I am back on the wagon—the mule wagon, that is. It has been nearly a year since my last hunt, so I had to get reacquainted with my mules, Mike and Ike. My faithful old retriever Joy is semi-retired, but some new, young English cockers are ready to take her place next to me on the wagon. Shep and Millie worked one day, and Brody worked the next with Joy along for the ride. We were all a bit rusty.
Our quail hunting operation is a nostalgic nod to an earlier era. The hunters and guides are on horseback—not in jeeps—and my mule-drawn wagon carries dogs, supplies, and any hunters who would rather not ride horses. Not many operations around Albany do it this way anymore. It is slow-paced and has many moving parts. I commute to Tallahassee for my job.
After seven months, I was a bit apprehensive about climbing back on the wagon. I had grown accustomed to my COVID-induced isolation, keeping several facemasks in my car and facing plexiglass shields in the stores. But, I rationalized, I drive for a family and their guests not the general public. Being outdoors and somewhat isolated on my wagon seat seems safe enough for me. Hunting, like golf, is an easily distanced outdoor sport. Hunters don’t need to wear masks while shooting and we greet with gloved fist-bumps instead of stripping off the gloves to “press the flesh”.
The property where I hunt is new to quail hunting. It is ideal quail habitat—wide-open pine-savanna—and it was burned this past spring for the first time in years. The results were astonishing. I wish I could identify the wildflowers I saw. The fields were a sea of color, mostly in yellow and orange, interspersed with some blues. It was the first cool snap. The quail were flying like mad and even the best shooters were having trouble drawing a bead. I, too, had my challenges when Mike and Ike lost their patience midway through the afternoon and began acting up.
Actually, my struggles began early in the day when I needed help throwing the heavy harnesses across the head-high backs of the mules. Then, when loading them into the trailer, I forgot to let go of their bridles and got dragged inside sandwiched between two, thousand-pound mules. The only member of the hunt that did not struggle that day was our retriever Joy.
Joy is solid brown—known as “liver” color—and about fifteen years old, which is ancient for a working dog. She is covered in wart-like skin tags, has an ominous lump growing on her left side, and is nearly deaf. Joy is so good at her job that she is never clipped to the wagon, but these days when her name is called from the field, she can’t hear the call. I need to give her a pat on the head and tell her it is time to go.
Joy is always watching the action. When she sees the hunters kicking about in the underbrush looking for a downed bird, she is ready to go—unlike Brody, her three-year-old wagon-mate. Brody is a handsome, athletic, brown and white cocker and a veteran of last year’s hunt. He knows his job—or so we thought.
The first time he was called to find a bird, I unclipped him and he bounded down the steps. But when he reached the ground and turned to the front of the wagon, he froze. He appeared to be surprised at the knot of horses and mules in front of him. Or perhaps he forgot what he was supposed to do once he was on the ground. That happens to me more often than I care to admit—like when I walk into a room and wonder why I went in there.
Whatever the reason, Brody stood for a moment then turned and bounded back up on the wagon. Chris, the guide, called as I attempted to push him off, but Brody wasn’t having it. The hunters continued to look for the bird and everyone grew impatient, so Chris had to make the call.
All thoughts of an aging retriever faded from our minds as the old girl sprang from the wagon. She navigated the lanes to where the hunters waited and found the missing quail in no time. But when she brought her treasure back, she faced one final indignity. She was not spry enough to leap onto the wagon. She had to be lifted up to the steps by one of the guides so she could drop the bird in my hand and return her attention to the field. Joy was thankful, it appeared, to be back in the game. The rest of the day’s hunt was hers.
It seems fitting that Thanksgiving coincides with hunting season. Hunting has been an essential part of Thanksgiving since the Pilgrims sat down with the Wampanoags in 1621. And we know from first-hand accounts that “wild fowl” was on the menu. I wonder if that included the northern bobwhite quail.
Today, we tend to replace wild game and the bounty of the harvest with huge, pen-raised frozen turkeys and a table-full of canned vegetables. But in many parts of the country—like South Georgia—where Thanksgiving coincides with hunting season, people still include wild game and fowl on the menu. For the rural South, there is more to Thanksgiving than gorging ourselves and watching football. There is the hunt and the harvest that precedes the meal.
I wasn’t raised as a hunter. I never spent cool, fall mornings in the woods with my dad. I come late to the party. But even though I am old, I still appreciate the hunting experience as much as Joy seems to. I am grateful, on this Thanksgiving holiday, to be back in the game because even though Joy and I may need a little help from time to time, we can still get the job done.
So, prop me up on the wagon, hand me the reins, and I’ll guide the mules through the woods. And when you call me for Thanksgiving dinner, shout a little louder and give me a pat on the head. I’ll take it from there—if I can remember why I came into the room.
NOTE: Joy passed away on Monday, December 7, 2020.