CHASIN' THE WINTER BLUES
Words & Photography by EDGAR CASTILLO
When it comes to divulging information about one’s hunting locales, hunters, in general, tend to not be very forthcoming about releasing that sort of information to friends and fellow hunters, let alone strangers. So it came as a big surprise to me when I had the opportunity to politely intrude on someone’s fortune and was invited to go after one of Kansas’ scarcest and hardest game birds to hunt.
It all started when I received a sort of cryptic description of a location in the Southwestern part of Kansas to hunt the ever elusive scaled quail. Scaled quail are not common in Kansas, but can be found in small numbers in pockets of areas throughout the southwest. The most well-known place to hunt scaled quail is the Cimarron National Grasslands. Very few hunters, as well as Kansas natives, are aware that scaled quail inhabit the sunflower state. Typical upland hunters to Kansas usually target the more famous of the quail; the bobwhite. Scaled quail are also referred to as scalies, cotton-tops, or blue quail. Their description is based on the blue colouration of their plumage and their resemblance to scales.
I had a very short window to drive and find the location mentioned and hopefully get into some quail. My time-frame consisted of one day. That meant leaving the comfort and warmth of my home and setting out on the road several hours before daylight peeked over the horizon. With extra-clothes, gear, and guns packed, I headed down the highway towards a place, possibly mythical in nature, as locations of blue quail are not usually freely given, but guarded. With each passing mile, my scepticism grew like adding wood to a fire. Where was I going? Did this quail Shangri-La even exist? Who would give up such a place, especially a public access area just outside the grasslands? It was worth my time and worth the chance.
My travel lasted several hours, driving westward down lonely highways and roads with the occasional headlights that seemed more like summer fireflies dancing in the dark. My chances for a successful hunt was somewhat low, as I was going to be dog-less during this hunt. Fresh snow on the ground would better my chances, but I knew the reality of hunting blue quail. My plan was to arrive at the location and listen for quail calling in the predawn hours and look for signs such as quail tracks in the snow.
Arriving at the so-called secret destination, I quickly assembled my gear and made ready for a day of walking or at least until I found some “blues”, then it would turn into running. The high for the day would be 20 degrees. Feeling around in my vest pocket, I produced three shells and inserted them into my pump. With the pumping action, I loaded one purple round and the ever-so “thwack” sound commonly associated with pump shotguns signalled the start of my quest.
Trekking across the white landscape with no signs of any blues, I continued to press onward. I walked the rolling hills intertwined with yucca plants, plum thickets, and the occasional cactuses scattered throughout this so-called hidden gem. A location that wanted to keep its secret of scaled quail to itself. I was literally “chasin’ the blues.”
With an overcast sky and the sun fighting to get rays of warmth and light on to my location, it was starting to feel like a dull and dismal day. Hours had passed and I knew my time was fleeting like sand through an hourglass. Something needed to happen and fast. Standing on a hill, I noticed a patch of snow that appeared to be “trampled” on. Walking towards it, I immediately recognised quail tracks all over the area. A closer inspection showed the footprints to be far apart, an indication that birds were running. Not a good sign, as they may have been alerted to my presence and decided to high-tail it out of there.
No sooner did I realise this, when out of the corner of my eye, I sensed movement and saw several blues running. I knew from experience that without a dog, I would have to get these little blue devils into the air or I would end up running a marathon across the desert grasslands.
In an instant, feathered wings took to the air and a covey of birds erupted from the ground in front of me. In what seemed like slow motion, I raised my Remington shotgun to my shoulder and tracked a bird who was desperately gaining speed. Nano-seconds passed and I squeezed the trigger, only to hear and feel the blast from my 16-bore. The puff of feathers falling from the sky made it seem as though it had started to snow. I took a mental picture of where the bird had fallen and swung my shotgun to the left as another bird was clearly out of my range. I pulled the trigger again, and saw the bird tumble to the ground. A double on any bird is hard to do, a double on desert blues is downright miraculous.
I found both birds laying in the snow. Their plump little bodies coloured in hues of grey. The feathers resembled scales with specks of tan with a bluish tint. The white tuft on top of their crowns reminded me of cotton. The smell of spent gunpowder in the air permeated the area making its way along a slight breeze that carried the feathers off onto their final resting place.
With birds in my vest, it was time to head home. On the walk back to the truck I reflected on the day’s events. I could have easily have dismissed the information and rhetoric on the location of these scaled quail and spent the day chasing bobs and roosters a bit closer to home. I could have ignored the notion that someone would provide me with an opportunity to hunt a hard to find and hunt bird. The day still had plenty of hours of daylight left, but I had come for what I was after and that was enough for me.
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