August 19, 2019
By Scott Haugen
Following a laborious hike, both dogs grew birdy as we crested a steep ridge. Noses to the ground, Echo and Kona separated, each coming to point on opposite sides of a brushpile surrounded by tall fireweed.
As I closed in on the nearest dog, a flurry of mountain quail erupted in front of me. Struggling to single-out a low-flying bird, I managed to connect on the shot, followed by a miss, then another hit.
Each dog made an impressive retrieve in the rugged, brushy terrain. Soon, we were all enjoying a water break, which was long overdue on this hot, early season hunt at 3,600 feet.
No matter where your quail hunting adventures may lead, there are important points to consider before and during the hunt, all of which can have a direct impact on success.
The more we know about the animals we pursue, the more effective we’ll be. When it comes to the West’s variety of prized quail, there’s a lot to learn.
California quail have the largest range of the Western quail. Plants make up the majority of the diet in adult birds and they can suffer high annual mortality rates in random areas. Valley quail occupy a wide range of habitats, from brush-choked creek bottoms to rocky outcroppings at high elevations, making them the most adaptable quail in the West.
Mountain quail numbers are currently high throughout their range and our recent dry trends are to thank for that. Both male and female mountain quail will independently sit on a nest and hatch a brood, so they can quickly bounce back from low numbers. Avian predators are thought to account for nearly 50 percent of mountain quail mortality, with extreme winter weather and heavy snow greatly impacting numbers. Mountain quail are secretive, highly nervous birds that live in timber and dense cover.
Gambel’s quail are more relaxed and approachable compared to other quail and have the highest population density of all the quail within their native range, the desert Southwest. They thrive in brushy vegetation, relying on a variety of shrubs for both food and water in their respective range. In their very harsh, dry habitats, Gambel’s quail will seek water, while in other habitats they may get most of the water they need from vegetation.
Montezuma quail are another desert dweller and, as with most gallinaceous birds, they can also experience extreme population highs and lows in any given year. Montezuma quail are homebodies, living in small coveys that don’t travel far. Their range is often measured in feet, not miles or acres. Bad weather in winter and during the nesting season is the greatest threat to these quail, and they are the most dependent upon summer rainfall for survival.
Scaled quail are a desert-ranging bird dependent on a mix of grasses and shrubs for food and cover. They are susceptible to livestock overgrazing and are nervous birds more likely to run than fly from dangers.
SCOUT FOR QUAIL
Western quail population densities are largely impacted by localized weather patterns, be it rainfall, snow ordrought. Predators, from both ground and sky, can have a major impact on quail numbers, too. To best learn of the quail numbers in areas you plan to hunt, consider scouting.
When it comes to scouting, the image of driving countless miles and searching for diamonds in the rough likely comes to mind. If you live close to the habitat you’ll be hunting, summer scouting missions can pay off. This is the time of year when coveys are at their highest number and when birds are most visible.
On scouting trips, listen for quail calling in the early morning and evening hours. You don’t always have to see quail to know they are there. Search areas near brush where quail likely take routine dust baths to cool off and delouse their little bodies. Quail often use the same depressions to take a dust bath every day or so, making these locales easy to identify.
In dry climates, water sources are good places to scout for quail. Search for birds, themselves, and look for tracks and feathers around water and on trails.
Use binoculars and a spotting scope from an elevated vantage point to find quail while scouting as well as on the hunt. Search for coveys on the move and for sentinel adults that often perch above feeding birds. Covering ground with your eyes, not your feet, is a very efficient way to see what quail are out there.
In brushy habitat that’s difficult to glass, consider setting trail cameras. Hunters throughout the West now are discovering how effective trail cameras are in revealing not only where birds are but also the number of quail that constitute a covey.Scouting, to some degree, can also be done from home. Study sites like Google Earth and EarthExplorer to research areas burned by wildfires, that have been impacted by excessive snowfall and more. Some apps, like onX, have up-to-date burn-area layers. Calls to local fish and wildlife offices to ask about localized quail populations can save days of physical scouting time, as well as valued hunting time.
QUAIL HUNTING TIPS
The trend among quail hunters throughout the West isn’t about quantity, rather, quality. If you really want to see what quail hunting the West is like, plan a road trip and hunt each species.
Planning a Western quail slam can be a lot of fun, especially if done in a single season. Be aware that you may be hunting the timber for mountain quail and tromping through the desert for a mix of birds. First and foremost, you need to know your abilities and limitations. A western quail slam can be accomplished on your own, all on public land, or you may need to hire a guide.
Make sure to have the best gear for yourself and your dog as days afield can be long, and days on the road even longer. Do your research and have fun. Western quail hunters are a small fraternity, yet eager to help each other.
To truly appreciate quail hunting throughout the West, one must pursue each subspecies in its native habitat. Such an undertaking requires careful planning, but the rewards will be worth it and leave you with a heightened respect of what it means to hunt quail in this unique region of the country.
Scott Haugen is a full-time author and TV host. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and through his many books at scotthaugen.com.