A registry of words and memories in the uplands during the holiday season.
The day is cold. The skies are a pale gray, like the color of metal. The landscape is dotted with remnants of the last snow. Anticipation looms over the Midwest for an early Christmas present in the form of more white powder overnight. A white Christmas. The sun is peeking over the horizon as I’m traveling down a gravel road toward a piece of public land where a friend of a friend spotted some quail days earlier.
The truck’s tires find the edges of the road now and then, making the ride interesting. I peer into the rearview mirror to see a russet blur moving back and forth in the backseat. Staley, a 10-year old Vizsla has accompanied me on hunts since she was a mere pup. I have become somewhat of a surrogate bird dog owner. Staley is a borrowed dog, a dog that I can command as if she were mine. A dog who wouldn’t leave my side when I passed out in the field due to a medical emergency two years earlier. She has been a faithful field companion and bird finding machine. We have once again joined for a hunt.
Staley can sense the anticipation that we’re getting close. She had since stopped resting her muzzle on my shoulder for most of the trip to becoming restless. Soon, girl, soon. Her metal bell clangs to the holiday music playing in the background. I glance down onto the passenger seat at my Kansas WIHA (Walk-In Hunting Area) Atlas towards a patchwork of yellow and brown squares, colored shapes that indicate public access onto private property. Land that has been opened up by farmers, ranchers, and landowners for the public.
The night before I’d studied the pages, looking over them for certain terrain features that would guide me to find some ideal bobwhite quail habitat. Judging by the creek running through it and the information I gathered, the waterway parallels a cut milo field, an ideal location for quail. I ease the truck over and pull up next to the white placard with four black bold letters nailed to it on an old wooden post. An inviting sign. I shut the truck off. A yellow flash catches my eyes, another metal sign with the welcoming words, “Public Hunting.” I must have been good all year, as Ol’ St. Nick had left a present in the form of a state managed public land tract right across the street from a Walk-In Hunting Area.
I quickly don my gloves and open the door. Staley jumps into the front seat then bounds out of the truck cab. She springs into a nearby ditch and begins to survey her surroundings. Nose to the ground. Nose in the air, trying to catch a whiff of what we had come for . . . quail. I pull my orange bird vest on and adjust the straps to accommodate the extra layers. Next, I uncase my over-under shotgun and quietly load two gold shells, English loads. Two-and-a-half inches of No. 6 shot. I slowly close the action and hear a dull click. Staley has returned to my side, her pink nose moist from running it along the ground and through the grass. I motion for her and she trots off with an energetic pace. I mumble, “Let’s go for a walk.”
I give a quick blow to the whistle hanging from my lanyard. Staley stops and turns. Her rust-colored head pops up just above the tan-colored grass. She waits momentarily and then starts casting back and forth across the land. “Hunt ‘em up!” I say. Staley’s bell resonates across the air. We’re walking into the wind, which whips by, grasping at anything loose. Soon the native grasses transition into a parcel of cut milo. I can see the reddish seeds strewn throughout the ground. I continue walking and Staley relocates, going up and down the small staked milo stalks, jumping from row to row. It’s a brisk morning. Small patches of snow are now crystalized mounds of ice. The bare dirt ground reveals itself to me. Small impressions of bird tracks abound from the edge to the tree line. The classical looking three-toed quail track is strewn all over.
There are other tracks in the dirt and snow. I know we are alone on this blustery morning, but judging by the growing superhighway of footprints this area must be a magnet for orange-clad patrols of bird hunters. It must be a productive tract. Staley senses something. She’s birdy. Her tail starts to wag quickly. Suddenly, she locks up on point during mid stride. Her head slowly turns to the left. I quickly advance and stop short at an angle from her position, tightening the grip of my shotgun. The butterscotch-colored leather gloves creak with the pressure. Staley begins to creep forward, her steps erasing evidence of the quail tracks. The conditions are perfect . . . wind is blowing gently into our faces, there’s still enough snow on the ground for ideal scenting conditions.
Staley’s nose is absorbing the odoriferous jet stream of quail. Her olfactory nerves then send a signal which translates to her swirling her docked tail which lets me know the trail is still hot. I take a couple of steps. Suddenly a whir of wingbeats explode! The shotgun fires and a string of pellets are blazing through the air trying to intercept the flight path of one lone bird that went too far left. Poof! A plethora of feathers signals that I hit my mark and Staley is on the bird quickly. Bird in hand with no time for admiring my bounty. The plump little cockbird is placed into the bird vest and I continue to walk the tree line on this Christmas Eve morning. I see that most of the covey, which numbered more than a dozen, have flown through the trees and set down on the other side.
Staley and I continue our journey. Each step now has a little more spring to it. We look for an open spot to go through. We stop at the edge and peer out into a field of grass. A small plum thicket sits a mere 20 yards away. If I were a covey and had just been disturbed and sent flying, that’s where I would retreat to. Staley is thinking the same thing and maneuvers into the grass. I follow. As we approach, I send the Hungarian canine into the thicket. I start walking around and that familiar sound of wings taking to the air signals what I already knew. Three silhouettes rocket out from the entanglement. A volley of shots salute their departure. I reload another pair of gold cartridges, this time closing the shotgun with a little more oomph. I can see her rust colored body frozen on the opposite side. Point! A single quail whizzes by and I track the bird and swing past and pull the trigger. I suddenly notice that small white flakes are falling, just a taste of what may come overnight. It’s not even noticeable.
I walk over to where the quail fell and see that Staley has it in her mouth. I gently take the bird. I realize the sky has given way to hues of blue. I can faintly hear a flock of geese honking above me. I look up and see nothing. Flying in the stratosphere. I take the bobwhite quail and add it to its companion in my bird vest. I step off and walk towards the tree line, not to hunt the quail that flew back into where we had flushed the covey, but to hunt the public land adjacent to where we had parked. Two quail from the covey are enough. Staley’s age is showing, her pace has slowed. We walk to the road and cross a wooden bridge. A rooster pheasant wildly flushes from the ditch. Its long-tailed body sails into the field onto the public land. I tell Staley that we have a new adversary.
I shoulder my shotgun as I’m walking. Thus begins a new hunt. A hunt for a non-gentlemanly bird, unlike ol’ bob. This trip on the eve of Christmas serves as a reminder while afield that upland hunting–-so long as there is public land to access–-is at the very least a good walk regardless of what happens. That’s why I love it so much. Even if nothing happens, at the end of the day I’ve been able to experience the outdoors and the companionship of friends and dogs. Whether birds are seen or taken is irrelevant to me. Walking in the uplands isn’t “hard” so much as it is pleasantly tiring. The views and the smells across the landscape entice me to continue walking with Staley by my side, each of us searching for birds. This walk today has been a blessing.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.