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QUAIL SEASON

Gray streaks were beginning to light the eastern horizon as I slipped my feet into the boots that had spent the night on the steps of the travel trailer.  Wow! Those cold boots make my eyes open wider!  I can hear Barfer, our big German Shorthair, stirring around in his pen in the corner of the pickup.  He is the reason I'm up before breakfast.  Got to let him out to do his morning "chores."

When I pull the pickup shell door open I can see the warm hollow in the shredded paper, stubby tail wagging, and feet doing a jig dance.  Damn dog probably slept warmer than I did.  As I snap the chain on Barfer's collar, I hear my son, Rick, beginning to stumble around in the trailer.  Another minute to pour some food in the dog pan and I'm back in where it's warm.

Thin shards of ice on Barfer's water, just a few clouds in the morning sky, and enough frost to dampen the ground cover; should be a perfect day for bird hunting.  Those were the thoughts running through my mind as Rick asks, "Dad, what are you doing outside in your long underwear?  We are in town you know."

"Probably no one up at this hour, it's too dark to see much, I was in a hurry, and get busy and help with breakfast," I replied.

It was November 10th, for many years the opening date of quail season in Missouri.  We had pulled our sixteen foot travel trailer into the empty meadow behind my brother's little general store the previous afternoon.  My brother, one of my sisters, their families, my mother, and my grandparents all live in or near this little hamlet in Northwest Missouri, which shall remain nameless.  (Everyone has a right to keep some secrets.)

I was born and raised in the area but now live in Omaha, Nebraska, where I work for the Government.  It has been my practice for a number of years to save a few days of my vacation time to return "home" for the opening day of the quail season.  In recent years, the increasing population of the Ringneck Pheasant in the area, has added a bonus bird to the bag, to the delight of the quail hunter.  With a limit of only one cock pheasant per day and two in possession, not many go afield exclusively for pheasant.

After a breakfast of sausage and flour gravy, fried eggs, and canned biscuits, Rick and I were washing dishes and discussing where we should go first.  We knew that Charles and Lloyd Bedford would be arriving about 9:00 A.M. from the Kansas City area.

Charlie and Lloyd have hunted with me for at least the first couple of days of the quail season for more than ten years now.  In fact, Charlie sort of got me started bird hunting and over the years, has passed on a lot of knowledge about both the quarry and the hunting methods.

My brother, Ed, as mentioned before, owns and operates the general store in town.  They sell groceries, hardware, tools, fencing, livestock feed, and other items too numerous to mention.  (When I say "the" general store, I mean the only one for fifteen miles!) Ed's contacts with the area farmers and mine with those with whom I attended high school, provides us with hunting privileges on several hundred acres of some of the best habitat left in the country.

This area has everything from heavily timbered land to open rolling prairie.  Numerous draws and ditches that are not tillable are allowed to grow up in weeds and briars, providing excellent nesting and resting cover.  Crops of corn, soybeans, and milo are predominate, providing ample feed for the birds.  Of course the habitat is not as great as the old soil bank days, but still much better than many areas of the country.

My thoughts about where to go are interrupted by the arrival of Charlie and Lloyd pulling Charlie's twenty-six foot travel trailer.  After greetings are exchanged, we help level Charlie's trailer and get plugged in to the electricity in Grandpa's woodworking shop.  During the activity we have decided to go to a spot about four miles southeast of town where there was a good population of birds the year before.

We are soon in the two pickups and on our way.  You may notice, due to the arrival time of the Bedford's mentioned earlier, that it has to be going on 10:00 A.M.

You may ask, "Why don't they get out earlier?"

Well, as originally learned from Charlie, and later through experience, quail get out early to scatter and feed.  Until they feed, water, and return to resting cover, they tend to be wild as hell and won't work properly for the dogs.

Being in the field before 9:00 or 10:00 A.M. and hunting quail when they are trying to feed, can be an unproductive and frustrating experience!

As we pull into the field and step out, we notice a Missouri Conservation Department truck pulling in just behind us.  The Agent noticed my Nebraska plates and asked to check the Nebraskan's shotguns for plugs limiting capacity to three shells.  (The State of Nebraska does not require plugged shotguns for upland bird hunting.)

Since the likelihood of a "useful" fourth or fifth shot in this kind of hunting is almost nonexistent, we leave our guns plugged all the time.  No troublesome changes are required for waterfowl hunting or different state regulations.

After assuring that the magazines were plugged on my Remington semi-auto and Rick's Winchester pump, (both in 12 gauge) the warden wished us luck and left.  In over twenty-five years of hunting and fishing in several states, that was the first time I had ever been checked by a Conservation Officer!

When the guns were ready we released the three dogs that would hopefully put us into birds.  As previously mentioned, we have a big strong German Shorthair maned Barfer, while Charlie has two English Pointers, called Radar and King.  Hunting this cover requires dogs with stamina and heart.

If you can forgive a little boasting, we have hunted Barfer hard for three or four days in a row without a sign of quitting, while we were required to relay Radar and King in order to rest them.  (If you have deduced that I'm a German Shorthair fan, you're right!)  Another point in favor of the breed, is that they can get wet and cold and stay with you while the English Pointer will quit under the same conditions.

The field we were hunting is one-half mile square with two major draws in a rough "'T" shape and a corner of about twenty acres left fallow and covered with weeds.  In all, enough cover to keep us busy most of the day if hunted slowly and carefully.  The weedy draws range from fifty to two hundred fifty yards in width with weeds in places "as thick as hair and higher than your head."

The four of us usually spread across a draw with one on either side and two walking the heavier stuff in the middle.  We alternate from time to time so everyone can have the privilege of plowing through the big weeds.  Some say it is unsafe to hunt with more than two gunners at one time, but we make sure we stay abreast of one another and know where the others are at all times.  If you lose sight of someone because of the brush or terrain, you stop and talk back and forth down the line to get locations.

About thirty yards into the cover, a cock pheasant flushes wild with a clatter of wings ahead of us, but makes the mistake of circling to the left and passing about thirty-five yards out.  First day jitters cause me to shoot behind those long tail feathers with the first shot, but the second one folds him up.  Barfer has heard both the bird and the shots and is racing past me as I start on the run to the spot I've marked him down.  Barfer flash points the bird and when he flutters a wing, pounces and proudly meets me with a satisfied look.

It is part of our method to get to a downed pheasant as quickly as safety will permit.  The big birds can be hit very hard and still hit the ground running if they have two good legs!  Also, our dogs are not trained in the classic field trial manner to be steady to wing and shot.  When the bird flushes and the gun goes off, the dog is expected to be on his way to retrieve.  We believe it helps cut down loss of cripples on both pheasant and quail to shave off those few seconds between the falling of the bird and arrival of the dog.  In addition to being more humane, in this time of declining game and hunting opportunities, we want the meat in the pot and not left in the field to die a slow death.

As I pocket the rooster, Charlie yells, "Radar has a point over here!”  We quickly get back in position and Lloyd and Charlie walk up the covey.  I guess we never get over the shock of the thunder of wings of a covey rise and this is no exception.  As the birds scatter left and right, Charlie manages a double, Lloyd drops one, Rick shoots thin air, and I watch as none are in range.

As Barfer and King retrieve the downed birds, Radar locks up again.  Before Charlie can get to the spot, two hen pheasants flush wild and sail over our heads and across the road.  As usual, the pheasants are proving difficult for the pointing dogs to handle.

When we move ahead, the dogs find and point a few singles and Rick and I both get a bird while Charlie and Lloyd manage to miss one each.

In the next three hours we find three more coveys.  In between, Rick and Charlie pick up their cock pheasant for the day.  As usual, Charlie's superior shooting leaves him just one bird short of his limit of six quail, while Lloyd, Rick and I have three each.

The dogs all perform fairly well but we find the quail don't seem to handle like the birds of fifteen or so years ago.  I believe that heredity is changing the behavior of the birds to a certain extent.  With hunting pressure becoming more and more severe, the wildest birds are more likely to survive and pass those traits along to their offspring.  At least it appears to me that today's bobwhite are more likely to run and/or flush wild than their ancestors of a few years ago.

About 2:00 P.M. we go back to town for sandwiches and coffee in Charlie's trailer and lie to one another about why we missed this shot or that.

After lunch we walk to a one hundred sixty acre soybean field just a quarter mile south of my brother's store, where pheasants can be heard crowing every morning and where we have always found at least one covey of quail.  Barfer and King do dog duty.  Radar is worn out and will rest up until tomorrow morning.  In about another hour, the four hunters feel like Radar looks, and we call it a day.  Lloyd fills out with his one pheasant in addition to two more quail.  Charlie finishes out his limit of quail and Rick and I get two more quail each.

The day has gotten warm enough to be comfortable cleaning birds outside, so we gather behind the store for that chore.  The pheasants are quickly done, making sure to leave the head plumage for sex identification purposes.  Long practice has refined the quail dressing "assembly line." Charlie removes head, wings, and feet; Rick and I skin, and Lloyd cleans out the insides with a quick flick of the knife and thumb.  I think the town cats remember this ritual from previous years, because they quickly gather and make a banquet of the tidbits that Lloyd provides at his work station.

The birds are put to soak in a big tub of cold water and we make a giant pot of beef stew and a whole pecan pie do a disappearing act.  The stew and pie were sent along by Charlie's wife, Verna.

After supper, Charlie and I draw dishwashing duty while Rick and Lloyd finish cleaning the birds, bag them, and take over a corner of Mom's deepfreeze for the bags.  A couple of ounces of "Old Tanglefoot" with a splash of well water, a pitch game, and more lies about the misses for the day, (you know - "dirt in my eye", "stepped in a hole", "shell didn't have any shot in it", "dog bit me just as I shot" and other goodies) and Rick and I go across the street to our trailer and put the weary bones down for the night.

Our plans are to hunt one more day and head our respective ways for this trip.  If we are lucky, and can afford the gasoline, we will likely get in a couple of weekend trips back to hunt.  (Oh, to be independently wealthy and not have to worry about work and a pay check!)

We will get to hunt Nebraska pheasants closer to home three or four times this season, plus a couple of duck hunting trips on the Platte River, so I guess we are more fortunate than some who would like to hunt.  They can't afford it or can't find a place to hunt quality habitat.  We complain a lot and recall the days when we could walk out the back door with a gun and were hunting, but even our limited opportunities make it worth the dog food and vet bills all year.

On day two of our "safari" we decided to hunt a large soybean field northwest of town that is surrounded by and interspersed with patches of hardwood forest.  We could expect very little pheasant action here as the pheasant population seems to have an invisible population line; south of town, several pheasants, north of town, none.

We were faced with a cold drizzle this morning, which would keep a sane person inside by the fire, but being dedicated and having to return home that evening, we braved the elements.

We could not negotiate the abandoned road that would take us the last half mile to our chosen field in our two wheel drive pickups, so we slipped and staggered that stretch on foot.

Before the half mile was covered, we were all soaked to the skin from the waist down, and the two English Pointers were showing signs of losing interest in the whole activity.  However, we soon started getting into birds and everything was back on track.  Radar is the farthest ranging of the three dogs with King running a close second.  Barfer works closer in, as the Continental breeds are inclined to do.

We managed to pick up four birds each before Radar and King again protested the conditions by refusing to hunt and trailing in our footsteps.  Our shooting had improved from the previous day, so in spite of having only one dog working birds, we managed to fill up before 1:00 P.M.

Back in Charlie's trailer over soup and sandwiches, we decided not to get wet again trying for pheasants.  We had another bird cleaning session in Grandpa's garage and began preparations for our drive back home.  Charlie has about two one one-half hours to drive and Rick and I about three to reach home base.  Ah, the advantage of having a sixteen year old who knows how to handle a pickup and trailer on the road; I can sleep all the way home!

As we say goodby to fellow hunters and relatives, we agree to make telephone contact in a week or so to plan at least one more get-together.  When we finally hit the State Highway, I lay my head back and fall asleep thinking of the taste of those delicacies in the cooler after they are browned in hot oil and spend an afternoon in the Crock Pot.