“Dog on point!” Paul yelled out as he hit the breaks on the 4WD Mule. To the left was an English Pointer frozen in a mott of shin oaks. 3 of us jumped over a barb wire fence, loaded our guns, fanned out and walked quickly towards the dog. Safety off. I got parallel with the dog and the grass in front of me lifted off the ground. It exploded just under the tree tops into 30 bobwhite quail. In one instance I drew and shot twice through the shinnery, splintering tree limbs and kicking quail into high gear.
We were hunting in good quail country. Northwest Texas about 75 miles east of Lubbock on a 165,000 acre cattle ranch called the Pitchfork. The land is dry and continually changing from year to year depending on the amount of rain. Good years will have enough moisture to grow meadows of ragweed and thick patches of wild sunflower. During these years you can average 25 – 30 coveys a day with dogs pointing multiple coveys at a time. Bad years the ground dries up hard as concrete and kills everything. A long drought had recently decimated the quail population and shutdown hunting at the Pitchfork for two years. The quail have slowly recovered and this was the first year they were back to sustainable numbers.
The ranch is divided up into 5,000 to 7,000 acre pastures. Each pasture having its own unique geography. Rolling hills, deep ravines, draws and bottoms. The cover was mostly mesquite, shin oaks and yucca plant. Ragweed, sunflower and shin oak acorns were the primary food source. Most quail held in mesquite trees surrounded by sunflowers and ragweed. Coveys would clean out the base of the tree, smooth out dirt around the trunk and scratch around during the day to stay safe from avian predators.
Once we got off the hard paved road it took us twenty minutes to drive from the gate to camp. Big eurasian and white wing dove flew off the dirt road as we cruised along in the late afternoon. Meadow larks busted off the side of the road and flew a lot like quail. Sprouting wheat fields fed big whitetails, wild hog rooting holes scarred the landscape and water pumped by windmills into watering holes held groups of pintails. A flock of Rio Grande turkeys scattered into the brush as we rode the hill up to camp. We shot skeet and dialed in the AR-15 for pigs. It got dark and an orange full moon rose up over the open country as we met up at the cookhouse for dinner.
The temperature dropped to 35 during the night. Up before daylight we ate breakfast as turkeys gobbled outside camp. 5 of us broke into two groups and rode out to the dog pens at sunrise. The dogs were seasoned veterans mixed in with a few rookies. English Pointers and Setters along with small Labs and Cocker Spaniels as flushing dogs. Out of 30 dogs only 15 would get picked for the morning hunt. My unit loaded up 6 pointers, 1 setter and a black English Pointing Lab in the custom modified gas powered Mule. The Mule is a four wheel drive vehicle with dog boxes welded into the bed and an old Suburban back seat welded on top of that.
Conditions were fair after a heavy snow had just melted and brought moisture to the soil. Dogs pick up scent better in moist conditions. The mornings were cold but warm in the afternoon with high winds the first day. The dogs don’t fair well in heat. They breath heavy through their mouths instead of using their nose. They also overheat quickly and become fatigued. Quail don’t move much in the heat making it hard for the dogs to find scent. High winds also make this difficult.
We drove to the northern end of the ranch passing herds of cows and scattered oil derricks. It was cold riding on the mule exposed to the wind. The dogs worked the road on either side. Cooper was a hard running brown English Setter that had lost the last quarter of his tail to frost bite. He was locked into a rigid point on top of a hill next to a mesquite tree in high grass. We walked up to Cooper and the birds held til the last second. Wings boomed off the ground and then a rapid brrrrrup as they flew out. The covey crashed through the mesquite as we emptied barrels and dogs ran towards fallen birds.
Shooting wild quail is a challenge. They are fast birds that rarely give the opportunity for a second shot. It’s best not to think too much. No time to look for the best shot. Fractions of a second count. Draw up and shoot the first bird you see.
We found 8 coveys that morning and broke for lunch then found 4 more in the afternoon. The next day we found 12 coveys through out the day and shot a pig on the way home. It was world class wild quail hunting in pretty country with relentless dog work and good people.