posted on October 28, 2004 00:00
VALE, Ore. -- There is a bird paradise in eastern Oregon, where quail flock by the hundreds and pheasants and partridges cluck in the valleys and hilltops.
But all is not exactly as it seems. There are birds galore here, but they didn't get abundant by being stupid. Hunting is hard. "These birds don't do right," said 77-year-old Bill Urquhart of Boydton, Va., after a long, frustrating day chasing chukar partridges and valley quail. "They'd rather run than fly."
Of course, sporting hunters won't shoot at a bird on the ground. "I'll only shoot them on the rise," said lobbyist and longtime D.C. pub-keeper Jim Desmond, "but I consider the crouch an integral part of the rise."
Before angry letters start pouring in, he was joking. Still, it was tempting. I stared down a ring-necked pheasant on the edge of a weed field. We were 15 yards apart but he wouldn't budge. I advanced and he took a few steps back. I shouted and he took off running. I waved the gun and he ran faster. But fly? Not on your life.
Valley quail and chukars are as bad in another way. They travel in big groups -- quail in coveys of hundreds in the lowlands, chukars by the score in the dry, rocky hills. They let you get just close enough to spot their little heads darting along in the scrub brush, then when you make your move they take wing en masse with a great, heart-stopping whir of wings.
"They usually get up about 40 yards away and by the time you get your gun up, it's 50 yards, which is about as far as I ever care to shoot," said Big Al Watson, a well driller from Southern Maryland who somehow bagged his limit of 10 quail a day, regardless.
All of us made the trek west at the invitation of Jim Farmer, a Waldorf, Md., lawyer and quail hunter who last year gave up trying to revive bobwhite quail populations on his Maryland farms and shifted attention here, where wild quail thrive on their own and land is still affordable.
Farmer picked up 10,000 acres of ranch land here, plus access to hundreds of thousands of acres of federal Bureau of Land Management property. We spent four hours one day just driving across one of the BLM holdings looking for chukar and Hungarian partridge. It was 21 miles of potholes, dust and sagebrush with dry, barren hills stretching on all sides.
Farmer is developing a commercial bird-hunting operation at his Flying Double F Ranch and we were his guinea pigs. The lesson: It can be done, but it isn't easy. Just ask his bird dogs, the English pointers Rocky and Mack, the English setter Sue and the Springer spaniel H.A.
All were footsore and weary after two weeks of a three-month season. Rocky was in the dog hospital with an impacted tooth and dehydration, Sue wore pads on all four bruised feet and Mack, who is normally hyperkinetic, had to be coaxed from the kennel to go hunting.
The brand new four-wheel-drive Ford truck Farmer bought to haul gunners and gear around is battered and dented already.
But who's complaining? After my arrival, I joined the fellows on a hillside behind the ranch house for the last two hours of daylight. The dogs were exhausted and back in their kennels so we walked four-abreast, 30 yards apart, kicking the scrub in search of valley quail. A covey of 200 erupted and scattered. We pursued, zigzagging across the hillside, kicking up quail in twos and threes and fours, occasionally near enough for a shot.
The hillside played out in a grove of willow trees along a creek. "Keep your eyes open for pheasants here," Farmer said. Within moments a pair of hens burst from the cover. We held our fire, hens being protected. But when a red-headed cockbird popped up moments later, a shot rang out and down he came. Another flushed a few minutes later and met the same fate.
Partridge hunting was less productive. Chukars and their kin, Hungarians, favor rocky high country. We spent the better part of two days driving down dirt roads in the immense BLM tracts, scanning craggy hillsides, but spotted only three coveys, all of which scattered before we could walk near enough for shots.
By evening we were happy to get back to the valleys, where the walking was easier and the quail and pheasants more hospitable.
Postscript: On Day Four, while the others were off hunting remote territory, ranch hand Joe Harley and I walked the home fields and flushed coveys of quail, chukar, Huns and pheasants. We bagged some of all four species for an eastern Oregon grand slam.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.