For the past thirty five years, my hunting has centered on flying quail with the Cooper's. Generally the female has been my favorite because she is usually more predictable. Strangely enough I have never been able to catch many quail in any one season with this accipiter. Often I take about forty five birds before something or another cuts the season short. Usually it has been the result of some form of stupidity so you can readily see that it has never been my fault that I failed to make a good score.
As the 1995-96 season approached, I had just enjoyed my 65th birthday and like two-thirds of those in the geriatrics league, I was still in good health. Afterall, I drink carefully aged single malt Scotch and smoke only large, hand rolled, maduro (the black ones) cigars. And yet with all this meticulous health care, a few parts don't work quite like they used to. As a result, I decided to put four good legs under me, and it was a complete surprise to read about saddle mules. I had heard since childhood that they were incredibly stubborn, dull-witted, dangerous, strong, and surefooted. Imagine my surprise to read in the magazine, Mules and More, that they were sensitive, smart, affectionate, and the transportation of choice of the southern coon and hog hunter. The southern mule skinner trains his equine to jump fences dismounted using a flat footed leap called the "coon jump." The record is held by a US army mule that jumped over seven feet. These southern hunting mules are generally small, athletic, and less costly. Mules are, of course, slower to learn and more difficult to train than the horse. The expression goes that "it takes ten years...to make a good mule." Although the mule, treated properly, will bond to you with dog-like affection, the mistreated mule may very well wait his turn and retaliate with bone crushing results.
CONDITIONING TO THE HAWK
Towards the end of the 1994-95 season, I conditioned my first mule to the passage Cooper's in about five days. Vertical jumping accomplished this rather easily for the hawk while offering apple slices to the mule. We took a quail on the first hunt and everything was looking good! Perhaps this would be that long awaited season when I could make a complete pig of myself and catch bundles of "the enemy."
THE FOUR FACTORS
Hawking quail in our desert is centered around four factors: 1) timely winter rainfall to assure a good quail crop, 2) a good hawking area, 3) a dog of reasonable merit, and 4) a hawk of average skill. The rains had been good this year, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department was cautiously predicting a superior quail crop. Our hawking area covers many square miles with a combination of dense to quite open desert. Birds are scattered thinly, but hunting is great. My pointer is well seasoned if exceptionally timid. A raised voice directed toward her will spoil the day or the whistling and commands of the average dog owner will cause her to cower at my feet. So a visiting hawker with a dog will usually shut her down. I don't claim that this bitch is field trial material, but it is a bit unnerving to see her pick up commands so quickly. She hunts, for the most part, without direction from me. I'm not one of the flying saucer types and don't talk to the spirits - at least they don't answer without generous application of the single malt, but I could swear that this dog does some things in hunting that I have not taught her.
This passage Cooper's, ready for her fourth season in 1995, has a turn of speed and usually stays within four feet of quail on close slips. After three years of concentrating on quail, she is a master at catching birds that have been reflushed. She is not a superior hawk by any means, but she is tame as an imprint, cooperative, and consistently takes quail slips that are beyond human vision. I believe that a visitor's question implies the tameness of this bird. Robert Berry, who has loved Cooper's since having one as a boy, went hawking with us this season. Upon seeing this bird in the field for a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, "Now let me get this straight, I thought you said that this is a passage bird?"
So here we are in September of 1995 just ten days short of a promising quail season, hard pinned and ready to reclaim. She, like all my hawks, is free lofted in the mew with a fifty foot flight pen, jumped to the fist for part of every meal, weighed daily, and kept just a few grams above top flight weight for the entire moult (see Pat Redig, April 1996 Hawk Chalk). Imagine my shock that day in discovering a long gash down the left tarsus. The leg and foot swollen and weeping. So swollen that the scales were separating on the other side of the leg. The federal band was restricting circulation so I trimmed it off and reported it to the Game and Fish. I thought that the leg was lost...
The vet, Dr. Huddelson of Tucson, all but laughed at my alarm, and the x-ray supported her opinion. Just a cut. As I walked out of the office, her words sound-ed like a life sentence, "Harry, don't even think of putting a jess on that leg for a long, long time!" So with that my decades long ambition of having one gluttonous quail season were "out the window." And anyway, I was so thankful to learn that my little hawk would not loose her leg that numbers were suddenly meaningless.
Meanwhile back at the farm about a month and a half later, she was conditioned to the new mule, it was far from fun reclaiming her after the moult without jesses, and he, the big ninny, had overcome his fear of the 15 ounce (425 gram) raptor. She had by this time discovered that mule transportation kept her in contact with the dog, but more importantly offered a high vantage point in our open desert where in places there are no perches for an accipiter. It may sound like a typical Texas claim, but this bird will often sit the fist for over two miles as we ride. This Cooper's and my falcon both view the equine as an herbivore rather than a predator. There is no reaction on a kill like there is toward a dog.
My brother, Jay, and I had learned to ride as small children. If no adults were around, we would ride the five gaited and quarter horse without tack. We were past masters at falling off, sliding off, and jumping on from any angle. I learned little about riding, but respected and loved the power of that small, quarter horse. After riding my little hunting mule a few months, my balance returned almost to childhood level, and I was perfectly at home. He bonded to me gradually and could be ridden through hell and half of Georgia. To my surprise, hunting from a mule was pure pleasure. The hawk sat the fist for long periods, there was little concern with cactus, rocks, and washes. The mule tended to follow the dog so hawk and I sat back, relaxed, and watched the dog work. This high energy mule learned that he could run after a slip so he too was eagerly watching. As the hawk disappeared across the desert, I had only to say, "OK Jody let's go!" He would take off across the desert or up into the foothills at break-neck speed leaping over holes, cracks, and narrow arroyos. At a walk he picked his way along with extreme care, but at a fast trot he concentrated on maintaining speed and would plow ahead shredding tack and jeans. Only loose surface rocks would cause him to slow to a walk, and he would drop out of any gait if the dog moved in on the trail. He is dangerous to strange dogs, but quite careful to avoid stepping on our pointer.
Throughout the season, I was adjusting tactics and trying different equipment. The local saddlemaker and I designed a scabbard to hold the flushing stick. Jody quickly shredded heavy duty nylon saddlebags in the bush, and I found leather ones bullet-proof. After extended experimentation and a near wreck on the highway with a runaway, I rejected all ground tying. A simple catch on the lead rope made it possible to tie him to most anything in a second or two. Jeans were ripped on many easy rides and running afoot in nylon chaps was difficult. I'm now trying reinforced hunting bree-ches from Cabela's. I've experimented with a saddle or two and will likely purchase a cor-dova western style (22 pounds) next. Because of our rough country, I all but hate towing a horse trailer. The local ranchers and hunters in the south use pick-up trucks to carry mules. The body of a horse trailer or high sides and a nose cone are welded together as a unit. I use a 4X4 half ton pick-up with a loading ramp. This rig with boxes for equipment is perfect for trips even to rough areas.
Because this mule is a reluctant fence jumper when flights go over a fence, I usually dismount and start running. He will jump them, but he likes to "think it over" and moves back and forth several times before the leap.
VALUE OF THE EQUINE
The pleasure of hawking from a horse or mule is difficult to describe. Clearly the austringer can see more of the flight and more of the game. He can sit back, relax, and watch the dog work. For the infirm, this high perch might take on a different perspective. Obviously flying the longwing in open country would exploit the equine. Nick Fox in the UK flying rook and crow is an example (see his new book). The mule has some utility beyond the pleasure aspect of an easy ride and the improved view. Normally I start hunting about a mile from the road because gun hunters often turn back at that point. The equine will deliver a hooded hawk to this theoretical starting point in no time. It will also return to the truck quickly in the fleeting minutes of light if a second hawk is to be flown. Some of the warm blooded and cool blooded horses, like the mule, are easy keepers requiring little attention, i.e. the mountain saddle horse (ask me next year about Beth's new gaited filly). Whatever the chosen equine, feeding twice per day and possibly shoeing in some areas requires a certain devotion. The person who can run or walk for miles may find a mount of little value. And yet, hawking the more open public lands of the western US could offer the horseman extended mobility.
TWO-THIRDS OF THE SEASON
Tim Riordan called from Tucson to check with my season and tell about his Peregrine x Shaheen tiercel. I have seen his tiercel, now in its third year, flying like a past-master, clocking dove and quail. After his call, I counted the number of quail the Cooper's had taken and was suddenly back into the trophy hunter mode. With one kill hunts, the numbers began to mount, and we were seeing some fabulous flights.
December 18, 1995 I drove to the foothills about twelve minutes from home. Here quail can always be found; it is steep, rocky, bushy, and a suit of armor is the attire of choice. Hills and ravines are found in profusion. Shot shells are seldom seen here because of the terrain. Now and again, I ride into canyons too steep for reasonable safety and have to climb out on foot. I usually work this area in a particular pattern. First we check the hills on the western border, next the large flat area, and then the steep gorge that contains the only year round seep that I know in this vast area. We had just entered the flat terrain when a covey moved up toward the steep back drop of the mountains. I steered Jody into them and watched the dog as she picked up the scent. The Cooper's sat the fist head up ready to blast off. These were gambel's, but they were acting like scalies, refusing to lift off. They kept flitting from bush to bush. I turned Jody around and worked back down to check the dog locked in that granite-like stance. I paused to view the valley below and marvel at the sight of washes, hills, desert, and distant mountains that fell steeply away to the north. Just as I nudged Jody forward again, the quail broke from about fifty feet away, and the hawk pushed off hard to speed across the flat and turn sharply at the main wash. The strong tailwind carried them on and on down the wash. I followed both in the glasses for some distance when the hawk pulled straight up to watch the quail as it put in. Instead of the usual rather shallow stall out, the strong tailwind and momentum of downhill flight carried her high into the air for the most extended toss up I can recall with an accipiter. At the top of this towering assent, she spread wings and tail to parachute back down. Once again the beauty of the valley gripped me as she floated so softly back down to the wash. The ride to the site over the rocks and through the brush was long and tedious. The quail was well rested by the time that we had a reflush and it was another long flight down the wash. We moved it about several times before she took this powerful bird in a tangle of bush and boulders where others of this covey have sought refuge from this hawk.
January 12, 1996. This is my favorite area, twenty minutes from home. An open grassland with gently rolling hills and some sparse cover in the washes. There are four arroyos running down to the south. At the upper end is a new cross fence with a smooth strand of wire on the bottom for the antelope. It isn't mere decoration. There is a herd of antelope here that may appear suddenly at top speed roaring across this open expanse only a few feet away in a ragged single line. The dust boils as your heart races, and you find yourself counting 42 - 43 - 44 Usually you can spot the buck. The Game and Fish specialist tells me that there are about 200 animals in this area. But of equal interest to me are the scalies at the upper end around the fence and the scattering of gambel's about one mile to the south where the washes are flat and covered with light vegetation. After checking the washes along the fence, the dog started acting birdy and drew us south down one of the washes. She found no birds, but kept up her pretentious racing about and stopping to point frequently. Through all of this ride, the hawk sat the fist faithfully. Far down the wash, a single gambel's kicked up at Jody's feet, and the hawk sprinted off the glove in one hell of a hurry. She locked in on this bird not 20 inches behind and to my amazement was unable to make up that 20 inches and flew right out of sight just above the sparse cover. The magic radio led us to her on top of a pack rat den. As I moved in with the dog, she flitted to the top of a tall soap tree yucca flower stalk just above. The den was in a rather large low growing mesquite and as I squeezed in, the dog came barreling out right into my gut, full force. Bowled over and gasping for air, I struggled to extract my backside from the thorns and limbs. It was hard, but I bit my tongue and only grumbled at the dog for fear of her timid nature. She has me under control. The hawk sat on the stalk showing no interest in the idiot dog, and I had neither seen nor heard the quail as the dog blundered into me. I kept glancing at the hawk as I poked about for the quail and struggled with the thought of recalling the dog. Obviously this thing had gone to pot and nothing made sense. The dog was digging in the next bush over, and I was trying to look for the quail while constantly checking on hawk and dog. At this point, I was sure of only one thing the hawk, from its vantage point, would spot the quail if it moved this of course was all wrong and next time I glanced at the dog, she had the quail and so ended the hunt.
In deference to those who don't like to reveal numbers of kills, I won't tell how many quail we caught. However, I will say that this passage more than doubled my old record with the Cooper's. In closing, I want to say that the mule has not only been a pleasure to ride, but a big help in the hunt. Thank you Jody!
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