Photo by Bob Robb.
The conversation occurred nearly 25 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
“Bobby, you need to come over here as soon as you can. The quail hatch was really good, and we’re smashing them!” said DuWane Adams of San Manuel.
I had met DuWane the previous fall when he guided me to my first-ever Coues deer. As he is today, DuWane was then one of the state’s preeminent hunting guides for elk, mule deer, Coues deer and quail. On our deer hunt we shared our love for upland bird hunting, so when he called I couldn’t get the truck loaded fast enough.
There were Gambel’s quail everywhere we went, and we torched them up. Since that time — including the 15 years I lived and guided in Alaska — I came back to Arizona on a regular basis to hunt both deer and quail with DuWane. Now that I live here, we hunt quail together every year in southern Arizona. Despite the state’s rapid growth, there are still millions of public-land acres to explore.
3 PREREQUISITES FOR SUCCESS
The caveat today is that hunting success depends on several factors.
- First, quail numbers are very dependent on rainfall.
“In years of good rains, quail numbers are high,” said Adams. “Drought years see skimpy numbers. Still, even in drought years the dedicated quail hunter can find good hunting if he works at it.”
- Second, you have to be willing to work at it.
“There are more quail hunters today than ever before, though it is rare to find a ton of people out and about, especially on weekdays,” said the guide. “The hunter who is willing to cover a lot of ground both scouting and when hunting, and get away from the more popular roads and parking areas, is the one most likely to find big numbers of birds.”
- Third, you have to be able to shoot your shotgun.
“All the Arizona quail species flush fast and fly hard, making difficult targets,” said Adams. “A couple of trips to the skeet and trap range before season to get your shooting skills back up to snuff makes all the sense in the world.”
3 PRIMARY SPECIES
Quail hunters in Arizona spend the majority of their time pursuing three species of quail — Gambel’s, scaled, also called blue quail, and Mearns’. A fourth, the California, also called valley quail, gets little hunting pressure because it’s primarily found only along the Little Colorado River drainage near Springerville. The masked bobwhite, a fifth species, is federally listed as an endangered species, found only on the Buenas Aires Refuge southwest of Tucson.
The Gambel’s quail enjoys the widest distribution in Arizona by far. Found throughout in nearly two-thirds of the state, it’s hunted in open desert country where they are more apt to run or flush than hold for a dog.
Scaled quail are found in the open country of southeastern Arizona, and are more likely to run than hold.
Mearns’ quail are the largest and most striking of the state’s quail, and the most secretive. They mostly live in southern Arizona, have long scythe-shaped claws for digging and hold well for pointing dogs.
Each species of quail has its own habitat preferences. For example, Gambel’s quail are found throughout the Sonoran and Mojave deserts upward in elevation through semi-desert grassland and chaparral to the edges of piñon-juniper woodland and pine forest areas.
The scaled quail like semi-desert grasslands and the Chihuahuan desert, preferring open plains and foothills. Mearns’ quail live mostly in oak woodlands and oak savannas in the southeastern portions of the state where grass cover is abundant enough to conceal its presence.
All three major species of Arizona quail form pair bonds by March, but each have different breeding seasons.
Gambel’s quail breed in spring and early summer, and breeding intensity and success are directly related to the amount of rainfall received during the previous October through March.
Scaled quail breed in spring after wet winters, but also during the summer months after the monsoons have started.
Mearns’ quail nest only after the summer monsoon season, and often postpone breeding until after the summer solstice has occurred.
The factors determining the population levels of the various species also differ.
The numbers of Gambel’s quail are related more to the success of the hatch than to carryover from the previous year. Scaled quail numbers are determined by both the success of the hatch and the number of birds surviving from the year before. Mearns’ quail generally have good hatching success, and their highly fluctuating numbers are determined largely by how many birds survive the winter.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
While populations may fluctuate, there are general areas where quail hunting is usually fair to good regardless. Here, by Game Management Unit, are some suggestions for starting your search.
Region 4, Yuma
Unit 20C: Most of the unit is quality Gambel’s quail habitat. Hunters should concentrate their efforts near permanent water, where densities are generally highest. Quality bird hunting (especially in good years) is usually found at mid-elevations where the vegetation is a grassland and shrub mix. Drainages in the unit that are perennial at least along portions of their length include Date Creek, the Hassayampa, Waterman Creek, South Fork of the Santa Maria, and Kirkland Creek.
Units 39 and 40: Gambel’s quail can be generally found along large washes and closely associated to mountains. It’s big country, and a quail call can be helpful in locating coveys.
Unit 41: In this unit, areas near agriculture generally experience the best hatches.
The heart of the desert quail hunting in the unit is the Palomas Plains north of Dateland. Numerous large desert riparian habitats provide good quail habitat and bisect this large, flat area. The Gila River can hold decent quail numbers but is very difficult to hunt because of dense brush and lots of posted private land
Unit 42: This unit contains large areas of upland Sonoran desert scrub, and large desert washes, and limited areas of agriculture in the southeastern and northwestern portions generally produce good numbers of quail. Stock ponds and agricultural areas usually contain the highest concentrations.
Unit 43: Best hunting usually occurs on the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, as well as surrounding desert areas and washes near the Colorado River.
Unit 44A: Both the Harquahala and Harcuvar mountains are good areas to hunt, especially agricultural fields and the base of the mountains. The Centennial Wash between Salome and Aguila is often a good spot for quail. The Black Mountains and the upper end of Alamo Lake have good hunting, with the upper end of Alamo Lake (Bill Williams, Big Sandy, and Santa Maria rivers) usually holding good numbers of birds.
Unit 44B: Quail can be found throughout the unit and are often associated with large washes like the Bouse and Apache washes.
Unit 45 (Kofa National Wildlife Refuge): Good hunting can often be found throughout the refuge.
Region 6, Mesa
Unit 22: Look for Gambel’s quail in areas that provide adequate cover for roosting and hiding, particularly near sources of permanent water. Try some of the higher elevations like the areas south of Payson, Sunflower, foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains and south of Roosevelt Lake, as well as the Three Bar area above Roosevelt Lake. Some of the brush is heavy but it usually holds quail.
Unit 23: The foothills of the Sierra Anchas and adjacent areas will likely hold a few birds and is a good place to start looking. Greenback Valley, the Three Bar area and Lone Fire Burn are also worth checking out.
Unit 21: The northern portion of this unit often has the best hunting. Check out the edges of the old burns to find birds feeding on new vegetation.
Unit 20B: The foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains have good hunting, but the walking is rough. Check along the Castle Hot Springs Road and the Lake Pleasant area near water, as well as the higher country, Cleator and Cordes.
Unit 39: Robbin’s Butte typically has some of the higher quail numbers in the unit, but they are difficult to hunt because of the heavy cover along the Gila River. Other places to try are the Gila River and the small mountain ranges south of the Sierra Estrella’s and along the Gila River.
Unit 24A: The areas near Globe and Superior and points south usually have good quail numbers. North of Globe, on the edge of the juniper and piñon country and down near the Salt River, can also be good.
Region 5, Tucson
Unit 29: Westside access can be gained through Willcox south on Highway 186. East side access is by exits at Bowie, San Simon or Cavot from Interstate 10. You’ll need Coronado National Forest maps of the Chiricahua Mountains to locate lesser access roads. Here, you can find Gambel’s quail in the lower Chihuahuan desert grasslands from elevations of 3,400-4,700 feet. Scaled quail are found in the upper grasslands associated with the foothills from elevations of 4,200-5,500 feet. Mearns’ quail prefer the oak-juniper site from 4,700-6,500 feet. Distribution of all these quail is unit wide.
Unit 30A: Gambel’s and scaled quail are found in the lower elevations in areas such as the San Bernardino Valley, Pat Hills, Elfrida, Kansas Settlement, McNeal and areas south of Bowie. The Geronimo Trail east of Douglas offers good access to top quail areas.
Unit 30B: Both Gambel’s and scaled quail can be found in the unit. Fair numbers of scaled quail can be found in Tombstone, Gleason, Pearce, Cochise, Elfrida, Sunsites, and along the Mexican border in desert scrub and transitional areas into semi-desert grasslands. Mearns’ quail live in the Dragoon and Mule mountains. Restricted access in the Mule Mountains makes it difficult to get to the Mearns’ habitat. Gambel’s quail are found in isolated areas in the unit, with the San Pedro River National Conservation Area a good bet. Check the regulations at www.azgfd.gov because there are restrictions on this hunt. Scaled quail can be found throughout the unit in high desert grassland communities.
Unit 34A: The Santa Rita Mountains have decent Mearns’ quail and good Gambel’s numbers in the lower elevations.
Unit 34B: The Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is usually a fair to good bet. In addition, the area west of Whetstone and north of Highway 82 may produce some decent hunting opportunity. Also, decent Gambel’s numbers can be found on the forest service land on the east side of the Whetstone Mountains. Try Dry and French Joe canyons, where a few scaled quail live, too. A few Mearns’ quail are found on the Empire Ranch in Oak Tree Canyon and off Forest Road 779 on the southwest corner of the Whetstone Mountains.
Unit 35A: Gambel’s and scaled quail live along the west side of the Patagonia Mountains outside of Nogales, as well as around Sierra Vista in the desert habitat types and adjacent to the San Pedro River. Mearns’ quail are found throughout the numerous mountain ranges, with most huntable populations found in the scattered oak-juniper woodlands at elevations ranging from 5,000-6,000 feet. These areas, located around the Canelo Hills and the Huachuca and Patagonia mountains, have good concentrations of birds. Public access throughout these areas is excellent.