I don’t recall that I ever had a chance to fire my battered Noble single shot 12 gauge, but as my cousins knew would happen, the fleeing whitewing and mourning doves became easy marks for them and the Winchester Model 12’s that they fired from their positions high on the bank above me. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they viewed and valued me more as their bird dog than hunting companion.
And while I remember that overall experience pretty clearly, there were two specific events that have remained stronger with me ever since. The first involved an incredible stench as I wound my way in 100 degree plus temperatures through the salt cedar and clouds of mosquitoes. Then the sound of a swarm of flies and finally the bloated carcass of a black Labrador retriever that I have since reasoned most likely died from heat exhaustion while searching for a downed dove a week before on the season’s opening day.
It was a valuable lesson learned and when I got my first hunting dog – also a black lab – I was forever conscious of the threat that heat poses to our canine partners.
The second memorable event from that day came as we walked along the side of a plowed field. A fairly large brown blur burst from from a clump of tall grass in a small drainage ditch that ran down the side of the field. In the few seconds that it took me to recognize that the blur was a hen pheasant, my cousin raised his gun and dropped the bird at 30 yards. Considering that pheasant season was still two months away and hens protected, I realized then and there that my cousin – a crack shot by any standard – was an unrepentant predator.
Moments later, he was stuffing his illegally killed hen into my game bag. “You’re gonna have to carry this bird Jimmy, because if we run into a Game Warden, he’d give me a ticket if he knew I shot it. You’re gonna have to say you shot it by mistake and all he’s gonna do is take the bird and give you a warning ‘cuz you’re just a kid.”
Like all efficient predators, my cousin was as clever and calculating as he was devious and deadly.
So, those are the memories of my first bird hunt in Imperial Valley.
In the 50 years since, there have been only a few season that I missed. For one of them I was away at college and others were likely a voluntary respite from hunting as I tried to manage rather than mangle responsibilities in the early years of a career, marriage and fatherhood.
I can’t guess at how many times I have driven Highway 80 or its successor Interstate 8 through El Cajon, Alpine and Pine Valley before reaching Crestwood Summit and beginning the gradual descent through Boulevard and Jacumba before passing the Desert View Tower and falling precipitously down Mountain Springs Grade to the desert floor at Ocotillo. From there it is a short distance to the fertile fields and drainage ditches of Imperial Valley that have been my fall and winter playground for many hundreds of play days over the course of a half-century.
My last trip, and I suppose I should say my most recent rather than the ominous sounding last trip came yesterday. I normally hunt with one or two partners and/or sometimes our son Ryan, but on this trip it was just me and Gus, my three year old English springer spaniel who takes loyalty and unconditional love and devotion to its limit.
I don’t mind hunting without a human partner and became accustomed to that lack of arrangement when I was in high school. None of my friends hunted, so when they were doing “normal” things like surfing, going to dances and chasing girls, I was directing my ’59 Chevrolet Biscayne toward the fields of Imperial Valley to hunt doves and pursue an entirely different and far more elusive kind of “tail.”
In those days I didn’t have a dog or even a gullible younger cousin, so I walked the fields, kicked at bushes and threw rocks and dirt clods into the ditches with the hope that I would somehow intersect and flush a pheasant. Such events were so few that I rarely got off a shot and never actually shot a pheasant, but a few flushes in a season and most of all the knowledge that it could happen were enough to keep me going week after week and season after season.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I spent a few Thanksgivings hunting in Imperial Valley where a bologna sandwich never tasted better as a Thanksgiving meal while my grandparents, aunt and uncle gathered at our house for a turkey dinner. My mother’s side of the family was straight from life on their Iowa farm and except for the main course, Thanksgiving dinner was pretty similar to our weekly Sunday suppers together.
Yet another Thanksgiving was particularly memorable. I was 17 and working as a driver at an auto parts store where the Manager was a Kansas native and bird hunting fanatic. His name was Glenn “Bud” Black. Bud was a great guy, a generous fellow who along with his wife Annie insisted that I join them for Thanksgiving dinner. The plan was simple enough, Annie would stay home and cook dinner, while Bud, his exuberant golden retriever “Red” and morbidly obese beagle Gussie and I would head to the valley for some bird hunting.
At that time, the Department of Fish and Game would plant pheasants in various appointed fields and skirmish lines of hunters would form to surround the field and advance on the hapless birds. I suspect that as many hunters as birds were shot, though none fatally and there were always a few leftover birds that found there way to some cover and these were the birds that Bud hunted with considerable success at times. The key was Gussie who despite her rotund figure was relentless on trail, baying as she went and flushing every living creature from its refuge.
I don’t recall if anyone got a bird that day, but remember vividly that Gussie did. When we returned to their home in Paradise Hills, Annie said that dinner would be ready when the turkey had cooled a bit more, giving us 30 minutes to put away gear and get cleaned up while Annie tended so some other things. Bud and I sat down in the living room and watched the tail end of a football game neither of us cared about while waiting Annie’s call to dinner. Instead of her call, we heard a scream as she went into the kitchen.
Gussie had hopped onto a chair and then onto the table where judging by the evidence, she consumed most of the turkey along with some dressing and gravy. We found Gussie beneath the table. The already too fat beagle had exceeded even her capacity and lay on her side unable to get up. Our anger turned to laughter followed by a trip to a nearby restaurant for a meal that was far less memorable than the one Gussie had just enjoyed at our expense.
Now, the seasons have piled up rather high and with the help of bird dogs over the last 25 years or so, a modest pile of cock pheasants have been tallied as well.
There have been no roosters in my game bag in this current season though there were two missed badly last week that should have been, but instead added yet more humility with regard to my marksmanship. I honestly don’t know how you can fire two shots at each of two roosters hanging in the air like a child’s helium filled birthday balloon and fail to put a bird in the bag – but I managed to do just that.
Yesterday was no different. No birds in the bag, but no shots fired either despite Gus’ best efforts as he plowed through the ditches. The only roosters I saw were well out of range and fleeing.
The only pheasants that we saw within range were six protected hens that Gus rousted from a tall stand of Sudan grass along a ditch that remained at the edge of a cut field.
We logged a few miles with Gus fighting his way through the water, mud, arrow weed and cattails at the bottom of the ditches and me walking the ditch bank roads above him. We stopped at the house of an 84 year old farmer I’d never met before and unexpectedly sat down to a bowl of beef stew with his family before being invited to hunt his 1,000 acres of farm land. We shot a few doves and missed a lot more before hitting a few more ditches.
As the sun set, we sat on the tailgate of my truck where I celebrated the day with a cold Pacifico beer while picking the worst of the stickers from Gus’ coat and making sure that his eyes and ears were clear.
Despite the fact my game bag was nearly empty, it was simply another great day of hunting in Imperial Valley, and for that I am most thankful.