Despite the record-breaking 80-degree heat, Duke the bird dog was frozen stiff.
His tail stuck straight out, one paw was poised in mid-air, and his quivering nose was pointed toward a thick patch of weeds and grass.
I eased up behind him, shotgun at port arms.
Suddenly a half-dozen quail came whirring out of the thatch.
Unnerved – despite Duke’s here-they-are signal – I threw up my gun and fired.
And missed. It was due to (a) the sun in my eyes, (b) the wind was gusting, or (c) the manufacturer neglected put any shot in my shell. Probably all of the above.
A few feet to my left, Phil Neal shot twice and two quail went tumbling in a shower of feathers. Phil was kind enough to suggest that maybe I hit one of them, but I assured him that my bird by then had crossed the county line.
That shot was the first one I’d taken at a quail in some three decades. I was hunting with Phil and a couple of his buddies, Bill Bryson and Jim Goodall, on Jim’s Wilson County farm. Ken Beck, an old newspaper crony and a nephew of Bill, joined us.
I met Bill at last year’s wild-game supper in Lebanon, where he was grilling mouth-watering, bacon-wrapped quail. We struck up a conversation, I told him I hadn’t hunted quail in years, and he invited me to join him on an outing.
We finally got together five days before the end of the season, on the hottest Feb. 24 on record.
Even though the conditions couldn’t have been more adverse – hot, dry and windy – Duke and his partners (Tex, Harlan and Princess) managed to find several birds. Ten were bagged.
Despite the hot weather it was an enjoyable day afield, and brought back a lot of memories. As a kid, I hunted quail by simply stomping through overgrown fields and along fence rows where I knew coveys were located.
Back then the sun wasn’t as bright, the wind didn’t blow as hard and my shells always had shot in them. I could usually drop at least one on the covey rise and pick off one or two singles.
Although my quail-shooting eye has dimmed over the decades, the heart-stopping thrill of an exploding covey remains as keen as ever.
And watching well-trained bird dogs work is pure pleasure. They held steady, backed up each other’s points and retrieved every bird that fell, no matter how thick the tangle.
The quail weren’t wild. There were among 600 pen-raised birds released annually by Bill and Phil. They hunt a dozen or so wild coveys, but toward the end of the season those birds are thinned out. Quail hunters are careful not to take too many from a covey.
Despite such prudent stewardship, quail numbers continue to decline in Tennessee and across the Southeast. Wildlife experts aren’t sure why. Bill’s theory is that it’s due to a number of factors, including shrinking habitat and expanding predators.
Even if they weren’t wild, the pen-raised birds were challenging to hunt – sometimes TOO challenging for me – and tasted delicious.
The dogs were on their game; the companionship couldn’t have been more enjoyable and watching quail whirr through the air after all these years brought back a flood of memories.
I don’t want to wait 30 years to go again.