Snake Bit in Mearns Country, Arizona
After a 30 hour drive von “Makoshika” (Lakota word for “where the land breaks”), which had the coldest actual temperature on earth on January 1st, 2018 (-45 degrees F, Hettinger, North Dakota), three of us and seven dogs were welcomed to Arizona by blue skies and temperatures in the upper 60’s and lower 70’s. There were delightful views of rolling foothills segregated by brushy canyons leading up to the higher reaches of the snow-swept Santa Rita Mountain Range. For the next 5 days, the mountain peaks served as the scenic backdrop of our base camp southeast of Tucson, about 25 miles from the international border with Mexico. I was continually awestruck by the natural beauty of it all, and could not imagine a more picturesque bird camp.
We headed into the first canyon with great enthusiasm and in anticipation of perfect covey rise after perfect covey rise until 8 birds occupied the bag and we were posing for the next romantic cover shot of Covey Rise Magazine. The quarry was the world-renowned wild Mearns Quail in country still relatively untouched by man. Make no mistake about it, what seemed like a friendly landscape for a gentlemen’s upland hunt was anything but! Our perception of gradual grades covered with forgiving knee-high grasses and bottoms with harmless scrub oak, mountain juniper trees, and lovely babbling brooks fed by refreshing mountain snowmelt soon turned into a sobering reality. It felt like every species of vegetation constantly assaulted us as we traversed the landscape. To call these plants offensive and rude would be putting it mildly. I was humbled within the first 100 yards of hunting; loose rock of various diameters laid underneath groves of Cats’ Claw and covered the slopes which were much steeper than they appeared moments earlier from the perspective of a comfortable modern-day pickup truck. The loose rock often rolled under foot as if walking through a group of spilled marbles. All the while I was pondering the habits of the Green Mojave Rattlesnake (the most venomous rattlesnake in North America), the Javelina (who can disembowel a dog with one swift hook of their cutters), Coatimundi (who are apparently quite aggressive and are equipped with razor-sharp claws resembling those of Edward Scissorhands), and the dangerous smugglers and drug mules traveling the same canyons and mountain ranges with little reason to not subdue anyone who threatened their mission (we witnessed many articles of paraphernalia related to these activities).
I prefer dogs that are fast, point hard, and push the limits of their range while field searching. Dogs that range 250 yards in the prairies of the Midwest morphed into 50-70 yard dogs in the desert canyons where Mearns are found! My old dog who produces birds over point with ease in North Dakota by searching 100 yards out was now licking boots and nearly worthless. It was apparent that tough, athletic, powerful, nose-driven dogs were more necessary than ever, and my pledge as a young breeder to develop them was totally renewed! With each step, dust rose; this was without question one of the best places to test a dog who is hailed as having a “long nose” and “big run.” The vegetation and footing are so unforgiving, even the toughest dog would have been disgraced. Impressive test scores were the furthest thing from my mind as I watched great dogs working far from their full potential! With little to no air movement, trying to sift through the wind for a broad scent cone was now a worthless technique. We were looking for needles in a dry, thorny, rocky, steep, hot, dangerous, yet beautiful haystack! On a typical upland hunt, my dogs naturally find water to refresh themselves with little to no direction from me. The lovely bottoms referenced earlier were bone-dry creek beds washed and shaped by the seasonal monsoons which departed months ago. All the while, I was pondering the resilience of the first explorers, cowboys, silver and gold prospectors, Native Americans, and illegal immigrants who lived or traveled through this landscape; the likes of Geronimo, Cochise, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday.
At the end of each day, our party compared field notes including number of points, number of covey rises, number of birds in each covey, number of birds in the bag, number of shots fired, and how many times we tripped and fell down to the ground! During the first couple days, I know my spills and empty hulls outnumbered the birds in my bag 20 to 1.
On the last day of four, Kyle’s 1.5 year old DD, Odile vom Rainmaker and my 3 year old DD, Cedar vom Brandherd had these “Fools Quail” dialed in, and we were having a ball. Cedar contacted the third covey of the morning, and according to the Garmin Alpha, she was standing about 240 yards down the canyon. I hustled into a position for a shot and found her pointing at the base of a thick oak tree; the covey rose and quickly split. I locked on one bird and instinctively shot and folded it with the right barrel as it fled hard to the left. For a split second I was filled with a sense of accomplishment, only to have to remind myself to swing back to the remainder of the covey which broke right. The swing felt genuine and face weld on the 28 gauge was solid, but the shot from the left barrel only wing-tipped the bird. Cedar made the retrieve on the first bird which was a male with stunning plumage. I took little time to admire it as there was still conservation work to be done. I set her at heel and commanded her to blindly fetch the wing-tipped quail that had settled on the north slope of a draw which was covered in woody vegetation and drained into the canyon where I stood. Again, scenting conditions were poor at best and it was warm and still. She was mouth-breathing heavily, but if any dog could do this work, it was her. If any breed could do this work, it was the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar! The very reason we own these dogs is to conserve game, and this was a wonderful example of that very thing. I was not wrong; she disappeared into the brush and returned moments later to deliver the second bird which was a female with plumage much less gaudy than the male’s. I beamed with pride and for a moment felt a sense of resolution. The 3000+ miles on the highway, and the 30 plus miles of stumbling over rocks and dodging wicked black-hearted pokey plants suddenly did not matter because we closed the loop that is conservation: the appreciation of life, the celebration of death, and the thoughtful and responsible use of God-given renewable resources.
As we headed out of the canyon towards the pickup, we continued to work each draw that contained some oaks, as they seemed to be the favored cover for the Mearns Quail. In the very last draw before heading across a flat towards the truck about a mile away, my oldest dog suddenly produced a sharp yip as she worked the thick grass on the north slope beneath an Oak. She immediately began trotting her way back to me from about 35 yards away and simultaneously, the nauseating, unmistakable, warning tone of a snake began to rattle. I knew without a doubt what had just happened, and my heart sank deep into my chest. The previous momentous high created by a big cast, beautiful point, clean flush, swinging shots from a sub gauge SxS in opposing directions, and two clean retrieves to hand that morning had vanished. I called the dogs away from the general area as I did not want to add more complexity to the situation. Judging by the intense, constant rattle, the snake was in no mood for more company. Within 5 minutes of the strike, my old girl had fallen to the ground on a gradual open slope and became virtually unresponsive. Blood dripped steadily from the deep punctures in her forearm and joined my tears to form a small damp area in the fine, dry dust of the desert. Between sobs, I chuckled to myself vindictively, thinking this could be the only moisture in the ground within 10 miles of this God-forsaken desert canyon! I rode a roller coaster of emotion and finally gained enough sense to surrender and ask God to carry out his will. I sent the other two dogs with my hunting partner Kyle Jochman (a newer member of the VDD-GNA), and asked him to start digging a grave once he got back to the pick-up. I wanted to spend some time alone with her saying last goodbyes and praying for unlimited bird populations in the fields of heaven with no risk of getting poked by cactus or struck by venomous snakes. Her breathing became shallow, and I expected her to pass soon. She appeared to be relatively comfortable; I did not want to risk putting her in distress during the last moments of life by carrying her through the rest of the canyon to the truck. We just sat waiting on that slope with beautiful views all around us. Among the tears and pain, I developed a sense of closure knowing she was going to go out doing what she loved, in a place that was wild and worthy of such a loyal and affectionate soul. There were a few moments I contemplated finding and killing the snake, but then I reverted to a Christian notion that revenge never solves a problem or sets things equal. After all, killing one snake would not have the slightest effect on the population, and would therefore be in vain. I firmly believe that positive karma resulted from that decision, because after about an hour of laying with her, she lifted her head and showed increased signs of life. I radioed ahead to stop with the grave digging, declared she was improving and I was going to haul her out!
After getting to the truck and driving about 6 miles out of the backcountry, we fatefully stumbled into a rural vet clinic at the trailhead called Desert Mountain Animal Hospital. Long story short, Dr. J.A. Phelps diagnosed her as being struck by a Mojave, and he treated her accordingly. She is laying at my feet as I type this narrative and ponder Kyle’s wasted efforts to get through some of the hardest soil west of the Mississippi with a small survival spade. I am guessing he has remnants of blisters on his hands and his muscles are still sore. The old girl saw the shallow grave lined with stones as I walked passed it to load her into the back seat of my pick-up, and now I can’t help but wonder if it gave her the mental fortitude to live another day!
Do not let the liberal bag limits posted by the Arizona Game and Fish Department mislead you, as it is not an indication of the degree of ease of the pursuit, but rather most likely part of a simple management goal. I have spent time in some brutal conditions of Hell’s Canyon and the Owyhee Mountains of Idaho pursuing chukar partridge, but after chasing the quail of Arizona, I can say with little hesitation that the Arizona environment is far more inhospitable to both dog and wingshooter. In fact, I am willing to go as far as to say that the harshness factor I encountered pursuing Arizona quail may be second to none.
At this point, you maybe mumbling something about never wanting to go through this much adversity for such a small and seemingly insignificant bird, especially when compared to the iconic adult ring-necked pheasant busting from a clump of tumbleweed while producing deep and intimidating cackles. Rewards earned are always most appreciated, and appreciation is a virtue that brings true internal peace.
I have some acquaintances who have gotten lost, become confused, and/or fallen victim to the self-serving trophy hunting craze which is promoted by countless outdoor TV series and social media accounts. Some of those people feel a sense of failure when the bag limit is not met; I am not one of those people. I have said it before and I will say it again, the experience IS the trophy, not the animal, parts of the animal, or number of birds in the bag. Certainly, this Southwest Expedition was a TROPHY!
Credits: A debt of gratitude is owed to Kit Critchlow of Queens Creek, AZ. He is a fellow hunting dog enthusiast, an expert quail hunter, a gentleman, and a scholar. He donated this hunt to help raise funds for the Midwest North Chapter of the VDD-GNA. He served as our guide and hospitality specialist for the week and did a fantastic job.
Also, big thanks goes out to Dr. J.A. Phelps at Desert Mountain Animal Hospital as he and his vet technician saved my dog’s life with excellent veterinary medicine after their normal hours of business. He is a just and righteous fellow American (and former pro bull rider with some great stories)!