'Tis the season to toss the sticks under the stairs, whip out the trusty shotgun and head for quail country. Since 1993, when I moved to Texas and became a bona-fide redneck Southern-gentleman trainee with several shotguns I couldn't hit a flying rhino with, my life has improved dramatically.
In a Neanderthal way, hunting is similar to golf. Since the dawn of time, sweaty Homo sapiens have been roaming the countryside sending badly aimed missiles at targets, cursing loudly and avoiding hazards. Mammoth have tusk -- Ugga make spear. Ugga find ball -- swing club. Bird fly -- Browning make Citori shotgun. It's simple evolution, and as far as I'm concerned anyone who's willing to kill a mosquito or a cockroach shouldn't have a moral problem with some guy who's willing to sit up a tree in the dead of winter making deer sneezes and moose farts so he can take one shot at a sofa with horns. Still, big-game hunting is not my cup of tea. I'm too squeamish to kill anything furry, and the size of what I shoot at is determined largely by a pathetic instinct for survival: I refuse to kill anything that, should it fall and land on my head, is big enough to kill me back. So I reckon my size limits out at a pheasant.
Where was I?
Oh yes, golf. The most obvious similarity between golf and wing shooting is between the caddies and the dogs. Dogs are just like caddies, except they smell better and are easier to train. They have better manners, too. A bird dog will give you the correct line and a fair idea of the distance, and if you miss, it will hardly ever say, "Hey, it's not my fault, porkwad." And a dog always knows where its balls are.
Still, the whole concept of bird hunting with dogs was confusing to me at first. I'd heard the story of the Irishman who tried it but gave up because he couldn't throw his retriever high enough. But on my first quail hunt, down in the cowboy country of south Texas, my buddies T.D. and Buck soon straightened me out.
There I was, decked out in full regalia, with my fancy kit and a brand-new gun -- like a 28-handicapper with alligator spikes and a staff bag full of shiny Hogan blades -- when a swarm of birds came bursting up from under my boots and nearly made me soil my chaps. As the fluffy little buggers whizzed off in 17 directions, I sprang into action, pausing only to make sure that my left shoulder was in front of my left foot, my stance was about shoulder width, and my ball position safely clear of any waist-high cactus. By this time the nearest bird was safely over the Mexican border, but, hell, I took a shot anyway, and during the course of the next few hours, I took a lot more. I'm not sure that I ever missed in front of a single bird. It was like hitting everything fat! The following day I continued this fine form, prompting T.D. and Buck to say that if I shot any farther behind, I might at least get lucky and kill one from yesterday.
The next covey was of blues, and one was kind enough to balk in midair at the sound of T.D.'s gun, change direction and, for a moment, hang himself up like a feathery dinner-gong about 60 feet in front of me. There was no lead -- or talent -- required to hit my first quail, so I shouldered my Beretta and let fly.
"Clink," went the firing pin,
"What?" went T.D., and "S---!" went I. For the love of Ted Nugent in a tutu, what were the odds that my first misfire would come at that very moment? There's no way of calculating, but I will tell you this: They got a lot better when I factored in the Chap Stick I'd loaded in the top chamber. As I explained to T.D., I wasn't trying to kill the blue -- just moisturize it.
Imagine if it were illegal to play golf for two-thirds of the year. A bummer, yes, but how great you would feel on opening day! That's how I feel about wing shooting. Hey, I'm still crappy, but I'm in love with the whole scene -- the birds, the guns, the clothes, the countryside, the comradeship, the discipline and especially the dogs. How I love the hounds! After the hunt I like to spend a little quality time, patting and stroking, gently removing grass burrs and cactus spines from every soft fold and crevice with a pair of rubber-tipped tweezers, applying soothing ointment -- and then doing the same for the dogs.