shooting singles or looking for dead birds that the handler would say "I got a point 100 yards that way" and we'd high-step it through the grass to another covey. This would happen three or four times before we'd decide to load up and head in another direction. It's the kind of shooting I've always read about and now through some strange combination of karma I'm the one telling the story.

I'd say it ruined me but that's not true. It's something close to the high water mark of my bird hunting adventures, no question, but I came home and loaded up my dog and went out looking for birds the next weekend.

Didn't find quite as many.