A taste of the wild

Cou­ple’s shoot­ing pre­serve is a re­minder of an ear­lier era

The Dallas Morning News - - Mls Cup Preview -

SANTA ANNA, Texas — Santa Anna is flanked by a long, high, curv­ing ridge that pi­o­neers hoped would keep the north wind at bay. Leg­end has it that the ridge, known to lo­cals as San­tana Moun­tain, once served as com­mu­ni­ca­tion cen­tral for In­di­ans who burned sig­nal fires to stay in touch with dis­tant vil­lages, an early ver­sion of code talk­ers.

Gerry Stearns didn’t need an in­ter­preter to de­code the ac­tions of his le­mon Brit­tany, Freck­les. She was on point in grass so high that the dog was al­most in­vis­i­ble. My wife, Em­i­lie, walked in on the point and two bob­whites flushed from the un­der the dog’s nose, one head­ing left, the other go­ing right.

Em­i­lie con­cen­trated on the right bird and dropped him in a shower of feath­ers. Freck­les never moved a mus­cle. “She’s got more birds,” warned Stearns, as my wife reloaded her empty bar­rel. That’s when an­other quail got up and flew straight at Stearns, us­ing the guide as a shield and fly­ing away un­scathed.

Gerry and Eldena Stearns own Santa Anna Hunt­ing Area (www .sa­hainc.com), a fam­ily-run shoot­ing pre­serve. Gerry’s dad, John R. Stearns, bought the sec­tion of land on the back side of San­tana Moun­tain and opened the pre­serve in 1986 when he re­al­ized hunt­ing was be­com­ing less ac­ces­si­ble.

Gerry Stearns even­tu­ally took over ev­ery­day op­er­a­tion from his fa­ther, but he’s kept the orig­i­nal idea of fine-tun­ing a lib­er­ated bird hunt to closely sim­u­late the wild quail hunt­ing he ex­pe­ri­enced while grow­ing up around Abilene.

No Texas bird hunter wants to ad­mit this, but wild quail are slip­ping away, over­come by a num­ber of prob­lems, many of them caused by an ex­pand­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion.

It takes four el­e­ments to sim­u­late a na­tive quail hunt. The most im­por­tant is good birds. SAHA of­fers pheas­ant and chukar hunt­ing, but quail are its spe­cialty. Eldena Stearns came from a fam­ily that was once the state’s biggest game bird pro­ducer. She and her hus­band con­stantly fine-tune their hatch­ery, bird pens and feed­ing pro­gram.

Their quail flush wild ahead of the dogs, fly fast and far, duck around trees and brush to elude hunters and some­times bury up in thick grass, re­fus­ing to flush at all, a tac­tic used by wild birds.

The sec­ond el­e­ment to a suc­cess­ful shoot­ing pre­serve is habi­tat that re­sem­bles na­tive cover. Stearns has spent 20 years sculpt­ing 600 acres of bird fields for ev­ery type of hunt. There are still wild quail coveys in Cole­man County, and SAHA hunters still flush the oc­ca­sional covey.

El­e­ment three is good dogs. Both Stearnses train bird dogs. Sev­eral clients come just to work their dogs.

The fourth el­e­ment is a sense of hu­mor and fun. Peo­ple travel from the city once or twice a year to hunt these birds and, while any sport in­volv­ing a gun is se­ri­ous busi­ness, it should also be fun.

Stearns laughs at the birds that get away and he laughs at the quirks of his dogs. He laughs about ev­ery­thing. One brace of dogs was dubbed the “old men,” a 14-year-old Brit­tany named Kyle paired with an 8-year-old Ger­man short­hair. Kyle was mostly deaf and blind, but his nose worked fine.

An­other brace fea­tured an all-girls team that could have qual­i­fied as the United Na­tions team — Freck­les, the Brit­tany; Lexi, the Ger­man short­hair; and Lucy, the French Brit­tany.

It’s a lot like the quail hunts of yore with one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence: You never walk far be­tween points.

Laughs come eas­ily and of­ten for Gerry Stearns, who owns the pre­serve with his wife, Eldena.

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