Review: “Hunting Gambel’s Quail” by Ben Smith

Certain birds are tough to hunt, and by “tough” I don’t just mean “challenging.” I mean birds that live in the kind of rugged terrain that can be truly harsh on both people and dogs. Wild pheasant in certain places can fit this bill, as do wild chukar in most places they’re found.

But I would also certainly add Gambel’s quail to the list. For those who’ve never chased this particular quail, picture a hot, dry, rocky landscape. Now throw in several varieties of cactus, thorny mesquite, catclaw and acacia, dense creosote and other wonderful obstacles. And while we’re at it, add venomous snakes and occasional packs of javelina (that don’t tend to take kindly to dogs) into the mix as well.

Now that you have an idea of the landscape and some of it’s lovelier denizens, it’s time to add the bird. Gambel’s quail will not tend to hold politely for a pointing dog, so forget about quaint notions of a “gentlemanly” approach to this. They will run, as evolution has taught them to do, and they will tend to run for cover – which means right into the thickest, thorniest, nastiest stuff they can find, drawing your dog in after them. If this doesn’t work, as a last resort they may flush. But a “flush” in this case tends to mean getting up low and fast, sometimes just a few feet over your dog’s head. And, at the end of the day (if not sooner), you can expect to be spending time with a good pair of tweezers, extracting lots of painful, pointy things from your dog, and probably yourself. Are you in?

Maybe I’m being just slightly dramatic here, but not really, at least not in my experience of trying to hunt these birds. But the flipside of all this is that despite everything I said above, hunting Gambel’s quail is a frickin’ blast, and you will certainly gain a newfound respect for this tough little bird. You may also gain a greater appreciation for one of the most amazing, and surprisingly diverse environments on the planet – the Sonoran desert.

Our friend Ben Smith, over at the fine blog AZ Wanderings, has been chasing these quail for some time now, and has thankfully decided to offer his thoughts and advice for those thinking of giving it a try. Available in e-book format, “Hunting Gambel’s Quail: A Beginner’s Guide to Chasing Southwestern Quail” is packed with great info, especially if you are new to this particular game. Trust me – you will save a lot of wasted time wandering around the desert by first absorbing all the tips that Ben has to offer in this guide, from behavior and natural history of Gambel’s, to finding the best habitat, to gear tips. I would highly recommend it before heading off on your first desert quail trip.

Other nice features of “Hunting Gambel’s Quail” are a pictorial guide for quick and easy field dressing, a couple of great recipes, a printable gear list and links to important online resources for planning your trip.

As an aside, I also have to add that one thing I really like about the e-book revolution is that old publisher’s notions about how many pages a book needs to have, in order to be commercially viable, are being thrown out the window. In the past, this led to many books being far longer than they really needed to be, just to achieve “X” number of pages that a publisher deemed was necessary for the book to succeed. With e-books, a book’s physical thickness has nothing to do with it anymore. And Ben’s book is a perfect example of this – at 29 pages, it would likely never have seen traditional publishing approval. But really, who cares about page count – isn’t it about focused content? The book contains all that it needs to and nothing more. And that’s a good thing.

“Hunting Gambel’s Quail” can be purchased and downloaded online directly from Ben’s site at this link, and is a steal given all the quality information it has to offer.

The Best Kind of Tired

Opening day for sharpies. You escape work early. Pull the necessary gear out of the closet. Instantly the dog knows. He sits by the door, stoically, not the least bit worried about whether he’s going on this adventure or not. He’s maturing.

A half-mile long plume of dust kicks up behind you. Ryan Bingham sings of bread and water, of dessicated places. In the actively worked fields, the last cut is happening. You pull over for large equipment on a road with no shoulder, leaning into the ditch.

Warm enough to hunt in jeans, shirt sleeves rolled up. You have the place to yourself; something that still isn’t hard to find around here. You wonder if/when this will change. Will you grow old watching one cherished spot after another disappear, as those before you have?

The dog is learning to slow down at times, beginning to learn finesse. This is new. The first bird gets up not ten minutes from the rig. It’s so close you have to wait to pull the trigger, lest you sluice it. It folds and falls. Clearly a first day of the season bird, you think. In a few weeks it won’t be so easy. The second bird offers a long passing shot, just far enough out that you ponder for a second whether to take it or not. Swing through and lead it and hope a skeet choke will get it there. It plummets into the grass as feathers blow back toward you in the breeze.

And that’s it. You’ve limited, short but still sweet. You stop at the river and clean the birds. Sharpie stink on the hands for the first time of the season, and as it hits your nostrils, a flood of memories from previous years come back, reminding you that more than just fun, something about this is essential to feeding your soul.

You turn down a dirt road you’ve never been down before, just because you’re in no hurry to get home. Crumbling old homesteads intersperse with sporadic spec homes, their yards having gone wild, weathered realty signs leaning at odd angles. But there are still small pockets of errant field, hedgerows, aspen stands that might hold a few birds – just the kind of pockets best hit in a clandestine manner, alone, with one dog. Gun and run, like fishing the illicit golf ponds of your youth.

You finally hit pavement again and the pointer curls up in the back, content that he’s done what he needed to. Before long you can hear his deep breathing over the Random Canyon Growlers pining about being in the doghouse again. Soon, you’ll follow suit, the kind of tired you welcome and savor. October is always at least a month too short. This year, you aren’t going to waste a minute of it.

The Purge.

There are those that are diligent about cleaning their gear at the end of the season, putting it all away properly. Truth be told, with the exception of guns, I’m not one of those.

My bird vest usually gets tossed in the closet shortly after chukar ends around the first week of February, and doesn’t emerge again ’till…well, right about now – a few days before the next season starts.

Somewhere in Idaho

Empty purple and yellow shells clink together in the pockets as I take the vest off the hook.

A granola bar wrapper is still in there, which I ate the contents of atop Nunya Peak, as the increasing wind ushered in a black wall of storm in the distance, and the birds called each other into the safety of the cliffs below me. We proceeded to take a few stragglers from the base of that cliff; birds that didn’t heed the call to safety. It was snowing sideways on the way out, and it took a while to find the truck, even longer to regain the feeling in my hands.

There is still a smorgasbord of remnant feathers all mixed together in the back of the vest, representing a rough stratigraphic timeline from early season ruffies at the base, through the solid mid-layer of sharpies and roosters and the occasional Hun, topped off with a dusting of chuks. Dirt, dried grass and twigs hold it all together.

There is that small hole that should probably have been mended (but likely never will be), from where I took a break against a fence post that hid a rusty old square nail, somewhere in southern Montana.

A small projectile point made of chert that I almost stepped on walking the canyon country of Nevada. I stood there for a while after I picked it up, sliding the cool smoothness of it between my thumb and forefinger, taking in a view that extended far, far into the distance.

Drops of dried blood remain on the lining of the game bag, reminding me that this isn’t just a game.

In some weird way, purging my vest of all these things is almost as difficult as accepting the end of another season. I put the vest back in the closet. There are still a few more days before this really needs to be done.

Cleanliness is far from Dogliness.

I was looking back through some of last season’s pics the other day, and came across this one:

I stared at this pic for a while, remembering that fine fall day with a good friend in Montana. But more than anything, the sheer unbridled, unashamed joy of a dog covered in mud brought the smile to my face. It was a great day to be alive, for both of us. And at the end of the day, whether the game bag is full or empty, what more can you ask for?

The Chukar Hunter’s Companion

There are few books written about hunting chukar, and even fewer that are really well-written by someone who has dedicated a significant portion of their life to chasing and learning about them. Maybe this is a result of the fact that the group of people who really go off the deep end of chukar obsession is pretty small to begin with. Maybe it’s because many dedicated chukar hunters, much like those who really get into chasing carp with a fly rod or mountain goats with a bow, tend to be a bit different; a hermetic lot, who feel their experience has been hard won (and rightly so) and are content to let others figure it out on their own, as they did.

It may have been the inimitable Charlie Waterman who first wrote about chasing wild chukar in the West, or at least he’s the earliest I’ve come across (if anyone knows of earlier writings, I’d love to hear about them). Buddy Levy’s “Echoes in Rimrock” is also a fine read. Other than the odd chapter on chukar in more general bird hunting books here and there, there isn’t much else, aside from Pat Wray’s definitive book, “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion.”

For practical info, “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion” is hands down the best of the lot I’ve come across. It covers everything from the cultural and natural history of the bird to considerations in planning a chukar hunt, tips for success, fine-tuning for chukar dogs, thoughts on ethics, gear choices, great recipes and more. Most importantly (well, for me, anyway…), the book is engagingly and well-written, offers great practical info based on extensive, real experience, and is full of wry observation and humor.

In addition, the book contains little gems like this;

“My friend Ed Park once told me a story about a native of the country of Lebanon, a serious chukar hunter. Commitment is pretty much required for anyone who hunts chukars more than once, but this gentleman took commitment a few rungs higher…into the heady realm of devotion. During the nearly continuous military squabbles taking place between Lebanon and Syria while he was growing up, he regularly crossed over the mountains separating the two countries to hunt chukars well into Syria. On several occasions he had to hide in the rocks to evade mounted Syrian military patrols.

When questioned about his reasoning, he said simply, “Chukar hunting was a lot better in Syria.” It is an explanation chukar hunters would understand completely.”

It also happens to be the only chukar hunting book I know of with a handy, accurate test for gauging just how bad your chukar affliction has become. Useful stuff indeed, compadres.

You can find out more and order “A Chukar Hunter’s Companion” here.

Further Proof That Hunters Just Think Different (as if you needed it)

Background: It’s been a long, wet spring in the northern Rockies, with many places over 200% of normal snowpack. It’s now mid-June, and there have been precious few days that have felt like summer to date. But rather than pining for warm summer days, we have exchanges like this:

Hunter #1: “Well, I don’t want to jump the gun, but….it’s less than three months away…”

Hunter #2: “Funny you mention that, it was the first thing that popped into my head this morning.”

Hunter #1: “Yeah, normally I don’t let myself get excited until after summer solstice.”

Hunter #2: “Take heart – the days will start getting shorter soon…”

 

Yeah, we’re not right in the head.

Thunder Chicken Chronicles

It starts in February, with being notified that you’ve been lucky enough to draw a spring turkey tag for our local, limited lottery. You know people who have put in for it for years and never gotten it. For two months, you persevere through exponentially accumulating snowfall, uncharacteristially optimistic that, by late April it will mostly be gone. You spend too much time pondering the merits of various decoys and turkey calls online. Your spouse walks in on you watching an instructional video of three good ‘ol boys sitting on a porch, demonstrating calling techniques. She lifts an eyebrow as if to sardonically say, “really?” and closes the door. You feel a bit sheepish, but quickly become engrossed again in the finer points of yelping and purring.

The opening date approaches, and you start scouting. Most of this involves futilely post-holing up to your waist, and you truly begin to question why you ever thought you’d find turkeys in our valley.

As the opening date approaches, on a walk with the dogs, it happens. Tracks. More than one bird, maybe half a dozen. Criss-crossing each other as they all travel in the same general direction up a snowy slope. You can’t believe it. It’s like coming across a canteen full of water while crossing the Mojave on foot. You follow them for half an hour up a trail, over a ridge, into the forest, and suddenly, you get that eerie feeling that you’re not alone. There they go – a flock of Merriam’s  fleeing into dark cover. You stop and let them vanish, and suddenly, it occurs to you that you just might be able to pull this off.

1970 Bear K-Mag

The alarm comes too soon, and it’s still dark and you wolf down a Pop Tart and a thermos of coffee and meld into the woods, bow in hand. You see a young bull elk. You spook coyotes in the steel blue of an overcast dawn. Mule deer everywhere. Sandhills sound as you hope they always will – like visitors from another planet. You are grateful for being here, so early, mixing with your elusive neighbors.

As you reach the end of the first week of your two-week tag, you realize that you have already spent over twenty-four cumulative hours in a small, dark blind – alone, staring at decoys, making no sounds other than something similar to a horny hen. There are people who would question your behavior, and reluctantly, you admit that they probably have every right to.

The time left progresses, and you see turkeys here and there, typically after you’ve just spent 4 hours hunkered and calling and you decide to pack it up and head home. A few hundred yards down the road, they run in front of your vehicle.

One day over a pint, someone asks you what you’ve been up to lately, and you tell them, fully knowing that it must sound a bit odd,

Jake Brakes

particularly as snow blows sideways past the windows of the tavern.

“There are turkeys around here?” they ask incredulously.

As your mind races through the possible responses, you find your mouth (as usual) crossing the finish line first with a simple, “Nope.”

The Winter of Our Discontent

It is a poor substitute, to say the least. We go through the motions – I make him sit and hold while I go hide the dummy in the brush, make him wait till I return to his side, release him with a ‘fetch’ command. At this, he explodes, his hard-wired enthusiasm escaping in high-pitched barks as he charges toward the location.

He drops it at my feet and sits. He will do this with me all day, if I have the stamina – his, on the other hand, is not in question.

But there is no rich panoply of smells typical of an October day in pursuit of wild birds. We are not riding currents of air and ground scent, not feeling the same, simultaneous explosion in our hearts at a bird that launches skyward, not savoring the sharp tang of a spent shell carried on the breeze. There is only a feeble smell of rubber and plastic, the familiar heft of something bird-like in shape and weight. Something that, for reasons he probably can’t understand, is not a bird.

I feel cheap. I feel like I owe him a lot more. I feel like I’m trying to explain sex to my son, and I just copped out and bought him a blow-up doll instead.

But it is March and the snow continues to fall and another season is so goddam far away that I have no choice but to focus on more immediate distractions and put the thought of it out of my head. I imagine that his approach is not much different.

He drops the dummy at my feet.

Home

Wind wedges its way between the boards, slowly deconstructing at a pace that could only be observed via time lapse imagery. A place where the roof was repaired with scrap tin lifts up, levitates for a few moments, and slams down in the breeze like a bad combover.  Shards of glass and porcelain and square head nails and the remnants of a kettle litter the yard.

Was it a family that lived here? Did children grow up and fertilize their foundational memories in this eastern Idaho soil, sweating through hot, dry summers, shouldering the bitter winters with tough, rural stoicism? Did the children continue to think about the imprint of this place as they got on with their lives elsewhere?

Was it all harsh, toil and drudgery, or were there days when you could take in that view and feel the heart lift a bit from what was no doubt not an easy life?

Did they sometimes take an evening to stroll these fields in search of a few grouse for dinner, as I’m doing now? Did they venture into the high country not far from here in hopes of an elk to fill the winter larder?

These thoughts swirl around as my attention from the task at hand wanders and I explore the old house, testament to the existence of ghosts. But then I hear barking far in the distance, and a young GSP, who likely held a point as long as a revved-up two-year old pointer possibly can, is trying to leap in the air at three flushed sharpies, and he’s barking at me as much as he is at them, and rightly so.

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