Written by Kirby Bristow
The year I turned 15, I trained my first bird dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Dudley. After record-breaking precipitation the previous winter, desert plants flourished, yielding a bumper crop of Gambel’s quail. Every day after the school bus dropped us off, I left my friends to watch “Gilligan’s Island” and solve their Rubik’s cubes while I took Dudley quail hunting. That was “Arizona Quail Hunting 101” for me. Thought I’ll never again match that season for days afield, over the years I’ve continued to study the secrets of quail hunting.
Arizona hunters primarily pursue three species of quail: Gambel’s, scaled and Mearns’ (Montezuma). A fourth species, California quail, is found along the Little Colorado River drainage in Apache County, but number are so low in Arizona that I’ll leave it out of this discussion. We hunt quail here from early October (late November for Mearns’) to early February. Arizona’s great weather offers eager pupils many chances to go afield.
Where to find Quail
Arizona has thousands of acres of public land open to quail hunters, including some remote areas that receive low hunting pressure. However, not all public lands provide suitable quail habitat. Here’s what I look for.
Gambel’s quail occupy a wide variety of habitats. Their range covers a majority of the state, excluding the highest elevations (above 6,000 feet) and the drier areas of northeastern Arizona. Sonoran desertscrub habitats often are most productive, though in good rainfall years hunting can be excellent in pinyon-juniper, scrub oak chaparral and semi-desert grasslands. Birds often concentrate along desert washes in dense scrubby vegetation and near water sources. Some densely vegetated habitats are difficult to hunt despite good quail numbers, because Gambel’s will run, refusing to fly except behind screening cover. Quail populations are affected by winter precipitation (October through March), so local information on winter rainfall from the previous year narrows the hunter’s search.
Scaled quail, a grassland species of the Chihuahuan Desert, are found in eastern Arizona. Throughout their range in Arizona, scaled quail habitat overlaps that of Gambel’s quail, so mixed coveys are not uncommon. The heart of scaled quail habitat is southeastern Arizona in the semi-desert grasslands near Willcox, Safford, Douglas and Sierra Vista. In these areas, the ratio of scaled quail to Gambel’s is about 10:1, as opposed to 1:10 at the edge of scaled quail habitat.
Generally, scaled quail are less concentrated along washes, preferring more open upland areas, although they seek out dense, scrubby vegetation in these areas. Yuccas and mesquite scrub are good habitat indicators. Avoid areas with dense woodland.
Scaled quail take advantage of both summer and winter precipitation, so their numbers are harder to predict than those of other quail species. Predictions may be less accurate unless based on field observations and hunter reports after the season opener in October.
Mearns’ quail inhabit the mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona. While the Santa Rita, Huachuca and Atascosa mountains are among the most popular Mearns’ hunting areas, any oak woodland or savannah on the Coronado National Forest can hold birds. Look for oak woodland with good grass cover and concentrate efforts on forested hillsides and drainage bottoms. Mearns’ numbers can be high in thickly vegetated habitat. Some is so remote, thick and steep it gets little to no hunting pressure.
Sporadic, localized summer rainfall determines Mearns’ quail numbers, which can be good in one mountain range and poor in another. Except in the best summer rainfall years, predictions about Mearns’ quail numbers based on precipitation are less reliable than site-specific field observations. Mearns’ quail breed much later than Gambel’s or scaled quail, so the hunting season starts later (mid-November) to allow chicks to mature.
A quail hunter needs only a few equipment items: a shotgun, boots and a vest. A good dog and a call can improve enjoyment, but are not necessary for success. Compared to just about any other outdoor activity, quail hunting requires a smaller initial investment.
Shotguns for quail hunting should be lightweight. A lighter shotgun comes up to the shoulder and points quickly, and is easier to carry all day. Among flushing game birds, quail accelerate fastest and seem to have an uncanny ability to put obstacles between themselves and the shooter. Many quail hunters go afield with the same long-barreled 12-gauge “Grandpa used for geese,” but that is a mistake. Some lightweight 12-gauge shotguns are suitable for quail hunting, but generally the smaller-gauge guns are lighter. The shotgun must fit properly to ensure the shooter can consistently and quickly mount the gun. Many factors affect shotgun fit. A knowledgeable salesperson can guide your decision, so ask for help before making a purchase.
Reliability, weight and fit are more important than action type for a quail-hunting shotgun. Any type of action works here, though few people hunt with single shots. Purists choose double-barreled firearms (side-by-sides, and over-and-unders), but these can be expensive. Semiautomatics are a decent choice, but for price and performance, it is hard to beat a pump gun.
For quail hunting, the choke (the amount of constriction on the shot pattern) should be open. A modified, improved cylinder or skeet choke works best. Lighter shot loads (1 ounce and lower) are sufficient. An added benefit of lighter loads is that the shotgun will kick less than it would with heavy loads. Many hunters use heavier loads to reduce the number of birds hit but not killed, but shot size is more critical to ensuring clean kills: No. 7.5 or No. 8 shot is commonly used. For late season birds, I even use No. 6 shot. I find No. 9 shot results in more crippled birds and is best-suited for clay targets.
The second piece of equipment required for quail hunting is a pair of lightweight boots. Success at finding quail is proportional to the numbers of miles walked, which can be brutal in poorly fitting, heavy, insulated boots. Try on boots before you purchase them. Boots that are uncomfortable in the store will be tortuous in the field. I prefer medium to high-top (8 to 12 inches) boots for ankle support and to keep grass seeds out of my socks. Leather boots fend off cactus spines. Waterproof boots are nice, but not necessary.
Unless you intend to carry birds and shotgun shells in grocery bags – don’t laugh, some hunter do – a good shooting vest is a necessity. I prefer strap vests that suspend the game bag and shell pockets from the shoulders with crisscrossing straps. Having less fabric, these vests are ideal on warm days. You can wear a light jacket underneath when temperatures drop.
I like roomy pockets up front for the carrying shells. Shell loops are handy but wear out quickly and shells fall loose in your pockets anyway. Pocket flaps keep out some of the small branches and leaves that accumulate as you wade through brush.
Many lightweight vests are made of cool, mesh material, but mesh can shred after one season in our quail country. I prefer sturdier material in hunter orange for enhanced safety. The game pocket should have a lining impervious to blood. Those that zip or snap completely open are easier to clean. Recent innovations have produced fancy vests with internal hydration systems and various configurations of pockets and game bags. These features can be convenient but are not required and may add unnecessary cost and weight.
Techniques and Tips
The hunter should be familiar with the habits of his quarry, especially the calls. Gambel’s and scaled quail make distinctive calls that can be heard from great distances. Knowing these calls and being able to imitate them cab be invaluable in locating coveys. Hunters should concentrate efforts in commonly used habitats (mentioned preciously). If hunting with a dog, trust the dog – its ability to locate birds is better than yours.
Found a covey? The next problem is getting in position for a shot. With Gambel’s and scaled quail, this can be tough, as the birds tend to run and flush out of range. Once the covey is broken up into singles, Gambel’s and scaled quail often hold very tight, flushing in a startling whir of wings as you approach the cover in which they are hiding. Carefully watch where the flushing covey flies to, rather than waste ammunition and distract your attention on questionable long-range shots. This is difficult to do, though, as the desire to bag birds after a long search can override logic in the heat of the moment.
When following up on a covey, look for likely cover where birds may settle, even if you don’t witness birds landing. Often, coveys settle just over the top of a ridge when flying uphill. Tight-holding singles will let the hunter walk by if every piece of cover isn’t investigated. Large coveys seem to evaporate as individual birds hide from the hunters. Be persistent: Learning to kick cactus and other cover to flush tight-holding birds offers some of the most exciting moments in quail hunting.
For Mearns’ quail, the covey rise often is the only shooting opportunity. Mearns’ coveys are usually small (five to 15 birds), and the wooded, steep areas where they’re found make following up on single birds difficult. Also, you are almost entirely dependent upon your dog to find Mearns’ quail, and because one bird gives off less scent then 10, even the best Mearns’ quail dogs have difficulty finding singles. It is better to search for a new covey than to waste time searching for a lone bird.
When a shot opportunity presents itself, be prepared to capitalize on it. Once a bird flushes, you have only a few seconds to mount your gun, acquire the target, swing and shoot. Being forewarned is one of the biggest assets of hunting with a dog. The alert hunter can read his dog’s behavior and know when a bird is likely to flush, even if the dog has not pointed. Hunters without dogs should try to predict when a bird is likely to flush. Carrying the gun with the muzzle pointed at the ground or in the air enables the hunter to mount the gun quickly.
When a bird is hit, mark it down and retrieve it as soon as safely possible. Birds can move after they land. Often times your bird will be found five to 10 yards past where you’d marked it down. Be persistent – look for feathers to help locate the kill. Sometimes marking the spot where you were standing at the shot will help you line up with landmarks and locate a downed bird. Wounded birds often run after landing, and shooting a wounded bird when it’s on the ground is not considered bad form when done safely. Avoid being distracted by other shooting opportunities until the downed bird is located – you’ll bring home more birds and less frustration.
I’ve enjoyed hunting quail ever since Dudley and I first took “Arizona Quail Hunting 101” together. One thing I like about it is that success relies more on skill than luck. We’ve all heard stories about the fortunate neophyte (aka lucky idiot) who stumbles into taking a nice buck, but no one stumbles into bagging a limit of quail. Another great thing about quail hunting is that it’s pure pursuit. There is no sneaking, stalking or crouching in camouflaged concealment. Generally the hunter who walks the most and shoots well is the one who earns an “A.”