November 17, 2020
Classically speaking, quail hunting is as much about good dog work as it is about fine shotguns and covey rises. After all, many a southern hunting lodge is adorned with oil paintings of stoic pointers locked up on cowering bobwhites.
But out West, where running quail species like Gambel's, scaled (blue) and California quail predominate in a rough-and-tumble environment filled with hazards like sharp rocks, thorny brush and cactus, bird dogs are not only unnecessary for filling your upland vest, they can be detrimental to the effort.
"I have clients who bring their dogs, but just as often as not, they cost us as many or more birds than they find for us," says DuWane Adams of Arizona Big Game Hunting (520-385-4995). In addition to being one of the state's premier deer and elk guides, Adams has been successfully guiding quail hunters for more than three decades. He's found that it's the rare bird dog that can take a full day of running and gunning across the desert, maneuvering through huge cactus fields and patches of cat's claw and other nasty brush that shreds canvas pants and exposed arms in a flash.
That's why, since I was a teenager, I've hunted quail without a dog. First while hunting California (valley) quail in the southern California deserts and foothills, later in northern California's and southern Oregon's coastal environs and finally in the arid southwestern deserts where Gambel's and scalies rule.
Here are 9 tips I've learned over the years that have helped me successfully hunt quail without dogs.
1) Go Early: Start your quail hunt in the morning when it's cooler and birds are more vocal and moving about. I like to be in my "spot" at daybreak so I can hear the birds call while they are still on the "roost."
2) Talk to Them: Calling is key, especially when you hunt vocal quail subspecies such as California, Gambel's and scaled quail. By using a quail call, you can cover a lot of ground in your vehicle on backcountry roads, stopping and calling and listening for coveys to answer. "That way, you don't waste time walking all over the place where there are no birds." Adams says. "Also, stop frequently to listen for birds. California, Gambel's and scaled quail make a variety of sounds; learn to recognize these calls."
3) Be quiet! Quail have excellent hearing, and when they hear car doors slam, dogs barking and people talking, they will run as fast as they can to avoid danger. When hunting with Adams I have seen it over and over again. He calls, the birds respond, and his clients and their dogs start making noise and taking their time getting ready. By the time they are ready to hunt, the covey is a quarter mile away and moving at light speed. That hunt is over before it ever begins.
4) Bust Them Up: Once a covey is located, split it up as fast as possible, then work back through the cover for single birds. This often means you must move quickly to flush singles and at the same time mark the locations of multiple birds if they flush wildly. Estimate the number of birds in a covey rise and then keep count of the lone birds that flush as you work for singles. This way you can ensure you've worked the covey thoroughly. If you've hunted through the area where the scattered birds settled and have only gotten up half the number of the birds that were counted on the covey rise, you'll know that there are still more birds in the area and can work the surrounding cover appropriately.
5) Seek Cover: Avoid hunting areas with little ground cover. Quail feeding in areas with minimal cover will run rather than flush within gun range. For quail to hold for the hunter there must be adequate grass and shrubs for the birds to hide in. Watching quail run and flush at excessive distances gets old fast.
6) Get Them Up: Once the birds are scattered and holding, you'll flush more of them if you zigzag through the cover, occasionally pausing for a few seconds at a time. Read the cover and terrain to predict where birds might be hiding. Groups of closely growing shrubs, shallow draws lined with dense vegetation and low thickets should all be investigated. Waiting can be as important as walking in areas where there is good cover and where you know there are birds. It's not uncommon to walk into an area, stop for a few seconds and have a bird flush right behind you after you resume walking. Be ready for this, and if you are hunting in a party, be extremely careful with gun safety.
7) Stick Close: Hunting dog-less is best with a small group of two to four guns moving through an area about 20 to 30 yards apart. Hunters who spread out farther than that are not hunting thoroughly and will miss birds. Even when the party is working close, it's not unusual to cover the same ground many times and still flush birds.
8) Fetch ‘Em Up: Once a bird is knocked down, stay at the ready for a second or two to make sure the quail is not crippled and running off. Mark downed birds carefully and walk directly to the spot to retrieve it. If it's not found immediately, take the time to carefully search the surrounding area. Quail are remarkably tough, and crippled birds will run down mammal burrows and into packrat nests or hide under almost any suitable cover. Resist the temptation to shoot at additional quail until you've found the downed bird.
9) Go Late: Late fall and early winter are great times to hunt quail without dogs. If it snows, go hunting. You can actually track quail in the snow and use a binocular to glass for both tracks and birds at long distance. They also tend to hold very tight in snow.
Guns and Loads
Keep cripples to a minimum.
Using "enough gun" is important in dog-less quail hunting. After trying everything from 20- and 28-gauge over/unders to 12-gauge pumps and autoloaders, and chokes ranging from improved cylinder to full, I have settled on a 12-gauge with a modified choke. Your barrel needn't be long. I prefer the same 21-inch barrel I use for turkey hunting, which makes for fast handling and easy maneuvering through thick brush.
Just as important is your shell selection. These birds are tough and flush wildly—light loads combined with open chokes is a formula for crippling. My go-to shell is a sporting clays load with 1 1/8 ounces of No. 6 or 7 1/2 shot traveling at 1,350 fps. On days when the birds flush more wildly than normal, I use Federal Premium Upland loads that send 1 1/4 ounces of copper-plated lead No. 7 1/2 shot at 1,500 fps. That may seem like overkill, but when I hit a bird with this payload, the chances of crippling it are reduced to near zero.
Non-lead shot is required in California and encouraged in other states, and is also required on many state and federal wildlife refuges and managed lands. Today there are some great, albeit expensive, choices with shot made from steel, bismuth, tungsten and other dense materials. When making the switch from lead to non-toxic shot, it's recommended you do some pattern testing with different sized choke tubes so you'll know your limitations before heading afield.
Western Quail Species
California (Valley) Quail: They're found primarily in the coastal states, but also in eastern Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. They prefer broken chaparral, woodland edges, coastal scrub, parks, farms, open oak woodland and streamside growth bordered by chaparral—but they are skilled at adapting to their environments and sometimes can be found in suburbs, semi-desert situations, piñon-juniper woods, grasslands and coastal sage scrub. They hold well for dogs but are also known to run like the wind.
Gambel's Quail: Found in the brushy washes and cactus-studded arroyos of the southwest, they are notorious runners and hard to get to hold tight, even when using pointing dogs. They love rocky terrain with thick cactus.
Scaled (Blue) Quail: These hard-running devils inhabit Southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, west Texas and parts of southeastern Colorado and western Oklahoma. Along with Gambel's, scalies are the most notorious runners of all the quail subspecies.
Mountain Quail: They live primarily in the steep mountains of California and Oregon and run at every opportunity. Hunting them reminds me of chukar hunting. A lot.
Mearns Quail: Living in the foothills in extreme southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico (and mostly in old Mexico), Mearns quail usually hold very tightly and are very difficult to hunt without dogs.