Quail: Scout Before You Burn Up Boot Leather
July 31, 2017
Floods and snows last winter changed quail habits. Now, more than ever, you need to get out there and scout.
By Scott Haugen
Locked on point, my two-year-old Pudelpointer found what we were looking for. As I edged closer, she held tight. When the covey erupted and split, I swung on the birds headed over the shallow river. Somehow I managed a triple, and just like that, the season was off to a grand start.
A week later we were chasing mountain quail, and continued hunting various species over the next four months. No matter where your quail-hunting adventures lead, here are points to consider to help improve success. They sure helped me.
From the moment they hatch, predators of the sky and the ground are after them. For this reason, quail are on constant alert.
While Gambel's quail and Mearns' quail hunker down at the first sign of danger, mountain quail and valley quail prefer running for cover. Mearns' quail, also referred to as Montezuma quail and Harlequin quail, often jump 5-6 feet straight into the air when flushing. Valley quail, often called California quail, routinely gather in a tight flock, then abruptly flush to the nearest thicket, often times not giving hunters a clear shot.
Rooting out quail from big, dense thickets can be nearly impossible, even with a dog. It's so important to locate a covey before it initially flushes. Knowing the behavior of the species you're hunting, and being familiar with how they flush, is key to getting a shot.
When you do find a covey of quail and get off only one volley of shots before they disappear, mark where you found them. Quail routinely return to the same area. Check those spots the next time you're out hunting, even it's only a few days later.
If the habitat remains favorable, the birds escape predators and the seasonal conditions are ideal, coveys can be found in the same place, year after year, for decades.
1 Hunter, 2 Dogs
IF YOU'VE GOT TWO DOGS, one should be a flusher that moves about in the thick cover where quail hold. Have each dog work each side of the cover: quail will run, then hold, and locating them with one dog can be a challenge if the habitat has thorns or cacti.
Scouting For Quail
This season could be the most important for scouting in decades. Heavy snow, ice, freezing rain and intense flooding, plagued states from the Canada border to Mexico. No matter what subspecies of quail you're after, start scouting — now — to learn how populations may have been impacted.
In parts of the desert Southwest, flooding may have changed riverbed habitat that could take years to recover. From the Rockies to the Cascades, several feet of snow took a toll on some quail populations. In places along the valley floors and Coast Range, California quail and mountain quail were hit hard by wet, heavy snows and freezing rain. They may have changed their habits and ranges.
Hitting the road for a late summer scouting mission can also pay off. This is when quail are highly active and visible. Using binoculars, even spotting scopes, and posting up from a distance (to avoid disturbing coveys) will allow you to cover a lot of ground with your eyes. Where you find valley, Gambel's and Mearns' quail in late summer, you'll likely find them nearby come early fall. As fall progresses and seeds and fruits ripen, quail may gravitate to those food sources.
How you hunt quail depends on what subspecies you're after, how many hunters are in your party, how many good dogs you have and what the habitat is like. Last season, my opening weekend valley-quail hunting adventures found me with four hunters and four dogs working a river bottom lined with sage brush, willows and tall grass. The rest of the season, it was just me and my two dogs. Sometimes I'd hunt both dogs, sometimes only one.
Using a good dog increases your ability to find quail and recover them. I say good dog because a poorly trained, undisciplined dog can quickly ruin a hunt.
Without a dog, recovering shot birds can be a challenge. Be sure to assess the habitat before pulling the trigger. While a flush may be in range and offer a clear shot, if there's no way to get the birds should they fall in thick briars or cacti, don't pull the trigger.
Once flushed, quail often land in the nearest cover, even when shot at. Keep an eye on where the covey settles and resume hunting there. Often, however, birds hit the ground running, which is when having a dog to pick up their scent can save time.
This quail season, do your homework before the hunt. Assess the habitat and how winter conditions may have changed bird numbers. From there, success comes down to knowing the birds you pursue and spending time afield. Soon you'll enjoy hunting in some of the West's most beautiful terrain, pursuing some of our most enjoyable upland birds.