Get A Leg Up Without A Dog

A gun, a field and some birds are necessary for quail hunting. A dog isn't. Here are some tips to keep you in the action without a four-legged friend. (December 2007)

A full-choked 12-gauge loaded with No. 6 shells combined with binoculars can go a long way to effective hunting without Fido.
Photo courtesy of Cal Kellogg.

I certainly get a lot of enjoyment from hunting quail. But for me, the resulting meal is as rewarding as the hunt. This being the case, I take my quail hunting pretty seriously.

Now, are you picturing me as one of those guys with a fine English setter and a high-end 20-gauge over-and-under upland bird piece?

Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I've always dreamed of having a well-trained bird dog, but I've never had the time or space to devote to keeping one. As a result, I've had to develop a hunting strategy that doesn't rely on the help of a pointer or springer.

THEN . . .

Back in my teens, I was preparing for my first quail hunt. I approached it in the same manner as a hunter who has a dog. I picked up a couple of boxes of 20-gauge shells loaded with No. 8 shot, put on the modified-choke barrel and headed out to an area where I'd spotted good numbers of quail during the deer season.

Almost as soon as I left the truck and started working my way through the oaks and brush, I spotted a couple of freshly spent shells. I took this as a good sign, figuring that if more experienced quail hunters were around, I must be in a good spot.

I'd covered about a mile when I saw a lone quail run into a patch of buckbrush about 60 yards ahead of me. Picking up the pace, I started moving in on the brush. I'd scarcely covered another 10 yards when a big covey of birds thundered into the air and flew to another clump of cover about 100 yards away.

I hightailed it over to where the quail had landed, expecting them to take off again. Instead, the birds started running downhill. I could hear them scurrying through the leaves. Determined to cut them off, I circled down the grade. Once I thought I was ahead of the birds, I started zigzagging back up the hill.

A pair jumped up and flew straight away from me. Snapping the gun to my shoulder, I focused on the rear bird and fired. At the shot, the bird dropped in an eruption of feathers.

Thinking I'd scored my first-ever quail, I trotted to the spot where the bird had gone down. Much to my surprise, there was nothing on the ground except for a few feathers! At first I was confident I could find the bird. But after 30 minutes of searching, I had to admit that it had run off.

For the rest of the day, things went pretty much the same way. Most of the birds I encountered flushed well out of range and then melted into the cover after coming to ground.

I quickly came to some conclusions about quail hunting.

First of all, birds that have been hunted seldom hold and flush close to a hunter who doesn't have a dog to box them in. Instead, they flush at the first sign of danger and take off on the run as soon as they land.

Secondly, though quail are small, they can take a lot of punishment. With a dog, finding wounded birds is easy. But without one, your chances of corralling a wounded quail are slim.

. . . AND NOW

Since then, I've been working at ways to tip the scales in my favor. Now, instead of walking through the woods as if I was on a picnic, I use more stealth and try to spot the birds before they spot me.

I've also concluded that I need a gun that packs a punch. Since many of the birds I'd jumped took to the air 30 or 40 yards away, my full-choked 12-gauge stuffed with No. 6 pheasant loads does the job much better.

These days, with years of field experience under my belt, I've perfected my approach to dogless quail hunting.

Woodsmanship, stealth and a gun with ample reach and knockdown power are the cornerstones to my strategy.

Let's talk about the gun first.

When hunting over a dog, a light-kicking 16- or 20-gauge with an open choke and shells featuring small shot are the perfect choice.

Shots will typically be short and in most cases, the dog will run down any cripples before they escape.

For the dogless hunter, shots are typically longer. It is much more important to kill the bird outright, since you won't be able to rely on a dog to corral cripples. Use a 12-gauge sporting a full choke and shells loaded with No. 6, No. 5 or even No. 4.

Using large shot for quail is a major divergence from conventional wisdom. But when you study the dynamics of dogless hunting, it makes perfect sense.

Classic quail loads lose a lot of steam once the shot moves beyond 30 yards. It's this loss of hitting power that results in a high percentage of wounded birds at ranges beyond 30 yards. When using larger shot, you are making a tradeoff. Since there are fewer individual pellets in a 1-ounce payload of shot, you'll miss more birds than you would with lighter shot. But each pellet retains more velocity downrange. The birds you hit with larger shot are more likely to go down and stay down.

When pursuing quail with a pointer, the dog does most of the hunting, and the hunter does the shooting. Without a dog, it's up to you to do the hunting before any shooting can take place. This is where woodsmanship comes into play.

Carry binoculars in the woods specifically for spotting sentry birds and feeding quail.

As I move from one high spot to another, I glass around cover that's from 100 to 300 yards away.

Quail feed primarily on grass seeds and fresh greens such as clover. This type of forage is found in open areas, yet quail don't like to stray too far from cover. You won't find quail out in an open meadow, but nor will you encounter many birds in dense woodlots. Broken woods with a mix of brush thickets, oaks, pines and grassy openings are ideal for quail, since such locations offer them the ability to feed while remaining close to the security offered by the brush.

Remember, quail are on the menu of every predator from falcons to bobcats, so for them, security is a major concern.

A covey of feeding

quail almost always has one or more sentry birds. However, once the hunter is wise to their strategy, the game can be reversed, allowing you to spot a covey long before they see you.

I carry binoculars in the woods specifically for spotting sentry birds and feeding quail. As I move from one high spot to another, I glass around cover that's from 100 to 300 yards away.

When I spot quail, I take a moment to figure out the best way to approach them. Ideally, I want to skirt around them and approach from a direction that will put me within range before the covey bolts into the brush.

The morning hours between 8 a.m. and noon offer the best hunting for the dogless, since this is the time that you'll most likely encounter feeding quail. In the afternoon hours, quail spend much of their time posted up in cover, making it very difficult for the hunter to get the drop on them before they run off.

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