The Price of Asking

painting of hunters with dog Gary Palmer
GARY PALMER/GARYPALMERILLUSTRATION.COM

The art of getting permission to hunt

The house, a ranch-style affair with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, gave the impression of belonging to someone of local importance—“local” in this instance meaning the general vicinity of Imperial, Nebraska, in the southwest corner of the state. My friend, professional gundog trainer Paul Phipps, and I had been told by someone in a position to know that landowners there still hewed to the tradition of granting permission to hunt for nothing more than the price of asking. This was the custom throughout the Midwest when Paul and I were growing up in Iowa in the 1960s–’70s, but in the 21st Century it was starting to feel as quaintly obsolescent as rotary-dial phones and Fuller Brush salesmen—other fondly remembered relics of a kinder, gentler age.

On the theory that it would improve our chances of “getting on,” we’d scheduled our hunt to fall between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. So far things had been going pretty well. Not every ask had been successful, but on the bright side we hadn’t gotten any flat-out “Nos,” the landowners who’d turned us down taking the time to explain why. One whiskery old stick who owned a piece of crazy-thick pheasant cover gave us an unqualified yes when we knocked on his door, but then a female voice that could’ve shattered glass hollered from a back room, “Tell them that if they kill any roosters, we’ll take one.”

As it happened, we killed two, one of which Paul handed off to the old guy on our way out. He seemed genuinely happy to get it.

What brought us to the house on the hill was a brushy creek bottom flanked on both sides by corn stubble—a likely-looking spot for quail and pheasants both. Easing up the lane, we saw someone we presumed to be the woman of the house fussing with Christmas decorations in the front yard. She wore a dark ranch coat in an extra-long cut but had nothing on her head, her longish chestnut hair falling attractively across her neck and shoulders. She looked to be somewhere in that indeterminate middle age, one of those vaguely regal older women who are often described as “handsome.”

Until then I’d let Paul do the talking—he’s one of those affably bearish guys people just naturally warm up to—but this time I thought a united front was in order. The woman appraised us coolly as we made our pitch; then, without missing a beat, she said, “Come back with two cases of Bud Light longnecks—one case per gun—and you can hunt my land. If I’m not here, just leave them by the door.”

That struck us as an eminently acceptable deal—a win-win, as they say—although when we got around to hunting her land (after delivering the beer as specified), it wasn’t the bonanza we’d hoped it would be. Quite the opposite, in fact, leading us to surmise that ours weren’t the first cases of Bud Light longnecks she’d collected as toll that season. We did scratch down a couple of quail on her place, but we’d have felt better about the deal if we’d had a few more opportunities to pull the trigger.

Then there was the time my former father-in-law, Gene Lankford, and I traveled to West Point, Mississippi, to hunt quail with another pro trainer friend, Walt Woodlee. Walt had a winter camp a few miles north of town—near Prairie, if you know where that is—although “camp” puts an inaccurately romantic spin on it. I’m reasonably sure that Walt’s sleeping quarters had served as a farrowing room in the not-so-distant past, which ought to give you a pretty good idea of how primitive it was. He had a woodstove and a cot at least.

He also had a litter of setter puppies on the other side of the boards that passed for a wall—one of whom, a tri-colored female named Maggie, eventually found her way into my possession. But that, as they say, is a whole ’nother story.

Walt’s landlord, who he referred to only as “Mr. Earl,” owned several thousand acres in the area and was himself, to hear Walt tell it, an old-school Southern quail hunter. As friends of Walt’s, we were welcome to hunt, and I could play the client card too. At the time Walt was working a little Crockett-bred setter derby of mine—Gabe, her name was—for whom I had field-trial pretensions, emphasis on pretensions.

Etiquette dictated, of course, that I give Mr. Earl some small gift as a token of our appreciation. After mulling it over for a while, I decided that a jug of Wild Turkey was likely to be warmly received. I mean, who ever heard of a Southern bird hunter who doesn’t enjoy a tipple of bourbon from time to time?

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans, what the road to hell is paved with and so on. We were on our way to the “big house” to make our introductions when Walt suddenly piped up. “Whatever you do,” he cautioned, “don’t offer Mr. Earl any alcohol. He’s a devout Baptist—don’t drink nor smoke. Chews a little is all.”

Having dodged that bullet, we got on fine with Mr. Earl, an irrepressible banty rooster who shot an autoloader (so much for being “old school”) and delighted in giving us hell for being Yankee carpetbaggers—although he mentioned, more than once, that the last friend of Walt’s who’d come down to hunt had given him a “crackerjack” pointer puppy. The Wild Turkey stayed with Walt, helping him make it through those cold Mississippi nights in the hog barn. Lending a cheery note to the décor too.

Because you’re probably wondering, the quail hunting wasn’t anything to write home about—certainly no better than the quail hunting Gene and I enjoyed in southern Iowa at the time. But there was the 101-proof elation of watching from the saddle of a horse as my little setter ran, slinging mud as she rimmed those brushy beanfield edges only to skid into a breathtakingly stylish point; there were the girls Gene and I danced with at a joint called the Southern Inn (read: what happens in West Point stays in West Point); there was George Jones on the radio again after a long absence singing a song dripping with heartbreak that Gene, always a fan of “The Possum,” immediately predicted would be a huge hit for him.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” it was called.

I can’t think of quail hunting in southern Iowa without thinking of Gene’s lifelong friend Donald Dale, who served as our de facto guide in that part of the world. He wasn’t much of a quail hunter, really—he didn’t have a dog, and he shot a nondescript 12-gauge pump—but he spent so much time rambling around the countryside that, at least in a general way, he knew the whereabouts of a goodly number of coveys. Just the other day, pawing through a box of photos and other memorabilia, I found a piece of mail that Donald Dale sent me in 1987. (Donald Dale is what Gene always called him, never simply “Don.”) He’d drawn a little cartoon on the envelope: a quail perched atop a weathered headstone. The headstone bore the legend, “Here he lies neath this slab of wood—just an old quail hunter who thought he was good.”

He’d written in the enclosed letter, “I thought of you on my deer stand this morning when I heard them quail coming to life . . . .”

Donald Dale didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but he was as good-natured and warm-hearted a human being as ever walked the Earth. A bandy-legged former rodeo rider, he lived with his wife, whose name I can’t recall, and their unexpectedly young daughter, Kim, in a drafty, dingy trailer parked a hoot and a holler from the Missouri line. All manner of broken-down farm machinery—a wagon frame here, a rusted-out auger there—was scattered about, and there was a corral with a sort of metal lean-to where Donald Dale kept a hungry-looking paint horse. Bloomfield was their mailing address, but they didn’t get to town much, their ability to travel limited by the condition of Donald Dale’s pickup and a chronic shortage of the funds necessary to put gas in it. 

GARY PALMER/GARYPALMERILLUSTRATION.COM

Their one extravagance, made possible by the tooled leather belts and wallets that Donald Dale occasionally crafted and sold, was to buy a hog every December. Donald Dale and his wife would scald, scrape and butcher it themselves, of course.

They lived closer to the bone than anyone I’ve ever known—any non-indigenous people, at least. Gene once asked Kim, who was maybe 10 years old then, what her favorite things to eat were. She thought about it for a second or two before answering, “Squirrel and those birds you and Tom get sometimes.”

“Quail?”

“Yes,” she nodded solemnly. “Quail . . . .”

They also ate a lot of venison, not all of it legally sourced. The local conservation officer supposedly knew the score, but because Donald Dale kept a low profile, harvested only what he needed and never took a buck bigger than a forkhorn, the CO chose to turn a blind eye. When one day while quail hunting we discovered the headless but otherwise intact body of a massive buck, Donald Dale went apoplectic with rage. Subsistence poaching was one thing; poaching a trophy rack, for which serious money undoubtedly changed hands, was quite another.

Given his lifestyle, it goes without saying that Donald Dale knew the lay of the land in that neck of the woods about as intimately as it could be known, meaning that I don’t recall us ever having to ask permission to hunt. We just turned loose the dogs—Gene’s German shorthairs, my English setters—and went.

In memory those days and that country have a kind of Wild West feel to them. But, like I said, we were almost in Missouri . . . .

Now all these years later, still grieving the loss to Covid of the beautiful soul that was country-folk musician John Prine, I think of the line, “I am an old woman,” that opens his classic “Angel from Montgomery.” And I remember another old woman—a tiny, gray-haired widow who owned a hardscrabble farm way out by itself in the Missouri River bottoms of western Iowa. We’d reliably move at least one covey of quail there, sometimes two, also several pheasants and once even a jackrabbit—to this day the only jack I’ve laid eyes on in the state of Iowa.

One time we stumbled into a covey of Huns in the corn stubble, too, and if you don’t think that surprised us . . . .

One morning, driving to a shaggy patch of cover within sight of the river, what appeared at first to be an abandoned disc rusting in the short grass resolved into a covey of quail just sort of standing there looking at us quizzically. We thought we had them dead to rights, but they had other ideas, slinking into the woods and, with the exception of a single sleeper, giving us the slip.

As good as that farm always was to us, there was something ineffably lonely about it. The first time I knocked on the door, that proud old woman wrote out her permission to hunt on a three-by-five-inch index card. The words, spelled out in blue ink, read as follows: “Mr. Davis: May have permission to hunt on our ground but there is no hunting where there are men working or live stock. Mrs. V. Erickson.”

I kept that card for many years, a touchstone of memory. But somewhere along the line it, like so much else, was lost. 

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