Southwestern Clutch Quail Hotspots
October 04, 2010
Hardcore quail hunters should expect a tough hunt this fall. But in these parts of Arizona and New Mexico, you'll find plenty of coveys, if you don't mind working for them. (December 2007)
Dave Schafnit hunts eastern Arizona. The southeastern part of the state has gotten more rain than other parts, resulting in higher densities of scaled quail.
Photo by Ron Dungan.
Even desert quail need rain!
The desert drinks in rain and snowstorms. Each storm means that more birds will fly up when you walk the fields in the fall.
A long drought has reduced quail numbers in the Southwest, but we bird hunters are optimists. We scan the horizon and wait, even when the sky remains blue, the forecast dry. We place our trust in hardheaded dogs, our hopes on rain clouds and the sound of wings.
Pockets of birds remain in Arizona and New Mexico, and coveys are out there for those willing to look.
"Even in a bad year, quail hunting in Arizona, you can always find birds," said Kevin Barnes of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "It's just a matter of scouting and just covering a lot of country."
But it helps to focus your search on places that have had rain. Some areas that have produced in past years remained dry. This season in Arizona, look south and east.
"We're certainly going to have higher densities of quail in some places than others," Barnes said.
This year, one of the best places to find Gambel's quail will be the Tonto Basin, a broad stretch of desert near Roosevelt Lake. This is classic Gambel's quail habitat, with flats, hills, washes and thickets of scrub.
Much of this country is public land, under the jurisdiction of Tonto National Forest. From Globe to Punkin Center, there's a lot of country that should hold birds. Look for stock ponds and listen for calls, particularly early in the season. Bass anglers can fish the lake and scout for birds in the desert slopes surrounding the lake.
Another area that shows some promise is the Oracle Junction area. Counts there, though below the historical average, were double what they were last year, Barnes said. For years, the area has been a favorite of Tucson and Phoenix hunters alike.
You'll mostly find Gambel's in this area, with the occasional scaled quail -- a running bird that can be found in a variety of places, but makes its home in grasslands primarily. The region is slightly less hilly than the Tonto Basin, but that doesn't mean you'll won't have to walk uphill on occasion, particularly late in the season when birds seek higher ground.
"One of the problems with hunting that area is there's a lot of cholla," Barnes said. Cholla cactus, sometimes called jumping cactus, can get caught in a dog's coat. Removing clumps of cholla can get messy -- and painful, unless you're patient.
Another area with a lot of promise is the region southeast of Tucson, which is some of the most beautiful country in Arizona. Look for pockets of public land near Willcox, Tombstone and Sierra Vista.
The region has a mix of grassy flats, desert hills and oak-covered canyons that can hold Gambel's, scaled or Mearns' quail, providing opportunities for a mixed bag.
The southeast corner of the state received more rainfall than other areas, so there are higher densities of scaled quail than we've had in the past several years, said Barnes.
The region has a mixture of land jurisdictions, with patches of National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, state trust land and private property.
Barnes urges hunters in this part of the state to respect private property. Public lands often have cattle, so close all gates, pick up your empty shells and take out your trash. In some areas, particularly outside of Tucson, landowners have agreements with the state. They allow hunting, but that privilege can be revoked.
The mix of jurisdictions can make it tough to just show up, pile out of the truck and hunt, specifically in Mearns' quail country, where access to some areas is blocked by private land. You may have to take some time to really get to know this part of the state, but it's worth the trouble. A good set of maps is key.
Last year, Mearns' hunters did well. Mearns' hold tight for a dog on point. They have a limited range and live around oak-covered hills and valleys. Focus around Patagonia, Sonoita, Parker Canyon Lake and the Huachuca Valley or in the hills west of Interstate 17 (near the Mexican border), and you can find Mearns'.
Work up and down the hills to find the birds, Barnes said. A dog is highly recommended. As you move up and down the hills, look for scratches in the ground.
"For Mearns' quail, it's about looking for the digs," said Barnes. "Typically you can tell if that sign is fresh." He offers the following suggestions:
'¢ Concentrate on areas of standing water and stock tanks, especially when hunting scaled quail.
'¢ Cover a lot of ground. A 10- or 15-minute loop won't
roduce many birds, particularly late in the season.
'¢ For Gambel's, it helps to carry a call and use it early in the season, particularly mid- to late morning, just after the birds have stopped calling.
The longer the season progresses, the less effective this technique can be. But carry the call anyway. You never know!
'¢ When hunting Mearns', work the hillsides until you find birds. If you find them high, keep working high. If you find them low, stay low until your dogs come up empty. Then start working back up.
Across the state line in New Mexico, some rain has fallen -- though exactly what this means depends on whom you talk to. Mark Madsen, of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department's Roswell branch, said this fall should be a really good season.
"Especially the blue quail," he said. "Blue quail" is a regional term for scaled quail.
Southern New Mexico
Southern New Mexico has a mixture of short-grass prairies, sand dunes, mesquite flats, draws, arroyos and mountains. And you can find scalies in all of it. They also like to stay fairly clos
e to water. Look for scalies near the southeast New Mexico towns of Roswell, Clovis and Jal. As you push east of Roswell, you'll find BLM and state trust land.
Larry Kamees, a state biologist, said that you'll find birds all along the eastern third of the state. The problem is access. Public land gets scarcer the farther you go north.
Even in the southeast portions that offer plenty of public land, access can be tricky. Sometimes ranchers, who lease portions of this land, lock gates, said guide Gary Sanders.
Over the years, Sanders has gained access to some of these ranches by having another rancher ask for him. If he's allowed on the property, he tries to make a good impression.
"I pick up trash that's already lying there," Sanders said. "I want to make sure I'm a welcome guest."
In most cases, ranchers just want to know who is on their land.
"Do a little bit of research," said Gabe Chavez of NMGF. "We've got some good landowners out there. All they want is for people to ask permission."
Bobs In The East
In the southeast portion of the state, another species to look out for is bobwhites, particularly around Roswell and Clovis, Mathis said. You can find bobs near the Texas state line and in agricultural areas and grasslands in the Pecos River valley.
A few Gambel's also live in the Pecos River valley. Although you may find these species in the southeast region, most of the time you'll find scaled quail, too.
"Last year, it was not uncommon to find six to eight coveys a day," Madsen said.
Early in the season, work around water sources to find birds. As the season progresses, you may have to search harder. Blues will eat a variety of bugs, seeds and new growth.
"After they've been bumped a time or two," Madsen said,
you'll find them farther and farther from the nearest water source."
That means lots of walking. Blues will cover some ground, and you'll sometimes find them in the middle of nowhere. Sanders said that although most people associate scaled quail with grasslands, they will seek out the tops of bald, grassy hills.
"That's one of their favorite things to do," he said. And when he sees such a hill, he'll send a dog that way.
Other places that should produce birds are the Guadalupe and Sacramento mountains in south-central New Mexico. State trust lands are spottier in this part of the state.
On the southern portion of the Lincoln, work along the east side where state and BLM lands adjoin it for some good scaled quail action, Kamees said.
You can find Mearns' as you work up in elevation, so the south-central region presents some opportunities for mixed bags. This is beautiful country where nights can get cold.
Pat Mathis of the Las Cruces office of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department agrees that this season's outlook is better.
"It looks promising," Mathis said. "It should be better than last year, which was pretty dismal."
Work the patches of state trust land near Deming and Lordsburg for a mix of cotton-tops and Gambel's. Sanders said this region used to be scalie country primarily, so much so that Gambel's were a novelty, but now there's more of a mix.
In general, you'll find grasslands north of I-10 and desert terrain, with craggy peaks to the south.
As you work the southwest corner of the state, don't ignore the foothills of Gila National Forest near Silver City. In the lower elevations, you'll probably find Gambel's. But as you work your way up to the oak-juniper mix, you'll start to find Mearns'.
"The Gila has a good population of Mearns'," Mathis said. "The land's in fairly good shape, so I'm hoping for a good year for Mearns' quail.
Another place to look for them is the Peloncillo Mountains south of Lordsburg.
Mearns' quail are not as numerous in New Mexico as they are in Arizona, so don't expect a lot of coveys. Mathis said that you could find Mearns' without a dog by looking for scratches. Mathis walks slowly, and he listens.
The best way to hunt for Mearns', however, is with a pointer. Look for hills of nutgrass, Sanders said. Park your truck and let the dog do the rest.
"Those dogs know more about finding birds than I do. I turn 'em loose and I follow them."
Rains have been spotty, Mathis points out. So if one canyon doesn't produce birds, drive to the next.
John Moen of the Las Cruces chapter of Quail Unlimited said that the state has had some rough years in the past because of drought and over-grazing.
"It's going to be spotty, very spotty," Moen said. Late hailstorms hammered some places that did get rain, he said, and that can have disastrous consequences on young bird populations. Moen said that Quail Unlimited is trying to help Game and Fish come up with a management plan for habitat.
For years, high rainfall levels in the Southwest prompted ranchers to turn loose high numbers of cattle on the range. But when the rain stopped, the grazing did not.
Bag limits remained high. The combination of over-harvesting and poor habitat was hard on birds.
With luck, we'll see better habitat in years to come. First, we need rain.
Reducing livestock is another step. After a few years of drought, some cattlemen looked out at the bare range and decided to change their ways, Moen said.
Hunters can help as well. Conserva-tion groups and the Game and Fish departments -- which make money from the sale of licenses -- often clash on these matters: Conservationists call for reduced bag limits, while Game and Fish Departments point to statistics that show no correlation between hunting and bird numbers.
In a normal year, hunting pressure doesn't affect bird populations that much. But when was the last time anyone saw a normal year?
One thing everyone agrees on: Mix up your hunting spots.
Barnes maintains that rainfall, not hunting pressure, is what determines quail numbers. But he did say that if you keep going back to the same spot, it's possible to hunt a covey down to nothing.
New Mexico Game and Fish biologists agree. "If you find a covey and it only has five or six birds, leave it alone," Mathis said.
"Guys are going to hav
e to exercise restraint. If you find small coveys, that ought to tell you that reproduction wasn't that good."
From Phoenix to Hobbs, N.M., you will find birds. You could quit your job and go on the road for four months, and at the end of the season, there still would be ground you hadn't covered.
"There is so much public land where you can hunt quail, you can hunt all season and never go to the same spot," Barnes said. "There's a lot of state. You should go out and see it."