Hunting & Heritage  |  01/29/2024

A Good Year


Enjoying the Good Old Days, Today

This past hunting season was maybe the best of my life.

On several trips to northern Minnesota, ruffed grouse were thriving. Near my current home in southern Minnesota, I found pheasants on nearly every piece of public ground I hunted. A trip to South Dakota yielded a bounty of sharp-tailed grouse and a jaw-dropping number of pheasants.

Best of all, where I grew up in southeastern Nebraska, bobwhite quail numbers were as good as they have been in my lifetime.

Because of the abundance of quail, I tried to spend as much time as possible in Nebraska this season. Half the time I hunted by myself, following my pointer, Tippet, across a landscape interwoven with fencelines and brushy creeks. The other half I hunted with my dad as he rotated through his three pointers KC, Dolly, and Gus.

It seemed like everywhere we looked, we found quail. Places that historically hold a covey every year now had two. One morning, I walked into a covey less than 10 feet from where I had parked my truck. It seemed like I was living in one of my dad’s “good old days” stories I had heard so many times growing up.

On one of the last hunts of the season, a light dusting of snow covered the ground. We walked on either side of a draw so choked with Osage-orange and American plum, we could barely see each other through it. Ahead of us, KC and Dolly worked with the intensity pointers are known for, their tails painting their flanks with red stripes of frozen blood.

With the freshly fallen snow and a steady wind it was a cold afternoon, but I quickly warmed up as the country glided past under my feet. When we reached the intersection of two fencelines, we noticed quail tracks stamped in the snow.

At almost the same time, KC swiveled and went on point ahead of us.

The covey broke when we were 20 yards back. I snapped off a shot at one of the rocketing birds and watched as it landed with a hollow thud in the cut cornfield beside me. Most of the birds zipped down the fenceline in front of us, while a half dozen flew over our heads, back towards the truck. We continued ahead, with Dolly and KC running through some singles and pointing others.

Another two hundred yards down the draw, KC went from sprint to trot to stone.

When we reached her, a handful of birds vaulted into the air, followed shortly by another dozen birds. We both emptied our shotguns and the dogs frantically searched for the three downed birds in the adjacent cornfield.

KC is a six-year-old dog who has never shown any interest in retrieving, but out of nowhere she picked up one of the dead birds, trotted over to my dad, and dropped it at his feet.

“Where did that come from?” he laughed.

After the other two quail were in the back of my vest, we continued down the fenceline. When we reached the northern edge of the draw where the fence turns to the west, we began to hear quail calling behind us, gathering back up after the flush. We both knew we were going to encounter a lot of birds on the way back to the truck, as most of the second covey had also gone that direction.

I crossed the fence and joined my dad on the other side, and we walked side by side, talking for a couple minutes before KC pointed again.

She stared with intensity into a textbook spot for a covey. Several rows of standing soybeans sat under a fallen tree limb extending into the field where the farmer had been unable to harvest. Dad kicked the limb and a third covey burst from the ground in synchronized grace. We emptied our guns again and added two more quail to our gamebags.

On the way back to the truck, we kicked up another half-dozen singles and a small covey that had regrouped. My dad, who has a habit of only carrying a handful of shells in his vest, ran out of 12-gauge shells on the walk back. Having shot my limit for the day, I offered him my 20-gauge, but he waved it off, saying that was enough for the day.

In one spot, we had found three coveys in less than a half mile.

That hunt was filled with (mostly) good dog work, a first retrieve by KC, and more quail in one draw than I’ve ever seen. When we got back to the house, we did something we don’t normally do. We took the time to arrange the birds on the tailgate and took a photo with us, the birds, and the dogs. It was a moment worth remembering.

The land around our farm is changing. A hundred years from now it will have transformed beyond my capacity to imagine it. When I was a teenager, quail were a rarity. I’ve watched them fade and then witnessed a resurgence in recent years. It has given me a profound appreciation of what we have in this moment.

Quail might be little birds, but they have big meaning.

Ryan Sparks is the editor of Quail Forever Journal.