Sometimes Tradition Skips a Generation

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A story of Indiana bobwhites, bird dogs and Papaw's shotgun

Story and photos by Emily Spolyar

I was in college the first time I heard Grandma talk about Papaw hunting quail. I’ve always said I didn’t come from a hunting background, but as it turns out, it seems it just skipped a generation. When she told me he also owned bird dogs — springers, a setter, and a pointer — my heart ached at the thought of what could have been. 

He died suddenly when I was 5, so I never got a chance to hear those hunting stories first-hand or share a field with him. That’s one thing — among many others — I’ll always wish we had the opportunity to do together. In the short time we had with each other, we shared a love of the outdoors in different ways. A schoolteacher and devoted cattleman in southern Indiana, he loved taking me out on their farm to tend to the cows. There are moments I can remember vividly, like singing “Home on the Range” at the top of our lungs while bouncing across the warm summer pasture on his old four-wheeler, the dusty but comforting scent of the barn, the excitement of seeing the new bottle calves. He helped me learn how to ride a horse, took me fishing, and encouraged my desire to spend every second I could outdoors.
 
There’s something special about every hunt, but this one felt somehow more important.
Typically, I’m not a sentimental or overly nostalgic person, especially when it comes to material goods, but I had one of his old shotguns tucked away in my safe — an old Western Field 20-gauge pump with a chunk missing from the stock. The gun is nothing special to anyone except me, and that’s OK. After learning he hunted quail, it now felt sacrilegious not taking it out after a covey rise or two.

I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps by hunting bobwhite quail, but I wasn’t sure where. It seemed too much to ask for to do so in his home state of Indiana because of the precious few quail that state holds in comparison to other areas I could access just as easily. After hearing this hunt was on my mind, a coworker who also has roots in southern Indiana said their farm held quail and graciously welcomed me to visit. They’re less than 60 miles from my grandparent’s old farm. It sounded too good to be true, but it seems sometimes things come together that reaffirm you’re on the right path in life. This was one of those times.

A moment of reflection in the field with Papaw's shotgun.
There’s something special about every hunt, but this one felt somehow more important. This was the first time in my life I felt the heartstring tug of a family connection to a hunt. It wasn’t the historically typical, right-of-passage inaugural hunt with paternal family members, but in a way, I think it was something he would be more proud of. 

On my way to the hunt, I passed an old small-town diner where I remember eating breakfast with my Papaw — after chores were done of course. In an alternate timeline, maybe we’d be there that morning, eating breakfast before hitting the fields together.
 
We ended the hunt a bit wet and completely covered in burrs, but feeling wholly content.
My coworker had sent me an OnX pin where I was to meet them. It was aptly labeled “Hoosier Quail Spot.” Nerves set in as I got out and went through the familiar motions of preparing for a hunt: lace my worn-out boots, don my vest that’s heavy with water, shells, and miscellaneous gear, collar up the dog, and finally check my shotgun and pop in a couple shells. Doing my best to ignore the lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach, I was ready.

Thanks to considerable year-round effort put forward by the landowners to maintain the highest quality habitat, we moved a handful of robust coveys. It was agreed upon that each of us would only take one quail apiece on this hunt, but one was more than enough. Each one taken was given a moment of appreciation that’s reserved for those all-too-fragile things in life. I held my first bobwhite in my hand after a snappy right-to-left crossing shot, followed by a quick search and recovery from my spaniel. We ended the hunt a bit wet and completely covered in burrs, but feeling wholly content.  

That day proved that quail in the Hoosier state, like my Papaw’s old shotgun, have not been forgotten. There are people out there working hard to show that what once was, can still be. I hope that through continued effort from landowners and organizations like Quail Forever, hunting these birds will once again become a common pastime that is treasured enough to pass onto each generation that follows. 

I know wishing for memories that could have been is a fruitless endeavor, but I sure hope my Papaw saw me there in southern Indiana, toting his old shotgun behind a pointer and a spaniel, and that he’s happy knowing he’s remembered, and this tradition — including his old beat-up gun — are being passionately carried on.
 

Emily Spolyar is the North Dakota Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Spring Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!