Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Quail Hunting Dogs: The Last Hunt

I’m older now, and because of nerve damage, I’m unable to do the walking that quail hunting requires. But I have many fond memories of trekking through the fields and woods in search of the elusive Bobwhite. Though I have dabbled in the quest for deer, ducks, doves, squirrels, and rabbits, they could never compare to the sheer joy of the quail hunt.
I think one reason I loved the sport so much is because the hunter plays a more active role. With most other types of hunting, the hunter is stuck in a duck blind, a tree stand, or at a station in a field, passively awaiting his prey. With quail hunting, however, the hunter seeks his quarry. He relies less on fate and more on his skills of dog training and spending a large part of the summer scouting for Bobwhites.
I suspect the main reason I loved the sport, however, was the love I had for one of our bird dogs. I enjoyed the hunt because he loved it so much. I liked watching him work so enthusiastically. When he was sniffing for a bird, he was joy incarnate, happiness on legs.
Even though it was decades ago, I distinctly remember the last time I went quail hunting. The years have not diminished the details of the day, and every once in a while, I dust off the cobwebs and relive it.
My husband, Jim, and I rose early on that typical cold November morning, stumbling bleary-eyed to the kitchen for a cup of hot coffee. Once the caffeine took effect, we poured the remainder of the joe into a thermos and grabbed the ham sandwiches we’d made the night before from the fridge. We donned our hats and jackets and headed outside for the dogs.
We found both of them sound asleep in the big red dog house, curled up cozily in the hay. A whistle roused them from their slumber, and they raised their heads lazily, as if to say,”Go away. It’s too early to get up.” But when their sleep-strained vision focused and they spied the guns, they became instantly awake and more than ready to join us in our adventure. They were seasoned hunters and knew exactly what the day held.
We had two dogs – Herman, my big liver and white English pointer, and Jeannie, a little mottled brown Brittany. Herman was old and arthritic. He had been a wonderful meat dog for many years, and he was also a beloved family pet. Our kids had grown up with him, and he was always patient and kind with them. Hermie was unusual for an English pointer. They’re not natural retrievers, but he was. He always accompanied us to the dove field to fetch our fallen birds.
I still remember the first time I ever attended a dove shoot. Jim had been taking Herman dove hunting for several years before I decided to join them. Herman sat obediently between us, watching and waiting. When I shot my first bird, Hermie just sat there looking at me, as if he couldn’t believe I had actually made a hit. Jim never had to give him a voice command to fetch fallen doves, but I was forced to say, “Dead!” As soon as the word was uttered, the dog came out of his surprised trance immediately and ran to get the bird.
We had tried several times to retire the ancient dog from the hunt and allow him to live out the rest of his days in leisure, but the old boy whined and fretted so whenever we tried to leave him behind, we let him continue on the hunts.
Jeannie was a young dog, only two years old. We had bought her just the year before, already partially trained. Jim and I finished her training ourselves. We’d hunted her a few times, and she was an amazing dog. She wasn’t a pet, even though we had tried to make her one. She had no desire to play fetch with the kids and would only tolerate our petting her. She was a working dog, and her job as a pointer and retriever was all she cared about.

Once the dogs did an obligatory stretch or two, they danced around the truck waiting for the tailgate to be lowered. Once it was, in they jumped. They stamped from paw to paw impatiently, waiting for us to get going.
We lived on a large cattle farm, and we had a healthy population of Bobwhites. They grew fat on the grains we grew and were often seen feeding on corn that had been spilled by the cows. We knew there were several coveys near the small corn field behind the big pond, so that’s where we were headed.
When we arrived, we got out of the truck, hefted our loaded 12 gauges on our shoulders, and released the dogs.
The air was chilly and crisp. The sun was just climbing over the tree tops, and everything seemed to be bathed in a golden elixir. The frozen leaves crunched beneath our boots as we entered the stand of slash pines and scrub oaks.
Herman was a slow mover and hunted close to us, but Jeannie was a different story. She loped in a large circle around us, sniffing the air and the ground for the scent of quail. If we didn’t see her for a few minutes, we knew she was on point. Herman always found her for us and honored her point. It was a good system.
It wasn’t long before Herman dropped his nose to the ground and began the excited tail wagging that indicated he smelled quail. He then began his stiff-legged stalk that let us know he was getting close to the quarry. Suddenly, he froze into a perfect stance. Jim stepped gingerly to the spot just in front of the dog and flushed the covey.
It was a large group, and the tranquil air was immediately filled with the tell-tale fluttering of wings. Jim and I each got off a shot, dropping two birds. Once we yelled “DEAD,” little Jeannie appeared out of nowhere to help locate the Bobwhites. She retrieved one, and Herman returned the other. Then we set about hunting singles.
Both dogs now worked in close, darting back and forth through the brambles and brush, sniffing for the scattered Bobwhites. We spent another hour or so on this particular covey and got three more birds. We decided to move on in search of another group of quail. We wanted to leave plenty of “seed” for future populations.
The dogs led us deeper into the woods, to the edge of a marshy area. Stagnant shallow puddles were here and there, rimed with ice. Our boots made a sucking noise as we walked through the mire. We hadn’t seen Jeannie in a while, but our vision was limited by the thick growth of foliage. Herman soon found her. She had located another covey.
We were only able to get one bird. Shooting was difficult here because of the limited visibility. We opted not to hunt the singles. The terrain was just too difficult, and besides, Herman was getting very tired.
We trudged back to the truck for a breather and tossed our birds into the cooler. I poured cups of coffee for Jim and me, and we held the steaming liquid in our frigid hands. We munched on our sandwiches and gave the dogs some water. We also offered sandwiches to the dogs, and they gobbled them greedily. After we weighed our options, we decided to move to another location.
We drove a mile down the road to a cow pasture. We’d seen quail here eating cattle feed that the bovines had carelessly swept out of the wooden troughs. The pasture was surrounded by tall pines, and because the cows had access to the woods, there was little undergrowth. Their heavy hooves kept it trampled. The walking here was easy, and we had great visibility.
The dogs located three coveys in all, and we were able to bag our limit. I was exhausted anyway, and so was Herman. I think, however, that Jeannie could have hunted tirelessly for several more hours. She was reluctant to get in the back of the Dodge, but after we helped Herman in, she finally acquiesced.
It had been a perfect day of hunting – the kind you never forget. And we didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be Herman’s last. That winter, he started losing weight. I figured old age had finally caught up with him, so I started offering him chopped beef liver every day. When he didn’t improve, Jim and I took him to the vet. We were devastated to learn that he had cancer, and nothing could be done. Dr. Branch suggested euthanasia, and we complied.
Jim left. He couldn’t take it. I stayed with Herman as the drug was administered. Then I was alone in the sterile room with him, caressing his head and stroking his side as he lay stretched out on the metal table, tears streaming down my face. Little snippets of his life randomly appeared in my mind’s eye – his playing with our daughters, his sitting on the couch, his running through an autumn field. He had been our faithful companion for 12 years, and as he took his last breath, I knew our lives would never be the same. I dreaded going home to share the sad news with the kids. He had been their protector, their playmate, and their best friend for their entire lives. They had never known life without Herman.
We buried Herman under his favorite shade tree, a big sycamore in the back yard. We found a pair of cement quail to place over his resting place.
I still miss the old boy, and whenever I think of him, I remember that day – that one perfect day when all the right elements lined up in order to give us that last hunt with Herman.

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