Arizona Quail Forecast
December 10, 2010
Anyone who has lived in Arizona for two or three decades can remember the glory days of Grand Canyon State quail hunting. This year will fall short of that benchmark, but compared to last year it won't be too bad.
Arizona quail hunting is never easy. Gambel's quail live in the hard, broken ground of the Sonoran Desert, taking refuge in cactus and on scree-covered slopes, vanishing into thickets of manzanita or catclaw. The miles of rocky terrain wear on dogs, trucks and gear, but if you stay long enough to wear out a pair of boots, it starts to grow on you. Stay a little longer and it becomes part of you. Somewhere along the way, you buy a new shotgun or a bird dog. You become a quail hunter. Eventually, you may see one of the glory years and the drought that follows.
A decade of drought has been hard on Arizona bird populations. Quail thrive on winter rains, and we haven't had decent winter rains since the '90s. In January, a big storm hit and the months that followed brought more. The desert greened up, the saguaros drank deeply and hillsides were splashed in yellow. Biologists are conservative when it comes to making grand predictions, but they're confident this season will at least be better than last.
"We've had good rainfall," said Mike Rabe, small game program supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "If we had a good base of quail to reproduce, I think we'd be looking at a better season."
But bird numbers were so low to begin with that it's hard to make wildly optimistic predictions, he said. Rabe is an Arizona native and has seen quail populations rebound. He has seen the boom years of the '70s, '80s and '90s and says we are unlikely to see those kinds of numbers this season. But that doesn't mean there won't be birds. Some areas seem to have a lot of birds, in good times and bad, so hunters may want to start looking there.
"You will find areas in the state ... where the populations remain high, even through the drought period." There will probably be more areas like this, Rabe said, which means your chances of finding birds will be a lot higher. You may not limit out by noon, but you won't come home empty-handed.
"Compared to last year, it's going to be much better."
A number of areas throughout the state will hold quail. Their primary range is Sonoran Desert habitat, but they do expand into other areas, Rabe said. You may find them in the upper grasslands of central and southeast Arizona, where people with dogs like to hunt. You may find a few birds in the southeast corner of the state. You can find them where the Sonoran Desert overlaps into the Mojave or Chihuahuan Deserts. But the best place to find them is the upper reaches of the Sonoran Desert.
"The Tonto Basin almost always has birds," Rabe said. "They're always there." This area, located near Roosevelt Lake, is a favorite with bird hunters. Bird hunters with boats can bring their fishing gear to take advantage of cast and blast opportunities. It's thick, hilly country, the stuff that Gambel's quail love. Some of it is so thick that the birds are there, but it's hard to hunt them. The region has a good rattlesnake population. It also has miles of public land.
The desert northwest of Phoenix is also productive, Rabe said. Again, you're looking at classic Sonoran Desert -- lots of saguaro cactus, mesquite and prickly pear, rocky washes and thick cover. Northwest Arizona has areas that don't get a lot of pressure. The Wickiup area produces birds for many hunters, and Kingman's always a sleeper, Rabe said.
The region south of Phoenix is a favorite with hunters. The desert near Florence and Oracle has a lot of public land and pockets of birds in rolling hill country. Game and Fish takes call surveys there and has found slightly below-average numbers. Rabe says that after last season, slightly below-average will look good.
Gambel's quail can be found pretty much any place you find mesquite, David E. Brown writes in Arizona Game Birds. They don't need it to survive, but their ranges just happen to overlap. Other plants you'll find in their range are hackberry, ironwood, catclaw, saguaro, prickly pear, cholla, jojoba and scrub oak. You can often find birds near springs, seeps and stock tanks.
Gambel's typically feed twice a day and spend the middle of the day in shady washes. They give off a whit-whit call if approached, and, if pressed, run or take flight. Once the covey is scattered, it will wait, then start calling to get back together.
Quail go through stages during the four-month season. In October, it's too hot to hunt with dogs all day. Coveys are small and scattered. By mid-season, most coveys have been shot over. They run more and fly farther, take to the hills more and call less. They stick to thicker cover.
"They do get spooky as the season goes on," Rabe said.
Dogs can be invaluable, especially late in the season when birds hunker down and resist taking flight. Photo by Ron Dungan.
Late-season days are cooler. The dogs can run all day and scenting conditions are better. There are fewer hunters in the field, and fewer rattlesnakes. The days grow shorter and the coveys begin to change.
"As the season goes on they'll swarm into larger and larger coveys," Rabe said. In good years, you can run into a covey of 50 or 60 birds. Maybe more. The birds scatter in a cloud of wings sometimes splitting up into two or three groups, sometimes landing together, just over the next rise. Once they hit the ground, they usually peel off in ones, twos and threes until it's time to regroup. Hunting singles is Gambel's quail hunting at its best. This is when birds stay put and dogs earn their keep. This is when you need to hit your shots. It's why you left the house in morning light.
Gambel's quail don't stray far from their home range. This means you can find them in the same general area if the covey doesn't get over-hunted. The birds follow the same general routine all season, Rabe said. Coveys often spend the night in washes, roosting in hackberry and brushy cover. In the morning, they will come out of these areas and work their way uphill. As the day gets hotter, they will start to move their way back down the slope.
"Those kinds of patterns can help a hunter if you know what you're looking for," Rabe said.
Rabe also recommends using a quail call.
"It seems o
bvious now to use a quail call, but I didn't at first." So he would do what a lot of us do -- walk four or five miles and then find birds right by the truck. Wait a few minutes after you park and then call, and you may find birds before you start that long walk.
Arizona has three species of quail -- Gambel's, scaled quail and Mearns. Gambel's can be found throughout most of the state, but Mearns and scaled quail have smaller ranges. Mearns quail season opens in late November. These birds hold tight. It's almost impossible to hunt them without a dog. Mearns quail rely on summer rains and have large claws for digging up roots. Because they hold so well for dogs they have developed a dedicated following, and for a few years there was a lot of pressure on Game and Fish to lower the limit for Mearns quail. There are only so many of them in the state, and there was some concern they were being over hunted.
The limit for Mearns is now 8. The limit for Gambel's and scaled quail is 15. Mearns quail live in the oak grasslands of southeast Arizona, not far from the grassy flats that hold scaled quail, a Chihuahuan Desert grassland bird.
Scaled quail have a white crest and are sometimes called "cottontops." They have a distinctive scaled pattern on the breast. They are gray, tan, white and black and weigh a little more than a Gambel's quail, about 7 ounces. They run a lot, but will provide some good singles shooting if you get them to flush.
Southeast Arizona is where the Sonoran and Chihuhuan Deserts meet. It's possible to spend a day there hunting three species of quail, but getting all three species is difficult. The ranges may overlap, but only a little, and any plan to get you into all three species will involve driving around, a bit of luck and making all your shots. Spend too long in Mearns country and you'll miss your chance to get into Gambel's. Spend too long eating lunch and you might not have enough time to hunt scalies. Or you'll get to the scalie spot and find a covey of Gambel's instead. You'll shoot, the dog will retrieve and your plan to get into all three species will unravel, but you'll still think it's a pretty good day.
A lot of people think Gambel's run like rabbits, Rabe said, but that's overstating things. They do run, which makes it hard to train a young dog. Lots of "whoa" training is a must. The trick is to remember that once they flush, the birds should hold tight. Keep an eye on your dog. Walk slowly, stop often, and be ready. Quail can sit pretty tight when if you're blundering past, but they can come unglued when you just stand there. They may explode out of a patch of grass right behind you. Stay calm. Set your feet, track the bird. Quail take to flight quickly, but don't go very fast once in the air. Unless they drop behind a tree, you should have a few seconds to track the shot. A bird falls. The dog runs to the spot and soon a bird goes into your vest. It makes it all worthwhile, somehow.
December and January are the best months of the season. The days are shorter and cooler. The nights are crisp and cold and the coveys are bigger. After you find a covey or two, you carry fewer shells but more birds, and there is a spring to your step. You do not follow roads or trails; you follow the dogs, broken fencelines, washes, ridgelines and mountain tops. You start back toward the truck, happy for another day in the field and the memories it will bring. Shadows grow long and the light softens. The dog has a few cactus needles in him, which you'll find and remove when you get home, and you do, too, but you don't care. This is the Sonoran Desert and you are a quail hunter. This season may be average, but average in a state with a 15-bird limit and a four-month-long season is still pretty good.