A taste of the wild
Couple’s shooting preserve is a reminder of an earlier era
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.