Dry times are not good times for quail hunters. For your best shot at healthy populations of California and mountain quail, head north and look for water and cover. (October 2007)
Chuck Ring, left, and Joel Topping took these California quail last year on opening day. This year, hunting in the Golden State will be a bit more challenging.
Photo by Mike Dickerson.
By now, longtime readers of this magazine are familiar with the formula for producing a good quail season in California:
Healthy habitat + good population carryover + adequate precipitation = good hunting.
This year appears to have come up short in many areas, but especially in one critical component of that formula: Water.
Lack of precipitation is expected to severely impact quail numbers this season in many parts of the state -- including some that saw outstanding wingshooting the past several years for the three species of feathered buzz-bombs calling California home.
This isn't to say that quail hunting will be universally poor this year. But your hunting prospects will likely depend on where you live and how far you're willing to travel to find birds. From the Central Coast to Southern California to the southeastern deserts, many areas saw the lowest total seasonal rainfall amounts on record -- ever. In some spots, there was practically no precipitation at all.
It's a dramatic turnaround. Just three years ago, record-shattering amounts of rainfall made the hills of Death Valley look more like the green hills of Ireland.
Wildflowers blanketed much of the better bird habitat across the southern half of the state -- heralding a banner time for quail.
"Quail are kind of a product of wildflowers," said Sonke Mastrup, deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife and Inland Fisheries Division.
"That's the simplest way to look at it. That growth produces the protein for egg production, and the insects and seeds that come off of it feed the young. It's that simple."
In other words, precipitation impacts both reproduction and recruitment of young birds into the population in a manner that's essentially self-regulating.
Mastrup should know. In addition to being a quail-hunting aficionado, he is the author of the DFG's Guide to Hunting Quail in California.
Updated every couple of years, it serves as an excellent reference for locating public-land quail-hunting opportunities in California.
"The seasons are typically set by the January, February and March rainfall," said Mastrup.
"Those months are key indicators of how good the season is going to be. The body condition of the hens is really set by then, and it's hard to recover from poor body condition."
Egg production is physiologically taxing for the hens. They need a huge amount of nutritional resources to lay all those eggs.
There might be a few places in Southern California where you get a late hatch, but the females literally turn off if they are in poor condition at the start of the reproductive cycle, Mastrup said.
Some late-April rains gave rise to hopes for a last-minute jumpstart to the reproductive cycle. It varies from area to area, but late rains generally don't help a whole lot. It was mostly a case of too little, too late.
The picture isn't entirely bleak, however. While the southern half of the state generally suffers during dry winters, other parts of the state will fare better. Here's a region-by-region breakdown of what you can expect this season.
NORTH COAST REGION
The entire North Coast, pretty much west of Highway 5, is expected be good this year.
"The birds often suffer from too much rain in this area, and all around, dry years tend to be better than wet years in this area," Mastrup said. "It's good for ground-nesting birds because they experience less chick mortality. From Mendocino County on up, it's looking pretty good."
This vast region includes a lot of different habitat types where you can find California quail, as well as mountain quail in higher elevations.
Some areas are always better for one species or the other, so it pays to get out and scout before the season. Areas worth exploring include the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness Area and the Modoc National Forest, particularly in the lower elevations.
The Shasta-Trinity National Forest has good numbers of mountain quail and decent populations of California quail, as does the Six Rivers National Forest. Quail numbers are generally lower in the Lassen National Forest, but the Klamath National Forest promises good hunting for those who focus their efforts near recent burn sites or clearcuts.
Other traditional quail hunting areas include the Tehama Wildlife Area; BLM and forest service lands around Surprise Valley; the Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Area near Cottonwood; the Paynes Creek Recreation Area near Red Bluff; the King Range National Conservation Area near Garberville; the Fort Sage Mountains; the Honey Lake, Doyle, Bass Hill, Biscar, Cinder Flats and Horseshoe Ranch wildlife areas; and BLM lands near Susanville and Alturas.
These areas are just for starters. Year after year, the most successful hunters are those who put in an effort to locate concentrations of birds prior to the season opener.
The so-called Great Basin area of far northeastern California and adjoining lands typically present hunters with a boom-or-bust scenario.
Depending on the amount, timing and severity of winter precipitation, hunting prospects can range from fantastic to terrible.
"The northeastern part of California tends to suffer in winters with a lot of snow," said Mastrup. "The birds do better in warmer winters -- but not necessarily dry ones." This region's quail reproduction depends more on spring and summer rains than on mid-winter precipitation.
Hunters will find plenty of room to roam in search of birds. This northeastern part of the state takes in four national forests and roughly 10 million acres of land, from the Sierra crest to the floor of the Great Basin. There are mountain quail at mid- to high elevations
, and California quail from the mid-elevations on down.
If winter arrives early, look for the mountain quail to migrate lower, where their range may overlap with that of California quail. While California quail may range up to 5,000 feet, mountain quail are not numerous below 3,000 feet. Throughout much of the state, the boundary between the two species lies at about 5,000 feet. When conditions are right, hunters targeting this elevation, have the added bonus of potentially harvesting both species in a single outing.
SACRAMENTO-SAN JOAQUIN VALLEYS, SIERRA FOOTHILLS
The Sacramento Valley area is a little more stable, and really wet years aren't necessarily that good.
"It should do fine this season," said Mastrup.
Likewise, in lower elevations to the east along the Sierra foothills, hunting should be good.
"The area doesn't get the big booms in production, but it also doesn't get the real big failures," said the expert. "Hunters can expect an average to slightly less-than-average season."
The farther south you go along the Sierra foothills bordering the southern San Joaquin Valley, the more you can expect diminished prospects.
Since these foothills encompass a huge amount of land and habitat types, our space prohibits a listing of all the possibly productive areas to hunt. It's best to concentrate your efforts on finding suitable habitat for the species you're hunting.
For California quail, this means looking for woodland openings, grasslands and savannah habitats where they have reliable access to water. Recent burn areas, where the vegetation is in early successional stages, are prime areas to target.
The birds tend to avoid dense cover, and most often are associated with brushy, weedy or grassy areas that are more open, but with sufficient roosting cover nearby.
By the time hunting season rolls around, birds may venture some distance from their roosts in search of food. But they'll seldom stray more than a couple of dozen yards from some form of cover.
Mountain quail are, as their name implies, birds of the high country. They like steep slopes associated with piÃ±on-juniper, oak woodland, chaparral and mixed evergreen forest habitats. They are equally fond of such areas when they contain patches of brush that a man can't walk through for more than a few feet, if at all.
This association with escape cover often translates into close, quick shooting that mandates the use of fast-handling shotguns and open chokes.
When you think of the mountainous spine of California known as the Sierra Nevada, you think about mountain quail, the largest of California's three species of quail -- and, to my way of thinking, the most challenging to hunt.
"Mountain quail populations are more stable overall and less subject to dramatic fluctuations," said Mastrup. "But they are a harder bird to hunt. You've got to be in good physical condition to hunt mountain quail in most of their range. It is not a sport for the weak of heart."
You don't get the big multi-clutch families you get with the Gambel's and California quail. You'll usually find them in single-family units -- a dozen to two dozen birds at most.
"Most guys have their favorite spots because the birds are generally in the same areas every year," said Mastrup. "They tend to be dispersed, and you don't get the big densities. But there are a few places where they congregate. Those spots tend to be tightly guarded secrets."
The biggest challenge in hunting the high country, he said, is finding the birds before bad weather blows them down to widely scattered locations at lower elevations. "They go up to the high country, nest and raise their young, and leave pretty much about the same time of year -- plus or minus a week, depending on the weather," said Mastrup. "Generally, by October, they're out of there to lower elevations and into manzanita thickets and oak woodlands. They can become very hard to find, except for those who put in the time year after year and figure it out."
One solid clue is the presence of water. Mountain quail and California quail generally need to drink every day. As a result, these birds are never far from water throughout most of their range. This is especially true in the southern reaches of the Sierra, where I've often had good luck hunting arid, seemingly lifeless country by locating small trickles of water in the bottoms of ravines and gullies.
If you see fresh tracks in such spots, even though the soil may appear dry or merely damp, it's often possible to follow the tracks downhill until you find a spot where water surfaces. Chances are, you'll find birds there, too.
The Central Coast is expected to be thin this year.
"It's not been good," said Mastrup. "There's been very little rainfall -- better than in the deserts, but it's been very dry."
Things tend to be more stable right along the coast, he said, because the immediate coastal area receives more precipitation in the form of fog and drizzle. But the farther inland you go, precipitation is less reliable and bird numbers will be down. In these inland areas, the key to finding coveys is -- as always -- finding water.
Traditional public-land opportunities include parts of the Los Padres National Forest, BLM lands around Stockdale Mountain as well as the Tumey Hills and Griswold Hills areas, the Knoxville Wildlife Area, Cow Mountain Recreation Area, Clear Creek Management Area, Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation and the nearby Camp Roberts -- along with the adjoining Big Sandy Wildlife Area.
SOUTH COAST REGION
Said Mastrup, "It's looking pretty grim for most of Southern California. South of the Tehachapies, it's going to be lean. If there's a hatch at all, I'll be surprised. There will be places where the birds do OK. But overall, it could be a pretty lean year."
We had pretty good population carry-over, and had a decent year last year. But that was more from carry-over from the prior year than anything else. Two years ago, it was really good. But now, he said, it's going to get thin with no new recruitment.
It's not that the DFG is worried about the bird population, just that the quail have become increasingly difficult to hunt. These are adult birds that have survived two hunting seasons.
They get wise. They flush a mile away, and hunters will never see them again.
The bulk of the hunting opportunities in Southern California, apart from the deserts, are for California quail. Mountain quail exist in the higher elevations of the Angeles, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains as well as a few ranges farther south. In places
such as the BLM land bordering the northern and eastern limits of the San Bernardino National Forest, Gambel's quail overlap with California quail.
Wherever hunters venture in the national forest lands of Southern California, they can expect many road closures during the early part of the season, due to extreme fire danger.
As with other parched parts of the state, permanent water sources are likely spots to look for quail this season. Just be certain to obey laws mandating that you refrain from shooting within certain distances of man-made water sources such as guzzlers, which are critical to the survival of brood stock in lean years.
"That's why we have those laws on the books," said Mastrup. "You're not supposed to just be sitting on a water hole waiting to hunt them.
"That's just not right. These birds have to drink, and it's not very sporting to camp on the spot and force them to decide to forego a drink or face an eager German shorthair."
"In the deserts, it's all about place," said Mastrup. "Two years ago, some of the desert areas had wonderful hatches -- mostly Gambel's quail. And other parts didn't have that boom cycle, so they're carrying fewer birds.
"It's really about what conditions were two years ago and last year. That's what determines your carry-over population.
Mastrup said there will always be spots that got a nice thunderstorm or two. But it's going to be very spotty at best. Sometimes, late rains such as those that rolled through parts of Southern California in April can help, if they produce a late flash of growth. But the season is generally set by what happens through the end of February or early March.
This may be a year in which hard-core desert hunters may want to give the birds a rest.
"Check your birds to see what age-class they are," said Mastrup. "If you're not seeing many young birds, it's a good, sportsmanlike thing to give them a break. You're dipping into next year's breeders. You can't save them in the bank, so it's not exactly a one-for-one deal. But in these lean years, it's not a bad idea to back off and go pursue something else -- like mountain quail or blue grouse.
"In general," he said, "my best advice to quail hunters this year is to head north."