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Defining Moments

Several weeks ago at a nearby game preserve, I guided a hunt that truly focused my perspective on the sport. In general, I try to be an open-minded person and because of this I tend to learn bits and pieces of information from all manner of people. Bits and pieces are just about all I learn, though. Probably because Iím old enough to have sculpted a fairly accurate form of my world views, itís a rare day that I learn something that penetrates deep into who I am and what I believe. This hunt turned out to be one of those rare days.

My party consisted of a man, his daughter, and his son, all of whom had hunted quail before. As a guide, thatís generally the first thing I try to find out. General questions like "Yaíll hunted quail before? Is this your first time out this year? Do yaíll come here a lot?" can give not so subtle clues about experience. Not that Iím uncomfortable hunting with inexperienced men and women, I just like to have some idea of what to expect when we get in the field. As is the case with used cars, though, there are rarely any guarantees.

One of the bits and pieces Iíve picked up along the way is the truth behind the old clichť that says you canít judge a book by its cover. I continue to make every effort to heed this sage advice, and accordingly was not phased when one of my party was wearing overalls, one was wearing a warm-up jacket, and none of them sported so much as a fleck of blaze orange.
Not to be outdone by his daughterís unorthodox technique, the father informed me that he had brought along his pistol, and asked if he could load it with rat shot and try to hit a quail on the rise.
These are material matters and should not influence in the least the amount of fun they have on the hunt or the amount of fun I have hunting with them. As long as they are conscious of the safety of the dogs, as long as they donít lose their temper when they miss a bird, and as long as we all walk out of the field with no lead embedded in our bodies, we can enjoy the hunt. Everything else is material and matters not. Or so I thought.

The morning unfolded in typical fashion. We found a few coveys, they missed more birds than they hit, but we put a few in the bag and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. The daughter, in particular, was blasting away with little success, but not every hunter is a dead-eye shot and neither was I on my first forays into the field. But when I discovered why she was missing so often, I became a little more concerned. On one particular covey rise, three or four birds peeled off to my left. As I followed their path, the daughter, also to my left, came into my field of view and I saw something that I could not, or did not want to believe. She fired three shots in quick succession, missed all three, and not once did the butt of the gun rise above her chest. She was literally shooting from the hip.

Not to be outdone by his daughterís unorthodox technique, the father informed me that he had brought along his pistol, and asked if he could load it with rat shot and try to hit a quail on the rise. Pure, unadulterated, undiluted astonishment overcame me, and "Go for it" was the only response I could muster.

And so went the rest of the morning with Annie Oakley blasting from the beltline and Wyatt Earp gunning at the prince of game birds with a .357. I managed to take comfort in the fact that the vast majority of the birds flushed were not hit and would likely covey up later in the day for a more sporting party of hunters. Alas, that hope faded too when we spotted a lone quail walking along bare ground at the edge of a row of trees. Before I could get everyone in position, the father and daughter began launching salvos. Yes, the bird was still on the ground. Archibald Rutledge once said that when you do this, you kill the bird and the sport with a single shot.

It gnawed at something inside of me to see them shooting birds on the ground without at least attempting to flush them. It gnawed at me that someone would even want to try to shoot a quail with rat shot. I donít consider myself a quail hunting snob- in fact, I do not own a double-barrel shotgun. Iíve never hunted on horseback and my pointer also retrieves. But shooting quail with a pistol? Iíve just got to draw the line somewhere, and today I picked up the chalk and drew that line. Quail hunting is not firing BB guns at metal ducks crossing in line behind some toothless man at the carnival. It is not busting bottles with a .38 special off of fence posts on your uncleís farm. And to me, it is not a contest to see, methods be damned, how many pounds of meat you can put in the bag.

To me, quail hunting is something that should be done with at least a smidgen of respect for what it is. Quail are amazing animals who have learned to survive in the wild in the face of great odds. On a covey rise, their explosion into flight can be compared to a fire hose at full pressure that is set free by its tender, and therein lies the challenge in this sport. If you want to knock down a stationary target on the ground, go bowling.

Quail hunting is something that I feel is an experience, not a contest. It is a sport, not a sporting event. It is an opportunity to enjoy nature face to face, walking through fields and woods, enjoying the sights and smells and sounds that offer a buffet for the senses. Obsessions with filling up the game bag tend to dull a personís perceptive aptitudes. There are many, many days that I hunt and never pull the trigger. I suppose it is inevitable that whenever you begin preaching your standards on any subject, someone who falls below those standards is going to get upset. If an old, wealthy plantation owner belittled me because I walk behind my dogs rather than ride, I would probably take offense. But I notice a deep chasm of difference between such ancillary things as your mode of transportation in the field and the methods with which you dispatch your quarry. That plantation owner might look down his nose at me because I carry a pump shotgun instead of a side-by-side, but both are shotguns and both are a far cry from a pistol. I donít feel overly high and mighty for seeing a peculiar uniqueness (was that politically correct enough?) in hunting quail with a handgun, shooting them on the ground, and spraying the sky from the hip. I will feel more confident in my answer the next time someone asks what quail hunting means to me.

Oh, and by the way, he never did hit a quail with that pistol.

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