One man’s limit of valley quail, a rooster and a hare to split
By Gary Lewis
What pheasants and quail want are layers of cover. Russian olive trees growing out of tangles of blackberry bushes, tall grass and tangle of cattails and more blackberry bushes. There may be no shortage of sharp-toothed critters that eat them and the hook-beaked birds that pounce on them from above, but if there are enough layers of habitat, Chinese pheasant and valley quail thrive.
There are still places like that in Malheur County, in Umatilla County and in the Columbia Basin. We were on the outskirts of Hermiston where the flats give way to broken ground, where there is less “clean” farming, more hedgerows, more ditches grown in head-high cover.
Lauren Gehrmann thumbed cartridges into her shotgun while her dad, my old friend, watched. On the other side of the truck, my daughter Jennifer unsheathed a side-by-side and broke the action over her arm.
Lauren was 14-years-old that December. She counts herself a hunter and looks forward to several trips each season. My daughter Jennifer was 21 at the time and hunts not as much as she used to. It’s just a stage.
The pup, Liesl, was 12-months then and all she knows is the hunt. I remember thinking, not a one of these girls will be this age again.
This time the landowner would hunt with us. The Walchlis’ are well-known in this corner of Oregon. A lot of watermelons carry their name, but the family devotes a good portion of land to waterfowl, quail and pheasant habitat. Phil Walchli and Larry Ables led the way.
It was late December and the last night’s rain lay heavy on the leaves. This was Liesl’s eleventh time afield and I would ask a lot. No one expected her to do well, except me.
We started out from the hay barn and crossed a canal. For the young dog there were aromas of cows, cottontails and raccoons to categorize and ignore. She followed trails and left them, she crossed the road back and forth. When a rabbit appeared in an opening ahead of us, she ignored it.
We crossed the railroad tracks and the pup grew intent, cut smaller diagonals and zigzagged hard. A flock of dark-eye juncos bounced out of the blackberries.
A moment later, a covey of thirty quail popped out of the willows. Too far to shoot, they blew out down the railroad tracks to veer up and over roadbed and back onto the property into a patch of cattails, blackberries and Russian olive.
We fought our way in and when I was out on the other side of the cover, a single bird buzzed out behind me and I swung, squeezed the trigger and tumbled it on a crossing shot.
First Valley Quail for the Pudelpointer
Liesl trailed it, caught it, brought it back and dropped it on the ground, her first valley quail.
I wanted to see if this dog would do the things required of a pointer in difficult circumstances. Did she have staying power? Could she search long fencerows and ditches and moist places? Could she run rabbit trails without running rabbits?
Soon we had one man’s limit of quail between us. It didn’t matter if we bagged a rooster, but it seemed to matter to the dog. She picked her way through muddy bogs, bashed through cattails and weeds to come out the other side, her face crusted with burrs. When she came to water, she jumped in to rinse off mud and shake the stickers. Her legs and her chest were scratched and bleeding, but she wanted back into the brush.
Down deep in a canyon, with the other hunters scattered outside of the cover, she pointed a tangle of willows, briars and Russian olive. At its base, the dead limbs were woven tight as a basket and it was two stories high.
There was no way she could get in, but she knew a bird was there. She held point for almost five minutes.
Inside the tangle of branches something climbed up through the limbs. Way above my head the bird crawled out, paused and took to the air. I shot and missed. Still one-handed, I fired the second barrel and as I found out later, Phil, shot at the same moment. The bird crumpled.
It’s enough to learn to share our pleasures. Jennifer admired the rooster, having seen enough of them to know how special this one was. Lauren still had not knocked down a bird and time was growing short.
Five of us were content to admire our pheasant and get out of the rain, but Lauren couldn’t quit. We had walked a giant circle and now we were back in the spot where we’d jumped the rabbit.
When the pup went into the long grass, a cottontail went the other way. Lauren saw it. She walked in by herself and as the rabbit streaked through an opening, the girl’s shotgun spoke.
The 14-year-old lifted her trophy aloft, then her dad put it in her vest and she carried it out. They talked about hasenpfeffer and the rabbit stew they would make for Christmas dinner.
Every day we’re standing in a time capsule, caught between the future and the past. It seems these moments afield are finer now. Maybe it’s a stage. Maybe it’s just our age.
Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited, a TV show on Pursuit Channel and Hunt Channel.