As the opening weekend grew closer my mind wandered further and further. I found myself daydreaming about the great hunts from the past and hopes for even better hunts still to come. I spend almost every night reading at least one Havilah Babcock story. Even though the days were still unseasonably warm, the evenings were getting cooler and the fall air was starting to creep in. I wanted to get the dogs out more often. Although, work and other engagements kept getting in the way. Despite this we did manage a few preseason outings to find our legs and reacquaint ourselves with the hedgerows, waterways and the fields that were littered with ragweed.
A week before season officially opened I started dragging out the gear I would eventually load into the pickup. All the collars were charged. The remnant feathers, sand, a few spent hulls and a couple of water bottles from last season were dumped out of the vest. I started piling up my hunting pants, chaps and the 15-year-old orange hoodie in a pile in the corner of the dining room. I have a need to know where all this stuff is. I can’t put it away in the closet or dresser, for fear of it being moved by an unknown being. The loose shells in the garage, the two vests, and the shell bag were all sorted and repackaged. I don’t think I have ever shot a full box of shells before getting into another box. How can I have this many loose shells randomly stashed everywhere? I finally decide anything bigger than a 7 1/2 would be stuffed into one box and labeled “pheasant” to save space. I reload the shell/gear bag after emptying everything it contained on the kitchen table, much to my wife’s disapproval. The season of random feathers in the house is now upon us.
I was on the road most of the week, returning home on Thursday evening in time to see the 3rd grade Veterans Day program. The kids and teachers did a great job and it was a vivid reminder that everything we are allowed to freely do in this country is a gift from those who have served. And to all the veterans, I thank you. That night we loaded up the pickup and drove for 5 hours. I had a full day of business appointments on Friday and then it was another few hours to the stomping grounds. We made it with just enough time to get the dog chores done and relax a little bit. I knew I wouldn’t sleep. I never do the night before.
The alarm finally sounded although it wasn’t needed. The slamming motel and pickup doors already had me awake. I slipped into my clothes and dawned a jacket, let the dogs out to stretch and relieve themselves. Stopping only to get a cup of coffee, I headed out-of-town in the predawn. It was a beautiful and crystal clear morning. The bank sign read 32 degrees. The faint breeze was barely enough to move the condensation in my breath.
As I collared Hide, my 6 yr old pointer, and Belle, my 3 1/2 yr old setter, I noticed I had the place all to myself. This made it all the better. I like hunting with others and enjoy the camaraderie in the field but there is rarely a more special hunt than one with a man alone with his dogs. I took a photo of the sun rising above the horizon and took my time enjoying the scenery while I started my walk. Fifteen minutes had not passed when I heard wings beating my heart into the ground. I jerked around to the front and see Hide standing with the wind drifting away from his nose. He stumbled into a covey on the wrong side but he had excellent manners and stood rigid while they flushed in three waves. I watched the birds filter down in the cover below the bench I was on, and then go straight to Hide to flush just in case. All tenants had vacated and I stroked his side before releasing him. I gathered up both dogs and we headed after the singles. I bumped one and missed as it flew straight away. Seconds later Hide stuck one and as I moved in, two quail rocketed up putting a tree between us and giving me no shot.
We moved through the area and bumped a few more birds, with no shots. It became apparent that the lack of a nice breeze wasn’t necessarily helping us. One about hit me in the face when it vaulted from the ground. I spun around and whiffed with both barrels. Belle cut across right in front of me and froze. I grabbed my camera and snapped a picture that would never make a magazine cover. They can’t always point em’ high on both ends. I flushed that bird right in front of her face and she cussed me when I failed to hold up my end of the deal. I chuckled at myself for the ridiculous display of shotgunning. …It’s..Back….
I had enough and made the decision to move on, look for another bevy and calm myself down. We searched for a while before we hit paydirt again. This time it was Belle that had a stop to flush. As frustrating as it was, I didn’t get upset with this situation. She did the same thing Hide did. Popped over a little rise and into a feeding covey with the wind at her back. She stood as 5 or 6 birds busted from the sage. I walked in front to flush and couldn’t produce a bird so I went back and released her. She dropped back down the hill and I stayed up top, walked another 30 yards and stumbled into the rest of the birds. The status quo didn’t change. I gathered both dogs and gave them a good drink. This time they worked the singles with a little less charge and they put on a show. I didn’t do my part with either the 20 gauge or the camera. On top of missing more times than I want to admit, these birds outwitted us. I had to pass on multiple shots as these little rockets skirted the ground low and put the dogs in between me and them along with using the brush as a shield. I can’t shoot, the dogs probably hate me, it’s getting hot and we’re out of water. They win.
I decided to leave the camera in the truck during then next walk. I seriously needed to make some changes in my shooting or this was going to be the worst opener ever. It was getting warmer and I had moved several miles to a new area where I had found some scaled quail in the past. I turned Nelly loose, (4 yr old pointer) and Luke (1 yr old pointer) the newbie. We covered a lot of ground and Nell got birdy a few times and finally pointed. By the time I got to her I couldn’t produce any birds for the gun. We wasted a lot of time trying to find them again and never did get it done. On the way back to the truck I bumped a covey of bobs and I watched them down. Nelly found the birds in short order. Luke came and backed her with a little encouragement on my part. I walked in to flush where I just knew the birds were and I was wrong. They flushed behind me and to the right. I wheeled around and …yeah….
I was licking my wounds and thought I had better let the dogs rest. By this time the laughing was replaced with something else. I decided to go scout out a place for tomorrow. As luck would have it I flushed a single scalie as I was driving out. I hurriedly geared up, put Hide and Nelly down, and marched in the direction the single went. I worked the hillside hoping to find the others but that didn’t pay off, but we kept chugging along. About 200 yards over the hill, I found Hide standing stiff as a board. I moved in and flushed a lone bird. It fell. Let me repeat that. It fell. As in dead. The monkey is off my back. Two more birds burst from near the tall cactus. I air-balled on the back bird. At the second shot about 40 more erupted. It was by far the biggest covey rise I have ever witnessed. We spent the next 45 minutes chasing the shooting blues away. The dogs did an outstanding job working the singles, pairs and small groups. It was plenty warm but the wind had picked up enough to help us out. I finally connected on several shots and both dogs made retrieves. The dogs were spent and I was tired but smiling again. I headed back to the truck humbled and grateful.
The next day was more of the same. My shooting did improve though and I had knocked down close to a limit before noon. Nelly was the dog of the day with more finds than any mediocre shooter would need. Luke proved that he might have a little bird dog in him with his very first solo find and retrieve. I really wish I had the camera with me for his first pointed covey but I had all but given up on trying to shoot and take photos. I had to wrap up early and head back to the real world. In the end it was still a great way to spend time in God’s creation. The lesson from this hunt: Be thankful for the opportunity and enjoy the pursuit.
When I dumped all the empty hulls out of my vest and put them next to the birds, I laughed at my horrible average and almost took a picture. Almost… because it wasn’t that funny.
Luke, waiting for marching orders.
The tell-tale sign.
A few for later this week.
Keep the passion Stay addicted