I gave it up four days before the quail season ended. I came home after the fourth straight hunt where I hadn't fired a shot.
I wrote in my diary that the season was over, that I'd gotten the message, that if they didn't want me to find them or shoot them, I understood.
I cleaned the gun and stuck it away, a light coat of oil protecting it from the rust that never sleeps. I explained to the dogs (who have a calendar tacked up inside the doghouses so they know when Jan. 15 comes as well as I do) that we'd been dealt a bum hand and were folding it.
It wasn't a popular decision. The dogs looked at me as if I were threatening to sell them to people who play golf for an outdoor experience. Quit before the last day? Had I gone mad? Grown old? Metamorphosed into a dude?
"You gotta know when to fold 'em," I sang. They milled uneasily in the kennel and looked at each other. They already knew I was crazy, else why would I spend five or six hours walking through sleet storms to bring home a couple of eight-ounce birds?
But that was understandable madness. Not walking in the sleet storm was incomprehensible.
However, when Dave Mackey, Spence Turner and I spent two days in my favorite north Missouri county, which ranks among the best quail hunting counties in the state, we found eight coveys...and killed just one bird, I knew there was something seriously wrong.
Some of it was bad shooting, especially in my case, but Mackey and Spence tend to hit what they shoot at. Quail in a bum season do abnormal things.
Lay it to genetic impulse, the survival of the species. Lay it to gremlins or exotic curses. Lay it to the kind of luck that they sing about on TV: "If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."
As far as I know there are no studies on what keeps quail from vanishing entirely when things are tough. Maybe quail really don't change their habits but there simply are so few of them that hunters relax, lose their edge and miss the few chances they get.
When things are good, perhaps hunters unconsciously improve their shooting, taking easy shots rather than firing frustration salutes at birds already out of range or flying at tough angles.
It's probably imagination, but bad-season birds seem to fly quicker and be out of range faster than the complacent birds of the lush years. There is a covey roar and all of a sudden the hunters stand in silence, wondering where everybody went.
I didn't fire a shot at one covey, dutifully pointed by three dogs in a thin screen of brush, flanked by open pasture.
Now, this was at the end of a long, long day and I was tired and didn't react with the reflexes that let me survive burnout baseball as a kid (in burnout you stand 20 feet apart and throw a baseball back and forth as hard as you can - miss one and your nose will look like a fried egg covered with salsa).
The dogs patiently waited for me to stumble up. I knew the birds were in the brush and would flush to the far side, but I couldn't be on both sides of the brush patch at once. I walked in obliquely, hoping to flush them parallel with the brush so perhaps a few would fly out on my side.
The covey went up in a confusion of crossing birds. I'd pick a bird and it would flicker through the screen of trees or cross paths with another bird. I waved the gun barrel back and forth as if conducting a symphony composed by a kindergarten class.
Finally there was deep silence and I removed my finger from the unused trigger.
Some quail bury themselves in the far reaches of hunting areas where they aren't discovered. But the reaches have to be far indeed to be out of touch for me. I inherited an oversupply of the Vance family trait, stubbornness, and always figure it isn't over until it's over.
Quail hunting tends to be self-limiting. All but the hard-core hunters quit the field for the couch long before the season ends. I hunted four days in early January on a popular public area. Those also were the four days I didn't see a quail in the bag. I was missing half the equation as a hunter gatherer.
Missouri suffered through a lousy 1993 nesting season. Heavy rains coincided with the season's peak hatch and that is disastrous to little birds. I hunted one area where, on a memorable hunt several years before, I'd found ten coveys. This time I found only one, naturally at the far end of the hunting orbit.
I killed one bird on the covey rise and the rest vanished (another trait of the bad season bird), so there were no single birds to hunt up. Three hours after I'd left the car, I had it back in sight. Another hunting party, just starting, jumped a big covey within 100 yards of the parking lot.
Some seasons are like that.
I ate lunch at the car, brooding and trying to convince myself there were things I should be doing, like making a living, reading great books or sleeping.
But the dogs talked me into another hunt and we went to a second area almost as big as the first one. We made a wide circle through good cover, along the edges of soybean stubble, through fallow fields filled with annual weeds and planted lespedeza - in other words, where you'd expect to find quail.
Within 100 yards of closing the circle, a large covey flushed 50 yards from me and flew off the area. Then I broke through ice crossing a creek and got my leg wet to the knee. My nose was running and my throat was raspy.
Some seasons are like that.
My favorite public area, five minutes from the house, is like my back yard. I've walked every foot of it. It isn't prime quail country, but I've been able to flush at least one covey every hunt if I walk long enough. In good years, I'll find two or three coveys, about a covey an hour.
But this year, I never found more than one covey no matter how long I hunted. Through the season, I found four separate coveys on the 850-acre area, less than half what had been there the year before.
Mackey, Turner and I all separately noticed a phenomenon of the poor year. We didn't find roosts. Coveys roost in undisturbed grassy fields. In a good year, you'll find many of the little circular piles of droppings where quail have huddled butt-to-butt through the cold nights.
Then you know that even if your never-fail bird dogs fail, there are quail present. You just aren't putting them up. But when there are no roosts, you begin to doubt.
It wasn't as if no one found birds - a friend, rubbing it in, said, "We've found more birds this year than any time in the past 20 years. I guess that's what good food and cover does."
Either that or good lying. You'd think good food and cover would smooth out the weather nasties, but I hunted places that looked as if they'd been designed by quail themselves and still didn't find birds.
Quail populations have been linked to everything from sunspots to the path of the moon. But people can't do anything about the sun or the moon or the weather. And good habitat only helps - it doesn't guarantee.
So I put the gun away, told the dogs they weren't Brittanies but actually flop-eared cocker spaniels ("Yeah, right," Dacques muttered, pouting off into his house). I grabbed my chain saw to cut firewood.
Just at the entrance to the woods, a huge covey flushed through the trees into the adjacent pasture. We've had a resident covey for years and I've never shot a bird from it. They come and go, mostly not evident. That's why I never think to hunt them.
I watched the birds settle into open pasture. It was a sight I hadn't seen all season. I dropped the chain saw and ran for the house.
"Get your boots on," I wheezed at my wife, Marty. My son, Andy, was eating breakfast. "Forget that - we're gonna shoot some quail!"
"My egg!" he wailed.
"You wanta shoot quail or eat?" I demanded. Being a quail hunter, he ran for his hunting clothes.
We took the kid dogs, Tess and Flick. Tess is nearly three and has discovered her heritage. She's solid on point and stylish to boot, with lifted foreleg and high head.
Flick is a four-month-old baby to whom the world and, especially, Aunt Tess, is a chew-toy.
Tess pointed the birds beautifully. Flick, overjoyed at seeing his fleet aunt immobile for some unknown reason, lumbered up and jumped on her as I bellowed "Whoa!" A glory of quail flushed.
It was a wondrous sight. Quail in the open. No brush, no river to escape across, no impenetrable horse weeds. Nothing but open space and flurrying birds. I shot one to the left and swung right and dropped another one.
A double, the first of the season.
And the last. We picked up our birds, waved goodbye to the dozen-and-a-half survivors...and headed for the house.
You gotta know when to fold 'em.
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