'I want you to spread out. I'll be in the middle,” Darren Roe, of Roe Outfitters, said. “Gary, you take one side, Bill, you take the other. Oreo will range out as far as you guys are on the sides and work close out in front. If she runs toward you, stop and let her work; if she goes on point, get up there fast.”
Oreo, the German wirehaired pointer, galloped several circuits around the yard in front of the corral while Roe watched her. It was a hunt for valley quail and the birds would be close, even now in the chill of the morning, dropping down out of their roost trees.
Bill Herrick thumbed three 20-gauge loads into his pump gun and I dropped two loads into the twin tubes of my CZ Ringneck 20 gauge and closed it.
We had stayed the night before at the Running Y Ranch, west of Klamath Falls, then met up with Roe and headed east into the sunrise on state Highway 140. A light snow blanketed the fields — perfect for tracking quail behind a pointing dog.
Beneath our boots, the new snow squeaked; the air was so cold it caught in our chests.
“Hup,” Roe said, and Oreo threw him a look.
This was the German wirehaired pointer I first met in June when Roe took delivery of the 6-week-old pup. Barely old enough to hunt, this second week of December, she quivered with the anticipation.
I followed three-toed tracks in the snow.
Bill spotted them first: a dozen birds dropped down out of a juniper, hit the ground and scattered into the sagebrush. Moments later, we bumped two birds that buzzed away. Alerted by the beat of the wings, I spun and glimpsed one, too fast and too far to shoot.
At the foot of the second canyon, Bill Herrick kicked up a small group of quail that scattered like a handful of dimes. He shot twice and connected. I saw one of his birds crash into an opening in the sage.
A bird kicked out and buzzed straight away. I followed it with a load of sixes, then swung on another from right to left.
Oreo marked Herrick's first bird, then Roe sent her in after the second. When they had those in hand, Oreo started up the canyon to look for mine.
“All year long, these quail are hunted by coyotes and bobcats and hawks,” Roe said. “Their survival strategy is that once they flush, they land in a dense bush and try to hold their scent so the coyote or dog won't find them. Sometimes they fly into a juniper; you have to be ready for a bird to come out over your head.”
Among our first birds was a juvenile. Most quail, whether hunted or not, do not survive the months of cold.
Studies show that as many as 60 to 90 percent of a quail population turns over each year due to natural causes. Hunting seasons and bag limits are set to allow hunters a portion of birds that are expected to die over the course of a winter.
Valley quail, also called California quail, are native to Southern Oregon and have been transplanted around the state. In Umatilla and Morrow counties, the season runs through Dec. 31, while in the rest of the state, hunters can take quail through the end of January. The daily bag limit is 10 quail with 30 in possession.
For me, the bag limit is academic. I quit when either I have shot a self-imposed limit on a covey or, more often, when I have reached my limit chasing them up and down the hills and over the creeks.
“If there are several coveys of 10 to 20 birds, I only want to take two or three from each one,” Roe said. “That way, I know there will be birds the next time I come.”
As we finished our morning hunt, we heard quail calls in the sagebrush.
Almost back to the corral where we started, Oreo whirled and stopped, one foreleg off the ground, nose locked on scent. Roe didn't trust the point, but a bird streaked away and I dropped it. When I opened the gun to pluck out the empty, Oreo turned a half-circle and pointed the bush again. We thought it was old scent, but then another bird blasted out. I closed the gun and dropped the second five feet from the first.
Oreo punched through the barbed wire for the retrieve. And three middle-aged men with old shotguns watched a young dog come of age.
“What I didn't tell you is that this is Oreo's first guided hunt,” Roe said. “She is doing better than I hoped. I'm a proud dad.”
I was the proud uncle.
If you go
The Running Y Resort: 800-569-0029, www.runningy.com
Roe Outfitters: 541-884-3825, www.roeoutfitters.com