My father hunted birds from horseback with English pointers in the rural Mississippi Delta in the years before the Second World War. "Birds" were quail. I suppose that no other upland species was as sought after or deserving of the generic term "bird."That was in the days when quail were larger, flew straighter and never entertained the notion of landing in a tree or on a wire. My father always had bird dogs then. It's hard to find a family photo from that period that doesn't include at least some portion of one or more liver-spotted pointers.
By the time I came along we were a post-war suburban family living in a small house on a small lot surrounded by hundreds of other small houses on small lots. We never had bird dogs. I think that my father had given up the idea of doing much hunting when he moved to the city, and he didn't like the idea of keeping dogs confined.
We were lucky to have a place to hunt and fish on a friend's 100 acres. On our frequent Saturday trips, my father usually fished, even during the winter; but I would switch over to hunting each fall. I learned to wing-shoot by breaking clay pigeons that he threw with a hand trap inherited from my uncle. The only problem with applying that to quail hunting was that the pigeons decelerated while the quail accelerated, and the pigeons never once dodged a tree. I blame the latter shortcoming for the fact that I still hit more tree trunks and branches in the woods than I do quail.
But I got where I could occasionally bag a few birds from the couple of coveys that stayed on that hundred acres of pasture and woodland. I wasn't so single-minded then, pursuing squirrels, rabbits, and quail all at the same time. This slow-moving, quiet, stalking type of hunting taught me that I could occasionally find quail before they exploded from under my feet.
I learned to listen for the soft crunching sound of coveys moving through dry leaves, for those peeping alarm cries when they sensed my presence and for the distant covey rise that I wouldn't hear at all if I was making too much noise.
I shot few quail in those days but, nevertheless, I developed a love for the bird, its habits and its flavor. Since then I've continued to hunt mostly without dogs. I am lucky if I bird hunt a dozen times during the season, and it just isn't worth it to me to train, feed, confine and provide medical benefits to dogs year round for that amount of hunting.
And I guess I never really got used to hunting with dogs, since the opportunity to do so was so rare. I have encountered hunters with dogs who spend much of their time scolding, blowing a whistle at or searching for their dogs. If I want to spend the day trying to instill discipline in free spirits, I can stay at home with my two preschoolers.
I admit that my picture of a perfect hunt still includes three faithful pointers locked onto a covey erupting into a cold clear sky in a thinly-wooded landscape. But, in my experience, that perfect scenario recorded by so many wildlife artists is the exception rather than the rule.
Most of the time bird hunting without dogs is a lot of walking for a few difficult shots at speedy targets. You have to love it. You'll never justify the effort by the amount of poultry that you bring home. You have to enjoy toting a shotgun all day long, watching other wildlife that you encounter, investigating the progress of winter, getting away from your normal routine and just shooting enough birds for a meal for yourself and maybe one other person.
If you're the type of person who enjoys these experiences, I recommend stalking the wild quail. Don't let your lack of access to bird dogs deter you from enjoying this kind of hunting. Here are some tips for quail hunting without dogs that I have found useful:
Try to find places where hunting pressure is low. This will let you get familiar with ranges of particular coveys throughout the season. The birds will be less likely to flush before you get close enough to shoot if they haven't been hunted heavily. Heavy hunting pressure can change the birds' habits, even moving them off an area.
Watch for "roost piles," accumulated droppings that result from coveys' tail-to-tail circular roosting arrangement. Fresh roost piles often indicate good places to find birds early or late in the day. Lots of roost sites means a good place to hunt, even though you may not find birds on a given day.
Since you won't have the sense of smell to help you, make the best possible use of sound and sight. Move slowly and deliberately, so that you might hear a distant covey rise or spot birds flying into feeding areas or cover.
You must balance the need to cover a lot of ground with the need to go slowly enough at times to be sure that the birds feel the pressure of your physical presence. Stopping frequently can cause a covey or a single to flush that might otherwise let you walk right by. Listen also for that "bob white" whistle of birds in a broken covey that are trying to regroup.
Be ready to shoot! That covey will often flush when you least expect it, and the success of several hours of hunting may come down to 10 seconds of shooting opportunity. Don't walk around with your gun's safety off, just learn to expect the unexpected.
If you're hunting with companions, it can help to holler "birds" or some other signal when you flush quail. This alerts the other hunters, who may not have heard the flush, to be ready to shoot.
When you shoot a flushed bird, be sure to mentally mark the spot where it falls before you swing your gun on another. And while you're picking birds to shoot and mentally marking where they fall, watch the rest of the covey to see where they fly. Accomplishing all of that in a matter of seconds can be quite a challenge.
When you finish shooting and you have birds down, before leaving the spot where you were shooting, drop your hat or handkerchief to mark the spot. If you have trouble locating downed birds, it can be helpful to return to where you shot from to mentally replay the shot and reorient you on where you need to be searching. If hunting with partners you can direct them to where the bird fell before you move.
Losing a downed bird can ruin an otherwise successful hunt. Twenty minutes of fruitless searching when I want to be going after more singles is frustrating enough to make me reconsider getting dogs. However, even with dogs, an occasional bird is lost, because that shot that looks like a sure kill may be a bird that hits the ground running or even flies again after going down.
Check the crop of the first birds you kill to see what they are feeding on. This will help you target areas to hunt, especially if you're familiar enough with the area to know what grows where. Soybeans and corn will be easy to recognize, but you may have to educate yourself a bit to identify other quail foods by seed.
When you scatter a covey and have walked up a few singles, don't give up too quickly. You may be leaving birds that could be flushed if you thoroughly walk out the area, stopping often. On the other hand, you don't want to shoot a covey down to fewer than four or five birds, or you'll be hurting the covey's ability to reestablish itself during the off-season.
My memories of successful hunts stay with me for years, providing incentive to get out into the field again. I recall in detail particularly memorable shots or covey rises from hunts of 25 years ago. This month I'll be remembering a hunt on the last day of the season in a bottomland cornfield flecked white with remains of a recent snow. The quail were plentiful, and I had the place to myself.
When I stopped at the edge of the woods, I watched Canada geese circle and land to feed. With or without bird dogs, it's time to get out in search of your next memorable hunt.
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