Now that bird hunting is in the headlines, with Sen. John Kerry chasing geese in Ohio and President Bush's people deriding the effort as all show, it makes sense to file a report from this bird paradise in eastern Oregon, where quail flock by the hundreds and pheasants and partridges cluck in the valleys and hilltops.
In bird hunting as in politics, 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. It took an old Washington hand to devise a workable solution. "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 the 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 Wednesday. 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 managed to bag his limit of 10 quail a day, regardless.
All of us made the long trek west last week at the invitation of Jim Farmer, a Waldorf 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.
In a matter of months, Farmer sold off some Maryland holdings and 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 as far as you could see.
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 normally has more energy than even hyperkinetic Farmer himself, had to be coaxed from the kennel to go hunting.
Likewise the brand new four-wheel-drive Ford truck Farmer bought to haul gunners and gear around is battered and dented already, coated in mud from stem to stern.
But who's complaining? My first day here I didn't get in till late afternoon. 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 the land four-abreast, 30 yards apart, kicking the scrub in search of valley quail. Minutes into the exercise a covey of 200 erupted and scattered. We took off in pursuit, 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 single shot rang out and down he came. Another flushed a few minutes later and met the same fate.
Sadly, partridge hunting was less productive. Chukars and their kin, Hungarians, favor rocky high country instead of the valleys. We spent the better part of two days driving down dirt roads in the immense BLM tracts, scanning the craggy hillsides for a sign of birds stirring, but spotted only three coveys, all of which scattered before we could walk near enough for shots.
Farmer hatched a scheme to send one man to circle around behind the birds in hopes they would flush again, this time toward the other gunners, Naturally, as the youngest in the group, I drew the long walk. Each time I flushed birds after an exhausting climb, but the clever creatures always flushed the wrong way, out of range for me and anyone else. Somewhere today those birds are cackling -- at our expense.
Farmer was miffed by the scarcity of partridges, insisting that he often sees eight or 10 coveys in a day and usually gets shots. In any event, by evening we were happy to get back to the valleys, where the walking was easier and the quail and pheasants more hospitable.
As for politics, the gunners here were skeptical about Kerry's goose foray. "I read where he told somebody he liked to crawl through the woods with a double-barrel shotgun looking for deer," Urquhart said. "I've been deer hunting all my life, but I never heard of anybody doing anything like that."
Postscript: On Day Four, while the others were off hunting remote territory, ranch hand Joe Harley and I walked the home fields around Farmer's five-bedroom guest house and flushed coveys of quail, chukar, Huns and pheasants. We bagged some of all four species for an eastern Oregon grand slam, proving once again there's no place like home.
For information on hunting at the Flying Double F Ranch, call 301-870-2158 in Maryland; 541-473-4283 in Oregon.