By Jim Matthews
The best time to hunt quail isn’t early in the season when the birds are young, dumb and still calling to every truckload of hunters who stop on a dirt road and toot on quail calls. The best time to hunt quail is late in the season, when everyone else believes the coveys are shot out and can’t find birds.
Once the season begins, quail quickly learn to change their routine. On heavily hunted coveys, the late season starts about the second weekend of the season. Even in remote areas, most coveys have seen hunters by the middle of the season, and they change their habits accordingly. Add in a little cooler weather, rain and maybe some snow, and late-season quail hunting is like hunting a whole different bird.
After nearly 40 years of chasing valleys, Gambel’s and mountain quail throughout the West, I’ve learned five lessons that have improved my success to the point where I actually prefer to hunt after early-season crowds have thinned.
Mountain quail can be impossible to hunt early in the season. They prefer to live in manzanita patches that are impossible to hunt without a bulldozer. You can hear their purring calls as they run beneath the thickets of brush, never flushing while you and I try to battle our way through the tangles and our hunting dogs worry the edges of the patches, unable to follow, let alone flush, the birds.
But snow is the great equalizer. Mountain quail don’t like to have their toes in snow, and many coveys will drop down in elevation to get below the snow line. Over the years, I have had my best success with mountain quail when the manzanita patches fill up with white stuff and the birds are pushed down the slopes – and into more huntable brush patches. Coveys are concentrated along that narrow band just below the snow, frequently grouping up into magnum-sized coveys.
Mountain quail regulars know that early-season coveys are rarely more than a dozen birds. They are usually one or two adult pairs with their young of the year. On good hatch years, that can mean there are 15 birds, but on poorer years there might only be six to eight birds. But I have come across canyons and hillsides with 50 to 70 mountain quail in big groups after snows concentrate them.
One time I was hunting a desert wash that quickly climbed up into pi-on/juniper country. We were only 100 feet below the snow line, and there were mountain quail everywhere in the desert where I expected to find Gambel’s quail. When I tell people there were at least 80 or 90 birds around a spring, I know they think I’m lying, but my brother-in-law (who has far more credibility) was along and agrees. The weather had warmed up and it seemed like every mountain quail on the mountain, pushed down by snow, had come for a drink that sunny day.
The late season frequently pushes mountain quail down into lower elevations, and there are places I hunt where the big, long-plumed birds are in the same canyons with valley or Gambel’s quail. Once, I have taken all three in the same canyon on the same day. That only will happen in the late season.
Even without snow, you can find large coveys of birds – of all three species – if you are willing to break your early-season patterns. After the first few weeks, the birds won’t answer calls as freely as they once did, and they won’t be in the same places. That doesn’t mean they never call or have been shot out.
Last season, I drove up to a spot near a guzzler (a man-made watering device). It’s a popular hunting area, and the place had been thick with birds during pre-season scouting. One of the coveys using the water source had at least 60 valley quail. When I arrived, there was another truck with a hunter there and I stopped to talk.
“My son and I got five birds here opening day, but we haven’t seen a bird since,” he grumbled. “They’ve all been shot out. I didn’t see a thing today.”
It was the third weekend of the season and I hadn’t hunted the area yet, but I was glad to hear his story. It meant the birds probably had left the main canyon along the road once hunters started shooting. After he left, I took one of my Labs and we climbed over a low ridge, went through the canyon and over another ridge. Keeping quiet, I slipped over that ridge and sat quietly for a minute. This canyon was narrower but it had everything the quail liked – good feed, good cover, water nearby and, most of all, no people. I had found this spot when I bumped valleys at the water two seasons earlier and watched the entire covey fly to this canyon. Sitting there last year, I pulled out one of my calls after a few minutes of rubbing the dog’s ears and mimicked the soft, slightly frantic call of a young bird separated from the group. A boss cock answered from just down the canyon 75 yards away. It was the big covey, and there was another smaller covey a half-mile farther down the canyon.
Part of adapting is understanding how different conditions affect the birds. Early in the season, it is warm most of the places we hunt quail – even in late October or November it can be shirt-sleeve conditions, especially in the desert. But by December and January, things have changed. Snow is the easy factor to gauge and one of the most important, but wind becomes a huge element when temperatures get cold.
Birds that spend the bulk of their time in thickets with heavy shade and that rest on northeast-facing slopes during the day suddenly look for different habitats where they can stay warm. South-facing, sunny slopes protected from prevailing winds become magnets, especially if there is good food and cover. Find these places and you probably have found spots birds use season after season.
I have a late-season mountain quail spot that is right near a small community. The main canyon is good after the snows move birds down, but hunting pressure and then cold north winds move them quickly from that spot. The birds slip over to a relatively open but steep south-facing slope that is protected from the wind. It has mountain mahogany for cover and roosting on a slight bench, and the birds feast on grass and yucca seeds. Even though the spot is right next to a paved road, I’m the only one who leaves footprints on the hillside.
I never would have found the spot if I hadn’t been willing to look in unusual places that were out of the cold wind.
The one thing that ruins most late-season hunters’ chances is their inability to realize that quail wise up quickly and that stealth matters. Since I hunt by myself a lot and blaze orange is not required where I hunt, I wear drab or camouflage clothing to hunt birds after the first couple of weeks of the season. I don’t slam my truck doors, use a whistle for the dogs, or make any unnecessary noise. I stalk into canyons and slink across hillsides. I sit and listen a lot. Quail still call in the late season, but they won’t answer a loud rally call blasted from a roadside or hilltop after they hear car doors slam, hunters’ voices or dog whistles. Until you find birds, you’d better be quiet and stealthy.
After the first shot or shouted command to the dogs, the birds know you’re there and shut up and either flush or get where they are secure and hold tightly.
A lesson in how tightly late-season birds will hold was driven home to me years ago while hunting Gambel’s quail. Four of us had pushed up a desert wash, flushing two coveys of quail, working the singles and small groups with our cactus-savvy Labs. Two of us stopped to talk while the other two came back down a side canyon. We were standing on opposite sides of a cholla cactus patch only 20 feet apart. My Labrador was acting birdy, circling the cactus, roping his tail, the whole time we quietly chatted. We assumed birds had been there and he was just still picking up scent. After five minutes, a single hen Gambel’s boiled out of the cactus right between us while we stood there – with open guns.
Another time, I stepped right into a patch of low, thick brush my dog couldn’t get under, and then heard the chirping of a panicked valley quail. I’d pinned the bird under a branch. When I lifted my foot, the bird exploded out from beneath my foot, turned a tight circle and flew downhill. Corkscrewing myself into the ground, I missed twice.
Use dogs. Kick and stomp through brush you know is holding birds. Stand still for a long time next to a brush patch you saw a bird land in. Mouth the noise of a flushing bird. Whatever it takes to unnerve them is how you get them into the air.
I love late season quail hunting, but it’s a completely different ball game.
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