Robert Dale and BobWhite, Preserving The Tradition

November 1, 2012 | By More

Once upon a time in western Arkansas there weren’t many deer or ducks or turkey. Deer camp was for getting away from the wife and hanging out with your buddies. Duck hunting was jump shooting some wood ducks along the creek on grandpa’s Back Forty. Spring turkey hunting was…well, spring was for fishing. Trying to hunt the pitiful few turkeys around was like trying to catch the wind in a jar.

If you were a hunter, your game was squirrel, rabbit, and quail. The serious hunters hunted quail. Bobwhite quail were common everywhere and so popular that a hunter didn’t even need to use the word “quail” when talking about them. If you were a hunter and heard someone mention “birds”, you knew exactly what they were talking about.

Shotguns and bird dogs were discussed like compound bows and turkey calls are today. Then things started to change.

The big family farms in the countryside were chopped up into subdivisions and homes were built. The new homeowners wanted non-native grasses

for their yards and kept the yards looking like a golf course. The farmers wanted neat and tidy fencerows so they killed all the brush with herbicides. The back pasture that grew up with native grasses was now a hay pasture seeded with fescue. Other changes were happening as well.

As the human population moved from rural to urban, time became an issue when it came to outdoor pursuits. Nobody trapped furbearers anymore. The big alpha-predators had been killed out long before so now there was nothing to control the smaller mesopredators – the raccoon, skunk, and opossum. The populations of these small predators exploded

Fire ants moved up from Texas. All of these animals prey on ground-nesting bird hatchlings and eggs. It was doom for the bobwhite and today we have lost about 70 percent of the quail numbers we enjoyed just a few decades ago.

River Valley resident Robert Dale remembers those good ol’days . His dad, Charles William Dale, was a longtime quail hunter.

“Everybody called him ‘Dub.’ He was a patient man, and especially good with the dogs,” says Robert. “I used to beg to go hunting with him and he let me tag along. Of course I never carried a gun, but just to be out there with him was exciting.”

Today Robert raises bobwhite quail in a converted chicken house on property that has been in the family since Robert was five

“My dad bought the original 80 acres for $7,500 and wasn’t real sure how he was going to pay for it,” Robert says with a chuckle.

Robert, his father, and the humble little bird are intertwined. Conversation about Robert’s dad inevitably leads to the memory of a quail hunt. Likewise, the reason Robert raises quail today can be traced back to his father.

“Well, Dad had cancer. One day he told me, Robert, people don’t die because of the cancer, they starve to death. Dad had lost his appetite, he didn’t want to eat anything.”

As the bobwhite had done so many times before, it provided nourishment for both body and spirit in the Dale family

“I kept trying to think of what I could get Dad to eat and then I thought about how much he loved quail. There was a guy over by Flat Rock that had some so I went over there and bought two dozen. Dad ate them over the course of two weeks. It was the only thing he ate.”

Of course eating quail can be traced back a long way, even to the Old Testament.

“The Israelites ate quail and manna,” said Robert. “We’re not sure what manna was, but it’s written pretty plain about the quail. And, let me tell you, they are delicious.”

Covey 3 Quail Ranch, as it’s known today, was started by Robert and a couple of friends, Jim Miller and Stan Berry.

“I figured if Dad would eat quail, I’d just raise them myself. I had a couple good friends that were interested in doing it too.”

Jim and Stan were both enthusiastic quail hunters as well. This enthusiasm led to the naming of Covey Three Ranch.

“Well, whenever we called one another on the phone that’s how we identified ourselves. Jim was Covey one, Stan was Covey two, and I was Covey three.”

The ranch isn’t run for monetary gain.

“I don’t make anything here that could go toward me making a living. I have friends, people that have dogs and since wild birds are scarce, they call me when they need a few birds. They want to see their dogs work.”

Robert also has a few folks come out to the ranch and hunt.

“Sometimes people I know will come out, or they’ll ask me about bringing somebody out.”

While Robert doesn’t offer commercial hunts, he does enjoy the opportunity to introduce youngsters to the tradition and to help some experienced hunters relive the glory years.

“I had a friend bring a couple of guys out here to hunt, one of them was 85 and the other was 87. I didn’t really know what to expect. I could tell by their guns that they were old bird hunters, they had real nice guns for their time, those Belgium- made Brownings. Anyway, we start hunting and the first covey that flies up, the 87-year-old takes two shots…and two birds fall. Well, I knew it was going to be a good day and they ended up killing a bunch of birds.”

“When we were finishing up and cleaning the birds, the 87-year-old looks at me and said something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘I didn’t think I would ever get to do this again.’ That just made the whole day, that’s what it’s really all about.”

Robert’s talk rarely touches on the subject of killing quail – interestingly, it always seems to circle around to eating quail – but rather the lively banter shared by hunters, the brisk winter weather, and of course the dogs. Quail hunting is really all about the dogs.

“I took a couple of guys one time and used my dogs. I watched those guys shoot before the hunt and well, they were terrible shots. I told them that whenever the birds took off to put a lot of lead in the air and maybe a bird would run into some of it. They ended up doing okay, they killed a lot of birds and told me how much fun they had, but I told them, if you want to have a real big time, get you some bird dogs.”

Bird hunting was the catalyst for a whole class of dogs known as the sporting dogs. The pointers, retrievers, setters, and spaniels originated in England and Scotland. They were bred for a specific skill set.

Keen noses catch the scent of birds both on the ground and in the air. The dogs follow that subtle stream of scent molecules until the covey is located and then they do something odd for a predator; they stop.

The hunting instinct comes naturally from their wolf ancestors, but it has been refined. A wolf’s initial response upon sensing prey is to close the distance, lock on to the prey’s location, and then give chase. The sporting dogs stop short of giving chase and it’s called ‘pointing.’

A good point looks as if the dog is frozen and a good dog will hold until given the command to flush. This is what a bird hunter lives for; the search, the point, and the flush.

“The thrill for me is watching the dogs,” beams Robert. “I take grandpas and grandsons, that’s my favorite hunt, and I always ask the grandson what they liked the most about the hunt and so far every one of them says it’s the dogs. They’ve never seen a dog point a bird, hold that point while you’re a quarter mile away, and then go get the bird after the shot and lay it at your feet. I know the exhilaration for me is getting out there and watching the dogs.”

Volumes could, and have been written about the relationship between dogs and men. Suffice it to say Robert has strong

feelings about his dogs as well. His 14- year-old Brittany spaniel, Maggie, has retired from birddogging and now resides in the Dale home as opposed to the kennel.

Keeping the heritage of the hunt alive for younger generations is important to Robert. “One thing that’s missing with our kids today is the love of the land, the love of the hunt. It’s not the kill that’s important in hunting. Especially with bird hunting, it’s all the camaraderie when you’re walking to the covey and talking to each other. You’re always getting on to somebody about why they missed a shot or why you missed a shot, talking about other stuff and such. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Somewhere among the tall grass of a brushy fence line in Pope county, a rare covey of bobwhite quail settles in for the night. Soft calls reassure the covey members that all are accounted for as purple twilight settles over the land.

Just north of Dover a decades-long bird hunter reminisces. The smell of gunpowder, the sight of a solid point, and the voices of loved ones reassuring him of days well spent and good days still to come.

 

 

 

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