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This article appears in the July/August 2002 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine

For some reason, there is a contingent of sportsmen and sports journalists who feel compelled to remind the rest of us, often to a point somewhere beyond annoyance, that quail hunting is not the grand game it once was. Usually the intent is proper, suggesting that our own disregard for the habitat and well-being of the species is to blame and, further, that diligence on our part could be the salvation. Too often, however, the message comes across with an air of disdain, or worse a "why bother since the future is doomed" posture.

It is indeed unfortunate that the birds are neither as plentiful nor as widespread as they once were. I can only imagine having the option of shooting a limit of wild quail on a regular basis. Talk about a kid in the candy store. I never knew the legendary twenty or thirty covey days. My time in this sport, or on this earth for that matter, has not provided me the pleasure of stepping out of the truck and finding hundreds of birds, my walk interrupted time and again by a dog pointing, and at the end of the day the game pouch slung low around my waist. The doomsayers mentioned at the outset of this article would likely shake their collective heads in pity for me.

I'm not ignorant of such fortunes. More than once I've opened a collection of stories from gentlemen who were weaned on a cornucopia of wild birds. They wrote of it casually, giving lip service to the multitude of coveys in the same sentence that they mentioned the weather. I've hunted on game preserves where planted birds provide an afternoon of hot-barreled action, so I guess I have a muted sense of what it must have been like.

There are still men hunting today who remember the days of plenty and for them I feel both envy and sympathy. It is one thing to have no first-hand knowledge of a fine thing, something altogether different to have seen it and experienced it only to have it taken away. Before air conditioning, people never knew they could be more comfortable in the pit of summer and were plenty happy with the comforts provided by ceiling fans and sleeping porches. The same goes for the family that spent evenings huddled around a radio before television was invented. Only the highly imaginative can miss something they have never had and such cases still carry that fictional lack of certainty. But try taking away a man's automobile and giving him a mule.

Whether you miss these old days or share in the pity for those who never knew them may depend on the fundamental reason you bother to hunt at all. I try to avoid generalizing but feel safe in saying that most hunters fall into two categories: those who hunt to shoot and those who hunt to hunt. Shooting is an inextricable part of hunting, no question about it. Otherwise bird hunters would take to the woods with only a dog and a whistle, duck hunters with only a call, deer hunters with merely a pair of field glasses. The possibility of returning with game would not exist and the sport would attract a different breed of participant, which is fodder for a different debate.

For those who hunt to shoot, these are probably not the salad days, at least as far as quail are concerned. For those who define hunting as the pursuit of game rather than the dispatch of it, however, meager populations aren't much of a deterrent. The point, flush, shot and kill are an accent on the activity itself, an exclamation point to the sentence that supplies the meaning and the message. And unlike hunting for certain other game, there is still something to do when the game is nowhere to be found.

There is a Zen proverb that says "the journey is the reward". The goal provides direction, motivation, focus and method, but the journey occupies the majority of the effort. A sour journey saps the sweetness from the goal. The right frame of mind can shift the focus to the journey, where the view isn't quite so tainted.

The lack of wild birds precipitated a sea of change in dog training. The majority of young dogs today are educated on pen-raised quail and pigeons, hardly noble quarry but grand indeed to a pup who doesn't know any better. Years ago, pups could be turned loose to experience birds as teachers. A wily quail would never allow a pup to crowd it, much less sit tight and become a meal for a more aggressive dog. If I have a regret it is that my dog, not me, missed out on the bounty. Little boys should have dirt piles, little girls should have dollhouses, and little dogs should have real wild birds. On the positive side, though, the lack of qualified birds as teachers has caused trainers to think, to ask more questions about how and why dogs learn, and the result is a widely available store of knowledge that forty years ago was held by only a handful of people.

Another by-product of the shortage is a generation or two of hunters who are much more conscious and educated about quail habitat than many of their predecessors. Expressions like "early successional growth" and "border strips" pepper the vocabularies of sportsmen who also manage the land they hunt. Seasonal discing, controlled burning, hardwood thinning and other techniques were known in the mid-twentieth century but not widely practiced as game conservation tools until populations began to dwindle. I guess there is such a thing as a silver lining.

For better or worse, the decline in quail populations is real. There are hundreds if not thousands of efforts underway to restore habitat and provide the best possible circumstances for a comeback. These efforts will play out over a number of years and until they have time to take root, you and I must face the status quo. When I was much younger, I used to hear grownups say, "Ignorance is bliss" and had no idea what they meant. When I grew a little older and learned to read, I found these words in a dictionary and became more confused, the concepts of metaphor and irony not yet explained to me. It took years before I really understood the expression, vocabulary tests notwithstanding. "Ignorance" is such an ugly sounding word. It connotes purposeful disregard rooted in one of the more seedy human traits: stupidity. "Unfamiliarity" has a better ring to it. It implies that the lack of knowledge is due to circumstances beyond one's control, an absence of privilege rather than an absence of interest or attention.

Bliss is a much better word. There are few times in a man's life when it applies completely, when all about him is good with the world. But there are moments in every day and recurring conditions that fit the bill quite nicely. Before he is jolted back into reality, before awareness pushes aside his brief ignorance, bliss is king. There once was an emperor who wore no clothes and who, for a while at least, thought himself the best-dressed man in the kingdom.

The happiest people in this world are those who find joy in what they have and refuse to lament what they have not. I have yet to find something wrong with walking among trees and wading through grasses while a dog paints the landscape in front of me with sweeping strokes. I fail to find reason to feel glum about this, to wish there were more to it or to come home feeling empty because the game bag is.

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