Rising Quail, Falling Ego
A SOUTH TEXAS POINTER named Cowboy whirled to a stop and faced upwind. The object of his stiff attention was a scraggly clump of grass and prickly pear about five yards ahead. A trailing dog froze, honoring the point in grand style.
Two of us paced forward. I held the 20-gauge Parker side-by-side up and away, ready to thumb the safety as the gun reached my shoulder.
“Keep stepping,” a voice from behind urged. “Just walk past the dog. Whoa, Cowboy. Steady, Belle!”
We pressed forward, eyes ahead but seeing nothing—then the covey of 12 or 15 bobwhite quail erupted like a whirring, blurring fragmentation grenade. I saw four or five on my side of the rise and tried to kill them all with one shot—the classic rookie mistake that produced absolutely squat.
The frantic second shot was no better. Probably worse, since I was in a state of outraged panic. The other shooter grassed a bold cock and I dejectedly broke open the empty shotgun.
I’d like to say that poor showing occurred 30 or 40 years ago, but it happened last season.
On paper, the bobwhite quail under a dog’s nose should be perhaps the easiest of all wingshooting opportunities.
Look at the situation:
The bird huddled on the ground is close, probably flushing at five to 10 yards from the ready gun. You know the rise is imminent—no surprise, there. Most first shots (coveys or singles) are well inside 25 or 30 yards. The serious bird hunter almost certainly wields an open-choked gun to throw a wide, but dense pattern to cover these quick chances.
Most flushed quail take flight from a dead stop. Even a quail running ahead of a dog has a slow launch compared to, say, a windswept dove in full flight.
Take a gander at the typical quail. You are correct to conclude that any ground-loving bird with a profile like a Royal Riviera pear is not noted for blinding speed. I believe scientific tests have pegged the bobwhite at approximately 30 miles per hour—maybe 35.
That’s at max revolutions.
Remember, the flushing bird needs time to fully accelerate. Compare this to a passing dove or duck at maybe 50 miles per hour.
Once flushed, the quail tends to lob away in a fairly predictable arc. Granted, the occasional quail might sweep back with the wind, or abruptly dip low to pitch around brush, but these are not the typical flight patterns.
The normal angling-away trajectory lends itself to a smooth shotgun swing. A corkscrewing dove or a flaring teal can be much harder to center.
Add these facts together, and the poor bobwhite seems woefully overmatched. A cool South Texas gunslinger can, in fact, run up an impressive scorecard. A limit of 15 birds inside a single 25-shell box certainly is possible; in fact, such tallies are fairly common among skilled hunters over classic points.
But so, too, is the flaming miss.
Put another way, rare is the veteran bird hunter who will not own up to the occasional red-faced “ham press.” Over the decades, I’ve hunted with a number of excellent quail hunters, and I’ve seen them all miss on rises.
The commotion and drama of the explosion of whirring wings is most likely the culprit. You know the covey is right there, ahead of the staunch point, but each rise excites a jump of emotion.
It’s easy to rush things—a poor gun mount or a too-quick shot without selecting a specific bird. But, in truth, despite the roar of confusion, you have more time than you think.
The great outdoor writer and shotgunner, Nash Buckingham, called it “repression,” a programmed pause to take the few moments necessary to confirm proper footing while selecting a safe bird before smoothly mounting the gun and throwing the safety.
Buckingham wrote: “Repression counteracts an element of surprise present at practically all game-bird flushes, wild or over a point.”
I suspect that most misses on a creampuff rise is that hurried shot, Remember, you have more time than you think to get it right.
Worth note, and despite the lobbing trajectory, South Texas bobwhites tend to fly low, tight to brushy cover whenever possible. This probably is an instinctive defense against accipiter hawks in the relatively flat terrain. A foggy or misty morning with heavy air tends to encourage low traffic.
Most important, a low bird stresses the need for vigilant shooting safety. During the classic rise, two or three guns walk abreast past the dog. When the covey flushes, each shooter selects an open bird on his side (left, right, or middle). Swinging through another shooter’s airspace is at best a flagrant breach of etiquette. At worst, it could trigger a terrible tragedy.
Also a thought: a far-ranging dog might be well beyond a low bird but in line with the shot, perhaps bounding back to the sounds of action. Nearby ranch cattle could be hovering in a screen of mesquite. If any doubt exists, far better to abort the swing than to send a swarm of 7 1/2s into potential harm’s way. Even at 100 yards, a field load can pack a wallop and ruin an eye.
This is a reminder to pay attention with low birds in low terrain—and to always wear protective shooting glasses and bright orange. I remain astounded to see quail hunters in camo shirts and caps.
I remain utterly dumbfounded at how easy it can be to miss a fluttering quail at 25 yards! Maybe that’s what makes quail hunting so special.
Email Joe Doggett at ContactUs@fishgame.com