Behind every moment of triumph lies the sacrifice of a mentor
Story and photos by Hannah Hayes
It was mid-afternoon. The sun was brutal, the air was dry, but the faint, cooling wind provided us a welcomed boost of morale. This was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The sheer variation of habitat was staggering. White-capped mountains adjacent to lush grass of the most vibrant green. Sage grass fields with endless valleys that dropped into an entirely different habitat.
Southern Arizona was where I would learn the varied playing fields of desert quail.
We were there mostly for falconry, but we carried guns on afternoon hunts that the birds of prey had to sit out. On this particular day, we were after scaled quail with guns in hand, following two setters, one vizsla, and one cocker.
I’d never hunted scaled quail before. I had come across them incidentally while hunting bobwhite quail, but I’d never targeted them specifically. All I knew about them was what I heard; they ran and they were fast. I did not anticipate what I was up against.
The spot did not disappoint. Time and time again, a dog would go on point. “Qi’ra’s on point,” I heard my friend Tyler say so many times that the statement started to feel like a regular part of our walk instead of something desperately sought.
Walking up to a dog pointing a covey of scaled quail is pure chaos. The sound and surprise of a covey rise was starting to feel familiar to me, but the effort it took to connect with these birds required muscle memory I just hadn’t earned yet.
Covey after covey, single after single, I missed my opportunity to connect with these birds. No matter how ready I thought I was, how clear I thought about each action, and how confident I was in my aim, the birds just didn’t fall with my shot.
It was my last opportunity to shoot a bird on this trip and I was blowing it in a major way. We had a deadline to meet so that Tyler could hunt Mearns’ quail with his goshawk.
I watched as time ticked on, eventually passing our planned leave time, still with no bird in my bag.
I felt my pocketful of shells get lighter and lighter until I fired my last one. That was it. I blew it. We started our hike back to the truck.
In that moment I was utterly defeated, and hiding quiet tears behind my sunglasses.
Predictably, a dog went on point walking back to the truck. A covey of scaled quail flushed and Tyler connected with one. The rest of the covey flew into the lone mountain we were hunting beneath. While Tyler tracked down his bird, my new friend, UB, started walking towards the mountain. I told him I didn’t have any shells left. Without hesitation, he handed me his gun. “Let’s go,” UB said. And we went.
We headed for the spot on the mountain where we had watched the covey land. Over and over again, a dog would point, a bird would flush, and I would miss. Each miss came with the punishment of gaining elevation. Each miss was accompanied by harsh encouragement from UB to keep chasing those dogs. Up the mountain we continued. With each step, I doubted that I had it in me to keep going. I wanted to stop – and tried to several times – but UB kept pushing me to keep going. So I did. I was desperate.
Once again, Qi’ra went on point, this time with my dog, Cooper, pointing the other side of the bush the birds were taking refuge in. I ran as fast as I could toward those dogs, knowing that the birds had already run out from underneath them and were well on their way out of range. Lucky for me, a little cocker named River ran ahead and flushed the birds.
Abruptly, I stopped running, found my footing on the rocky edge of the mountain, raised my gun to my shoulder, picked my bird, and squeezed the trigger. The bird crumbled out of the sky.
Finally! I did it. As I was screaming in celebration, River ran out of the brush with a scaled qual in her mouth. A bird I earned with pure grit and determination. But at the same time, a bird I earned only because somebody I barely knew believed in me and did not allow me to give up.
I wore the biggest smile on my face on the walk back to the truck.
We had missed our deadline and Tyler was not able to fly his goshawk. It was a sacrifice I couldn’t comprehend at the time. When I exclaimed that I couldn’t believe I did it, UB kept reminding me: you can do anything that you set your mind to.
Had I been alone running up that mountain, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to go farther. Had Tyler not sacrificed a valuable hunt with his bird – a hunt he drove 12 hours for, I would have walked away empty-handed.
Every bird I’ve harvested throughout my life was only earned because of someone else’s selfless determination to help me.
Every bird that ended up in my pack was only earned because someone else hesitated squeezing the trigger so that I could fire first.
Upland hunting can only be passed on to the next generation if the veterans of the sport are willing to give up a tailgate full of birds so that the girl tagging along can harvest just one. Selfless mentorship in this sport is the only way to ensure its longevity.
Had Tyler ended the hunt early and I walked away empty-handed, I would have one less log on the fire that is my passion for this sport.
If UB had not believed in me after seeing me shoot an entire box of shells – believed in me so much to hand over his gun and carry my empty one, I would have left that hunt with tears in my eyes, wondering if all that trouble was worth it.
I am an upland hunter because those proficient in the sport have enabled me to be. While it’s hard to admit I don’t know the first thing about upland hunting, that I don’t know what habitat these birds prefer, or what a good spot looks like, I know how important it is to be humble and ask for guidance.
It was embarrassing to go through a box of shells without a single bird to show for it, but nobody starts a sport with the skills of an expert. Every expert was once a beginner. It is just as important to be a humble beginner, ask questions, and miss birds as it is to be a selfless mentor. There is no room for growth if your ego doesn’t allow for the necessary space.
I hope one day I can give a beginner what Tyler and UB gave me: sacrifice, encouragement, knowledge, and friendship.
Hannah Hayes is Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever's North Dakota Education & Outreach Coordinator.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you liked it, become a member today!