feature By: Alan Liere | July, 20
“Whatch’all chasin’?” he drawled as I let my Brittany into the back of the truck.
“Quail,” I said simply, a little too gassed to make immediate conversation. I pulled three valley quail from my game vest and laid them on the tailgate.
“Sure doesn’t look like quail country to me,” he said, jerking a thumb in the direction of the creek, “and those sure don’t look like the quail back home.”
It turned out he was a transplant from Georgia, an executive for a large online company hoping to put down roots in the Northwest. To him, a quail was “Gentleman Bob,” the bobwhite immortalized by Southerners who appreciated not only its stately appearance but also its tendency to hold tight, a bird that has historically symbolized the sport of Southern gentry. He told me he had never before seen anything but a picture of a valley quail, and I admitted I had seen only one bobwhite in my life.
Where he came from, the man said, quail lived in more friendly terrain, and hunting them was more often a social event with big running pointers in fields of lespedeza, loblolly pine and honeysuckle. Sometimes, he said, a buckboard pulled by mules with names like Dolly and Samson carried the hunters as well as jugs of sweet tea. He acknowledged that his company bought such hunts as a way to entertain potential clients. They cost big bucks but were nice tax write-offs.
“I rack up a few write-offs of my own,” I told him, “mostly for emergency room visits from hunting birds on rocky hillsides in poison sumac and in blackberry thickets. But sometime before I die,” I added, “I’d like to chase your bobwhite in the South. Level ground and a mule-drawn wagon would be delightful.”
I’m not sure if it’s a sad thing or not — the fact I was born on the other side of the continent from Gentleman Bob — but it seems I’ve grown rather used to the quail hunting opportunities here in eastern Washington. Oh, I’ve pushed them out of tall grass and cattails on occasion, and I once found a huge covey in a mowed orchard, but for the most part, the valley quail is no gentleman, and I’m not likely to find him without abusing my body at least a little.
Ten years ago, I thought I had a solution to all this when I created my own quail and pheasant hunting Shangri-La, a small hand-dug pond 150 yards below my house surrounded with a half-acre of millet and wheat. It attracted and held good numbers of birds, but after a couple outings, I felt like some kind of thief for shooting the home birds.
A couple years later, I discovered I could often find quail in the relatively flat sagebrush country surrounding Banks Lake, which was created when Grand Coulee Dam was completed back in 1942. It was 100 miles from my home, but there was a little café on the way where I could have a nice breakfast and drink an extra cup of coffee.
The birds ate the seeds of the aromatic sage, lying up in thickets of willows along the lake at night and venturing out to feed at a “gentlemanly” hour in late morning. But though flat, it was tough walking through tall sage with all its knee-wrenching badger and cottontail holes, and I had to be particularly aware of a partner’s location as the birds would not flush in any predictable direction. Perhaps the greatest negative, however, was the difficulty I had distinguishing a gray bird flying low against a gray background. A straightaway opportunity was almost a certain recipe for embarrassment.
The man from Georgia was a nice fellow, and I sat there on the tailgate enjoying his company for a half hour or so. Then my dog began whining impatiently, and I excused myself to go hunt another big blackberry patch on a steep sidehill up the road. This one is so thick the dog can work only the perimeter, and when she points, I have to toss rocks into the thorny tangle to get the birds to fly. And heaven help me if I knock one down in the middle. You know you’re in some inhospitable cover when your small Brittany can’t even wiggle in to make the retrieve.
It definitely isn’t as “civilized” as quail hunting down South, but it is nevertheless the hand I’ve been dealt, and I like it a lot when it doesn’t make me bleed too much — Western hunting for a different kind of quail.