One Quail of a Day: by Will Kelly
Life in the Carolina piedmont can lend to an unconscious sense of borders, abruptly pronouncing themselves in the asphalt of backroads, the trees, the terroir: a different Southern accent. Aside from the birth of a child, it takes a compelling reason to wake me before sunrise. Heading to the boat marina, a duck blind, or hunt camp qualifies for that list. Setting out for a day in the quail woods tops it.
I passed through little towns and stopped in the first one with lights on. Driving onward with my knees and eating a wax paper wrapped biscuit, my navigator interrupted a smooth tune. ‘Turn left at the next intersection’. Church- Courthouse- Texaco- Red Dot Store.
I arrived at my destination late and fell in queue behind two vehicles at the stone gate. Beyond the entrance, a rider clopped along on horseback, tall and proud to guide us in. We caravanned up a sandy serpentine path and approached ‘the shops’: stables, a large barn, rows of well-loved tractors and implements. A clean run of concrete and chain link was full of resting gun-dogs. As the trucks drove past, each kennel came alive, just as rowdy as the inmates in Folsom when Johnny Cash came on stage.
We continued deeper into the property, gently ascending to a plain with a commanding vantage. The landscape beyond was a vast expanse of waist high grass waving brassy, gold, and amber. Pine breaks punctuated the grassy bottom divided by a mown network of wagon trails. The dense bottom, filled with insects and seeds, the perfect habit for quail covey. Approaching a rendezvous of more punctual vehicles, fellow hunters dressed in the colors of the land and speckled themselves with blaze orange. Along the line, one was pulling up tall boots on a tailgate, the next inspecting the chokes in an over and under. I could gauge the brisk temperature as extra layers were being pulled out of bags.
I shuffled to the quaint cabin at the end of the line of trucks, shotgun and vest under my arm. The structure was hewn of pine and chinked white, one of architectural gems hidden across the property. Our host, Scott, came forward from the stoop. He extended his magnetic handshake and welcomed us into the cabin’s warmth. The room was bustling with guys grabbing one last coffee, ear plugs, and making re-acquaintances. Scott gave a brief history of the property, one older than the country it resided in. He continued with a humble description of the habitat. He told us about his beloved pointers with a passionate enthusiasm that hide the expression on his face. His orientation continued with directions on how we would hunt from the buggy and approach pointing dogs. Safety was a welcome and paramount feature of the discussion.
The party was led out to a clay thrower, perched at the apex of the land. Each shooter was encouraged to ‘warm up’. The pressure to hit fleeting clays came with a balance of bravado and intimidation in front of a line of new friends. A Frankenstein amalgamation of a heavy truck chassis and a shell of tan fiberglass approached. On the front bumper, two retrieving Spaniels rode in boxes like mascots. The second row of jump seats flanked steps to a high platform with four plush captain’s chairs. Below were dog boxes. The bird-buggy is a bespoke vehicle, a perfect conveyance for twelve hunters: six human and six canine.
Ahead of us, Scott and Marc commanded a heat of two searching dogs from the saddle. The white and tan pointers strafed the ground with their noses. The horses changed gate and cantered ahead. A dog locked on point in a lane, knee forward and flat across his top from skull to tail. We had paired into three groups and my partner, Merritt, and I climbed from our jump seats to set up on the first point. We each approached the edge of the beat to walking lanes twenty yards apart with our guns breached. Marc and Scott dismounted their horses, leaving the other hunters back to spectate.
We aligned ourselves at the grassy edge, nodded to one another, and as Merritt and I closed our guns we stepped forward. The men between us beat the brush with rigid leather dog leashes that resemble riding crops. Ahead, both dogs locked motionless on a thick clump of brush in the tall grass. In that moment, everything became dull. The susurration of wind, the beating of grass, footsteps in dew, and deep voices coaxing hidden birds to fly all became muted ambience behind a heartbeat of anticipation. Ten feet from the dogs, an instantaneous cacophony of squawking and rapid whirring wingbeats erupted as a covey of seven quail rose from the brush. Merritt cracked his first shot before I acquisitioned my first target. A ball of feathers burst forward. I fired the lower barrel at an oblique shot and downed the bird. Merritt’s gun cracked to the right flank, taking a third bird as I swung out to a long shot on the left. I saw the silhouette of the wad far behind the bird as it escaped under full wing. This action all occurred in a moment between two breaths.
On the buggy, new acquaintances complimented both of us, old ones gave me the guff deserved for that miss. There are no participation trophies even when a light game bag is tallied as participation is reward enough.
The balance of the morning was spent in the chase. Short intermissions between dogs on point provided time for conversation. Five or ten minutes of gliding or bumping down the sandy trail, each time rounding corners at cresting hills with anticipation of the next covey. At each stop, an alternating pair of hunters would assess the cards they were dealt. Each covey nestled in a unique scenario. Would the shot be a silhouette against pale sky or a flash across the broken backdrop of trees? Would the terrain slope downward or upward? Was the wind on the back of your neck or cool in your face?
In the line, there is a myopic focus on the ground in front of the dogs. No matter how cool and relaxed you tell yourself to be, nerves can bungle in anticipation. Observing from the high perch of the buggy, the view is more global. The sequence unfolds without the same emotional investment. The point, the line-up, the brush beating walk-up, familiar at every covey. From that balcony, you can vicariously imagine being the shooter or the flush can be witnessed more objectively. From either vantage point, the story will be remembered the same, how the coveys flushed and how the guns shot. The coveys were plentiful and active. The dogs were world class. The morning air remained cool and humid, ideal conditions for the dogs to pick up a scent. The gentle rustle of wind provided camouflage over approaching footsteps. Over fifteen coveys were pointed and upwards of forty-five birds were bagged. The other pairs were enjoyable to watch. Jesse and Michael were both impressive shots. Witnessing Jack and Chris crack a couple double doubles stirred competitive envy.
The dogs grew weary as the sun found its way through the clouds. Each hunter rode along, now a bit more quiet- smiling with contentment. Deep into the property by the river, a fire crackled in front of a slatted and screened structure that resembled a corn crib. We ended our day with a lunch there, sharing stories and giving thanks to a gracious host for the opportunity to be in the field- deep behind the pines, where nothing ever happens.