A challenge in Eastern Washington

Going for a deer, a trout and a bird all in one day

— Gary Lewis / The Bulletin /

Published Nov 13, 2013 at 04:00AM

The late outdoor writer Ed Park told me about it. A hunters’ tradition out of English literature, the Macnab is named for a fictional character, John Macnab, and is a challenge to poach a red stag or a salmon from a landowner’s favorite beat with the landowner’s full knowledge.

So the Macnab has come to embody the classic challenge to take a red deer, an Atlantic salmon and a partridge, all in one day, between sunrise and sunset. But the challenge changes depending on the environment. In Central Oregon, for example, Ed explained, the hunter must tag a mule deer, catch a steelhead and shoot a chukar. In the finest sporting tradition, the fish must be caught on a fly, the bird must be taken on the wing.

The Macnab has lingered in the back of my mind, a possibility. Someday.

When I found myself at a place called Blue Ridge Ranch in Eastern Washington on an October morning with a buck on the ground, I remembered I had a fly rod and a shotgun in the truck. The sun had not climbed to its zenith, our shadows still tilted west. This could be the day.

It was a mile walk out to the truck. I broached the subject with my guide, Jeff Miller. He caught on. “We have a spring creek a dozen miles from here and there are some nice trout. The birds are going to be a little more difficult.”

Miller was humoring me. There might be birds to hunt, fish to catch, there might not. He made some phone calls. A landowner gave us permission to trespass.

In some places, the stream was no more than three feet wide. It ran fast and cold through willows and patches of reeds. A seven-inch rainbow sucked down my Schroeder’s Hopper. Not very big. I kept casting and was rewarded by the sight of a bigger rainbow as it swamped my dry fly. My tippet held and I released the fish — something between 12 and 14 inches — and trotted back to the truck. We had half a day to find some birds.

A dozen phone calls turned up no one that had a good line on a place where we might find a pheasant. Nobody had seen a Hungarian partridge for a month. Chukar were too far away. That left quail. There are a lot of quail in Eastern Washington. Finding them is the difficult thing.

Miller made more calls. A rancher said he had two coveys on his place.

I called the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hotline and bought a three-day license. They gave me a confirmation number. We were burning daylight. I doubted we could pull it off with less than three hours before the end of legal shooting light. This was going to take a healthy dose of luck.

“Shall we take a dog?” I hesitated a moment. A dog could blow it for us. But on the other hand, a dog could save the day.

Miller loaded Roam, an English pointer, into a crate in the back of the Ram. A dog named Roam could be a liability or an asset.

Miller spotted the quail from the road. Spooked, the covey of 50 birds erupted from the sagebrush, flushed across the road and blew out another 50 birds. We made a quick hunt and kicked up a couple of stragglers, but they flushed too far out to get a shot.

We backed off and waited 20 minutes. The sun dropped closer to the horizon. We entered the field, parked and looked at the rim ahead of us. Somewhere ahead there were 100 quail.

“I think we should hit that ridge right there in the middle; it’s our best chance to catch them,” Miller said. There was a bright orange willow; I guessed we would find birds in the brush at its base.

We walked 200 yards to the base of the cliff, and then I scrambled up into the shale slides on my own. A cock bird scuttled over the top, close enough, but he didn’t fly, so I couldn’t shoot. Then a bird blasted out of the brush at my feet and I shot and missed. At the report, several more quail broke. I missed the next one and broke the gun as more buzzed away, popping from the brush like popcorn off a hot griddle.

Below me, Jeff screamed, “Load, load up!” I got two more rounds in the twin tubes and tumbled a quail going away.

We looked for the bird for 10 minutes in tumbleweeds stacked waist deep against the cliff. It didn’t count if I couldn’t find it. Miller walked back to the truck for Roam. It took the dog another 10 minutes to work out the scent trail. He pointed something then walked away. Coaxed, he went back to the same spot and returned to us with a cock bird.

To accomplish the Macnab, we required the services of an English pointer with a penchant for perambulation, a dog whose ancestry is steeped in English sporting tradition. Fitting, I guess.