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Last-Hurrah Birds

Don't put the shotgun away just yet. Several states across the West offer upland opportunities this month.

Last-Hurrah Birds

While many Western upland hunters spend February reflecting on the past season, the hardcore burn boot leather until the bitter end. (Author photo)

Looming over the flat, desolate landscape, the cone-shaped volcano was blanketed in snow, as out of place as a Walmart Christmas display in October. Before I could argue with him, my German wirehair was slipping and sliding his way up its flank, hooking around and out of sight. When I finally slogged my way to his elevation, I found him quivering, nostrils flaring, pointing into a small cave. Just then, a covey of valley quail erupted like bats in a National Geographic special. Mayhem ensued, a rodeo of stumbles, missed shots and even a few retrieves all the way back down to the valley floor. Ho-hum. Another day in late-winter paradise.

February is a lost month on most wingshooters’ calendars — white, cold and full of fond memories from months with more hospitable weather. However, it offers a week or two of hunting in many places around the West, which is way better than shoveling your driveway, right? Here are some starting points if you’re after last-ditch birds on public — or publicly accessible walk-in — ground.

Desert Delights

Arizona is a mecca for late-winter wingshooters. Shirtsleeve weather and exotic species put it atop many bird hunters’ lists. Cactus and sand transport you to a Western shoot-’em-up movie, and you can rest assured the ground will be dry.

Riparian areas along the Colorado River near Bullhead City harbor Gambel’s quail. Heading north to Tombstone puts you into scaled quail. Another scaled quail haunt is the Tonto Basin, a broad stretch of desert near Roosevelt Lake.

Mearns' quail
Perhaps no place in the United States offers better Mearns’ quail hunting than the area around the southern Arizona towns of Patagonia and Sonoita. (Gary Kramer photo)

East of Tucson is Willcox, with scaled quail hunting in the lower elevations northwest of town around the Steele Hills and Allen Flat areas. Another quail hot spot is Lake Havasu. The Bill Williams River’s west side offers excellent access.

The hamlets of Patagonia and Sonoita are the stuff of Mearns’ quail legend. Surrounded by the Coronado National Forest, with oak woodlands and serious hill walking, you’ll find lodging, RV parks, pro guides and a winter culture built in part around visiting hunters.

Arizona’s season for all quail species closes on Feb. 11 this year.

Tip: Patagonia-based guide Steve Hopkins says Mearns’ feed mid-morning on canyon floors, heading uphill to ridges mid-afternoon.

Enchanting Opportunities

New Mexico offers similar weather, terrain and bird species as its western neighbor, but without the hoopla.

A faint speck on many bird hunters’ radar, New Mexico offers four wild quail species: scaled, Gambel’s, northern bobwhites and Mearns’. Scalies are predominant, but you’ll find Gambel’s in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest along the New Mexico-Arizona border and in the Pecos River valley.

Scaled quail
Scaled quail are one of four quail species in New Mexico. Look for them on the Arizona border and in the Pecos River valley. (Gary Kramer photo)

On my last foray among the cactus and kachinas in the Land of Enchantment, it was hot, dry and dusty on a wilderness near the town of Deming. Running Gambel’s quail vexed pointing dogs coursing the arroyos. They only flew when we put a pincer strategy together — two pairs of hunters circling wide and closing on skittering coveys. My young dog’s first point was an Angus steer, then he chased a jackrabbit 1,000 yards before settling into the work at hand.

The joy of any New Mexico hunt is a constant state of wonder: scaled quail when you expect Gambel’s; a vividly marked Mearns’ that turns your hand into a picture frame when you hold it; a ringside seat for the nightly star show.

Recommended


Tip: Outfitter Dave Brown offers this advice about scalies: “Keep pressing forward after a flush, and circle back through the same area as birds often split off in singles and pairs.”

Bobwhite quail
Hunt bobwhites in the Trans-Pecos region of south-central New Mexico all the way down to the Texas border. (Gary Kramer photo)

Bobwhites roam the Trans-Pecos region, and you can hear their familiar whistle to the south along the Texas border. Striking, colorful Mearns’ quail are most prevalent in Catron County. They scratch and chitter in the Cibola National Forest, the San Andres Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains, with the most concentrated population in the south-central part of the state. The sky is bluer, the moon is brighter and the ground is almost always snow-free. You can hunt New Mexico’s quail until Feb. 15.

Battle-Born Birds

Nevada offers chukar hunting on top of valley and Gambel’s quail. Take sunscreen to pursue Gambel’s near Las Vegas. Wear high boots to chase chukars and valley quail north of Interstate 80. You can hunt all three until Feb. 4.

Like a scorned lover in a romance novel, the Silver State can embrace you one day and try to kill you the next. Federally-owned (Bureau of Land Management) desert country holds Gambel’s quail, while rugged slopes ring with the calls of alectoris chukar. You’ll be driving a lot and walking more, and your main concern, for both yourself and your dog, will be hydration instead of hypothermia.

There are Gambel’s south of Caliente and in the Mormon Mountains. The Delamar range can produce, as will the arroyos near the town of Searchlight, just 50 miles south of Las Vegas.

Tip: Listen for Gambel’s calls before you unclip the dog lead. Once fed, the birds ascend to the desert slopes and loaf in cover that has a clear understory with overhead protection from avian predators. Find water sources to begin your search—they seldom go farther than a mile from a drink.

Gambel's quail
Find Gambel’s quail in southern Nevada, from the Mormon Mountains south to the town of Searchlight. (Gary Kramer photo)

Chukars and valley quail roam the northern half of the state, east of Reno and north and south of Interstate 80. Snow and frigid temperatures are part and parcel of late-season hunts, but a slog through knee-deep snow could elicit a thunderous covey flush.

Near one small town, my friend Dave and I split up, each taking a small stream course uphill. Dave had clearly drawn the short straw, as my dog and I bumped a single valley quail at each bend. We spent most of the night thawing out, but plucking birds kept us warm enough.

On another hunt, a robin’s egg-blue sky contrasted with a trackless, pristine carpet of snow. We plowed through it without seeing a feather until we tumbled through a rocky canyon. Birds hunkered in the lee side, and we chuckled at a wirehair and a Lab doing the “after you, no, after you,” dance on a retrieve.

Tip: While not always true, chukars often forage for cheatgrass shoots just below the snow line. While you’re up there, watch for tracks in the white stuff and keep your shotgun at the ready.

Wing-Shoot Rodeo

Wyoming is a red-headed stepchild for upland birds, but if a little wind doesn’t bother you, there are chukars and Huns on the ground around Torrington. Stubble fields atop steep, rocky slopes hold Huns, and every so often you’ll surprise chukars venturing uphill for the free buffet. While all wild birds love habitat edges, never have I seen this more prevalent than in the Cowboy State, where the season runs through the month of February.

The northwest corner of Wyoming, including the west slope of the Bighorns near Cody, offers the best chukar hunting. Consider Lander, Buffalo and the Powder River’s South Fork, too.

Tip: Try to get above chukars and send dogs downslope. Birds will run up until they spot you, then fly. If you’re approaching laterally, place one hunter uphill a few dozen yards ahead of the other hunter on a cross-slope route. He’ll short-stop birds running up, forcing them to fly down to you. Return the favor by buying the first round at happy hour. Huns will shiver between rows of wheat stubble for shelter in the wind, so brave the elements and explore the middle of big fields, especially the low spots.

Don’t Forget Utah

Utah is a sleeper state for late upland action. Most years, you’ll be hiking snowy, icy slopes. The weather can mellow closer to the Great Salt Lake, but you’ll compete with a few more like-minded hunters there.

Utah’s best chukar numbers tend to come from the Central Region. Tooele County, home of the Cedar Mountains, can produce, as can Utah and Juab counties. River canyons such as the Sevier drainage have the requisite slopes, water and rocky features. Good numbers of chukars are taken in Box Elder, Millard and Sevier counties. Hunt the Beehive State until Feb. 15.

A lot of bird hunters case their guns in February. But with a little research and Mother Nature’s blessing, your dog can be retrieving throughout winter.

Canine Considerations

Take care of your hunting dog in rough, late-season conditions.

Your dog hunts naked and barefoot, and he burns a lot of calories. The stumps, staubs and rocks hidden under a blanket of snow compound his risk. Consider these suggestions, so both of you can safely get out for another week or so instead of snoozing on the couch.

A vest might keep your dog warmer, especially if it’s a shorthaired breed. Once the sun shines, a dog can overheat, so watch him carefully. In cold weather, a dog is less inclined to drink and can easily dehydrate. “Bait” his water with a little bouillon to encourage drinking.

Teach him to wear boots, and practice at home well before you leave for your hunt. The first time a booted-up dog tries walking is funnier than most episodes of “Saturday Night Live.”

And keep the calories flowing. After the hunt, consider supplementing your hunting buddy’s kibble with wet dog food to encourage appetite; add extra fat in the form of butter, vegetable oil or a commercial product. During the hunt, offer egg yolk from a squeeze tube, which is almost 100 percent fat and a fantastic source of instant energy.




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