Winter in Idaho feels like lock down to me. I realize the calendar says that Winter does not officially start until December 20th, but try telling that to Ol’ Man Winter. Come November, he already rules over Idaho with a frigid, iron fist. As an outdoorsman, Idaho becomes a frozen landscape during this harsh season and days suitable for fishing and hunting become few and far between. I’ve written before that me and Winter are not friends, but mere acquaintances.
Despite the icy grip that Winter holds on the uplands, hunting seasons are still open and, due to the fact that the autumn flies by so quickly, I’m not ready to hang up the hunting vest for the year just yet. My restless dogs still yearn for more days afield too. So I try to brave the elements and make a few attempts at hunting in December and January, mostly unsuccessful.
This past weekend, a friend and hunting companion, Matt Lucia, and I planned a hunt for valley quail in Western Idaho. In order to get in a day’s worth of hunting, we would have to leave Pocatello at 4:00 a.m. The news predicted the coming of a lunar eclipse starting at 5:45, so Matt and I were in perfect position to have some entertainment as we made our way across Idaho that early morning.
As we watched the show unfold, I jokingly commented: “The only thing that would make this better is if we had ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ blaring over the stereo speakers.” Matt laughingly agreed. Oh well, I guess the Avett Brothers would have to do.
The eclipse was both interesting and beautiful as we watched it slowly envelope the moon like a python engulfing whole its prey. Over the ages, different cultures, like the Mayans, have related the lunar eclipse to something large, like a jaguar, swallowing the moon. Indeed, that is what it looked like, but we could still make out the shape of the moon.
While the moon is always pretty to look at, I’m always struck by its pale, reflective light and complete lack of warmth when compared to the sun. Only the sun provides the true light and heat we need to survive. In Idaho, however, it seems that the sun’s powers are limited during Winter’s reign and its relentless cloud covering and cold. But as it rose this day, the sun seemed to promise more. Perhaps the lunar eclipse and the resulting orange-tinged moon was a good omen.
Upon arriving at our destination, a covert we call the “Trail to Quail,” the sun beamed vibrantly and the temperatures were already above freezing. Knowing the physical exertion that lay ahead, I opted to wear only a fleece vest over my long-sleeve shirt in order to not overheat, which almost never happens in December.
As we hiked down the brushy creek bottom seeing very few quail along the way, I realized this was a far cry from the Indian Summer of October, where every brush clump seemed to hold quail and the action was nonstop. The harsher season had already taken its toll on the quail populations, but it was enough just to be following the dogs, seeing the bright sun and feeling its warmth. One could almost trick oneself that it was October again. Almost. The trees were now totally devoid of any leaves and ice formed along the creek sides wherever the sun’s rays could not reach.
When we made it down to the large sagebrush flat at the bottom of the valley, the dogs became very birdy and we followed. Soon a huge covey of quail, what we call a “Chubby Covey,” flushed in unison up a steep hill to a solitary clump of trees and brush. Since this was the only show in town, we pursued. During winter, one of the main survival techniques of valley quail is to gather together in huge coveys of 50 to 100 or more birds. While the big coveys are susceptible to predation, the birds know that their strength is in numbers and the utter chaos of the unorganized flush of such a large group insures that some will survive attack to propagate the species. This is truly a sight to behold.
After hiking and huffing our way up the steep grade, I fully expected the covey to flush wild, but they held like bobwhites and we walked right into the midst of them before they started to buzz all around us like a swarm of angry hornets. I uncharacteristically took two birds with my first two shots. While Matt started off a little rocky, he soon dialed in and it was fun to watch Darby, his yellow Lab, point and retrieve numerous quail. For Matt, it was a charmed day as the birds all seemed to fly his way giving him numerous good opportunities, which he capitalized on.
We relocated part of the covey that flew straight uphill and Matt took a few of those birds, but we could not relocate the bulk of the covey that flew back down towards the creek bottom. We found and took a few more birds along the waterway, but saw nothing like the Chubby Covey of earlier that morning. One of Matt’s birds even towered straight up after being hit which is a rare sight. In all my years of hunting, I have only seen it twice.
In a brushy side draw, the dogs located and worked a lone rooster pheasant, at which lucky Matt had a shot. Surprisingly, the No. 8’s did enough damage to put the bird down and Darby, the Wonder Lab, did the rest. Like I said, Matt had one of those charmed days of which this bonus bird was a testament.
The only other covey we found ran uphill like masked bandit chukars and flushed wild. They seemed like totally different birds than the ones we had success on earlier that morning, another obvious tactic for survival. We did not begrudge them for their lack of cooperation. The day had already been far more generous to us than we could have expected. By this time in the late afternoon, we were tired and ready to make our way back up to the truck overlooking the valley.
As I have thought about this grand day on the trek home, the lunar eclipse in the morning, the bright, warm sunshine, and the successful hunt, I couldn’t help but think how rare a day like this is in the Idaho uplands in December. It was as if Ol’ Man Winter’s artic grip was swallowed up for just one day – as if we cheated him. For one final time this year, we basked in the warmth of the sun and enjoyed Nature’s bounties. Of course, Ol’ Man Winter will reclaim his own, but it was sure nice to experience an eclipse of Winter for just one day.
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.