The Mighty Hunter

The Mighty Hunter

For all of us on the CBS golf crew, the time between when we quit for the season and start up again the following year is precious. Anyone who travels for a living knows that the size of the pile of crap on his or her desk is directly proportionate to the amount of time spent away, and in this road wiener’s case, that means it’s usually December before there is any time for fun and games.

During the midseason break, I didn’t exactly master fly fishing, despite days of standing waist-deep in 40-degree water, so this winter, under the tutelage of a certain L. Wadkins, I decided to take a crack at becoming an expert quail hunter. Two geniuses with guns, against a bunch of feathery little farts that have a tendency to fly in a herd — I’d seen it on ESPN Outdoors, and no one ever misses the damn things, so I figured it wouldn’t take me long to get the hang of it.

Wadkins had assured me that there were a lot of similarities between wing shooting and golf. Because I know nothing about guns, I dispatched She Who Must Be Obeyed to purchase the necessary firearms. (I would have gone with Wadkins, but given his legendary ability to piss people off, I thought it better not to go any place where I might get caught in crossfire.)

My wife is one of those Southern girls who can bake a cake in the morning, shoot the balls off a squirrel from 50 yards (with an iron sight) in the afternoon, then fit into a very, very little black dress at night. She came back with a sweet little Beretta over/under 28 gauge, and a big, black, nasty-looking Benelli 12, capable of holding five 31/2 inch shells.

I’m no expert, but even I know the 28 is a quail gun, while the Benelli is a weapon of mass destruction. Knowing full well it was a stupid question, I asked her what it was for. “It’s for when you get tired of missing quail in South Texas, and you want to miss a pheasant in South Dakota,” she said.

“Har de har, har,” I said, and snatched the Benelli from her. I looked knowledgeably into the empty chamber, pushed the button to close the action, nearly cut the tip off my right thumb, and despite a magnificent effort, never even got close to looking like it didn’t hurt. Shaking her head, she walked off to find my life insurance policy.

A few days later, after two stitches and several sporting clay lessons from Jeanie Almond at the Elm Fork Shooting Park in Dallas, I discovered there are indeed similarities between golf and shooting. Like, when your coach is standing behind you, showing you where your weight and your head should be, it will become easier and you’ll wonder why you were so bad. Then when she’s not, it’ll come back to you.

By the time it was time to head for Hebbronville, Texas, I had improved enough to be crap with both guns, but as forecasted, particularly crap with the 28. However, as I was to shoot with real shooters, I reluctantly left the blunderbuss in the safe, slipped the Beretta into a soft case, packed my field-fronted camo, headed for Love Field, and boarded a King Air with Buck and Luke. Wadkins was coming down the next day with T.D. and Jim. I’d been looking forward to this for months, but suddenly I realized that I was actually going hunting! I felt like Davy Crockett. Then it struck me. I was heading into the original cowboy country with Lanny, T.D, Jim, Buck, and Luke, and my name was “Dave.” It sounded like five hunters and a hair stylist — not a good start.

From the start it was fairly obvious this was going to be a first-class affair. The Eschelman-Vogt Ranch covers 100,000 acres of south Texas, about 50 miles from Laredo. Will Vogt met us in a Suburban and took us to the ranch house, where Buck immediately locked the keys in the car, along with all the guns, and worse still, his Preparation H. It was a disaster, and if you don’t believe me, try walking for miles after small birds through waist-high brush and cactus, with no gun and a sore ass.

Lucky enough, “Fingers” Feherty was on the scene, and within a matter of an hour and 20 minutes, with a flat screwdriver, a towel, and a coat hanger, I had us back in. Back when I was keen on that stuff and they were making decent quality hangers, it would have taken 30 seconds, but thankfully GM is still GM.

Eager to get going the following morning, I settled in my room, popped an Ambien, and drifted off to sleep. Twenty minutes later I woke up to a cold, wet nose in the old crotcheroonie. Abby, one of the ranch’s Labrador retrieving rovers, had fancied a nocturnal nuzzle, but sadly she quit long before I could get excited about it. Feeling cheated, I stared alternately at the ceiling and my watch. At 4 a.m., I gave up, turned on all the lights, and read from cover to cover The Call of the Quail, a book of quail hunting articles by different authors. Typical — and just like golf — a dozen different theories.

In the morning, I knew even less about quail hunting. A blanket of fog hung over the property, and Will said the other boys wouldn’t get into Hebbronville International Airport, Yacht Club, and Art Gallery unless their Citation V had curb feelers. “Oh, dear, what a pity. Never mind, let’s hunt,” said the rest of us.

We climbed into a special truck and sat on seats over the dog boxes, each of which held some kind of pointing pooch. Abby’s somewhat arthritic looking husband, Dudley, sat at our feet, and after a short drive into the property along a sand road, Robe, the guide, hit the brakes, leapt out, and released the hounds. Talk about cool. Two of my favorite things in life are dogs and caddies, and apparently, quail dogs are both, although I must admit I’ve never had a caddie who writhed around on his back and wanted his tummy tickled.

Dudley, who moments earlier had looked like he might need a canine wheelchair, suddenly turned into Studley of the turbocharged nostrils. The German shorthairs, Tipper and Oiseau, shot out of the gates and immediately began crisscrossing in front of the truck, working their way to the tune of Robe’s yelps and whistles. Within seconds, Tipper went as rigid as a tuning fork, and as if by magic, Oiseau spun around so fast I swear I heard her tail crack like a whip.

She leopard-crawled into a similar point about five yards from her partner, two corners of the triangle. I looked at the point where the lines through their bodies intersected, and saw the covey hunkered down. The dogs had given the exact line and yardage, and I had the right club and no ability. My heart was pounding as Robe released them with a grunt, and with a flurry of wing beats the birds shot up and out. Three pops, and a bird each for Luke and Buck. For me, the sudden realization that the safety has to be off. I was right on the fluffy little creature, too.

Over the next two hours, we saw, and shot at, 10 coveys, and I realized that for the first time in my life, I was the “am” in the pro-am. I was the guy with the brand-new Hogans and the $900 snakeskin shoes who couldn’t hit the sea off the deck of the Nimitz.

The great thing about having me along, though, was that with a 15-bird bag limit, the other two got in more shootin’, which cheered them immensely. Yee-freakin’-hah! Four hours later the fog had burned off, and Wadkins, T.D, and Jim arrived, looking bloodthirsty. That afternoon, I accompanied our lead analyst on the hunt, which was like a biathlon, or as Robin Williams puts it, “a Norwegian drive-by.”

That boy can put some lead in the air, and a lot of it goes in the right direction, too. Type A+ wouldn’t describe him. After a rare miss, I thought the little ratbag was going to fly after the damn birds himself. But like the frustrated hacker who gives up on the 17th and then suddenly hits a couple of beauties, I got a few toward the end, so as we piled into the King Air to head for Luke’s hunting camp at Cotulla, I figured I’d be better the next day.

At Cotulla International Speedway and Polo Club, we were greeted by two of the greatest characters I’ve ever met: Higton Compton and Taggart Mills. Higgy is 6-foot-5 and slim enough to look like the T in Texas with his bigger John B’s on his head, and together with his runnin’ buddy Taggart, they looked like Clint Eastwood and his demented Scottish cousin. They loaded our gear into a couple of Luke’s trucks, and we headed through the vast, sprawling metropolis of Cotulla, and then into the inky black darkness down another dirt track.

After listening to Higgy’s gleeful snake stories from the previous day, I decided I’d be wearing my boots to bed, and sleeping on top of Wadkins. As it turned out, it was the bottom bunk for me. T.D. got the single and Lanny slept up top, but seeing him trying to get up there was worth the price of a ticket. What an athlete. I haven’t laughed that hard since the Browns beat the Ravens, and the dismount in the morning was even funnier. It was like watching a garden gnome fall off a picket fence.

Before we started that morning, I learned a few things, like how to put my snake chaps on the right way, and that you have to wear jeans or something underneath. Pitiful, but after seeing Wadkins naked on the toilet, I had a mental picture of the Village People, so it was an honest mistake.

By this time I’d had a chance to get a good look at the equipment the other boys had, and I’d decided mine was much prettier. My gun was angle ported, had extended choke tubes, and there was hardly a nick on the stock. Luke, who for some reason was duct-taping the top of his boots to his field-fronted jeans, was shooting with a battered 20 gauge.

I thought I was hunting with Martha Stewart, but as it turned out, the duct-tape idea was brilliant. I spent half the morning trying to dig what can only be described as spherical pins and hypodermic needles out of my shins.

We hunted that morning from an orange-and-black zebra painted truck the boys had named “The Disco Donkey.” Its side panels were scored with “South Texas pinstripes” left by the thorns.

Everything that grows in South Texas has either a thorn or a blade, and this land is quail land and nothing else. One head of cattle per 80 acres is all it will support. When we landed, I thought how ugly and featureless the landscape was. But as we sat up top for a breather and a late Budweiser breakfast sprinkled with lime tequila salt, Lanny spotted a fast-moving fog bank rolling across the tops of the Mesquite, and within minutes the visibility was down to a couple of hundred feet. It was eerily still and quiet, but for a sweet whistle from a nearby quail.

Suddenly, it seemed to me that it was beautiful, and we could be on St. Andrews or Royal County Down. It was time to go home, and as we got down to let the dogs back in the boxes, I spotted the bird that had been whistling. Luke had stayed on the Disco Donkey, but Lanny and I were loaded and dangerous.

It was a blue, sometimes called a scaly quail, and it was the first I’d ever seen. Even from 50 or 60 feet I could see the snake-like pattern on its breast. As the little prehistoric link between reptile and bird hunkered down to fly, I turned to Lanny and said, “Let it go, it’s been a great trip.”

He looked at me, shouldered his lovely Beretta and nodded his head wistfully. With a buzz of wings, the bird jumped up and sailed toward cover. “Yup, it sure has, partner,” Lanny said, smiling.

I turned to head back to the truck, and there was one loud bang, followed by a chuckle. He’d vaporized it with the first barrel. It’s probably why he won a PGA and I didn’t.

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