|  03/09/2020

Quail on the Fringe

By Tom Carpenter 

Growing up and hunting in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin when Holstein cows outnumbered people in our county and small family dairy farms drove the local economy, I shot precisely four quail per year in those formative sporting years of adolescence and teenage-dom. 
Why four quail, you ask? 
Because my father (who became a laborer for the railroad at age 14 in 1932, fought in World War II, came back to learn telegraphy and become a depot agent for the same railroad for the rest of his working life) loved the land and the game on it with deep understanding, taught his children the same, and made two my annual limit per covey we knew. 
He realized those bobwhites were special. It rubbed off on me. 
Simple math says that I must have had two coveys to hunt, but there were actually three. You see, the other rule was I couldn’t take birds from every covey in a year. Dad liked to shoot a couple birds too, and we didn’t know who else might find them. 
Sometime I’ll tell you about each covey, but they had good names: Dairy Lane, Ullom School, and Windmill. 
Dairy Lane was perhaps my favorite. Their home range was a road-wide cow lane brushed up on both sides (crabapple, wild plum, dogwood) connecting two pastures (year-round grass), bordering two small fields (oats-hay in one, rotated corn or beans in the other) and a couple tangly woodlot corners.   
What more could a quail want, other than a mild winter? 
We wouldn’t hunt them until after Thanksgiving, and usually it was in conjunction with our Bassett hounds and a rabbit hunt. 
A mere skiff of snow rippling the land. The bawling Bassetts have done their morning bunny-chasing down in the creekbottoms. We climb the ridge and approach the hunt’s arena as one would walk into church.  
But where will the altar be today?  
The buzz and whir of wings. Shots ring out. Feathered joy in hand and then placed, as if a lost treasure found, into my coat pocket, away from the bloody rabbits in the gamebag in back.  
Walking up a single ... a Bassett snuffling in the brush ... got it!  
Dad shows me his bird and likewise slides it into a coat pocket and we are done. 
Wisconsin winters have always put the state on the ebb-and-flow northern fringe of bobwhite quail range. I went home a lot to hunt during college, and in those young-adult years after, as I still do, but the trio of coveys slowly became two then one then none.  
Part of me was gone. 
There’s no blame to go around. Who can blame ravaging winters? One could also lament the economic realities that drove  small family dairy farms out of business and removed the deliciously diverse landscape they had fostered (cow pastures and small-grain fields and hay meadows and wide-brushy fencerows and fallow corners), but human livings must be made. 
Bobwhites were almost certainly a byproduct of that manmade landscape and occasional tides of climatological luck. But that didn’t make a life without quail hurt any less. 
Bird dogs and cabin fever brought me back.  
Minnesota, my adopted home, was no better for fulfilling a quail lover’s needs. Land use changes had been no different than on the other side of the Mississippi, and latitude made the accompanying winters even more cruel for an 8-ounce bird trying to eke out survival. 
Pheasants and ruffed grouse and woodcock filled my upland life with Brittanys. But then one January day when the hunting seasons were done and the land was locked up in an arctic stranglehold of snow and cold and Scout was staring at me with a cocked head that said we gotta get out of here dude or I will absolutely destroy this house for you, we made a pact. 
The next weekend we headed the truck down I-35 a couple hours before the January dawn and by early afternoon had turned left yet in Iowa with a few notches of latitude behind us and a landscape not that unlike that of my youth – sans two feet of Minnesota snow – in front of us. 
Rolling hills reminiscent of my native countryside. Doors knocked on. Strange looks and shrugged shoulders at my inquiry about hunting: “Why not? Good luck.” We found places to hunt, and even a few coveys of quail, in this new northern fringe of bobwhite range. 
Cattle lowing in grain stubble on the hill. A tangle of ragweed and plum brush and rose bush in the ceekbottom below. A January sun offering pleasant orange light but precious little warmth to a landscape skiffed with snow like another time. 
A Brittany on point in the grassy margin between field and thicket, followed by an eruption of whirring, buzzing wings stirring the winter air and my heart. 
Home again. 
I still slide a bird-in-hand into a coat pocket, closer to my own blood and heart, and not in some cavernous, impersonal gamebag. 
Other dogs have come and gone, and new places added to the mix.  
As an autumn of upland hunting tarries on, and even as seasons for gaudy roosters, prairie grouse, elusive ruffs and itinerant timberdoodles fall off the calendar, we still have the promise of a day of anticipatory, coffeed-up travel and a few coveys of bobwhites for a couple days down the hunting trail. 
Southern Iowa, northern Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas all fit the travel bill, offering both open seasons and (nowadays) abundant and quality public-land hunting opportunities for wintertime bobwhites on a landscape less harsh than the one we leave behind. 
It’s an anchor of our hunting season now, this winter quail hunting, or maybe it’s more like an anchor lifted once we direct the truck homeward in the winter sunset of a late afternoon. 
That’s the life of a quail lover on the northern fringe of bobwhite range. 
My “home” coveys today have different names – designations like Bad Name Creek, Homestead and Sprig’s – and they don’t reside a half-hour's bike ride down the road outside my childhood bedroom window but a day’s drive away in places that remind me of that native countryside. 
The distance though, matters not on the shoulders of night when sleep is slow in coming and my thoughts turn to bird dogs and bird hunting and sooner or later end up on quail as I hold my dog Lark’s silken-soft ear between my fingers and those corners of our hearts reserved for our beloved northern bobwhites fill again. 
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to read more stories like it, join Quail Forever today