The Last Birds of the Hunt
Renowned wildlife artist Herb Booth and friends explore the fine art of walking, talking and stalking.
By Michael Berryhill
Art by Herb Booth
My shotgun is already unloaded and in its case in the truck when I barely hear Herb Booth calling from about a hundred yards away: “Birds here! Come on! We’ve got birds!” By “we” he meant his two-year-old German shorthair pointer, Shiner. How could I be so slovenly as not to follow Booth and the dog through the field instead of heading back to the truck on the dirt road?
I do have excuses. Herb, one of the state’s finest outdoor artists, had promised that we would do some walking on this hunt, and he has carried through on that one. For two and a half days we have been walking over the dusty red sands and bunch grass and prickly pear of his leases north of San Angelo, the exact location of which I have promised never to reveal. Many quail hunts are broken up with periods of rest to allow the dogs to recuperate, but on this hunt we have 10 pointers. Every hour or so, we turn out a fresh pair. The dogs haven’t been worn out, only the hunters — two good friends of Booth’s and me.
Although it feels as though my legs have been beaten with a rolling pin, and there’s a sharp pain in the tip of my pelvis and my ankle is sore where my boot rubbed the wrong way, when we get among birds, my steps quicken. We have been finding birds, but it’s been tough. Sometimes the coveys flush way ahead of us, and the blues have been running and giving the dogs fits. Nevertheless, we have found 18 coveys the first day, another 15 or 16 the second day. A cold front has blown in and the temperature is hovering at a steady 22 degrees. If we weren’t walking, we’d be about as inert as the ice in the water tank on the end of Booth’s dog trailer.
Quickly I get out the 20-gauge semi-automatic and, with numb fingers, push shells into it. As I walk towards Booth and the dog, two birds flush to my right above the earthen edge of the stock tank, and, flustered, I shoot behind one of them. There go the birds, I think. But when I turn the corner Booth is standing there with a big grin on his face, and Shiner is holding a perfect point, staring intently at the wheat-colored grass. If there are birds there, Shiner has been holding them a long time.
We have all made our share of mistakes on this hunt, dogs and hunters alike. The shot I fired at outlying birds would make many a dog pounce, but not Shiner, not this young dog that may be Booth’s great hope for the next 10 years. No, Shiner is holding, and for a change, the birds are holding, too.
Can there be any kind of hunting where more things can go wrong, and where when everything goes right, you feel such an intense sense of unity with land, birds, dogs and your hunting partners? It is possible, of course, to hunt quail alone, but it doesn’t happen very often. It is a sociable sport. You walk and talk with your friends the way golfers do as they walk on the fairway. In the days we’ve been together a kind of intimacy has built.
There’s Paul Bacon, Herb’s friend since their grade-school years in the town of La Junta, in eastern Colorado. Both men belonged to one of the great Explorer Posts in America, Post 2230, home of the nationally known Koshare Indian Dancers. Its founder, James Francis “Buck” Burshears, devoted his life to the troop, from the 1930s until his death, in 1987. The troop does everything else that Boy Scout troops do, but its national distinction is to host the dancers, an elite group within the post that tours the country doing performances in native dance outfits. In 1960, Booth was head chief of the dancers, a position available only to a boy who had reached the highest rank in Scouting — Eagle.
Scouting, of course, has long been an activity that leads boys into the outdoors, but there was another element to it that was formative for Booth. As Burshears took the Koshare Dancers on tours to Washington and New York City and Santa Fe, he took them to museums and the studios of artists. Booth was disposed to art anyway, Paul Bacon recalls. But actually meeting artists who were making a living helped Booth on his way.
As one of the most respected hunting and wildlife artists in Texas, and in the nation, for that matter, Herb covers the territory from his studio in Rockport. He has been named artist of the year three times by Texas Ducks Unlimited and once by the National Wild Turkey Federation. He has a masterful way with watercolor, and because he is an avid hunter himself, he always catches the mystery of the hunt, all the little details that might go unnoticed by the casual observer.
Our other hunting partner, Bill Simon, is a pediatrician from Enid, Oklahoma, site of the Grand National Quail Hunt. Simon first came across Booth when he saw one of his paintings of a quail hunt. It wasn’t the standard subject of the men in the field, guns raised as birds thunder out of the brush. This was a scene of a man watering his dog at a South Texas stock tank. That was all it took to persuade Simon that Booth has real feeling for the hunt, which is full of quiet moments as well as the dramatic. Simon is a dog man, and he has brought five down in his dog trailer.
When Bacon and Booth were boys, about the only wing shooting they did was of doves. And although Booth does all sorts of hunting and fishing, quail hunting has become his greatest love. He and his grown son raise German shorthaired pointers, an expensive and time-consuming hobby, and a necessary one if you are serious about quail.
Like raising pointers, quail hunting can be expensive and time-consuming, too. It is not an activity for the uncommitted. But Herb Booth has that commitment. It’s about far more than shooting a bird and roasting it slowly with herbs. This is a tribal activity, with Booth as its foremost artistic exponent in Texas.
We came back to a little rented farmhouse exhausted each night from trying to keep up with Booth’s long-legged gait. If he was tired at all, he never admitted it. We were an older bunch of guys, all in our late 50s except Bill Simon, whose steady walk and sure shot makes it hard to believe that he’s past 70.
Companionship is one of the great elements of hunting, maybe the most underrated element. I can recall no worse day in the field than one spent with a sour acquaintance who couldn’t settle down to the ritual at hand. But these are good guys. I look at Herb and Paul, friends for something like 50 years. They have gone through losses and triumphs and they are still here together. In conditions of such intimacy, little needs to be said. At breakfast Bacon reminisced with me about what an obsessive artist Herb was, even in grade school. I was sitting at the table cutting a banana and absentmindedly dropping the slices into my cereal. Booth was doing the same, and when he stopped, for some reason we all looked at his bowl. My bowl was a random mess. Herb’s bowl contained a perfect symmetrical composition. Booth just couldn’t help himself. He’s an artist to the bone.
And so we passed three days and got to know each other and came back with birds and, most of all, memories. Hunting still exists, I think, so we can tell stories about it, in words or in pictures.
I walk toward Shiner, who is staring as intently at the grass as a cop stares at a suspect, knowing he is guilty. This is the finest bit of dog work we’ve seen. I know I shouldn’t be looking at the grass where the dog is staring. The birds are so well buried I won’t be able to see them. I should look out away from the point, and get ready. No time to load another shell. Besides, I’ve still got two shots in the gun, all I can reasonably expect to shoot on a covey rise. In ten minutes I’ll be driving out of here to go home. These are the last birds of the hunt.
As I walk towards Booth, the scene could be straight out of one of his paintings. Under a cold, gray sky with red rim rock in the background, a tall lanky hunter with a short, white beard watches in admiration as his pointer steadily holds birds in the tawny grass. A plume of breath floats in the air. It is one of those moments frozen in time: that moment before the birds flush.