Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hunting A Memory

We had a fine New Years holiday, hosting our great friends from the coast, Brian and Jacqui. Adding their 5-month-old son, Porter, and 6-year-old yellow lab, Maple, to our menagerie of pets (two dogs and a cat) made our little house in Black Mountain a blur of activity that Sue and I enjoyed every minute of.

Among the core group of fellows I hunt and fish with, Brian has been something of a pied piper. In the field and on the water, he is relentless. Organizing trips and making sure all the necessities are packed is his trade. Plunging into unknown territory and coming out with a full game pouch or fish creel is his gift. We call him "Shoe" for the horse shoe that seems to be perpetually stuck up his ass.

In the weeks before their arrival, Brian assigned me the task of finding some public land grouse cover for us to hunt with Maple. Neither of us has ever shot a ruffed grouse. The vast bulk of their population lives to the north, but grouse territory does extend into western North Carolina in the high elevation.

Remembering all of the times Brian has told me to "sit in this tree" or "cast over there" and I've come away with that ear-to-ear grin of success, I wanted to return the favor by finding the perfect hidden cove, filled with grouse for us to shoot and Maple to retrieve.

Of course, that's not what happened. Ruffed grouse coverts are hard to find and even harder to find out about. Southern grousers are a closed-lipped bunch. They keep their secret spots to themselves. I don't blame them. Even the best grouse hunters define success in numbers of birds flushed, not numbers of birds shot. It's a rugged business.

By the time Jacqui, Brian and Porter arrived, the only place I could suggest was Sandy Mush Gamelands, north of Asheville, where a guy I was hunting doves with said he'd seen a grouse way back in September.

Northern bobwhite photo by John Stojohann
And of course there were the rumors both Brian and I had heard that Sandy Mush offers at least a fair shot at a wild northern bobwhite.

The northern bobwhite, or bobwhite quail, is the stuff of Southern hunting legend. From colonization, on up through the 1970s, much of the region was covered in perfect quail habitat and it was a common chore for schoolboys to stomp around the family farm until they secured dinner. It was also such great sport that nimrods from across the country would come to fine old Southern plantations to hunt bobwhites over perfectly mannered pointing dogs. Unfortunately, the quail population in the South today is in precipitous decline for a number of reasons. Agricultural practices have changed and those small, "messy" family farms that provided all sorts of brushy and grassy habitat for quail have given way to humongous factory operations on which not one inch of dirt is allowed to go fallow. Encroaching development has also eaten away at quail habitat and added lethal predators into the mix by way of pet owners who allow their cats to roam free and kill wildlife. Finally, trapping furbearing animals like foxes, mink, weasels and raccoons, has fallen into disfavor, allowing populations of these native predators to expand. It's a tough world out there for a little quail.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has taken steps to reverse this trend on a few of its gamelands properties. When Sandy Mush was purchased by the state back in the mid-90s, it was already being privately managed for quail. Today, the habitat remains favorable, with open fields, planted seed crops and strips of thick brush. In reality, however, I'd never seen a wild quail during the hunting season and I didn't expect to see one anytime soon. I've read about the end of the glory days of quail hunting and I've heard old timers lament their passing, but honestly, I have no point of reference when it comes to bobwhites. They are but a vestigial memory in my hunter's mind.

Despite the long odds, Brian and Maple were raring to go on the first day of the new year. (Well, that's not entirely true. Brian may have overslept an hour-and-a-half, but I think young Master Porter had something to do with it.) Even with the late start, we knew we had rabbits, squirrels, doves and woodcock in season, in addition to the mythical grouse and bobwhite. The imminent threat of cold winter rain could not deter us. We were going hunting.

I parked the truck at 8:30 a.m. and jumped a dove from the adjacent milo field before Brian had even pulled on his brush pants. We got situated, loaded our shotguns and sent Maple into the field. Over the years, Maple has proven to be an excellent flushing dog and she puts that skill to good use in the dove field. Halfway through our push, I whiffed (twice) on a dove as it took off in front of us. I blamed the miss on coffee-induced jitters.

We hiked on down the hill to where tiny Turkey Creek bisects the property without further incident. Maple is a decidedly coastal creature and she seemed unsure of the purpose of our up-and-down walk in the mountains. Brian sent her through likely-looking grouse and quail habitat, but her nose did not detect anything worth chasing.

Along the creek's riparian edge, we came upon a vast tangle of blackberry and honeysuckle vines. Once again, Maple crashed into the wall of thorns, mostly, it seemed, to please Brian. She obviously didn't think it was worth the effort and, after 10 minutes or so, we were starting to feel the same way. Then, all of a sudden, things took a turn toward a very serious direction.

Maple's attitude changed. The difference between a bird dog on a stroll and a bird dog on a scent is remarkable. She put her nose down against the ground and her tail wagged furiously. She used her wide chest and powerful legs to push through the thickest of cover as her nose snorted in the intoxicating smell of gamebird. The whole thicket shook with her effort and Brian and I took strategic positions to intercept the flush, whatever and wherever it might be. The dog tracked back and forth in a small area just downhill from Brian. "I see it," he said. "She's on it." And then I saw it too; a small brown form scurrying across a patch of snow, just a few feet in front of Maple's nose. "I think it's a rabbit," I announced as I prepared for a running target to bound across an opening.

Then everything stopped. All we could see was Maple's ample hind end poking out of the brush pile. She was motionless except for that tireless tail, which swished back and forth, back and forth. And then, she pounced.

Good dog!
"I think she's ... she's got it!" Brian exclaimed. "Bring it Maple. Good dog. Good girl." When Maple emerged from the tangle, we finally knew what our quarry had been - a very surprised, very real wild northern bobwhite. Maple deposited her prize into Brian's hands and looked at us as if to say, "Is that what you guys were looking for?"

We had done it. We had bagged a real, honest-to-goodness bobwhite, on public land no less, and we hadn't fired a shot. For me, the initial euphoria of success wore off quickly. Of course the bird wasn't ours, it was Maple's. She had done exactly what she'd been bred and trained to do, but in the process, she'd stolen our chance to relive one of the great hunting traditions. When I looked at Brian, he was still beaming at his dog and I realized I had not fully appreciated their connection until this moment. To him, Maple's success was his success. If you asked, I bet he'd say he was happier to see Maple catch the free-running quail than if he'd shot it himself. Maple is his hunting partner. Their relationship is at its strongest when they are in the field or the swamp, chasing birds the way men and dogs have done for generations.

I started to feel better, and soon I was almost as happy as the two of them, prancing for joy in the middle of a bramble thicket on a grim, wet and raw New Years Day. My disappointment had been misplaced. I had indeed been part of something special - a reconnection with the past and maybe, just maybe, a look into the future.


  1. This is one of your most beautifully written pieces yet. You made me cry, arsehole.

  2. Mrs.Rig!
    I consider any day I can make you shed a tear a good day. Glad you liked it.