Hunting For, and From, Memories

By Tim Smith | September 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2005

The two flushed bobwhite quail veered away from me in the weedy alley between rows of young cottonwoods—one to my right and the other straight ahead.

The bird on the right was the first to get airborne, so I swung on it and fired as my shotgun barrel caught up with its flight path. As it crumpled into the tall Johnson grass, I quickly aimed at the second. It was in my sights before my conscious mind caught up with my instinct, and I lowered the gun and pushed the safety back on. I had my limit; that second bird would have to wait for another day.

It was a memorable hunt. There haven’t been many times when I have shot a limit of quail, so those days stand out more than most. But I have countless other bird-hunting memories, many of which are nearly as vivid today as they were decades ago.

While I can pull up to an ATM and not remember the four-digit PIN number I used a few days before, I can recall for years the exact spots where I flushed a pheasant or a covey of quail. I know which way they flew and whether or not I made my shots.

Mingled with these details are the feel and heft of the shotgun, the sight of my dog bringing me a bird, the look of the brown and gray landscape, the sounds of flushing birds and the feel of a warm bird on a cold day.

I don’t think that my memory of hunts is any sharper than that of other hunters. The connection between hunting and memory is strong in most of us. Perhaps it dates back to the first hunters who gathered around the campfire to eat their game and share the details of successful hunts.

Experience and memory were as important as physical ability for those primitive hunters. Given the millennia through which people have hunted, it’s not surprising that memories of hunts are hard-wired into our brains more securely than PIN numbers.

Today, modern hunters often replay memories of hunts in front of campfires, at hunting camps, in local diners and in hunting journals. Those memories enrich our lives, but we also can use them to make our hunts more successful.

For quail hunters, it’s valuable to remember where we found coveys of birds in the past. Quail coveys typically occupy a home range of 100 acres. Where habitat is managed expressly for them, their home range can shrink to as little as 20 acres. It amazes me, though, how many times I find coveys within 100 yards of where I found them on previous hunts. They can be real “homebodies” if not disturbed too often.

Of course, you can’t count on finding a covey in the same patch of cover every time, but a memory of past covey locations helps you hunt more efficiently. Some hunters who repeatedly find coveys in the same locales even name them using convenient landmarks, such as the “old barn covey” or the “blackberry-hell covey.”

In addition to mentally filing away covey locations, it helps to remember where the birds go when flushed.

Failing to relocate the birds after a covey rise, I sometimes sit down and wait in the general vicinity to see whether the birds start calling. Not only do I get another chance at the birds that day, but next time I flush that covey, I’ll have a better idea of where to look for them.

I was surprised to learn that a covey I hunted in a bottom of the Missouri River was flying across a levee (after I lost sight of them) and landing in a band of cottonwoods along the river. Those birds passed over plenty of good brush and grass cover to get to those trees. I didn’t have much luck hitting them in the dense timber, but at least I could locate the flushed covey on future hunts.

If faced with a similar situation, you could alter your direction of approach to force the birds to flush to a different area, but there is no guarantee that the birds won’t defy your best efforts to push them somewhere they don’t want to go.

The circular, tail-to-tail, night-roosting pattern of quail produces another clue to areas used by coveys: piles of droppings. These often are found in good over such as weedy fields or in areas with shrubby cover (though usually not under a tree canopy).

Roost piles can be good places to hunt early or late in the day, when birds are near their roost site. Whether you find birds in the area or not, a fresh roost pile is proof positive that they are there somewhere. It always lightens my heavy gun a bit to see such a positive sign, especially after a lot of walking without other encouragement. I try to remember those spots.

Other subjects for your memory bank are water sources and hazards for the hunter or the hunting dog.

I carry water with me, but when I need it the most, in warmer weather, it’s hard to carry enough for myself and my dog. Plan your routes to include water sources for the dog and you can save the canteen water for yourself.

Hazards to remember include heavy patches of prickly plants, such as sand burs and cockleburs. These are less a problem for me than for my dog because the burs don’t stick in my feet, and my hunting clothes shed cockleburs more easily than her long coat. If I remember where those plants grow, I usually can skirt the worst trouble. I just hope we’re not dodging coveys, too.

Other natural hazards include steep bluffs, deepwater stretches of streams, or downed timber concealed in tall grasses.

A general decline in quail over the last 30 years may leave you wondering if you can find an area that supports a huntable quail population. Although the overall landscape contains fewer acres well-suited to quail, there are pockets of good habitat where hunters can find success. Your memories of quail-rich areas you’ve hunted before can help you identify characteristics to look for as you search for new areas to hunt.

Many conservation areas are managed for quail habitat, but recent weather history, hunting pressure, adjacent land use and other factors can influence the number of quail on the area. If you own land, you can incorporate quail-friendly management into your landscape by reproducing what you’ve seen where quail were plentiful, and by obtaining quail-management recommendations from your local Conservation Department office.

Through repeated visits to a productive area, familiarity with the land should make your hunts more satisfying. Instead of wandering an unknown landscape in search of good habitat, you’ll be checking sites that held game in the past.

You’ll find your sense of direction—not really a sense so much as a familiarity with the land—will improve as you learn the area’s landmarks. What you remember of past experiences in the area will mingle with your new experiences to form a bond with the place. You may even feel something akin to what our primitive hunting ancestors felt when they hunted the lands that were their home.

With a little luck, you’ll find more game, and your memories of hunting success will accumulate. After all, it’s the quest for memories of successful hunts that draws us back into the field, more so than meat for the table.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler