The Holy Grail

The wild quail of South Texas are a breed apart.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Both dogs were locked down on point at a massive clump of prickly pear cactus, and as we walked in on them the brush detonated into low, brown streaks blending into the background. The hunter with a flailing ponytail was trying to look all directions at once, finally getting off a shot at a low-jetting brown butt only a few feet above the lead dog's nose.

The guide came running over to see if the dog had been hit; neck arteries bulging, he turned toward the hunter. "I've warned you for the last time about shooting at low birds near my dogs," he said menacingly. The hunter turned on his heel and headed back to the pickup truck, retorting that he hadn't even come close to the dog. Anyway, he was damned tired of being ordered around like a rookie.

I got between them, cursing the luck of having to share a long-awaited hunt with a self-impressed know-it-all who really didn't know much at all-including how near he was to getting into a genuine Texas fistfight.

It all started when I'd picked him up at the San Antonio airport to save the guide a couple of hours of driving. Turned out I would be hunting with a California-cool dude with earrings, sandals, and a blond ponytail. He was disgustingly handsome in a wannabe Fabio way, puffed up as only a 28-year-old with his own Silicon Valley company could be.

As I drove south on Interstate 35, where the countryside gradually changes from cultivated fields and root-plowed pastures to wild, big-ranch country, he only glanced up occasionally from his computer. South Texas is mostly flat, drab-looking country, miles upon miles of mesquite and prickly pear flats pocked with oak mottes and thickets of whitebrush, blackbrush, guajillo, and other drought-resistant plants with thorns.

"Ugliest excuse for bobwhite country I've ever seen," he said. "Why do my hunting buddies consider it the Holy Grail of quail shooting?"

I told him his friends might be connoisseurs who knew how scarce honest-to-goodness wild bobwhites are in America now. Or, maybe they knew these are the fastest-flying, most challenging bobwhites of all.

"Who says?"

"Plenty of hunters who've shot quail all over America," I said, "and Texas wildlife biologist Don Wilson, who's clocked various subspecies with radar guns."

Vast areas of South Texas and northern Mexico are home to the subspecies Colinus virginianus texanus, a bird slightly smaller-as well as faster and more maneuverable-than other American bobwhites. Wilson has clocked these quail in excess of 40 miles per hour. And they can get up to speed before some hunters can shoulder a gun.

"So why wasn't the airport full of hotshots down here to hunt these Texas superquail?"

"Partly because there's only so much Texanus habitat left, and partly because prices for leasing prime habitat have risen above most pocketbooks," I said. "Some landowners have built fine lodges, which allows them to charge equally fine prices-up to around $2,500 for three-day, all-inclusive guided hunts with all the dogs and hunting vehicles this country requires.

"But there are still some ¿¿¿have dog, will travel' guides who make arrangements with landowners who don't want to bother with lease hunters. That's how we're fortunate enough to be hunting with Gustavo. How did you find out about him?"

"One of my investors owns the ranch," he said smugly, "but I'm wondering why. The place looks dead to me."

Had he been looking out the windshield, rather than frowning over the laptop, he'd have seen deer on both sides of the highway, swarms of doves crossing overhead, and a couple of coveys of bobwhites dusting in the shade of roadside mesquites. But he surely didn't miss sight of the first margarita oasis in the little town of Cotulla.

Gustavo, or Gus to his friends, had wisely staked out a table for us. Happy hour in dusty-throat brush country can get very busy with jukebomusic, laughter, and loud talk in Spanish and English. Taking advantage of the din, Gus asked if I'd caught his hunter's name.

"No," I said.

Gus told me the name was so long that the dude went by the initials P.B.

"That's easy to remember," I said. "Pretty Boy."

"In this place it ought to be B.P.," Gus drawled. "As in Big Problem."

The jukebox was screeching and wailing country music like "God Bless Texas" and "(Up Against the Wall) Redneck Mother," the latter a song famous for the lyrics "kickin' hippie ass." After the third margarita, P.B. shook his ponytail and put his hands over his ears.

A big hombre with a mustache and two Mexican-made gold teeth immediately leaned over from the table behind us and tapped him on the shoulder.

"You don' like my music I play?" he asked, smiling broadly, eyes cold as a rattlesnake's.

Gus was between them in an instant, rattling Spanish, joking about the gringo's ears being bad from flying in too many fancy planes, waving at the waitress to bring their table another round. "We're out of here," he said, standing to go. "Ol' Macho over there sometimes wants to knife fight when he gets a few beers, and he'd probably like that ponytail for his turkey-beard collection."

At daybreak we were rattling along in Gus' pickup with its built-in dog kennels. I was explaining to P.B. about how bad the grass burrs would be-which is why Gus had taped "boots" made from old bicycle inner tubes on the dogs' paws-but we'd be immune by wearing leg-length snake chaps.

Gus put down two dogs, then drove into heavier brush, mowing over the small stuff and passing herds of javelina and deer, some long-bearded Rio Grande gobblers, and doves and meadowlarks flushing from grassy openings. A magnificent, 10-point whitetail buck sailed high over a barbed-wire fence.

One of the dogs caught a whiff of the wonderful quail scent he lives for, doubled back in midair, and locked down into a classic point. Then he broke it, circled wide, and went down again with the other dog backing in classic style.

"The birds are running for that little motte of trees yonder," Gus yelled, bailing out of the truck and trotting toward them. "When the dogs look sure, walk in fast, and be ready to shoot. They won't hold long in cover this thin."

And that was when P.B. nearly found himself in a sure-enough South Texas fistfight. But with the dogs pointing singles and Gus stepping into a totally new covey, everybody calmed down. At that point Gus began trying to help P.B. get some birds.

"That little 28-gauge double is a fine gun, if you can use it," he said. "But until you can get on these quick birds a little sooner, I'd suggest you borrow Bob's spare 12-gauge over/under with Improved Cylinder and Modified barrels and some of his fast No. 71/2 shot."

Up ahead a big lemon pointer was getting "birdy," tail flagging and putting down each step cautiously. Suddenly he leaped backward as if he'd seen a ghost.

"That's a rattlesnake!" Gus yelled, running toward the dog. "Kill it quick!"

P.B. ran forward and blasted up a plume of dust, then fired again at the writhing mass-a 6-foot diamondback rattler big enough to have struck him above the knee. Gus went over the dog inch by inch, looking for fang marks. When he saw the dog hadn't been bit he crossed himself in religious relief.

The next covey led the trailing dogs fast toward a dense thicket, and Gus took off jogging with his Lab retriever at heel, trying to circle wide around them. "They won't stop in this thin cover till they get to that thicket," he yelled. "Find an opening in there to shoot from, and I'll send the Lab in to flush 'em. They'll come up higher when the dog flushes 'em."

P.B. was busting through brush like a bull moose, trying to reach an opening. As he ducked under a low limb the covey flushed. But his ponytail snagged in the thorns and yanked him backward. Three birds swooshed past within 3 feet of his nose.

"I can't get 'em much closer than that," Gus drawled, winking at me as he passed. "Let's go to the truck and see if I don't have an old straw cowboy hat that can cover some of that backlashed hair."

P.B. looked at his cowboyish reflection in the truck window, apparently liked what he saw, and changed his attitude dramatically.

"Okay, cowboys," he whooped in a fair imitation of a Texas yell. "Yeee-haw! Let's ride."

The last of the day's 14 coveys came boiling out from the base of a lone mesquite, and even in the magic cowboy hat P.B. was still a little slow on the draw. He trimmed the top of the tree behind a couple of swerving brown butts, then waited hopefully as only limbs and bark trickled down.

Gus walked over, searching the ground.

"I don't think I got any," P.B. groaned.

"You didn't," said Gus. "I just wanted to see if you got any squirrels."

We rode back to town laughing and reliving the day's screwups. Gus made no apologies for how few coveys we'd found.

"This is a big ranch, and we might have found more on the other side," he mused, "but these are strange little quail. Sometimes they can just disappear for a few days back in brush so heavy we can't hunt it. Some years they're really scarce. When we get rains at the right time, they can get off two or three hatches and then the birds are everywhere."

That night a Texas norther blew in, and little speed demons with 20-knot gusts of cold wind in their tails turned into brown shrapnel literally exploding from the brush. P.B. was using my spare 12-gauge, which fit him far better than his own gun, and when the wind didn't blow the cowboy hat over his eyes he was dropping birds cleanly-having also learned how to whoop like a Texan while claiming some of mine.

At Christmas I got a package and a note from P.B. "Just wanted to thank you guys for teaching me so much about hunting quail, and also about myself. Can't get back this year because Gus moved back to Mexico and my company went under in the technology-stock meltdown. But I have a good job, and Gus' hat fits much better since I've cleaned up my act. Should you see Ol' Macho please give him this present."

Pinned to the note was his ponytail. agged in the thorns and yanked him backward. Three birds swooshed past within 3 feet of his nose.

"I can't get 'em much closer than that," Gus drawled, winking at me as he passed. "Let's go to the truck and see if I don't have an old straw cowboy hat that can cover some of that backlashed hair."

P.B. looked at his cowboyish reflection in the truck window, apparently liked what he saw, and changed his attitude dramatically.

"Okay, cowboys," he whooped in a fair imitation of a Texas yell. "Yeee-haw! Let's ride."

The last of the day's 14 coveys came boiling out from the base of a lone mesquite, and even in the magic cowboy hat P.B. was still a little slow on the draw. He trimmed the top of the tree behind a couple of swerving brown butts, then waited hopefully as only limbs and bark trickled down.

Gus walked over, searching the ground.

"I don't think I got any," P.B. groaned.

"You didn't," said Gus. "I just wanted to see if you got any squirrels."

We rode back to town laughing and reliving the day's screwups. Gus made no apologies for how few coveys we'd found.

"This is a big ranch, and we might have found more on the other side," he mused, "but these are strange little quail. Sometimes they can just disappear for a few days back in brush so heavy we can't hunt it. Some years they're really scarce. When we get rains at the right time, they can get off two or three hatches and then the birds are everywhere."

That night a Texas norther blew in, and little speed demons with 20-knot gusts of cold wind in their tails turned into brown shrapnel literally exploding from the brush. P.B. was using my spare 12-gauge, which fit him far better than his own gun, and when the wind didn't blow the cowboy hat over his eyes he was dropping birds cleanly-having also learned how to whoop like a Texan while claiming some of mine.

At Christmas I got a package and a note from P.B. "Just wanted to thank you guys for teaching me so much about hunting quail, and also about myself. Can't get back this year because Gus moved back to Mexico and my company went under in the technology-stock meltdown. But I have a good job, and Gus' hat fits much better since I've cleaned up my act. Should you see Ol' Macho please give him this present."

Pinned to the note was his ponytail.