The trouble with fire is that it indiscriminately consumes everything in its path. As alien cheat grass takes hold in Idaho’s high-plains, sagebrush desert, it’s great for chukars and chukar hunters, but hell on the sensitive sagebrush ecosystem. When cheat grass catches fire – which it does regularly – it burns fast and hot such that it wipes out the native sage and other plants.
As we drew near our destination in Southern Idaho, we were extremely disheartened to see the rimrock landscape marred by black, like a huge shadow covering the earth. Wild fire had consumed between 30,000 and 40,000 acres of prime chukar, Hun and quail country. Brushy draws that once held countless quail were now barren.
“Man, I wonder how long it will take to come back.” I pondered out loud.
“Years,” replied Shawn glumly, “There won’t be any birds around here. We may be wasting our time.”
On a prayer, we decided to drive over to a nearby area that we had hunted in the past, which had burned a few years prior just to check if the cover had come back enough to support birds. The sagebrush was noticeably gone, but the weeds were knee high up on the bench overlooking a canyon. Despite the new cover where we stopped, we did not have much hope for our prospects as the area where we wanted to hunt, which was across the canyon, had fallen victim to the most recent burning.
“Let’s go check out Snap Trap,” I suggested. Snap Trap was once a willow-filled creek bottom that supported quail and Huns down lower by the water and chukars up in the rimrock.
We didn’t have much expectation but we parked the truck and set off with 5 dogs at our feet, my French Brittany, Sunny Girl, Brittany, Misty, and German Shorthair, Brandy, and Shawn brought a monstrous-sized shorthair, Pepper, and Gretchen, an English Setter. My skeptical eight year old son, Tommy opted to stay in the car and play his Nintendo DS, which was fine, because we didn’t expect to be that long.
As suspected, the creek bottom was barren, except for the green shoots of grass that pierced through the blackened earth. Notwithstanding the recent destruction, the stream – which is the source of all life in this harsh environment – ran strong and clear along its rocky bottom. But willows, which are so essential to quail survival, were noticeably absent.
I hiked up the draw along the creek, crossed over, and went up into the rimrocks, but saw no sign of game birds. As I made my way down towards the creek, however, a huge covey of Huns exploded in front of me and split in two different directions. Without firing a shot, I stood in awe at how tenacious and resilient nature can be after such devastation. I followed the half of the covey that went back up-hill and we located the jumpy birds with no points or shots. Above me on the ridge, I observed Shawn looking for chukars.
“Andy, there’s a good stretch of creek bottom downstream and around the bend that didn’t burn,” Shawn hollered.
This news instantly grabbed my attention and I worked my way along the ridge and downstream to have a look for myself. Sure enough, the fire consumed everything in its path, but inexplicably stopped at an ordinary barbed-wire fence, which couldn’t have stop a raging fire. This deserved a closer look.
Indeed, down in the bottom, on the other side of the fence, the stretch of creek was as weedy, brushy, and diverse as any bird hunter could ever hope for – a quail hunter’s heaven. I thought to myself: There has to be some birds in this stuff! I carefully crossed the old fence and took no more than ten steps into the weedy tangle before a valley quail buzzed out and headed downstream. I observed quail sign everywhere.
“Shawn, get down here! There’s quail all over!” I yelled.
No sooner had I said this before my dogs and I were into a huge covey of quail and they were coming out of the thicket at regular intervals. At first, I was so excited about our discovery that I could not settle down and shoot straight. But the next hour was some of the best bird hunting I can ever recall. All the dogs pointed, some birds fell, and the dogs all made nice retrieves. In fact, the action was so good that as I searched for a single up on the rimrock ridge not far from the truck, Tommy who had been waiting patiently, ran over and wanted to know where we had been and what was taking us so long.
“Tommy, I’ve got three birds and this creek bottom is loaded with quail! Should we go and get some more?” I asked excitedly.
“Really Dad? Alright! Let’s do it!” Tommy replied.
For another hour, we hunted up and down the creek bottom with seemingly nonstop action. It was one of those afternoons hunters live for, one to store away in the memory banks for a wintery day such as today. Just as we were ready to make our way back out of the canyon to the truck, the dogs locked up on point on a thick willow. As I approached, the bird zipped out presenting a difficult quartering away shot, which I surprisingly made. However, the quail dropped down into the creek right next to a steep eight-foot embankment. On the opposite side of creek was an impenetrable wall of willows, at least twelve feet high, and the creek appeared deep down below us. I wondered if that bird was lost.
All of the dogs rushed over to the creek bank trying to solve the problem presented. Elderly Sunny Girl, however, stood only for a moment and then headed downstream to find a place where she could enter the creek. Soon she was swimming up the brushy creek in the right direction.
“Yeah, Sunny!” I cheered in support. The other dogs ran along the steep bank watching a pro do her work.
It seemed like minutes passed, but as I walked upstream hoping for Sunny’s success, I watched her emerge through the weedy cover with a soaking wet bird in her mouth. It was the single-most memorable retrieve I have seen over her long impressive career.
“Good girl, Sunny Girl!” I praised.
At that moment, I turned to Tommy and Shawn, and proclaimed, “This cover is now ‘the Miracle Half-Mile!’” Only a name like this could describe the place and the bright, autumn day. What seemed as if it would turn out to be a debacle of a hunting trip, turned out to be an unexpected, true red-letter day. And it was all because the fire had fortuitously stopped short of the fence leaving a thick stretch of some of the best quail cover I have ever hunted. I really have no idea why the fire stopped there. Maybe there’s a completely reasonable explanation like the wind changed or the rains came just in time. Then again, maybe it was just a miracle. Either way, this hunter was extremely grateful.
Author - Andrew M. Wayment (“Andy”) is an attorney by profession and an outdoorsman by passion. Andy has written for the Upland Equations Blog since 2008 and has published numerous articles on upland bird hunting in various magazines, including The Pointing Dog Journal and The Upland Almanac. Also, check out Andy’s first book, Heaven On Earth: Stories of Fly Fishing, Fun & Faith. When Andy is not at work or writing, you will probably find him wading in a river flicking a fly or in the field toting a shotgun and following his three bird dogs.