The bobwhite quail is a harmless little bird. Scarcely bigger than a plump robin, covered with speckled brown feathers as soft as a sweetheart's caress, he has never been known to attack a man, even in defense of his young. Yet throughout the southern states during this month and for varying periods allowed by game laws this gentle creature will bring consternation, anger and bewilderment to tens of thousands of brave men armed with guns.
A few, fortunately only a very few, out of this vast army will be unable to withstand the shock of an encounter with bobwhite and literally will expire on the spot. A somewhat larger number will become flustered and sprinkle one another's hides with bird shot. As for all the rest, they will become liars, braggarts, crybabies and will swear mighty oaths. Nevertheless, they will manage to remain pretty nice guys, even gentlemen. And it is unnecessary to waste sympathy on poor bobwhite. He doesn't need it, thank you.
Usually quail come under attack from a twosome of hunters. Ideally, it should be a sunlit day with a hint of invigorating crispness in the air, just enough to brighten a man's eyes and put a patch of color in his cheeks as he strides across a stubbled field. It does sometimes happen, of course, that he trudges wearily across a field with great gobs of mud plastered to his boots. His feet are so numb and have been wet so long that he wonders if he has grown webs between his toes. Frequently, he is not in a field at all, but in a tangled thicket at the edge of a field, hands frozen to claws around his gun. And when a branch flies back and strikes his ear, the ear seems to tinkle into dozens of exquisitely painful splinters, and he feels he had rather die than have it happen again. Worst of all, on days such as this, the hunter has little chance of getting his bird. For one of the ways quail show their superiority to men is by staying under cover during wet and bitterly cold weather, wisely pressing together in a warm and comforting circle.
But say it is a clean, clear day. The hunter and his partner keep a discreet distance, even stopping now and then, calling words of encouragement or giving commands, while their two dogs work the field at a run. There is an air of joy about a dog working quail; his tail wags furiously and, when coursing in high cover, periodically he may leap like a grasshopper to keep his eye on his master. Despite his show of obvious pleasure, there is nothing haphazard about the way a really good dog scents out birds. He works with almost geometrical precision, quartering one section, then quartering it again, breaking his pattern only when he begins to follow up the scent left by the erratic trail of a bird.
December 19, 1960
Suddenly, while he is running full tilt alongside a row of beaten-down broom millet, he catches a scent. It is amazing how quickly a signal to his olfactory touches off a galvanic response in every muscle. The dog becomes rigid—his tail straight out, neck stretched, even his eyes fixed. After a long second, he takes a slow step forward, then another, perhaps another, before freezing again. He is on point now, perhaps quivering with nervous excitement, but otherwise motionless. No amount of harassment or coaxing will cause him to move. Some dogs can be pushed around, or even picked up and shifted. Always they will keep their noses pointed toward the bevy. Some owners take pride in testing their dogs on point. They hide at a distance and watch. It is not unusual at all for a dog to hold a point for half an hour or more. There was one dog worshiper who claimed his pup held on point until he collapsed, then continued to point while lying down.
The moment the first dog goes on point, the second one will freeze, then come creeping forward slowly, taking his position to the rear of the first dog. In field trials this is known as honoring a point, but in the hunting field it usually is called backing.
Though the reactions of a good dog on point are predictable, the reactions of the hunters are not. Even experienced shooters—or perhaps I should say especially experienced shooters—cannot escape that dryness in the mouth, that dampness in the palms, that quickening of the heart which comes when the dogs go on point. Some people hunt season in and season out for years and never quite manage to shake off the more acute symptoms of pointitis. Their faces turn white, they wheeze or develop a case of the nervous shakes. Some have been known to get actively sick.
Assuming that the hunters are not incapacitated by pointitis, they will move up to the dogs quickly, but without any bustle. They will stay fairly close together and abreast of each other.
Ideally they will try to hold up at a spot where they can get a clear shot as the birds break. This is fairly easy if they have hunted the territory before and know the covey, for quail, when disturbed, habitually make for the same sanctuary, perhaps a nearby stand of pine, weeds growing around a fence, a tangle of briers or sometimes even the shallow canyon made by a brook.
Once in position, the hunters bring their guns chest high on ready, and one grunts: "You set?" The other nods, and the first hunter kicks at the clump of broom millet, commanding the dog to "flush" or "get 'em." Oftentimes nothing happens. A bevy of quail is more unpredictable than a bevy of blondes. Sometimes the soft click of a gun safety will rouse them; at other times, they literally must be booted into action. Single birds are even more obstinate. Frequently one will crouch in full view without cover and not move until touched. And on rare occasions an apparently healthy and unwounded bird simply commits suicide by letting a dog pounce on it.
The hunter swallows hard, mutters and kicks at the cluster again. This time there is action. And who can explain the action? The sound of a rising covey of quail has been likened to the booming of cannons, the clatter of a stick run across a picket fence, the roar of an express train in a tunnel. It sounds like none of these things, of course. It sounds exactly like a rising covey of quail, but by some odd private psychological quirk each man hears what he claims he hears, and there is no arguing the point. The truly astounding thing is this: nobody has yet isolated a hunter, no matter how casehardened, who isn't surprised when quail rise. That is just as true when the hunter purposely provokes the rise, as it is when he stumbles onto a covey by accident. It is nature's invention, and the patent has never expired.
But no matter how many different ways hunters may try to describe this sound, they have only one phrase to describe the sight: a rising covey explodes. No one ever describes it doing anything else, and it isn't a cliché because it happens to be heaven's sound truth. Birds buzz off in all directions, sometimes whipping right back at the gunner like so many fragments of shrapnel. And to the man in the field they seem to be moving as fast as shrapnel. Viewed by the cold eye of science, however, their speed becomes an illusion.
Quail really do not fly very fast. Their maximum speed is roughly 40 mph, and modern shells are capable of bringing them down from 35 yards away with a high degree of consistency. Thus it can be proved mathematically that any hunter who is an accurate shot has plenty of time to bag at least one quail every time he kicks up a covey.
The catch, of course, is that the human nervous system doesn't operate on mathematical principles. Mine certainly doesn't, as I proved with a flourish on a recent shooting trip to the Hollow Log Preserve in the rolling Piedmont country of Virginia. In ordinary wild-quail shooting, to drop 50% of all birds shot at is excellent. With these Hollow Log bobwhite, which have developed evasive tactics to a high degree in order to survive the constant bombardment on the preserve, a regular bag of 30% is considered pretty fantastic. But to miss 30 birds with both barrels takes a touch of genius. It is my latest quail-shooting record, and I am rather proud of it.
Nevertheless, it may fall any day, since even the canniest old quail shooters can behave most peculiarly when a covey rises. Day after day, they will retain their poise, single out the bird or birds they want and bring down meat. Then, unaccountably, they will blast away into the broom like rank novices or, worse still, go completely berserk and shoot at the blue sky. Just as baseball players go into a batting slump for no apparent reason and golfers find they couldn't sink a putt if their expense account depended on it, quail shooters frequently go sour. There have been documented cases of gentlemen venturing into the field four or five days running and getting 90% of the birds at which they fired, and then, unaccountably, going for months getting only two or three birds out of every box of shells.
Haste is what usually ruins them. Quail shooters get this dinned in from all sides, but even if they didn't they soon would discover it for themselves. I shall never forget how thrilled I was and, alas, how mistakenly confident I became when I learned this basic rule some 30 years ago. I did it by observing an ornery old country judge who had fairly won a reputation as the deadliest wing shot in all Alabama. The remarkable thing was that the judge was past 70, rheumy-eyed, palsied of hand and, to the best of recollection, had not drawn a completely sober breath in 30 years. But he was death and destruction when he toddled out to hunt in the pea fields. His secret was that he was too lazy to carry his own gun. That service was performed by an elderly Negro named Neal. Neal stayed close by the judge's elbow and didn't even hand him the gun until the covey rose. By that time the judge's blood pressure had dropped as close to normal as it was ever going to be. He raised his gun, sighted deliberately and bang! bang!—he almost always had a double.
Other quail shooters have practiced various other stratagems for correcting hasty shooting. One method is to lay the gun on the ground and not pick it up until the unnerving explosion of a rising covey is over. A more drastic—and, it seems to me, almost masochistic—cure is to go quail hunting for a prolonged period with an empty gun. Sighting with an empty gun is supposed to bring home to a shooter just how much time he does have after a covey takes wing. Some writers have even suggested that hunters with a tendency to shoot too quickly should wear earplugs. Shooters who have tried it report that when they don't hear the explosion of a rising covey the birds do seem to be flying slower.
But no matter how well a man can insulate himself against shock, or how good he is with his gun, it still is an axiom of the sport that a quail shooter is no better than his dog. I think it would be even more accurate to say that no man becomes a good hunter until he understands the peculiarities of his dog. For, loud claims notwithstanding, no bird dog is perfect. Like people, they are impetuous, timid, deceitful, stubborn, sulky, greedy and sometimes, in extremely rare cases, even vicious. About the only human frailty never found in a bird dog is laziness. Truly great dogs also are notorious prima donnas, and sometimes it simply is best for a master to overlook their faults rather than try to correct them.
Back in the early '30s, the finest dog in Alabama was a big spraddlelegged tan-and-white pointer named Buster. Buster swept a field as if he were jet-propelled. He responded to hand signals instantly, and he marked down singles in a scattered covey like no other dog I have ever seen before or since. But Buster had one grievous fault. He had been taught retrieving by being rewarded with the heads of birds he fetched, and being a smart dog and always anxious to get on with his job of finding birds, he began snapping off the heads of birds before he delivered them. Buster's master reacted to this horrendous faux pas as might be expected. He whaled the tar out of him. It didn't do the slightest bit of good. Buster had decided quail heads were one of his fringe benefits, and he refused to be intimidated. Finally, since he was a man of intelligence, Buster's master realized that he might break the dog's spirit before he broke his habit. Eventually he became proud of Buster's failing, even bragged about it. When Buster would lay decapitated birds at his feet he would exclaim happily: "Look it that. If I fed him the feathers, I bet the ole fool would pluck them for me."
An uncle of mine once owned a dainty little setter named Lady who couldn't be broken of the habit of pointing rabbits. She was scolded and beaten, but Lady just liked rabbits. Fortunately, she wouldn't chase them. She would point them until they broke cover and ran, and if they were too slow about it, she would reach out and slap them into action. Although nobody else could detect any difference in her point, my uncle could always tell when Lady had a rabbit. He would look a little shamefaced as if excusing the action of a spoiled child. "She's just playing a joke," he would say. If somebody laughed—and his friends usually did—he would get belligerent. "Hell, she's got a right to have a little fun, hasn't she?"
Of all the eccentric dogs I have known, I am prepared to give first place to the first one I ever owned, a long-tailed tan-and-white pointer named Bob. From the time he was 12 weeks old Bob pointed everything that flew, buzzed or had feathers. We were proud of Bob's penchant for pointing flies, wasps and chickens until we also discovered that he was an idiot. For like Blind Tom, the gifted Negro pianist who astounded concertgoers at the turn of the century by showing no intelligence until he was led to a piano, Bob hadn't a glimmer of intelligence when he wasn't hunting birds. And Bob wanted to hunt all the time.
It was impossible to let him out: he would run wildly until he found an open field and start searching for birds. It was also almost impossible to keep him penned up. By the time he was a rangy one-year-old, Bob could scale the highest fence, and when we built him a covered runway Bob always found a way to burrow under it. The sight of a shotgun or a hunting coat would send him into a frenzy. He would begin to yelp and run around in tight circles until he collapsed, twitching and sometimes even frothing at the mouth. At first we thought Bob had running fits, but after the vet had wormed and re-wormed and checked and rechecked him for every conceivable parasite or ailment, he broke the news to me one day. "Son, this dog is just plumb crazy. You can either shoot him or hunt birds with him. Don't expect to get much satisfaction otherwise."
Bob was a mighty hunter. Whenever we started out on a hunt we had to fasten a 20-pound chain to his collar until he settled down, but after half an hour he always became the steadiest, best-disciplined dog in the field. If I said "dead" very softly, Bob would search a field until he found a dead bird or until he was dragged away. Bob held a point as if he were carved from granite, and in the field he had that trait rare in any dog, the power of deduction. He invariably retrieved crippled birds before dead ones, even when the dead ones were closer to him. I never knew him to overrun a bevy, and he was too much of a gentleman to reproach me for a bad shot as so many dogs do.
Getting Bob home from the field was quite a chore. Along about sundown when the shadows began gathering and the scattered quail began whistling one another up, he usually tried to sneak away and hide. We always had to drag him struggling to the car.
Other hunters used to laugh at my crazy dog, but there wasn't a man in town who hadn't offered to buy him. Since Bob was so unusual, I guess it was likely that he should meet an unusual end. In an effort to break Bob of his habit of jumping fences, I fastened a short heavy block of wood to his collar with a chain. One night I put Bob in the chicken yard with this contraption, and he tried to jump the fence and hanged himself. I was heartbroken and swore I would never forget Bob. And I haven't because, of course, you never do forget the difficult ones.