Shell’s Covert: ‘Working Joe’ Quail Hunters

“Hell, I wouldn’t get up and walk across this farm road to shoot a deer” said dairyman Jack Farmer, Pulaski Co. Virginia, sometime about 1978. I reckon I was about…well, heck, I was 16 and I lived to hunt, fish and trap everything legal. But my big thing was deer. A small group of fathers and sons, our “hunt club” chased rabbits and squirrels when deer season was out, but deer was our “big deal” each year. That is for all of us except a few. I found out one day what they really lived for.

Now don’t start writing me hate mail. The white-tailed deer is a magnificent animal and perhaps America’s favorite. But not everyone lives to hunt deer. Bud Smith was another member of the “5 Bs” hunt club who cared nothing about shooting a deer. During the deer season he stayed at the old cabin, stoking the fire and “partaking” of his “snake bite medicine” from time to time. He was as tough as a 2 dollar steak – a paratrooper in the Korean War and a line foreman for Pike Electric back in the days when they ran power lines through the roughest of the Appalachians. He wore a waxed handle bar mustache on his face and a greasy “Caterpillar” hat on his head. He could knock an ant off a log with a spat of Redman tobacco juice from 15 feet.

Jack Farmer was, indeed, a farmer, and the one who owned the land where our club hunted. He would visit us from time to time and we always showed our appreciation with a hefty, hot, “meat on your bones” kind of meal any evening he’d happen to drop by. Good Lord, I can still smell those old cast iron long pans heating up on the Coleman!

One evening the subject of quail came up. Now you’d think these two tough old weathered workmen would laugh at a quail, but when several of us mentioned we’d been flushing a couple coveys while walking to this spot or that, their eyes lit up and reflected a lot more of the fire we sat around.

“You say ‘quail,’ boy?” Jack asked. “Yes sir, must a been 15 or 20 of ‘em in a covey up by the pine thicket in the brushy field to the left of the old house,” I replied. “Yep, and I flushed another bunch back behind the barn along that old fence line yesterday” David added, “Come to think of it, there may be two coveys in there because I found another bunch up in the chinky pin patch Monday.”

Bud looked at Jack, and Jack back at Bud…”How’s about 1 o’clock?” “It’s a plan,” Bud replied. Nothing more was said. Shortly after lunchtime the next day Jack showed up in his hunting coat and brier pants. Bud went into the back room of the cabin and soon came back in his Carharts carrying his beloved Browning “Sweet Sixteen.” I always wondered why he brought that shotgun. I soon came to know it was built for birds.

Jack looked at all of us and said, “Now y’all hunt all you want this afternoon, but you stay away from those quail coveys on your way in and out.” Jack and Bud set out, no dog, just the two of them, both looking years younger. All afternoon from about anywhere any of us hunted back in the woods, we could hear the occasional “pop, pop” of those shotguns.

As we returned one- by-one after dark that evening, each of us was greeted by the sound of laughter filtering out with the lantern light through the cracked cabin windows. Bud and Jack had been back since about 4:30. Their quail, about 6 or 8 of them, were lined up on the front porch rail for all to see. And inside they sat glowing and telling bird hunting stories and laughing like teenagers who’d gotten away with something. I was only 16, but even I knew something special happened that day. And I knew there was something special about those little birds.

Bird hunting was already on the beginning of the down slope in ’78. And it was the age I call “the rise of deer.” Today, I often hear people say of bird hunting it is “a sport of the rich, only doctors and lawyers and wealthy entrepreneurs hunt birds anymore.” One recent new bird hunting magazine described itself as “an elegant lifestyle magazine.” Well that may be true, and I have nothing against money or people who have worked hard to earn it no matter how much they have. But I do want to convey that there used to be a lot of “Working Joe” bird hunters. And there still are quite a few. And if you have never hunted wild upland game birds like grouse, or quail or woodcock on their turf, let me tell you there is nothing dainty about it.

One look at Jack or Bud and you would have known better than to ever say that, too.

 

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