High Country Covey
by Robert Dodunski
Printed with permission
Published Rod & Rifle Magazine
The covey of 20 birds had disappeared into a thick, thorny tangle of typical highcountry matagrouri and clematis, favourite hiding places for quail. Mika, my older and more experienced Hungarian vizsla immediately worked her way up the open ridge to cut the wind and work the birds from an accessible position. Anja, my two year old vizsla, pushed her way into the tangle from lower down, hoping to get into the action as quickly as possible.
Leaving the dogs to organise their own blitzkrieg, Roger and I worked our way up the ridge to a good shooting position high above the dogs. Just as we arrived at our chosen vantage point, Mika steadied to a solid point on the edge of a particularly dense patch of scrub. Meanwhile the younger dog had stopped her crashing and searching inside the labyrinth of tunnels crisscrossing the inside of the tangle, and had obviously stopped on point a couple of metres in front of the position Mika was pointing. "You ready, Roger? Any minute now." The words were hardly out of my mouth before there was the familiar vibrating of frantic wings trying to extricate plump little bodies out of the confines of the bushes. Half a dozen little grey streaks of lightning finally made the launch and exploded into the air above the tangle, heading off in the direction of a rough, prominent rock outcrop. To my right Roger's little 20 gauge popped twice as I homed in on one bird streaking lower down than the main bunch. On my first shot the bird swerved leaving a few feathers hanging in the air. As the bird disappeared over the rocky promontory I squeezed the choke barrel trigger; the bird continued its glide path.
We both loaded our guns again while keeping an eye on Mika, still on point but repositioned a couple of metres from her original position. Anja was moving again and by the looks of it trying to climb on top of one of the rounded bushes. Again there was that vibrating wing beat and four more birds launched in the direction of the valley floor toward their original departure point. Two more shots in unison saw two of the birds fold onto the grassy valley floor before the survivors disappeared to safer parts. Returning our attention back to the covey hideaway, we waited for the more profitable ones and twos. Sure enough we didn't have to wait long. With the dogs snuffling and crashing into the scrub patch, interspersed with moments of quietness, it was inevitable that those birds with more steely nerve would break. Over the next ten minutes we collected another two from those who tried to make desperate breaks for freedom.
Still the dogs were persistently working a dense patch of scrub, trying to force their heads into the impenetrable mess. I worked my way down and shook the bush with no response. I threw a heavy rock onto the top - no, nothing. Finally I slung my gun and parting the scrub peered into its depths. There, returning my stare was a wide-eyed little cock bird intent on holding his ground. When he finally decided to make a break for it we let him go, obviously he had good survival genes. Calling the dogs out we worked them to retrieve the six dead birds. Four were easy retrieves accomplished in no time with the faint but steady breeze and exposed position of the dead birds leaving good air scent. The other two required some direction and encouragement of the dogs. Anja found one burrowed into heavy weed at the base of a pile of broken rock and Mika had to climb part way up a scrub to retrieve a bird hung up in branches. We inspected the six; five cocks and one hen. On spreading the wings to check the primaries we noted that they were all old birds, adding to our disturbing statistics indicating a poor breeding Spring, despite the ideal dry conditions. While Roger walked down to the valley floor and back to the Hi-Lux. I headed with the dogs to the area below the rock outcrop to check out the first bird I'd shot at. Both dogs immediately indicated game, tailing with frenzied scenting and working along a well worn sheep rut. Mika flash pointed down a shale slide before cautiously stalking down amongst the rocks, a minute later heading back with a bundle of grey feathers in her mouth to deliver another very dead bird for my game bag.
Half an hour before, my hunting companion and I had driven down the valley, calling on my home-made wood and rubber-band quail call and searching with binoculars for the telltale scratchings and droppings to determine the presence of any resident coveys. We had stopped the vehicle on a promising looking section of the valley floor to give a few calls on the quail call. Giving the familiar ‘Ch-ca-go’ call had elicited a response from a sentinel cock, overseeing the feeding group of quail. The birds were scratching around the dry edge of the river bed at the mouth of the gully we were eventually to push them into.
Stopping the vehicle we had quietly unloaded the dogs, trying to contain their excitement at the prospects of the imminent hunt while loading our shotguns.
The dogs indicated that they had scented the covey from the vehicle track and on command had stalked in to the quail, which typically exploded into the air with a roar, well ahead of the dogs. Being well out of range of the shotguns, we had let the covey go and stood and watched exactly where they went to ground. Through the binoculars, we noted that the birds hit the ground on the run and continue another twenty odd metres into a dense mass of scrub.On completion of the successful hunt we returned to the vehicle, watered and fed the dogs and while they lolled in the shade of a nearby bush, sat on the tail-gate enjoying our lunch while yarning and talking about dogs and hunting in our magnificent surroundings.
This was the second day of our four day hunt in our favourite highcountry area. By the end of the four days the dogs would be foot sore and tired after running through matagouri and over shale from daylight to dusk, but they would still be able to call on reserves of energy and enthusiasm when their noses filled with the scent of quail.The dogs had been conditioned with their feet hardened to the extreme conditions they would encounter. Given their enthusiasm for the hunt, they complained when left behind, but during the day's hunting we occasionally alternated the dogs, giving them periods of rest and ensuring they had plenty of water. A small high-energy snack given while they were resting would help the dogs maintain their blood sugar levels. Dogs too get hungry and if left too long without an energy supplement can succumb to hypoglycaemia.
Lophortix californicus the California quail, inhabits large areas of the South Island and provides top hunting over pointing dogs. The speed and unpredictability of the quail in flight tests the hunter's reflexes to the maximum, necessitating perfect gun fit and good gunning technique. To make the most of the time on the highcountry hills, the hunter needs to be very fit and used to climbing through scrub and over shale and rock.
The scenery and size of the highcountry makes it worth just being there, and to watch good dog work in these surrounds makes quail hunting the sport of kings.
Anja on point. The vizsla is becoming better known as a gundog breed in New Zealand.