Patty and I went back to Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area yesterday. The California quail season closes tomorrow so this was our last opportunity until next fall.
We’ve had mixed results here in the past, once finding multiple coveys (Patty Outdoors: California Quail Country, Jan 11, 2017) and the next time finding none. (Patty Outdoors: A Walk in the Hills, Jan 26, 2017) I hadn’t shot a bird for Patty on either of those occasions but I subscribe to the “you don’t have to kill to have hunted” philosophy. Patty and I had a great time on both of those hunts. Still, it would be nice for all of his hard work to be rewarded so I was hoping for a shot this time.
According to their web site, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife manages over a million acres of habitat in Wildlife Areas and Ecological Reserves. The Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area is about 6,300 acres in Merced County just north of the San Luis Reservoir. The sign-in kiosk and parking lot is directly off of state highway 152 and is only an hour drive from the South Bay.
The plan today was to hike into a specific area that I had spied from an adjacent ridge. It was a deep draw running west to east. The north facing side was a lush green grassy slope visible now through winter’s leafless oaks and buckeyes.
The south facing side was more interesting to us because it would be, I thought, more interesting to the quail too. It was sunny, rocky and steep with aromatic patches of blue-grey sage, some of which reached from ridge-top to creek side. At the bottom of the draw the creek was still running from the rains we’d had a few days earlier.
Since we would be hiking in for an hour or more, I strapped the 20 gauge to my back and kept the camera handy. If we managed to work into a covey, they’d flush and break up into singles and pairs. Then, I planned to set the camera aside, unpack the gun, and we’d try to hunt them up.
After an hour or so of hiking and filming Patty running in the hills, we closed in on the sunny slope. We approached the area from above and Patty began acting birdy immediately. There were a couple of false alarms when he focused in on sparrows and bushtits flitting around in the brush but he quickly gets bored and moves on in those situations.
As we moved past the edges Patty was often out of sight. The terrain was uneven and the sage thick and tall but the crunching, crashing and scratching sounds were enough. So when all went quiet, I was on high alert.
It took me a while to find him but when I did, he was locked up. I found a spot to set up the camera but then noticed Patty’s head slowly turning. Perhaps the birds were moving or maybe he just wasn’t sure of himself. Either way, the situation wasn’t going to hold much longer. I walked in on the point and nothing happened. Was it just another false alarm?
Then birds started flushing. It wasn’t a big covey but it broke up just as we’d planned. The first two came up, barely a foot above the sage and disappeared over the steep edge in under a second. They banked to the left but could have landed anywhere out of sight below. The next pair popped up and did the same, but veered to the right as they dropped below our near horizon. The final pair flushed behind me, after I’d walked right over them and immediately disappeared over the back of the ridge above us.
Heart pounding, I was still just pulling out the shotgun when two birds flew in-bound from the backside of the ridge. They landed almost at our feet and then skittered off into the brush. Patty was on them immediately and locked up about 40 yards away in the sage. I dropped in two shells and headed for his nose.
They didn’t come up where I expected them to be so I released Patty and he repositioned. This time we had them pinched and they flushed, one right in front of me. I got the gun mounted but a flash of white in my peripheral vision told me that Patty had broken his point and was in chase. The bird never got more than a few inches above the sage so there was no safe shot. Then, in an instant, just like the others, these birds dropped out of sight into the steep ravine.
According to plan, we worked our way over the edge and down through the rest of the sage filled side hill. Unfortunately the plan broke down then because we never relocated any of the pairs I thought should have been there.
When I finally decided to give up the search we worked our way up and out of the deep draw and started on the long walk back over the hills to the truck.
So once again, we had a great hunt in an amazing location on a beautiful day. Patty didn’t disappoint as he found us a covey, kept on the moving birds and eventually pinned them down. For the most part our plan had worked. We started by filming and then got the gun unpacked and loaded. We both had pounding hearts during the excitement of working those birds.
Leaving with an empty game pouch just doesn’t seem that important. You don’t need to kill to have hunted. Patty and I hunted yesterday.