The Idylls of March

In Pursuit of the Valley Grail

Early March, and the shootin’ ain’t easy. Birds aren’t flying, and the seasons are closed. Your daddy may be rich, and your mama – she may be good lookin’. But shucks, pretty baby, never mind all that! Where ya gonna go to burn some powder?

March, according to Robert Ruark, is the month when the rain falls, the dogs become listless, the ground is brown and muddy, and the shooting season – while it may technically be still open – is practically closed because everything is against you. As a result, the biggest single obstacle to shooting in March is purely mental: I, for one, never think of it as a shooting month, nor do most of my wingshooting friends.

Of course, we are talking about wild birds here. Birds in their natural habitat that breed according to the seasons and flush fine and far out. Birds that are canny and cunning. Game preserves are open all year, somewhere, and if that is your taste you can shoot something feathered-flying virtually any time you can get away. But wild birds? That’s another story.

To find wild birds in March you need to look not only to where seasons are open, but where the weather still favors the bold (if not the foolhardy). Where the birds are active and willing to fly, and not yet pairing up. Where a worthwhile species awaits your attentions, one that is worth – well, in my case, getting up in the middle of the night, driving to St. Louis airport, a two-hour flight to Dallas, a two-hour layover, then a four-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, and a three-hour drive that began on a four-lane highway, narrowed to two lanes, then to one lane, at one point to no lanes, a surface that turned from blacktop to gravel to hard dirt, and finally ended in a meandering dusty struggle dodging vagrant pheasants to the door of Highland Hills Ranch, in the far east of the Oregon mountains. Arrival time: 4:23 pm, exactly 12 hours after leaving home.

All this, for a valley quail.

There were a half-dozen of us gathered at Highland Hills in the first week of March. While the rest of the world shivered, shoveled, and went to work, we lounged by the fire in the big log house and prepared to venture out into the valleys of milo, and onto the grassy hilltops, in pursuit of an elegant little fellow with a classy black topknot and a propensity for confounding the ambitions of the mighty. And the not-so-mighty, which is where I classified us.

At least two of our number were returning to Highland Hills, and not for the first time, because in spite of all their efforts, they had yet to bring a valley quail to bag. We stood around, a disparate group that included an actor-turned-writer, a sheriff-turned-singer, a rodeo-star-turned-PR-man, an unreformed television producer, and your obedient correspondent, who has yet to turn from a writer into anything more (or less) noble.

While their motives in seeking a valley quail were somewhat lofty, not unlike Galahad and Gawain in search of the Holy Grail, mine were much more mundane: No valley quail, no story; no story, no income. No income, no…. Well, you get the idea. Not that I was prepared to spurn the pheasants, chukars, Huns, and bobwhites that are also found in abundance at HHR, but valley quail were the goal.

In preparation, I read everything I could find on the subject. Written matter was sparse, but not surprisingly, the incomparable Charley Waterman came through as always with the words that were the key:

“Valley quail hang around towns, stroll about under bird feeders in backyards, and stage military parades on the shoulders of main-traveled highways. Apparently they aren’t very wild and not particularly afraid of people. My efforts at hunting them would indicate they needn’t be afraid of me.”

As usual, I suspect Charley was carefully stashing his light under a bushel. But I quickly found out that he had nailed, succinctly and accurately, the key to the valley quail’s success.

“My very first experience with them was the forecast of things to come. Using a good pointing dog in Hun and chukar country, I put up a covey of valley quail in sagebrush that was about waist high. They got up like a swarm of big bees and pitched right back into the sage…”

So there I was, in the company of Tom the Guide and two good Brittanies, Luke and Jake, in milo that was about waist-deep, just down the slope from where the sagebrush reigned. Classic Hun and chukar country. The dogs went on point and I waded in, staying in sight. A tiny black bomb erupted from the milo, got his bearings in a wink, and dived straight back in like a Spitfire on a strafing run. My cloud of pellets shattered the air above and behind him, and when the dogs reached the spot where he landed, they found nothing but an empty patch of milo.

Tom shrugged.

“Valley quail,” he said.

According to my encyclopaedia, there are some 30 different varieties of quail in the Americas, north and south, but Audubon acknowledges just six for the lower 48: Bobwhite, Gambel’s, scaled, Montezuma (a.k.a., Mearn’s), California, and mountain. An easy way of differentiating is by terming them bobwhites and all the rest, or bobwhites and western quail. Since the bob is found in the southeast and (naturally, at least) only there, and all the rest are found in the far west in ranges that overlap, underlap, and crisscross, that is a fair way of terming them. And that is exactly how Charley covered them in a chapter he wrote for a book more than 30 years ago.

The astute among you will have noticed that the list above does not include anything called a “valley” quail, and you may be wondering exactly what it was we were chasing so ardently in Oregon. The answer is California quail.

Charley Waterman:

“The California quail is also called the valley quail, but there are a number of races of very similar birds, all of them found in the West, and only a biologist with a library can really straighten out the Latin. Generally, it’s a California quail near the coast and valley quail inland.”

Inland we were, so valley quail they are.

The next question, and I consider it a fair one, is why are they called valley quail when they like mountains? And, since there is a mountain quail as well, and their ranges overlap, and they are frequently hunted together, why is it… oh, never mind. Let’s get one first, and worry about the taxonomy later.

This was, as Charley pointed out, easier said than done. Valley quail do not escape through the bobwhite’s dodge of exploding like a horde of bees and droning hard and fast in all directions, tying the gunner up in knots. They puff out of the grass in ones and twos, take a look around, and then dive for cover. Waterman said that where he hunted, the valley quail often bunched up into large coveys, but we never found that. As well, he added, they like to sit in trees and will flush from one branch to another, 20 or 30 feet away. But we never saw that either, possibly because trees were scarcer than the valley quail themselves.

In fact, after the first morning, I never saw another valley quail in the two days I was at Highland Hills. But, as it turned out, that one morning was enough. With a completely uncharacteristic ability to learn from my mistakes, after the third or fourth quail had been pointed, flushed, popped up and then dived for cover – and after I had shot over and behind each and every one – a quail popped and dived and miscalculated, zooming out over an open patch, and the swarm of shot caught him about a foot off the ground. Luke was on him like a flash, and proudly bore him back to Tom with a look that said “Finally!” on his red-and-white Brittany visage.

Three or four shots later, after I had once more given the milo a close haircut as the valley quail took cover, I collected number two, and then number three. We returned to the lodge for lunch and a general post mortem in which everyone else reported a dearth of valley quail but a plethora of pheasant, chukar, occasional Huns (which, for some reason, were extremely reluctant to fly) and even bobwhites, transplanted here in an effort to supplement the wild valley quail with another small, quick bird to spell off the B-29 effect of the ringnecks.

Our two other intrepid chasers after the Holy Grail of valley quail had come up empty that morning. Since I was now blooded, valley-quail-wise, my companions and I were banished to the high slopes for the afternoon to pursue chukar back and forth across the rocky, sagebrush-covered plateaux above the ranch. Galahad and Gawain repaired to the milo field where I had found such rich pickings that morning, hoping to return with a valley quail and finally be able to hold up their heads in bird-shooting society.

Highland Hills has been around for about a decade now, intent on its goal of becoming the finest wingshooting lodge in America. The big log building perches on a hillside and looks down a long valley, past mountainsides and plateaux to left and right, past cultivated fields and orchards in the lowlands, along a winding river that sparkles in the sunlight.

From the long balcony, the mountainsides are deceptively smooth, proving the old adage that the easier a mountain looks from far away, the tougher it is up close.

Ex-rodeo rider Mike Schwiebert, unrepentant TV producer Brian Thurston, and newly-accomplished valley-quail shooter moi piled into Tom the Guide’s 4x4 after lunch, with three eager Brittanies in the back. Our destination was a plateau with one winding, dusty track leading up to it, and then nothing but rocky outcroppings punctuated with patches of sagebrush and grass. Classic chukar country, and before Luke and Jake were even really on the ground, the odd bird was flying the coop a hundred yards out.

What followed was a weird afternoon by anyone’s standards.

First of all, the third dog, a youngster named Sam, somehow staged a jailbreak from the back of the 4x4 where he was being kept in reserve, and raced up the hill to join us. Since Sam was only nine months old, his eagerness and energy were matched only by his tendency to run up to a dog on point, shoulder him aside, and shout (in dog, of course) “Hey, waddaya got? Is it a bird? Is it? Where? Where?” Luke and Jake, watching one chukar after another take off from beneath their noses, had enough of this just about the same time Tom corralled Sam and confined him to a leash for the afternoon. From this vantage point, Sam supervised all subsequent events and delivered, in various ways, insightful criticisms of the other dogs’ noses and points, of our shooting ability, and of the situation generally.

Whether it was having Sam along purely to deliver assessments of our performance or what, honesty compels me to report that it was not long before our wingshooting prowess, individually and collectively, disappeared into a black hole. There was no shortage of birds, and no shortage of points, but quick and decisive kills ceased to exist. One after another, we began to miss easy shots.

Mike, who had let it be known that he would really like to get a double that afternoon – having not had one in a while, apparently – reached a point where even a solid single would have been pleasant, and he was not alone. At one point, I was presented with a picture-perfect incoming chukar, flushed toward me from beneath Mike’s feet, and missed clean with both barrels as it flew over my head and disappeared beyond the brow of the hill. Chatter was replaced by silence, laughter by brooding. The dogs roved, the birds flushed, we missed, and Sam glared.

Finally, determined to break the jinx, when both Luke and Jake locked up on a patch of sagebrush that had to contain several chukars, we regrouped and advanced in a line. With three guns in an arc and the dogs like statues, Tom moved slowly in to flush the birds for us. Sam, never particularly happy on his leash, suddenly locked up on a point behind Tom, who, out of patience, merely pulled on the leash and hauled Sam up onto his hind legs. From there, hopping backwards, looking over his shoulder desperately at his master and pointing – I swear! – with his right paw, Sam tried to convince us that there were birds in the rocks Tom had just walked through. Luke and Jake gritted their teeth and willed us forward, when suddenly birds erupted from everywhere.

Chukars right and chukars left and chukars behind Sam, as Brian took one over his head, Mike dropped one far out, and I nipped a third that Luke quickly ran down. Sam sat and looked at each of us in turn. I told you so! So you did, Sam, so you did.

And with that, the curse was lifted. Laughter returned, and brooding guilt was replaced by the immortal picture of Sam on his back legs, frantically gesturing at birds we stubbornly refused to see. Never again would we doubt his word.

There were more misses that afternoon, but none that took hold, and they were punctuated by good hits and long retrieves, climbing down into valleys to look for stragglers, flushing unexpected doubles from beneath the sage, and watching the shadows lengthen across the scalloped hills that folded, one after another, off into the distance.

As we made our way back to the car with our eyes into the sun, and Tom’s game vest sagged with the weight, we stumbled into one of those odd situations that defy explanation. Racing back and forth, Luke went on point out in front, and Jake high to my left. I climbed the hill and walked in, and a chukar erupted into the sky and I took him with a high shot as I was silhouetted against the sun. Everyone applauded, even Sam, and I was ready to call it a day on that note when the dogs locked up again, Mike called a visual, and then a second and third, and we found we had run upon a veritable herd of chukars, moving through the sage undergrowth.

Mike, in the center, walked in. A bird flushed low and to his right, and Brian collected it as it streamed past. Then a bird went up in front of Mike and he whacked it decisively, and was just raising his hands in triumph when another went up behind him. With the smooth efficiency of a bull-rider leaping off an enraged Brahma, he got the gun back to his shoulder and took the bird with his second barrel. He was about to spike his shotgun when a fourth bird took off from behind and zoomed low over the sage, and I swung past and dropped him.

“Hey, Mike! A double!”

“Give him the buckle!” Brian shouted. “That’s the ride of the day!”

But even that was not the end. There must have been two dozen birds in that flock, and no sooner had one dog come back with a bird than the other was on point, with Sam directing operations from the end of his straining leash.

And so we worked our way back to the car, a bird at a time, into the setting sun. In another week, it would be spring. Wintertime, and the livin’ was easy.

This article appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal in August, 2005.

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