"I'd rather hunt quail with dogs. But I'd rather hunt them without dogs than not at all," Priscilla Bonner was saying as we stuffed our vests with shells in front of her farmhouse.
Quail hunting without bird dogs is not a common sport in the Virginia tradition. But neither is it common to find a young woman with a keen interest in skillful engravings on a fine shotgun; a woman who has operated a 300 acre dairy farm on her own: an outdoorswoman who has bagged more than a dozen deer, skinning and butchering several herself.
I enjoy watching a good bird dog work," Bonner said as we prepared for the hunt on her sprawling Shenandoah farm, "but I haven't had time to get the right dog and train it the way I want, what with running the farm and all."
Seven dogs were milling idly about in the February sunlight - and yet we were hunting quail without a single four-footed friend.
Any old dog just won't do if you want to get within shotgun range of the crafty bob whites (35 yards or closer). He must be a "broke" dog with a fine nose, experienced on wild birds.
We donned our game vests, loaded the scatterguns and walked up the truck-worn track toward a corner patch of honeysuckle. Tiny puffs of cumulus clouds crept slowly east in the blue winter sky.
Barely five minutes into the field a covey or 15 quail exploded. Like small brown chips of shrapnel, the birds veered in every direction and quickly two plump, white-breasted birds were dropped from the bunch, each of us scoring on our first shots of the day.
Two singles from the covey were added later as they buzzed from an overgrown fence row, but the other birds held tight or ran unseen before our guns. We headed across a 60-acre field of corn-stubble Bonner had cut two months earlier.
"There's usually a good-sized bunch of quail down on this brushy knoll during the middle of the day. I've jumped them up a lot while I was going out to work in the fields."
As we walked, Bonner described her technique. "The best way to get them without bird dogs is to stop a lot and work slowly. Otherwise they'll just stay put and let you walk right by them."
We trekked on, pausing in an overgrown orchard, and jumped a second covey as we approached a ravine full of briars. Bonner sent a single cartwheeling at 30 yards with the second shot in her 12-gauge pump. She found the brown camouflaged bird in a bed of oak leaves and admired the textured pattern of black, ivory, and rust feathers on the hen quail.
We missed a few singles, then rested in the February sun and set our birds out in the matted Johnson grass. Expert wing shots might have scored better, but we were happy with the morning's sport. Two coveys and a half-dozen singles flushed in a few hours is not action that most bird hunters would scoff at - even with fine pointing dogs.
Bonner was raised on the farm, but moved from the Massanutten Mountain foothills and for two years lived in Alexandria and worked at National Airport. Two years was enough. She returned to her country home and now, with her brothers departed, she is running the farm.
"You couldn't drag me back to town. I just like fishing and hunting and the beauty of this area too much."
She likes it enough to suffer with it. On a recent outing, before the Shenandoah froze, she and a friend knocked down a mallard as they stalked ducks along the river bank. Inevitably, the bird landed in the river.
It was Bonner that made the retrieval, in thigh-deep water and no waders.
We almost duplicated that feat. On the way back we got into one last enormous covey that erupted out of range and flew shrewdly over the river.
We looked at each other quickly. Then she said gracefully, "They'll come back. There's too much food and cover for them to stay out."