2008 Quail Season Forecast

2008 Quail Season Forecast

Want to keep your retriever busy this October? Check out this roundup of quail-hunting hotspots around the state.

A soft-mouthed yellow lab retrieves a valley quail. Good precipitation last spring bodes well for hunters now.
Photo by Jim Niemiec.

Back in the early 1900s, California valley quail roosted from Baja California up into Oregon. Back then, according to Starker Leopold, author of the bird bible, California Quail, birds were trapped and transported to potentially good habitat to build new quail populations.

During this period, there were tremendous populations of valley quail in the state. According to Leopold, as many as 177,000 quail were sold on the commercial market during 1896-97. This year, it would sure be great to have the population rebound to even close to those numbers. But with loss of habitat, continued development and the spotty rain, we'll just have to take what we get.

But in early 2008, good amounts of rain did fall. That should help produce a bumper crop of California valley quail, Gambel's quail in the desert and sustain an increasing population of elusive mountain quail.

Young quail and adult birds need hiding places. In the foothills, there appears to be an abundance of sage, chaparral, native grass and thorny brush, which should combine to keep the hawks off the birds.

Other predators will also have a difficult time in finding nests, running down birds and ambushing small coveys of quail as they move quickly from one hiding spot to another.

If everything comes together and the state gets just a little more rain, scattergunners should have a good season of quail gunning.

"It's really important that we got the rain when we did," said Scott Swell, wildlife habitat supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Game. "This gave the ground a pretty good soaking after coming off a drought year, and the native plants and seed crops did well."

The key factor is that quail were able to nest near water, which is where there are likely to be lots of bugs. That's good news to California quail hunters.

For harvesting California quail, Kern County is typically the top-producing county, followed by San Luis Obispo and Monterey.

Siskiyou and Trinity counties topped the list of best places to hunt mountain quail. For that species, Kern County is usually in the top three as well.

When it comes to Gambel's quail, San Bernardino was the best place to hunt. Imperial County also accounts for about 25 percent of the birds harvested in the state.

Here's a roundup of your quail hunting opportunities in the Golden State this year.

Statewide, there were many reports of valley quail pairing up early during the spring months. Turkey hunters reported seeing and hearing many birds that were already getting ready to nest as early as late March.

Earlier this year, while hunting turkeys around Paso Robles, I saw plenty of paired-up quail.

Last year, chicks had fewer places to hide. Hawks did a job on the carry-over adult population, too.

"I don't think we are going to have that problem this year," said Deedy Loftus, game owner-manager of Bryson Hesperia Resort near Los Padres National Forest. "It may not be the best ever. But for those hunting the coastal range, it should be a lot more productive than it was for the last couple of seasons."

Across California, chapters of Quail Unlimited spend a great deal of time working on habitat projects in prime quail country.

This past winter, volunteers spent thousands of man-hours working on guzzlers, hauling water and making sure there was plenty of ideal quail habitat on the ground.

"Valley quail recruitment should be good throughout the state with highs and lows regionally influenced by spring participation," said Dick Haldeman, QU regional director.

However, Haldeman said that this year doesn't look like it will be a good one for re-nesting. In some of the drier regions, he said, second clutches might also be a problem because insect production appears to be limited.

QU chapter volunteers headed up into quail country to work on habitat projects encompassing thousands of acres. Along with their structural work on guzzlers, QU members and hunters hauled in to these remote spots more than 35,000 gallons of water to recharge water sites used by upland game birds.

"Hatch conditions for mountain quail varied from good along most of the Sierra foothills to poor in the high desert regions," said Haldeman.

Regarding mountain quail in the high-desert region, research has been limited, but QU feels optimistic that they fared well there.

Information about the outlook for the Sierras is more promising, said Haldeman -- especially along the western slopes of the High Sierra and very good up in the Northern California counties.

Northeastern California should be a great destination to head for California valley quail. Hunters in the region between Susanville and New Pine Creek on the California-Oregon state line enjoyed an excellent season last fall. Plenty of snow blanketed the valley and Warner Mountains to produce a good supply of water to support a bumper crop of quail.

"We had some awesome quail hunts last year," said Bob Suacci, owner of the Honker Inn Lodge on the shore of Goose Lake in Modoc County.

Suacci said there were coveys that numbered well into the 50s, and when they bunched up for the winter, the coveys were even bigger.

Along Goose Lake, there was a lot of snow on the ground until late April, but there was still plenty of thorn brush and tules to provide quail with places to get out of the snow.

"I would think that this year will offer up very good valley quail hunting, as there was a very strong carry-over of adult birds," Suacci said.

"It's not too unrealistic to expect the quail to get off a second hatch in this area this summer, which will put even more quail on the ground come opening day in October."

Some of the properties that Sua

cci hunts are leased ranches with grain and alfalfa crops. Other hunting areas are open sage fields, tule patches and hedgerows.

Quail hunting should also be very good on the BLM land surrounding Alturas. This area is hunted mostly by locals who stick pretty much to 4x4 roads. But hunters who work the rolling lower elevations covered in juniper and sage should find good numbers of quail around springs, creeks, stock tanks and un-posted public property where cattle have been put out to graze.

Just make sure you close all gates securely when entering or leaving BLM land.

Tom Blankinship heads up the DFG's Upland Game Bird Program. He feels pretty confident that all over the state, quail hunting will be a lot better than it was last year.

"There is a good amount of snow in the high country, but the valleys have been on the dry side," he said. "I'd expect that we should have a better than average hatch of valley quail.

Blankinship predicted that mountain quail should continue to do well.

Some of the best quail country in the state in years past was in the Shandon-Parkfield region, where Blankinship said there was a vast amount of residual moisture after spring rains. The coastal foothills and valleys had the right mix of habitat, protective ground cover and ample food sources that produce a very huntable quail population, he said.

In the spring, the Bitterwater Valley, adjacent to Parkfield, enjoyed above-average rain that was timely and really greened up the country.

"I would think that this fall, we're looking at a vastly improved quail population for this area," Blankinship said.

Fort Hunter Liggett, located along the California coast near Bradley, offers up pretty good hunting for those who want to hike into terrain on the base that holds valley quail.

Last year was a good year for quail hunting on this base, provided you knew where to hunt. For tips, call Luke Knox at (831) 386-3310.

There's a pretty good population of valley quail in the southern ranges of the High Sierra, and you can often flush a covey of mountain quail at higher elevations.

Jim Hosler, of 4 Seasons Hunting, said that there was little rain in the Tehachapi Mountains. "I'm a little worried about how well the valley quail will propagate," he said.

The region had enough rain to trigger crops of winter wheat, but there wasn't enough significant rain to bring the crops to maturity.

Gerry Scotton heads up Onyx Ranch in Walker Pass, along the South Fork of the Kern River.

"I'd think that quail hunting will be a lot better than last year," he said, "when there were very few successful hatches of young birds. Either the adults didn't go to nest, or the predators picked off the chicks as soon as they were hatched, due to the barren ground conditions in the valley."

Scotton said that when this year's chicks were just hatched, he saw higher cover and plenty of water.

"This fall, hopefully, it will all come together, and upland game bird hunters will be rewarded with some good gunning for quail and chukar."

The high desert greened up nicely this spring, and there is good ground cover at most elevations above 3,000 feet. There's a lot of public land to hunt in the Mojave Desert, but last year was very tough on the birds. Hunters who worked hard to locate a covey of valley or Gambel's quail harvested mostly adults.

"It kind of depends on where you hunt and how much walking you plan on doing to locate a covey of quail," said Harold Horner of High Desert Guide Service, based out of Victorville.

The late-winter rains replenished springs and watering spots, but the desert didn't receive much precipitation during the key months of mid-spring when the chicks are likely to be hatched.

The back side of Big Bear Lake and parts of the San Bernardino Mountains that escaped the wildfires last fall should offer up some pretty good quail hunting. The higher elevations hold a good number of mountain quail, while mid-elevations and the canyons along the year-round streams are home to small coveys of valley quail.

Access to this remote area of the San Bernardino National Forest is difficult due to washed-out roads. To find out where 4x4s can access the backcountry, check with a ranger station or the local Forest Service office off Highway 38. Call (909) 382-2724.

Plan on doing a lot of very difficult hiking uphill and down. This terrain is very rugged. But it also receives very little pressure from quail hunters, especially in the more rugged draws off the southeastern end of the mountain below Baldwin Lake.

The wildfires in San Diego County wiped out tens of thousands of acres of prime quail habitat. In many parts of the Cleveland National Forest, it's going to be very difficult for quail to rebound. But in areas that weren't torched by this massive firestorm, hunting for valley and mountain quail should be better than last year.

The Anza, areas the fire spared above Alpine and private ranches under lease by My Country Club should offer up some pretty decent quail shooting. Enough rain fell, along with snow at higher elevations, to bring off a pretty good hatch of quail this spring.

There should also be very good hunting for Gambel's quail along the Colorado River and down into Mexicali. Last year saw better than normal numbers of these running quail. The rains that did hit this region really soaked the ground, triggering a rapid growth of native plants and providing plenty of water in many good quail hunting spots that were drying up last fall.

Along the California side of the lower Colorado River, there is ample access where you can get off the main road and hunt Gambel's quail.

To learn more about hunting quail in the Golden State, check out the DFG's Guide to Hunting Quail in California, which is a very good resource booklet on local quail species. To download it for free, you can visit www.dfg.ca.gov/publications/docs/quailguide.pdf. Or call the DFG at (916) 653-7664.

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