Understanding behavior and habitat are just part of being prepared for opening day of quail hunting.
A slight breeze in our face, my 3-year-old pudelpointer, Echo, and I worked toward a sandy river bank. Halfway through the first opening, her nose hit the ground.
Echo soon quartered toward a willow thicket, then froze. As I approached, a covey of quail erupted from the cover, and I connected on the first two shots; Echo wasted no time on the retrieves. Another flurry flushed from the same spot. I’d already reloaded, missing the first shot, but followed with a double.
In less than 15 minutes, Echo sniffed out three more coveys, and we were headed back to camp with a limit of delicious valley quail.
Nervous By Nature
Knowing the behavior of the quail you hunt is key to consistent success. Throughout their Western range, all quail species are nervous by nature. And they should be: Predators from land and sky chase them their entire lives.
When mountain quail are pressured, small family coveys typically run into the thickest cover, disperse and keep running. If they flush, take-offs are often tight to the ground, and the birds are instantly twisting and turning, making for tough shooting. On the other hand, valley quail gather in large flocks as fall progresses, and when pressured, condense into a surprisingly small area. Not always does the whole flock simultaneously flush, so be ready after that first volley.
Gambel’s quail and scaled quail behave similarly to valley quail; however, their flock sizes aren’t as big. These desert-dwellers can detect predators from a great distance and will often hold tight the instant danger is sensed. Mearns quail also take cover the moment a threat arises but will often rise straight into the air upon flushing.
Habitat and weather conditions impact quail behavior. Winds will put birds on alert and restrict their movement because detecting predators is made difficult. Heat will also restrict quail activity. Thick cover typically sees birds moving less, versus open terrain, where quail must travel for food, grit, water and cover.
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Wherever you plan to hunt quail this season, do your homework. The more pre-season scouting and research you can do, the better.
Summer scouting missions can reveal a lot. By opening day you’ll want to know exactly where to hunt, and what to expect in terms of bird numbers.
Physically going to your hunting grounds a bit during the summer is a good idea. Take binoculars and a spotting scope, and cover the ground with your eyes. Early mornings and evenings are when birds are most active on hot days. Search shaded areas and near brushy habitat where quail will gather grit, feed and take dust baths. If the habitat you’ll be hunting is flat and dense with cover, walk it. Search for tracks and depressions where coveys are routinely dusting.
Summer is also a good time for online research of hunting areas. Various websites like Google Earth allow you to look at the terrain you’ll be hunting from the comfort of your home, and apps such as OnX Hunt and ScoutLook offer even more capabilities, both at home and in the field. Getting in touch with local wildlife offices also can shed light on local bird numbers.
Hike and Bike
Come quail season, hunting into the wind with a good dog is always a solid approach. Better yet, invite a couple hunting partners and a second dog, and you’ll cover far more ground as a group than going it alone.
Early in the season when conditions are hot and dry, hunt shaded areas. From high-elevation hunts for mountain and valley quail amid mature forests to desert-dwelling species, concentrate efforts in habitats offering shaded relief. Though they may be dry, river bottoms and creek beds meandering through the desert localize cooler temperatures that attract quail. Throughout the course of the day, quail movement is limited in these habitats, but they’re there.
When hunting river bottoms, approach them from the inside, out. The outer fringes of river bottom habitat can be too thick to effectively hunt from the outside, but if you get in the river bottom — even in a dry river bed — hunting opportunities open up.
Trees and dense brush are good starting points for hunting timber-dwelling quail. The best success comes to hunters willing to (legally) explore gated, non-motorized-only access roads. Here birds receive little pressure. To maximize your hunting efforts, hop on a mountain bike. Let your dog work ahead, just as you would on foot. You’ll be amazed how fast a dog can hunt and how much ground you can cover when hunting from a bicycle. Mountain biking offers access to more land, leaving you with more shot opportunities.