Today seems an appropriate time to offer thanks for both my and Lincoln's initiation into hunting over the past few weeks. We each crossed the threshold separately, each becoming acquainted with the act of taking prey in the company of friends. I’ll take these chronologically and detail first my own introduction, the first weekend of this month and will save the detail of Lincoln's for a subsequent post.
My first hunt was for quail as a part of Ledbury's 6th annual Hunt/Gather event at Orapax Hunting Preserve in Goochland County, Virginia, about a half hour west of Richmond. There's probably no more well-curated nor romantic introduction one could have to upland hunting in the great Commonwealth of Virginia than this now-storied event. I'll always remember the morning as my first hunt, joined by some favorite guys: my brother-in-law, Sean, a good friend from work, Justin, and about the most generous mentor one could find in all things birds and bird dogs, Chip. I can clearly recall almost second for second the entirity of time out there, hunting over Chip's awesome French Britts, Kona and Skylar: the trembling excitement of a dog on point, the shuffle through the brush to flush the quarry, the sudden flutter of bird flight, the sharp retort of a double barrel shotgun, the burst of feathers on impact, the tumble through air of the bird's fall, the smell of discharged shell powder, the release of the dog to retrieve, the retrieve to hand.
While I’m new at all this, I’m not so new as to not realize that preserve hunting is controversial. Some (often folks who live in areas of the country with plentiful wild birds) think of it as “canned bird” hunting, while others do little else. I’d certainly see the latter choice as a great shame. Why hunt if not to regularly encounter and immerse yourself fully in nature’s wildness? That said, I very much see a place for preserves, particularly in places like Virginia and particularly at the couple of great preserves within easy driving distance from Richmond.
Bob White Quail, formerly plentiful in the Commonwealth as recently as the 1980s, have been decimated in recent decades by a combination of habitat loss, rising populations of predators such as hawks and coyotes, and other factors that are perhaps less understood. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) is actively working to reverse this trend (reporting a stable population this year in the Quail Forever 2017 forecast) as are other great organizations for our Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock populations, such as local chapters of the Ruffed Grouse / American Woodcock Society. But there is yet much work to be done to restore populations of these historic game birds in Virginia, and, for the time being at least, preserves are a great option, especially for an introduction to the sport and training both dogs and new upland hunters in ways that don't further stress native species struggling to survive and flourish thanks to the many new and emerging conservation efforts devoted to their recovery. Parts of Lincoln's training will depend on the great preserves in our area, and, were it not for Chip, Lincoln's bird training at the hands of this newbie would almost certainly depend exclusively on them. It's great to know they are there, available and working hard to do their part in maintaining the historic legacy of upland bird hunting in Virginia.
After cleaning our harvest, we spent the misty autumn afternoon joined by spouses, kids, and dogs not already at the hunt. The afternoon Gather celebration is a field party with locally-sourced craft beer, cocktails, incredible food, alt-folk musicians, top-of-the-line hunting and sporting vendors and a fine collection of well-appointed people, all of it worthy of a glossy Garden and Gun or Covey Rise spread. The day was an anniversary present to me from Heather and her arrival at the Gather with Lincoln was for me the premier happening of the day. But, I'm not at all ashamed to say that I loved it all - every last moment of the day - spent in celebration and reflection with both family and new friends and dreams of future hunts with Lincoln and returning to this hunt next year with my boy on point.