A Story Of Quail, Bird Dogs… And A Ruse
Hunting and a good-humored ruse can create a lasting memory.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I did not own brittany spaniels. Over the years, one or two have been good bird dogs, one or two have been real- ly good bird dogs and one was unbelievable. His name was Pepper, my first brit. He was a gift from John Garner of Rome, whom I shall never forget for this generosity. Pepper was truly an exceptional dog. I remember the first thing he retrieved was a fish from Nimblewill Creek, but wait, that’s another story. It is easy to digress to stories about this dog.
King, another brit and a gift from John Garner, needed some training in certain areas. He would point and back; however, retrieving was a concept he never quite grasped. Oh, he looked for and found dead birds, but he would not bring them to hand, mine or anyone else’s. He would find the dead bird, lie down on the ground with the bird between his paws and wait for me to come and get what he had found. No matter what went on around him, he waited patiently for me to come and claim my prize. After I picked the bird up, King would bounce around like he had brought that bird from the next county. I, in return, would hold the bird by the body with the head dangling and he would “nip it” for himself as a reward for the mutual cooperation in the retrieve. At least this was what I thought at the time. I later came to realize what King knew all along: Humans are easy to train.
This went on for some time, until one hunt in December when I took a little too long to get to him. When I did go to him, I found the head of the quail missing. He knew the head was his anyway, so why not remove it while he waited on me to get there? King knew that my trainability was no longer an issue, and he knew that I liked dogs with personalities. He was one step ahead of me, so why not?
When I picked the bird up, he simply went back to hunting. No bouncing around, no waiting for me to give him his reward. He had successfully removed me from the retrieving equation, so I came to expect picking up a bird with no head.
Regardless of this modest shortfall in retrieving, King more than made up for it in style and determination. Pepper and King took a back seat to no other brace I’ve hunted with. Friends from all over north Georgia wanted to see my brits work. They were truly amazing, and like most brits they were family. I had no problem allowing them the run of my home; however, they did sleep outside.
I don’t recall how I met Bob Carmichael. I think we gravitated toward each other in our high-school days from our mutual love of the outdoors. Regardless, he was my hunting buddy, and for years I would not think of going to the woods without him. He could shoot accurately, and I trusted him to shoot his zone in a covey bust, which in bird hunting is the second-most important rule for safety, the first being to always keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
There were a lot of birds in north Georgia back then, but cattle farming and urban sprawl made it almost impossible to find huntable numbers unless you “covey hopped,” which meant driving from place to place, unloading your dogs and hunting a specific piece of geography for one or two coveys, then moving on to the next place. In our part of the world, this is the way you hunted birds, and Bob and I became very knowledgeable about where to hunt.
I do recall how I met Wayne Walters, the eventual third member of our hunting group. Wayne had been hired by Cherokee County to help with the county’s property revaluation and update of the tax digest. When he moved into our neighborhood, it was inevitable that we met at one of the few restaurants in the area.
Although Wayne had hunted deer, rabbits and squirrels, he had never hunted quail, and after hearing Bob and me talk about our adventures in the field, he asked if he could go with us sometime. We set a hunt for the following Saturday morning. Bob and I planned to hunt the two coveys next to his house because the coveys were large, maybe 20 birds each, and Bob knew where they roosted.
Saturday morning came, and it was cold. I loaded the dogs, picked up Wayne and drove to Bob’s house to have coffee before the hunt. Bob was not completely dressed, and I cautioned him not to put on so many clothes or his shotgun would not fit his shoulder. He laughed, but I knew it had happened before. After coffee, we left.
A quarter of a mile from where we thought the birds were roosting, we unloaded the dogs. They raced up and down the road as we prepared for the hunt. Unloading at this distance would allow the dogs to do their business and calm down from their initial surge of energy before we got to the place where we thought the birds were roosting. Finally, vests on, boots double tied and briar gloves on our left hands, we set off for the hunt.
The sun was up but had not yet warmed the morning air. Frost was everywhere. A damp mist rose from the condensation of frost off the mass of green honeysuckle in the middle of this 5-acre field. We paused on the edge of the field to watch the dogs work the cover. I was the first to break the silence.
“Wayne, in the past, we have found these birds in the middle of that honeysuckle patch,” I said. “It’s warmer in there, and they should be slow to move from the roost this morning. They should be there.”
Bob agreed, and we started walking toward the honeysuckle patch confident that where we had found them in the past we would find them again.
One-third up the east side of the field, Pepper turned toward the inside of the honeysuckle patch, slowed to a crawl and then stopped.
“Bob, my dog has stopped hunting,” I said.
“What do you think that means?” Bob asked.
“Birds,” I said, and we waited to get confirmation from King.
We waited patiently for King to return from his initial cast up the east side of the field. He came back from the north, entered the honeysuckle patch, saw Pepper and backed.
“King’s down,” said Bob. “Let’s go.”
We walked quickly to the edge of the honeysuckle patch. Bob was on my left, and Wayne was on his left, all 15 yards apart. We started walking, and the covey exploded into 20 different directions. Shots boomed across the field, then silence.
Wayne and Bob each knocked down a bird. I dropped two birds and saw King go to the nearest bird on my right. I knew he would chew its head off before I got there.
“I got two, and I shot the last bird’s head off,” I said.
I winked at Bob as Wayne said, “What did you say?”
“I shot the second bird’s head off,” I said.
“Sure you did,” said Wayne.
Bob picked up on the conversation and chimed in.
“Wayne, I have seen him do it before,” Bob said.
“Let’s go look,” I said, knowing that by now the bird’s head was surely in King’s stomach. I openly picked the bird up and flipped it to Wayne, making sure to be in full view so he would not accuse me of pulling its head off before I tossed it to him.
“No way,” said Wayne.
“I told you he had done that before,” Bob said.
As we pursued the singles, not much was said, but Wayne kept thinking about the headless bird.
“Why did you not shoot the first bird’s head off?
“It was flying straight away,” I said. “I could not see anything but tail feathers.”
I don’t think Wayne was expecting such a logical answer, because another period of silence ensued as we walked closer to the singles. Not willing to give up the ruse, Bob and I entered phase two of our charade. Somehow we must not allow Wayne to see me shoot at any single birds. He would surely ask me to shoot their heads off. As the dogs found their first single, Bob took control of the situation.
“Wayne, you take the lead while we are in these singles,” Bob said. “It will help you focus on one bird at a time and give you some practice. I will be your backup if you miss.”
We found five singles and killed two of them before moving to the next covey. Pepper and King pinned the next covey in a small lespedeza patch close to the ridge top. This was the perfect place to initiate part two of the ruse. I took the right side, because King was pointed on the right. I walked directly at him. This would give King a better- than-average chance to retrieve any bird flying to the right, provided I could kill it.
As we walked into the covey, I boastfully told Wayne that if any bird came my way, I would shoot its head off. One did, and I shot it. It fell just over the ridge top, which could not have been better. King was on it like a chicken on a june bug.
I stood on top of the ridge watching King do his thing and softly chanting, “Hunt dead, hunt dead,” to a dog that had already found the bird.
If Bob could keep Wayne busy with Pepper, looking for their downed birds, King would have time to finish his task. Pepper had returned three birds to Wayne and Bob, when Wayne turned and asked if I had killed one. I said I had and that King had not returned which meant he probably had found the bird. According to plan, we allowed Wayne to find King first and pick up the bird. Right on cue Bob said, “Well, did he shoot its head off?”
“Yes,” came the reply. I love a good ruse.
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