Winding 'er Up

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1997

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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