Today is the end
The quail season that wasn’t
The drought lingers on
Upland in the West
He was the “assistant foreman” on a ranch in West Texas. I had a gate key to that ranch and permission to hunt quail, but nothing else.
At dusk on a January afternoon, I was parked on the edge of a CRP patch when Luther came clattering up the road in his derelict Ram Charger. His two Blue Healers were standing on the toolbox and peering over the cab. I clipped my pointers to the tailgate and filled their water pans as Luther ground to a halt in a cloud of red dust. He left his truck running because it likely wouldn’t start again if he didn’t.”
“Any birds in that?”
When the dust and exhaust fumes cleared I caught a whiff of a sickly perfumey smell wafting from his open truck window. He was somewhat shaven and his hair was slicked back. He had on a black felt hat and one of those patchwork Garth Brooks type shirts.
“Luther, where you off to?”
That could have been any number of places but I assumed he was referring to Lubbock.
“What’s the occasion?”
“I got a date.”
“Are you wearing Hai Karate?”
He flashed a sheepish grin and I noticed that his scraggly mustache had been touched up with a grease pencil, a Sharpie, or something similar. It didn’t do much for me, but maybe she would like it.
“Who’s the luck lady?”
“Gal I grow’d up with. I ain’t seen her in years. She’s lately divorced and living back with her mom, and them.” He leaned over to his rearview mirror and checked his teeth; then he plucked a toothpick from his hat brim. “She’s a real looker.”
“Head twirler back in high school.”
Luther looked at me with a wink and a nod. I turned and looked at his dogs. They turned and looked mine.
“So, where you taking her?”
“Kenny Chesney concert. She won some free tickets through the radio. She answered four trivia questions about livestock and politics and all.”
“You taking your dogs to the concert?”
He pointed into the bed of his truck with his thumb. “They’ll be fine back yonder. Anybody tries to steal em will thank better of it when he has to pry some teeth off his boys.”
He waited for me to reply to that but I didn’t. He watched me unclip my pointers and open their boxes. It was getting dark and I had an hour on the road back to my motel.
“Whatta you give for a bird dog like them?”
“A lot; depends on their breeding and their finish.”
He studied the dogs as they spun and jumped into their boxes. “You gonna hunt again tomorrow?”
“Not sure; sounds like we’ve got some bad weather coming.”
“Well, if you do, I seen a big covey at that wire gap going into the croton pasture this morning. Least I thank they was quail—mighta been doves—do they run along the ground?”
“No, not as a rule.”
With that, he let off the clutch and his trucked lurched and sputtered down the road. After about fifty yards he stopped and hung his head out the window.
“Hey—if you come by the house in the morning and see my truck but I don’t answer the door….”
“…don’t keep on knockin, cause I might be doin some good?”
It was 22-degrees and spitting snow when I turned out my dogs the next morning. I hunted for a couple of hours before the wind picked up and it started dumping. On the way out of the ranch I drove past Luther’s house. His truck was out front with the driver-side door standing wide open. The snow was blowing sideways into the cab. His two Healers were sitting on the porch.
Two weeks later the paper said that Luther had been arrested for public intoxication and assault on a gal that was once a head twirler. I hunted that ranch one more time on the last weekend of the season and Luther’s house was locked up and dark. I never heard what happened to his dogs, and I never found that covey by the wire gap leading into the croton pasture.
My family owns a piece of arid ranchland in Maverick County Texas. When it rains, down there, it rains quail. When the pasture grasses reach the truck bumpers, and the grasshoppers billow from the bar ditches in clouds, we’ll have covey counts that’ll make an undisciplined pointer blow a gasket.
As of today, however, our county is now entering month 30 of the Mother of all Droughts. Normal rainfall in our area is 28 inches. So far this year we’ve had 6 inches. Last year we had 4.5. This past summer we had 80-plus days over 100 degrees. We sold our cattle back in June when our stock tanks went dry. When (if) we buy back in, we’ll pay twice what we sold them for. Two months ago, most of the Texas drought map was colored orange and red. You probably heard about it on the news. Since then, most of the State has gotten a good soaking; but not Maverick county.
Over Thanksgiving my family gathered at the ranch to hunt whitetails and stuff ourselves with food and football. Quail weren’t even mentioned and no one brought a shotgun. On Saturday I was sitting in a deer blind and looking for a fat doe to put in the freezer. It was warm and windy and dry, and a fat doe was looking like a tall order. About thirty minutes before sunset, a cock bobwhite staggered out of a clump of withered prickly pear and began pecking aimlessly in the blowing dust. A bit later he was joined by another cock and three hens. It was a sad scene. They were skinny and disheveled and they looked oddly out of place; they reminded me of Mad Max and his band of post-apocalypse refugees. Two birds enter; one bird leaves.
The weather dweebs are calling for an El Nino year–and it does appear that the rain patterns are shifting (slightly) in our favor. Will that little five-bird covey make it through the winter with scant forage and no screening cover from bobcats and avian predators? Will this be the drought that finally eliminates bobwhite quail from Maverick County? Over the past thirty years I’ve seen these birds bounce back from severe droughts. They’re prolific little bastards when range conditions are good, and a few timely spring rains can kickstart a fury of whistling and nesting.
For now, though, we wait. We watch the radar and we hope Al Gore was wrong. We fondle and admire our shotguns and we thumb through the gear catalogs. We pay our ad-valorem taxes and we feed our dogs and we tell them to hang on. We consider buying a package of shrink-wrapped pre-marinated quail from the grocery; but that would suck, so we don’t.
The pointer named William breaks stride and pauses to investigate a small patch of wilted ragweed. He then continues on track along a sidehill and into the gusting wind that determines his course. It was enough scent to prickle his bird-senses, a scant whiff of something besides dust, but not enough to stop him from running full out across a parched and featureless pasture.
The federal judge sitting alone on the seat atop the dog box pounds with his fist on the cab roof, “That might’ve been birds, right there, Captain!”
It’s the fourth time this hour he’s done that and the quail guide behind the wheel imagines landing a roundhouse punch to a gin-swollen nose for each amount of unbearable racket that his client has caused inside the truck.
The guide glances in his side mirror and finds the judge’s stodgy red portrait filling up the view. “That bird-dog of yours couldn’t smell a polecat in a peat bog,” the judge nags.
He was three years old when I bought him and he came with that name. He never found many birds, but one day (before lunch) he killed a baby goat, got sprayed by a skunk, and ate two bobwhites that he neither pointed or retrieved. He ran off the first six times I let him out of the box. On one of those jaunts he was gone overnight. The next morning I found him snoozing in a hog trap where he had eaten and rolled in a vile mixture of rotten feed corn, molasses, and catfish guts. I eventually traded him for a cast iron smoker pit on wheels.