Patty and I are home now, back in California after our three days of quail hunting. We are both tired and a little beaten up too. Patty’s feet especially suffered. Now he’s wearing boots at home that I should have put on him in Arizona to prevent the damage. Sorry pal.
While preparing for the Arizona trip I recalled that my friend Ron had given me a handful of old hunting books and that one of them covered quail hunting. It took a few minutes of digging around but soon I was sitting on the floor in front of the bookcase paging through Tom Huggler’s 1987 classic “Quail Hunting in America.”
In the style of the day and the genre it has a lengthy and ambitious sub-title, “Tactics for finding and taking bobwhite, valley, Gambel, mountain, scaled and Mearns quail by season and habitat.” Perfect! I read the chapters on the Arizona species and enjoyed every bit.
Now, looking back now on those three days of quail hunting with Patrick Flanagan of Border to Border Outfitters and his great dogs, I’m recalling a nugget of advice that Tom passed on, and the one that I mostly ignored, from the Mearns quail chapter. He quoted a local Arizona hunter who said that success on Mearns quail required that you, “hunt hungry.” He went on to say that hunting hungry meant the gun was halfway up at all times. The implication was that you not only had to be ready but willing to fire at any time. Success clearly meant birds in the bag.
Now Patty and I do not have the opportunity to hunt wild birds often enough. Given the chance we would join the elite corps of folks who do only that. Instead, we enjoy volume hunting and long seasons at our local hunt clubs and then, when we are so lucky, make a few special trips like this one to Arizona.
Spending so much time in that target-rich and more structured club environment does not prepare one to hunt hungry. The hunting vest will fill up so I’m more interested in the quality of each opportunity.
In Arizona I started by carrying my side-by-side empty and open, only loading up when the dogs were on point. I was slow to raise the gun and happy with a single shot when a quick double might have been possible. I was passing up shots if the birds flushed wild, only considering pointed birds worthy. I was only taking shots that were nearly sure things, elitist in my own way.
At first Patrick was the polite and helpful guide. “I think that you could have gotten off a second shot there. Let’s get you a double next time!”
Then he started getting to the point more directly but through friendly teasing. “You do have two barrels on that thing right?”
Finally there was just a bit of head shaking and although he never said it out loud, I knew that he was asking himself, “Why didn’t he shoot that time?”
Now, to be clear, no one is suggesting that safety be compromised in the name of hunting success. We are still not shooting too close to the dogs, or cattle or each other. We’re still using the safety as it’s intended and we’re not swinging guns wildly or out of control.
But, I could see his point. Patrick and his dogs worked their tails off to get me opportunities and I wasn’t hunting hungry. His business is to make me successful and, as was clear in the quail hunting book, success is measured by the number of birds in the vest at the end of the day.
At one point I promised Patrick that I would shoot my second barrel and so on the next covey I did. I squeezed off that second shot with the birds well out of range and got the head shake again.
When I passed up a shot through a few thin branches he helpfully pointed out that, “Bare trees are mostly just air you know.” On the next flush I shot through some thick leafy growth. We dutifully spent the next 15 minutes hunting for a downed bird that both of us, and our dogs, knew well enough had escaped unscathed.
On the last hunt of our third and final day we made a big loop across and through three or four draws and finger ridges. The sun was sinking lower towards the horizon as we hunted our way back to the truck. I was torn between dawdling to make the final minutes last longer and rushing to cover the most ground possible before dark.
On the next-to-last little side drainage first Rita and then Patty started to get a little birdy. They were sniffing around but hadn’t completely figured out the situation when a single Mearns flushed wild about twenty yards away from where they were exploring. He flew straight away from me, through an uphill opening perfectly framed by the oak trees on either side. Visibility was ideal as he rose out of the shadows against the still well-lit sky.
This time the gun was loaded and closed and I thumbed off the safety as I raised it and swung through the target, well within range. I didn’t pull the trigger.
As that last bird of our trip flew off I was thinking about “success.” If success was only defined by the weight of my bird vest then maybe I hadn’t hunted hungry enough. I could have shot more birds. If, on the other hand, the definition of success put more emphasis on hunter satisfaction, then we had just concluded a very successful hunt and I had hunted exactly hungry enough.
I couldn’t have been any happier with my trip and with the work Patrick and his dogs did for me. Together we’d covered a lot of miles through some beautiful country. They showed Patty and I numerous coveys of Gambel’s, scaled and Mearns’ quail. They’d offered up the bounty that Arizona has to share and I came away with enough birds in my vest and a treasure trove of new experiences and fond memories.
Thanks Patrick. Hunt hungry indeed!
Title Photo by Patrick Flanagan