The bobwhite quail is a harmless little bird. Scarcely bigger than a plump robin, covered with speckled brown feathers as soft as a sweetheart's caress, he has never been known to attack a man, even in defense of his young. Yet throughout the southern states during this month and for varying periods allowed by game laws this gentle creature will bring consternation, anger and bewilderment to tens of thousands of brave men armed with guns.
A few, fortunately only a very few, out of this vast army will be unable to withstand the shock of an encounter with bobwhite and literally will expire on the spot. A somewhat larger number will become flustered and sprinkle one another's hides with bird shot. As for all the rest, they will become liars, braggarts, crybabies and will swear mighty oaths. Nevertheless, they will manage to remain pretty nice guys, even gentlemen. And it is unnecessary to waste sympathy on poor bobwhite. He doesn't need it, thank you.
Usually quail come under attack from a twosome of hunters. Ideally, it should be a sunlit day with a hint of invigorating crispness in the air, just enough to brighten a man's eyes and put a patch of color in his cheeks as he strides across a stubbled field. It does sometimes happen, of course, that he trudges wearily across a field with great gobs of mud plastered to his boots. His feet are so numb and have been wet so long that he wonders if he has grown webs between his toes. Frequently, he is not in a field at all, but in a tangled thicket at the edge of a field, hands frozen to claws around his gun. And when a branch flies back and strikes his ear, the ear seems to tinkle into dozens of exquisitely painful splinters, and he feels he had rather die than have it happen again. Worst of all, on days such as this, the hunter has little chance of getting his bird. For one of the ways quail show their superiority to men is by staying under cover during wet and bitterly cold weather, wisely pressing together in a warm and comforting circle.
But say it is a clean, clear day. The hunter and his partner keep a discreet distance, even stopping now and then, calling words of encouragement or giving commands, while their two dogs work the field at a run. There is an air of joy about a dog working quail; his tail wags furiously and, when coursing in high cover, periodically he may leap like a grasshopper to keep his eye on his master. Despite his show of obvious pleasure, there is nothing haphazard about the way a really good dog scents out birds. He works with almost geometrical precision, quartering one section, then quartering it again, breaking his pattern only when he begins to follow up the scent left by the erratic trail of a bird.
Suddenly, while he is running full tilt alongside a row of beaten-down broom millet, he catches a scent. It is amazing how quickly a signal to his olfactory touches off a galvanic response in every muscle. The dog becomes rigid—his tail straight out, neck stretched, even his eyes fixed. After a long second, he takes a slow step forward, then another, perhaps another, before freezing again. He is on point now, perhaps quivering with nervous excitement, but otherwise motionless. No amount of harassment or coaxing will cause him to move. Some dogs can be pushed around, or even picked up and shifted. Always they will keep their noses pointed toward the bevy. Some owners take pride in testing their dogs on point. They hide at a distance and watch. It is not unusual at all for a dog to hold a point for half an hour or more. There was one dog worshiper who claimed his pup held on point until he collapsed, then continued to point while lying down.
The moment the first dog goes on point, the second one will freeze, then come creeping forward slowly, taking his position to the rear of the first dog. In field trials this is known as honoring a point, but in the hunting field it usually is called backing.
Though the reactions of a good dog on point are predictable, the reactions of the hunters are not. Even experienced shooters—or perhaps I should say especially experienced shooters—cannot escape that dryness in the mouth, that dampness in the palms, that quickening of the heart which comes when the dogs go on point. Some people hunt season in and season out for years and never quite manage to shake off the more acute symptoms of pointitis. Their faces turn white, they wheeze or develop a case of the nervous shakes. Some have been known to get actively sick.
Assuming that the hunters are not incapacitated by pointitis, they will move up to the dogs quickly, but without any bustle. They will stay fairly close together and abreast of each other.
Ideally they will try to hold up at a spot where they can get a clear shot as the birds break. This is fairly easy if they have hunted the territory before and know the covey, for quail, when disturbed, habitually make for the same sanctuary, perhaps a nearby stand of pine, weeds growing around a fence, a tangle of briers or sometimes even the shallow canyon made by a brook.
Once in position, the hunters bring their guns chest high on ready, and one grunts: "You set?" The other nods, and the first hunter kicks at the clump of broom millet, commanding the dog to "flush" or "get 'em." Oftentimes nothing happens. A bevy of quail is more unpredictable than a bevy of blondes. Sometimes the soft click of a gun safety will rouse them; at other times, they literally must be booted into action. Single birds are even more obstinate. Frequently one will crouch in full view without cover and not move until touched. And on rare occasions an apparently healthy and unwounded bird simply commits suicide by letting a dog pounce on it.