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A Whale of an Issue

I'm going to go ahead and guess that I'm not the only one who's been in this situation. It happened at a party a few months ago while I was involved in idle conversation with a few acquaintances. The subject of hunting came up, then turned to wingshooting and then to bobwhites. I commented that I hunted them nearly every weekend of the season and almost before the last syllable left my lips someone said, "There aren't any quail around here any more. Why do you bother?"

You really can't fault people for being ill-informed, at least if they're non-hunters. Even those who hunt strictly one species - deer hunters come to mind - often have no reason to know the state of affairs of an upland bird. But the fact that someone, anyone, could sound so fatalistic is unsettling. Why bother? I'm not sure whether such a statement is callous, apathetic, boorish or ignorant, and it doesn't matter because none of them are flattering. Cocktail parties aren't a forum for airing my views, so rather than launch into a discourse on bobwhite ecology and current research trends, I casually explained that I enjoy the time spent outside with my dog and that there are in fact bobwhite left in our area and in most areas of the south. I left them with something to think about without prompting them to look for a convenient way out of my presence. Of course the real reasons why I bother go way, way beyond a one sentence answer.

I've stated in this column before that I don't hunt for sustenance. If I did I'd spend more time in a deer stand, bored to tears on most occasions but highly efficient in terms of providing meat whenever I pulled the trigger. Quail hunting is not a matter of my own survival, not in a physical sense anyway. It satisfies a need that falls somewhere outside of the basic food/clothing/shelter category. In this respect, quail hunters are not unique.

Above the arctic circle in Alaska, the Inuit Eskimo tribe ritually hunt whale in the spring of each year. These are not Eskimos who live in igloos and travel only by dog sled or kayak. They are modern in every sense of the word. Although successful hunting parties share the bounty with other hunting parties and with the rest of the tribe, the event is no longer about feeding the village. If it were they would use available technology in place of hand-thrown harpoons and rowboats. The motivation behind the custom is not sustenance. These men gather in camps along the edge of a thawing river because their forefathers did, and because they want their children to do the same. (For a fascinating account of this tribal rite, read Chapter 17 in Peter Jenkins' book, Looking for Alaska).

The impulse that drives these men to the camp every year is not a mandate. Men and boys participate of their own free will and with complete disregard of the likely outcome. Statistically very few of the hunting parties are successful in a given year, but it is my guess that until whales are extinct, this tradition will continue. In the tragic event that the last whale is gone, they will probably still gather in the camps, carrying hope in place of harpoons.

The state of affairs of the bobwhite, although not yet comparable to the whale, is no doubt causing some changes in those who hunt it. I think we're seeing several generations of quail hunters redefine what a good hunt is, measuring it less in terms of the bag than in the outing itself. We're also seeing a new generation of quail hunters emerge under the mindset that a good hunt has little or nothing to do with how many birds are killed, and this refines hunters and hunting as a whole. I doubt any of us would trade a seven-covey day for a one-covey day, given the opportunity. I also doubt that any of us would trade a one-covey day for an afternoon cutting the grass and pulling weeds, going to the mall, or playing video games. And I'll take my one-covey day over a deer hunt any time.

When chances are slim of shooting a limit, you hunt quail because chances are there of finding a covey. You hunt quail because you enjoyed doing so yesterday and last week and last year. Maybe you enjoyed doing it with your father. Maybe you want your son or daughter to enjoy it. Or maybe the only family you have who shares your passion walks on four legs.

I've got a dog who's actually pretty smart, at least as far as dogs go. He's got a sizeable vocabulary and is a master of anticipation, and at the age of ten he's still learning plenty of new tricks. But ask him why he bothers to go hunting with me when there aren't any quail around and he'll stare at you for maybe a second before walking away. He has neither the time for non-believers nor the inclination to explain. Social protocol deters me from being quite so rude, but there are times when my feelings are pretty closely aligned with my dog.

The day that we quit going hunting because the chances are low of finding a covey is the day that we throw in the towel. As long as people hunt, people will care about the future of their quarry, and as long as people care, at least some of them will step up and do something about it. History is full of people, many of them nameless and for good reason, who said something couldn't be done or was a waste of time. Why bother? It is also full of people who refused to listen. Christopher Columbus, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and most recently Burt Rutan all ignored the naysayers. Imagine where we'd be if they hadn't.

What we're doing here isn't rocket science or exploration of the unknown. No human life is at risk and, unfortunately, Time and Newsweek really aren't watching. But it is vital to the future of a big part of our lives. Most importantly, you hunt quail because it keeps you from forgetting how precious this resource is, and how much it needs your help.

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