By Chad Love
As first-bird moments go, it sure as hell wasn’t ever going to be canonized in the opening paragraph of a schmaltzy bird-hunting story, nor would it ever make an even mildly inspiring fake Instagram post for all my tens of devoted followers.
Those moments — real, staged, or otherwise — demand perfection, or at least the illusion of it. And in turn that carefully fabricated perfection implies that everything leading up to said bird-in-hand moment came together in a glorious Zen-like harmonic convergence of great dog work, cooperative birds, serviceable (in the best humblebrag tradition) shooting, and the company of great friends, like those attractive folks you find in beer commercials.
Yeah, this moment was none of those things.
For one, I was alone. And bleeding. And wheezing. And sweating —copiously. My allergies were killing me. There were what felt like hundreds of some kind of microscopic, yet hugely painful thorn embedded in my ass, and I was working on a vicious sunburn — in February. I had lost one water bottle — the one still containing water — in the preceding cross-desert footrace, and my other water bottle had been empty for the past hour.
The dogs were spent and panting. My nose wouldn’t stop running. I was filthy, starving, thirsty, exhausted, hot, blistered, punctured in many places, half-lost, three-fourths delirious, and full-on ecstatic, because in my hand I finally held a bird, the tiny little six-ounce culmination of that morning’s hilariously bumbling death march that only in the most charitably blind terms could be described as “bird hunting.”
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t classic, and it damn sure wasn’t comfortable. In fact, at times it was downright ugly. But as I looked down at that small bundle of feathers cupped in my blood, snot, and sweat-soaked hand, I knew that’d I’d never more thoroughly enjoyed earning a bird (or run as fast for) than this one.
Then again, Gambel’s quail hunting is like that, when you’re a clueless Okie in the desert.
I’ve always believed that we gravitate toward the birds and landscapes which best reflect our personalities. We pursue that which haunts the places in which we long to be. And as such, I have never been drawn to conventionally beautiful landscapes or bucolic scenes of temperate-zone perfection. I am a creature of the plains and the near Southwest. Aridity and solitude are good and necessary for my soul. Too many trees make me nervous. Too much water drowns me.
So the bobwhite, the scalie, and the prairie grouse of the plains have always been my muses; the places they live the tablet upon which I scribble my fever-dream bootprint sonnets.
But at some point, if you are a quail hunter, the siren of the true desert will call out to you. And when it does, you have no choice but to answer. You pack up the bags, load up the dogs, and point the truck west. You’re going desert quail hunting, whether or not you have the slightest clue as to what you’re doing, or what you’re getting yourself into.
But that’s what makes it fun, right?
I’d done this before, of course. Two years prior I’d gotten the yearns for the Mearns’, as no one said ever, and presently found myself on the side of a mountain somewhere in Ed Abbey country, feeling every one of my 48 years, my 30 extra pounds, and wondering if javelinas ate people.
I’ve repeatedly gotten myself into these situations over the years; diving headfirst and alone into bird-hunting adventures for which I’m ill-prepared. I suppose I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by the eternal question of whether my questionable judgement and rudimentary-at-best skills will be just enough to overcome my profound ignorance. It’s a delicate balance, and my win-loss record on that question is, shall we say, mixed.
That first Mearns’ hunt turned out to be a good one: The dogs and I figured out how to find them, I actually hit a few of them, I didn’t die of a heart attack or get eaten by ill-tempered pigs, and I also came away from that hunt determined to lose a few pounds so I could come back and do it again someday. And I have. Several times, in fact.
But one thing persistently eluded me: Gambel’s quail. I’d shot scalies, I’d shot more Mearns’, but I’d never shot a Gambel’s. And as I once again drove west into the setting sun (OK, actually it was early morning, and the sun was rising in the east, as it is wont to do) I tried to summon forth my best steely-eyed resolve as that internal story narrator we all have inside us kept repeating, “That changes today!”
Need I even mention the fact that that lying, overly-optimistic bastard had fed me that line countless times before? No, of course not.
Now, for those not familiar with Gambel’s quail, they are, quite frankly, weird birds, with a few unnerving characteristics.
First, their call. The first time I ever heard a group of Gambel’s quail calling, I thought I was listening to a pack of agitated howler monkeys. So there’s that.
And let’s talk about Gambel’s quail coveys. In good years they can be giant, with legitimate 100-bird coveys possible. Good luck picking out a single bird in that maelstrom.
And finally, there’s the running. I’m used to running quail. Western bobs run way more than most people think they do, and scaled quail are notorious runners, but I’m just going to state categorically that Gambel’s quail run faster and longer than any bird I’ve ever hunted not named pheasant.
So Gambel’s quail unnerve you with that creepy call, they flat out-run you with those light-speed legs, and then when they finally do fly, they fluster you with sheer numbers. And they do all this in a landscape that very much wants to see you in pain — or death, if possible — through reptilian envenomation, or by turning you into a human jerky stick, or by any one of a thousand other different ways to hurt, main, or draw blood as you vainly chase the top-knotted fiends.
Of course I fell in love with them instantly. Who wants to hunt an easy bird? Not me. But be careful of what you love. Sometimes what you love comes with the cost of some pain.
Self-delusion is the most frustrating of all delusions, because there is no one else to blame for said delusion but yourself. And blame is what I was looking for this morning. The steely resolve I’d started the trip with now had all the fortitude of a week-old banana left in a hot car, and my cheerfully deceitful internal narrator had long-since disappeared, replaced by that other internal narrator that appears when things go wrong.
You know, the one who keeps telling you to just f#&@ing give up now because this trip is obviously cursed, and that you probably cursed it before it even got started when you refused to give that homeless dude at the gas station in Las Cruces five bucks so he could get something to eat, and isn’t karma a bitch now, huh?
Yeah, that’s the internal narrator I get most of the time on these trips. And good Dog did he have a bullhorn in my ear on this one, because absolutely everything had gone wrong.
On the very first hunt of the trip my best, most experienced dog cut his ear so badly I considered finding a vet before I finally got the bleeding stopped. No birds found.
On the second hunt of the trip I buried the rental up to its rear axles in what I believe was literally the only muddy spot in the entire Chihuahuan desert at the time. I spent the next three hours liberally coating myself in wet concrete disguised as dirt while digging it out. No birds found.
On the third hunt of the trip I punched a hole in a tire. On the fourth hunt of the trip the flora of the desert punched several holes in me. On the fifth hunt of the trip I stumbled upon — and then very quickly ran away from — killer bees. No birds found.
On the sixth hunt of the trip I met up with a fellow PF and QF employee, where, after walking approximately 123 hot, dusty, and fruitless miles wherein all we encountered was one group of irate and obstinate javelinas, we finally found birds. Which I promptly missed. Many times.
As a writer, I dole out hyperbole like Shriners throw out candy on parade day, but it’s not hyperbole to say that the trip had, up to this point, been a rolling disaster.
So when got out of the truck that morning, I was not looking for a redemption story, I was placing silent bets on what calamity was in the batter’s box taking practice swings.
But despite all the (mostly self-inflicted) privations I had endured, and perhaps because of them, when I stepped out the truck that morning, fully expecting even further woe and wretchedness, I didn’t even mind, because I was hooked.
Absolutely, irrevocably hooked, as deeply as I had been hooked by the Mearns’ before, and the scalies before that, and the bobs before that, because that’s what quail do to you: they hook you, regardless of where you find them, or how fiendish the little demons can be.
And, hours later, when finally, after a series of outlandishly comedic scenes that will forever be held in secret between me, the dogs, and whatever Border Patrol agent was surely observing me that morning from afar, I connected on that first Gambel’s quail, I didn’t check it off a bucket list of accomplishments to be recorded and never revisited.
Exhausted and spent, I looked down at the fiendish, magnificent bird in my hand and thought, “I can’t wait to do this again.”
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal
This story originally appeared in the Upland Bird Hunting Super Issue 2021. To get your Super Issue next year, become a member today!