Over the Thanksgiving holiday I went hunting. I only had a couple of hours to dedicate to it, so I decided to try some mountain quail hunting in an area just ten minutes from our cabin.
The area where I hunted is a mountain slope that falls away from the road down to a creek, which is in turn a tributary to the Kings River. The area is mostly grasses, with some chaparral of mainly manzanita. At the bottom of the slope, the creek runs through a deep canyon with nearly sheer granite walls in most places. The land flattens some before the creek, and a dense growth of black oak covers the riparian zone. The slope is also cut from top to bottom by a series of washes that start shallow at the top and finish as canyons by the time they reach the creek. The sides of these canyons are covered with Manzanita and other brush and bordered by thick growths of black oak.The walk down was deceptively short – as all downhill walks seem to be. Once down there, I discovered that the washes and canyons were much deeper and steeper than I had been able to determine by standing at the road looking down. As I approached the first of these washes, I slowed my walk almost to a stop, taking very deliberate steps and trying to keep from crunching the dry, yellow grass under my boots too loudly. I was approaching good mountain quail habitat – waist high Manzanita shrubs with some space between them, and water nearby. I was right. A small covey of six or eight mountain quail exploded from the bottom of the wash and flew straight away from me, about six feet off the ground. No matter how prepared one is, when hunting without a dog the explosion of a covey into the air from an unseen position will always be startling. I missed two shots, and the quail landed out of range. I never saw them again. Mountain quail are prone to run, sometimes never taking flight ahead of a hunter, and these stayed on the ground after that initial mad flight from cover.I clambered across the wash, continuing my traverse of the slope about two thirds of the way between the road and the creek. Another wash lay in front of me, this one more thickly protected by Manzanita, and with higher sides. I moved downhill to a place where I could cross the wash more easily, in a grove of black oak. As I neared the black oak, I heard the distinctive rustle of quail as they ran through the fallen brown leaves. I crouched to look between the oaks, but never saw the quail. From the sound of it, there must have been at least two dozen. Standing as still as I could, listening to my heart pound in my ears – whether from excitement or exertion I don’t know – I suddenly heard the sound of tiny helicopters choppering off into the distance, unseen, like a squadron of ghost Blackhawks flying into the mist and disappearing forever.Defeated and tired, I turned for home. The uphill climb back to the Jeep was longer, steeper, and harder than I could ever have imagined. I sucked down water from two plastic bottles as sweat collected under my jacket, in spite of the cold fall air. Along the way I ran into an extended family of grazing mule deer. They stared at me over black noses, but didn’t run. The does were watchful as their now solid colored fawns browsed. A young 2×2 buck had been with them when I first approached, but he darted into the oak grove and disappeared, leaving the females and young ones to fend for themselves.I finally reached the road, exhausted, ready to give up on mountain quail. My son tells me they are just ghosts, hallucinations of an obsessed hunter. Opening the tailgate to stow my gear, I swear of the little creatures. “Never again without a dog,” I mutter. “Ghosts is what they are.”But I know I’m just kidding myself. I’ll be back. The failure to put a mountain quail in the game bag just sharpens my obsession. Ghosts or not, I’ll be back.