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A silent gun and a comfortable chair

Rainy day

The deer hunter tolerates the rain, the turkey hunter modifies his tactics to accommodate it, the duck hunter revels in it, but the quail hunter stays home. As nature would have it, quail do not shed water like some of their winged kin, but nature provides a sort of golferís handicap for this deficiency. The scent released by a quail is beaten to the ground in a rain, never rising and weaving through the grasses and trees as it does on a sunny morning. What is a golferís handicap to the quail is a handicap of a different sort for the hunter, however, as dogs have an incredibly tough time locating quail on days such as today.

It is my day off, a day that I typically spend in the field with my dog soaking in all that a southern January has to offer: a brittle carpet of spent leaves, a cobalt ceiling streaked with high, thin clouds, and most of whatís in between painted in one of a thousand shades of brown. This is what people speak of when they wax philosophic on lifeís simple pleasures. But none of this is mine today. The cobalt ceiling has turned slate, and the brittle carpet is damp and tender. It is raining the slow, steady rain that falls this time of year, remanding me to a comfortable chair and rendering my gun silent.

Within the proper frame of mind lies the possibility of salvaging a day that is more reminiscent of November in England than January in South Carolina. Days like these offer me the chance to reflect on hunts from the past, hunts like the one on a brighter January afternoon several years ago. I was walking along a dirt road, my dog feverishly working the woods off to the left, when his bell went silent. This was an area where I knew a covey of about twenty birds roamed, and as I walked into the woods and up the slight hillside, I readied myself for an explosion. Stepping with calculated precision, I closed on the dog, and as the gap narrowed I became concerned that nothing rose. No flurry of feathers, no scattering of furiously beating wings, no brown and white warheads filling the air in front of me.

Fearing the birds had scurried off while I made my way up the hill, I stepped past the dog barely a yard when a lone bird got up. Almost as quickly as I shouldered my gun I lowered it, realizing that the bird was not a quail at all. The bird quartered away from me and at about fifteen yards, it made a sharp turn to the right. One part of its profile made an immediate impression on me and I shouldered my gun one more time. I swung and fired methodically, mechanically, and I remember thinking not about "ballistics" as Robert Ruarkís Old Man used to say, but about that incredibly long beak and wondering what in the world that bird was doing in South Carolina.

Yes, I shoot quail with something other than a side-by-side.
I shot a second woodcock that afternoon and never saw a quail. In an even more peculiar twist, I have not seen a woodcock on that piece of land since. Grilled only a few minutes to keep the meat rare and covered with a red currant glaze, it was one of the most delicious game dinners I have ever tasted. Iíve read and learned a little more about this oddly billed bird since that day, including that he is not altogether uncommon in upper state South Carolina. And even though I wish that he were more prevalent in my region, Iíve never forgotten that January afternoon. Sometimes the rarity of an experience is what leaves deeper lines etched in your mind.

I think back to the day that I shot my first double, and got so excited that that I missed an easy triple. Yes, I shoot quail with something other than a side-by-side, a practice that would deny me admission to more than one plantation in the south. Truth be told, I use the same left-handed pump for every winged creature I hunt. I always leave the plug in it, though, even when chasing non-migratory birds. Itís highly unlikely that I could shuck fast enough to squeeze off more than three shots on a covey rise anyway.

Common days provide memories, too. Often is the morning or afternoon that the dog never finds reason to point. Makes for a light game bag but not necessarily an unproductive outing. We walk for hours parting broom sedge and navigating tall pine mazes, more of those simple pleasures that are free of charge for people with the motivation to get off the couch. You can almost touch the desire in the dogís eyes to work just one more thicket or one more hedgerow, anything to keep from going home empty-handed. I think I know how my dad felt on summer evenings when, with the sun well below the horizon, he told me that we had to reel in the lines or we would be late for dinner. We had missed dinner by a good two hours already, but I didnít want to go home without landing at least one fish. Dogs and kids are very much alike.

The fire chants its unpredictable melody of hisses, crackles and pops and, frankly, provides more sound than heat. There is an indescribable delight in settling into a comfortable chair with a good book, something like an anthology of Archibald Rutledgeís stories about bird hunting. Itís no substitute for the physical aspects of a day in the field- the smells, the colors, the stretching of your legs. But I venture to say that it is a fair substitute for the mental aspects. If you allow, it can provide exactly the same sort of therapy as traipsing through the fields on a more weather-friendly day. And that makes days like today seem not so bad after all.

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