Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dogs and Birds and Old Men and Such


A few observations from opening weekend of my personal obsession with a fast-fading tradition:

I think this is going to be Ozzy's breakout season where he starts putting things together. He's doing well, and I am pleased. Jenny, not so much thus far. She was a wild, poorly-behaved wench this weekend. My fault. We'll be working on that. She always seems to start out poorly and get better as the season goes along. I'm hoping that pattern holds.

Trying to keep up with dogs over rough terrain, not to mention mounting a gun, getting your head down on the stock and properly swinging through on a quail, all while suffering from an irritating and pernicious firewood cutting-related neck and hand injury (more on that in some future blog) that prevents you from doing pretty much all of those things, is an act of futility and pain. Think Frankenstein attempting to hunt quail, and that would be a good approximation of me this past weekend.

As suspected, we have more birds around than last year, which means that instead of walking twenty miles and seeing only heat shimmers, hallucinations and dust devils, this season you will walk twenty miles and not only see heat shimmers, hallucinations and dust devils, but your dogs may, just may, get a fleeting chance to catch a few tantalizing molecules of quail essence swirling in the eddies of the morning chill, and then remind you why you're so infatuated with them. The dogs and the quail.

But despite that, it's still bad, and nowhere near what it needs to be. Last year was apocalyptically grim. This year it's merely catastrophically grim. If we get one more summer like last, perhaps we can hope for an upgrade to disastrously grim next fall, and if we get really, really lucky and get two more normal summers, I believe the Oklahoma quail season of 2015-2016 will be merely grim.

At least that's what I and the 20,000-odd (down from well over 100,000 at one point) fools who still stubbornly chase these dreams into the wasteland each year are shooting for. The only question is, how many of them will still be around in a couple years to enjoy that wonderfully grim year of quail hunting?

It was not hard to find solitude this past Saturday on the public area I hunt every opening weekend. A few more than last year, including a couple out-of-state groups who chased their own dreams all the way from Georgia and Alabama. But even with the uptick in numbers, it was a shadow of what was, and most of those few remaining are old, wistful and pushing forward mostly on the pull of the past.

As I was sitting on my tailgate Saturday afternoon eating lunch, a truck with a dog trailer pulled up beside me. Two men inside. Old-time men. Dog men. Bird-hunting men, representatives of a sepia-tinged epoch now past, trying to find one last good and familiar thing in this one. We talked for over an hour. They were both in their late seventies, from back east, almost to Arkansas. Their dogs were old, their truck was old, their guns were old, and their tales were old. And fascinating. And terribly sad. And terribly familiar. Two aging men from a region once rife with quail and quail hunting tradition, now driving a bunch of aging dogs hundreds of miles, all for the chance to grasp memory. I suppose that's what we all do eventually.

We talked dogs and guns and quail and OU football and when it was time to leave I gave them my card, told them to call me next fall for a scouting report and wished them luck. Right before they drove off, one of them said "you know, you're the youngest quail hunter I've met in a while." It should be noted that I am 42, and while the concept of "young" changes with age, by no stretch of the imagination am I a rosy-cheeked cherub. But he was right. In fact, I was the youngest quail hunter I had seen all weekend.   

I thought of the legions of truly young kids, teenagers and twenty-somethings that I had run into (for better and worse. Usually worse) out duck hunting the past two seasons, all those "crews" with their wispy beards and their barrel stickers on their guns and their "Cut 'Em" stickers on their truck windows and their simple faith that the ducks will always be here because of course for them the ducks always have been here, just like the quail had always been here, and everyone, young and old, had always hunted them. Until, of course, they weren't.

As those two old men drove off in search of what pulled them here, I couldn't help but wonder if they'd be back next year, or maybe the year after, or if they'd just drive off into the past, never to return. It's a helluva thing to lose an entire tradition. And it's a helluva thing to be a young quail hunter at 42.

7 comments:

  1. Too bad quail hunting in your area is not as good as it could be. Its times like this when states try to institute put and take Hatchery bandaid seasons, for better or usually for worse. Would there even be enough interest for such an abomination to take flight?

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    1. Naw, none whatsoever, Uplander. I know some of the eastern states do bird releases, but for a variety of reasons it'd never fly (pun intended) out here. Obviously we do have commercial hunting operations that release birds for the guys that are into shooting poultry, but if it ever came to having to hunt released birds on public land, I think I'd simply give it up and move wherever there's some little wildness remaining. Mars, maybe.

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  2. Damn. Nicely done.

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  3. I used to think that anything north of 35 was old. Kids.

    Part of me wants to cringe at the thought of being the last of a dying breed, the old guy with the old dogs and the old truck chasing a memory more than a possibility. Part of me dearly hopes I'll get there.

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    1. Mark, I'm afraid you might be. I don't know, I'm not familiar enough with the SE situation to say, but I can say that here in OK, which had as strong a quail hunting tradition as any state in the nation, we're down to a handful. I remember when I first started writing in the mid-late 90s, our wildlife department estimated there were 138,000 active quail hunters in Oklahoma. In a story I'm getting ready to post a link to, Texas, (Freakin' Texas! Bobwhite Ground Zero) is down to around 20,000 quail hunters, about the same number as OK. That's just unreal.

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    2. Our numbers have gone from somewhere around 50,000 in the mid-sixties to about 6,000 in 2005 which was the last year I've found data for. In the last 8 yrs I'd bet we've lost half of those. It's the ultimate chicken/egg scenario - without birds it's hard to get hunters, and without hunters it's hard to get the work done that results in more birds.

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