May 17

Southwest Quail Hunting Tips

Take some time to read through these tips. A lot can be learned from Dr. Mike Altman, long time quail hunter and dog handler.

Submitted by Dr. Mike Altman

Tactics (Mistakes I Have Made Repeatedly)

All Species

*Site fidelity is a cornerstone of all quail hunting (especially Mearns’).


Always carry more shells than you think you will need.

Hunt after rainy weather; the second day and a rising barometer are best . Know which of your sites are “water proof” (free of muddy roads).

Hunt a figure of 8 (each on separate loops) with your partner when scouting a new area (most efficient way to cover more ground).

*Always look for patterns of bird distribution and habitat (may vary with time of season, time of day, and weather). Note that some sites may always be better at a certain time of day.

*In all bird hunting, “Hunting is a game of edges” – Aldo Leopold. The ideal situation is to have one hunter on the edge and one 30 yards inside.

Hunt water sources in a concentric circles pattern.

Check for foot prints (“chicken ranch sign”) in washes and dusty areas (Gambel’s and Scalies) and fresh diggings under trees (Mearns’). Then hunt in concentric circles. They are there somewhere.

Always check landmarks and/or mark your vehicle’s location with a GPS before leaving.

Hunt with the wind in your face in so far as possible (your dogs will thank you, and you will be rewarded).

*Always watch the dog when in the field (for a point or an inadvertent flush).

After flushing a covey and marking the birds down, be prepared for the “short bird” while approaching. When hunting Scalies, look for both the “short bird” and the “long bird.” There may also be a “late riser” at the original covey flush site.

After flushing a covey and marking them down, hunt “the band or zone” horizontally (criss cross and let your dog work slowly — the “vacuum cleaner”). The zone is approximately 20 yards wide & 40 yards long).

Use the hawk call after the covey has dispersed (while encircling or approaching).

Walk to the point briskly and keep your eyes up on arriving (don’t look for the bird). This will save you a split second.

Trust your dog if he/she is staunch (even if a rabbit breaks, a tweeter flies or you can’t flush the bird). Leave yourself a “shooting lane” when approaching a point.

If a bird flushes between you and your partner and your shooting lane is blocked, holler “yours.” Otherwise, neither of you may shoot, as you are assuming he will shoot and he is assuming you will.

Deep breathe at point and stay relaxed.

Beware the “popcorn flush.” You may need your second shell to “catch up” with a bird missed on the first shot, but don’t take a “stretch shot.” Other easier shots are often available (and lost if your guns is empty). A semi auto, of course, addresses the issue, but it also compromises safety.

When you or your dog points or flushes a single bird (no covey), hunt in concentric circles for at least 50 yards. The covey may be “salt & peppered” in the vicinity. Newsflash: quail are gregarious and finding a true single is rare.

Be aggressive with your second shot if the bird is not finished.

Think doubles; your dog & partner will help you with downed birds.

Take the wind into account when shooting (extend your lead).

*Always count to ten before breaking your gun, if you have only fired one shot (the “widow bird”).

Don’t shoot out of frustration (the longer the “dry spell,” the more likely it is to happen).

Mark downed, lost birds with a blaze orange hanky on a branch (not your hat on the ground). Return later with your dog.

Pause and pick up your downed bird with your off hand (stay prepared to shoot).

Do not shoot more when you have two birds on the ground (rare exceptions).

After shooting at and apparently missing a bird, continue to watch its flight path as long as possible; It may drop at a great distance.

If you have downed a bird and cannot find it even with your dog on the ground, search the upper part of the brush (where your dog may not scent it).

Never shoot more than four birds from a covey on a given hunt or more than a third of the covey over the season. Don’t shoot small coveys. Limit your limit (who needs to shoot more than 8-10 birds a day?).

Don’t walk if your hands are otherwise occupied, and you cannot shoot.

Stop and twang one of the stands of barbed wire before crossing a fence; be prepared for a flush.

*Hunt the “Golden Hour” (when not scouting). “I’ve pulled out a lot of games in the fourth quarter.” Hunt with the sun to your back at day’s end (they invariably fly into the sun).

Do not rehunt the same area the next day (less productive). Generally, allow at least three days “rest. ”

Desert Birds (Gambel’s & Scaled)

*Be completely prepared to shoot (including collaring the dogs) before you get to the field.

Drive the edges for the first and last hours of the day and record covey locations to return at a future time (no hunting now).

Beware the dove flush for it may harbor quail.

After flushing a covey while driving, park on a line with the site where you marked them down. Then while in the field, you can use your vehicle as a marker.

When leaving your vehicle after a covey has flushed, prepare one man at a time with the other keeping his eye on the marked landing site (they will sometimes flush again while you are preparing).

Double mark downed birds and coveys in open country (close and horizon).

After flushing a covey while driving and marking them, pursue without your dogs. After the second covey rise return for your dogs (unless you have better control than I do). It’s a nuisance but will result in more birds in the bag at the end of the day.

*LEAD, LEAD, LEAD (SWING, SWING, SWING / butt, belly, beak, bang). Did you ever hear a hunter say, “I was too far in front of that bird”?

“Push” birds toward good cover (where they will hold).

When you know the “safety zone” of the birds (where they will fly after flushing), hunt toward it so as to avoid flushes behind you (tough shot).

When you flush a covey and are hunting singles, always walk both sides of a small road if there is one in the vicinity of where you spotted them down.

Hunt confluences of draws and fences.

When looking for a wounded bird buried in brush or cactus, trample it (they will sometimes flee, giving your dog a chance to retrieve).

After checking for your dog’s location, dispatch a wounded bird.

Water your dog and relieve yourself in open ground (less chance for a bird flush).

Mid day is poor in the hot months (take a break), but good in the cool months.


*Use the quail call, especially early and late in the day. You may get responses or you may flush birds. If in the vehicle, stop and listen for two minutes before using the call; then wait for five minutes before leaving. The call is less valuable (but still worth trying) later in the season.

Draws are best hunted early in the day (Gambel’s and Mearns’); ridges & hillsides in the afternoon. Hunt the “tops” of draws.

Hunt edges, grass patches, cactus, mesquites and depressions/washes. Try to cut off escape routes to cover (canyons, dense mesquite thickets, etc.).

After hunting a covey with limited success, return in 30 – 45 minutes and use your call (Scalies talk sooner then Gamble’s). Some feel this also allows for better scenting conditions (vs “air washing”).

Hunt tumbleweed patches with a quail call (not suitable for dog work). Shoot only one bird at a time and mark it.

Gambel’s will typically land on or just over the hill top after flushing.

When hunting for Gambel’s singles, “bust the brush”.


Rocky, grassy, cactus (prickly pear, cholla or yucca), mesquite ridges are preferred sites for Scalies.

Hunt tanks, abandoned farm sites, corrals and roads.

Watch the rear view mirror when driving in Scalie country. They will sometimes flush behind you.

When spotting a Scalie covey on the road, do not chase them (you’ll lose every time); put them aloft with the vehicle or a shot and pursue 50 to 100 yards beyond where you believe them to be (encirclement tactic-“valentine pattern”).

After being flushed Scalies will usually land in a grass patch or cactus (sometimes open ground). They rarely land in depressions and never fly into canyons (as do Gambel’s).

Learn to recognize the call of Scalies.

Hunt near a water source or road at 4:00.


Always GPS your location before leaving the vehicle.

You are as dependent on your dog for finding birds as he/she is dependent on you for eating. Forget the above tips for locating desert birds. Mearns’ will flush in all directions (including at you) and land anywhere.

Quick, reflex shooting is the order of the day.

When shooting an oncoming bird, choose the “sweet spot” out front. If you wait a fraction too long the bird will be past you, and you will have to turn and shoot going away (a very difficult shot). You will never see this shot with desert birds.

When hunting birds below a hilltop, approach from above; otherwise they “top out” before you can shoot.


*Emulate pilots and use your hunter check list in preparation & again on leaving home. I’ve forgotten everything but my dogs.

*Network (time saving). You’ll learn who’s reliable, but you always must do your own homework. Any person’s opinion may be flawed and may not apply to a different time of the season (including mine).

Be slow to condemn a hunting site. Although your initial venture in the hot early season may be non productive, you may be surprised later in cooler weather. However, two busts, and I’m gone. Even a mediocre site may stay on my list if the aesthetics are exceptional.

Pick up shells in the field. They are a blight on the environment, a threat to cattle, tell others where birds are and against the law in Arizona.

Shells and chokes: high base 7 ½’s with skeet I and improved cylinder for Gambel’s and Scales (occasionally modified); low base 8’s with cylinder and skeet I for Mearns’. Consult: Michael McIntosh.

It goes without saying, that a dog is an integral member of the team. They will expose you to more opportunities, eliminate bird losses and provide unforgettable moments in the field.

Cornerstone of hunter ethics: never return to a friend’s “honey hole” unless he is with you or has given you permission.

You can increase your net worth by earning more or spending less. You can put more birds in your bag by increasing the number of opportunities or improving your success rate when you have an opportunity.


*EVERY GUN IS ALWAYS LOADED (“Laser Beam”). NEVER point it in the direction of another person or dog.

*At the vehicle your gun is the last item out on leaving for the field and the first item in on returning.

*Make certain your gun is unloaded before putting it in the vehicle (double check). Never lean a gun (especially at a fence or a vehicle).

*Always break your gun when near the vehicle or when searching for a downed bird.

When crossing a fence, lay your gun on the ground. Go through or under the fence.

Your emergency kit (especially important on Mearns’ hunts): GPS, cell phone, rain poncho, space blanket, kleenex, Leatherman, lighter, LED light, candy bar, water (all items available in light weight, compact versions).

*Your safety equipment: blaze orange clothing/cap, shatter proof glasses, gloves, hearing protection.

*Never leave the vehicle without water (for yourself and your dog).

*Quail hunting is a two man/two barrel gun sport (with few exceptions). Hunt with a partner for the sake of safety, more shots and sharing the highlights of the hunt.

*Always hunt abreast. Never shoot in the direction of your partner.

*Always stay in touch with your partner by sight, whistle or walkie talkie. It’s easy to mistake his location, especially as light is fading (just ask Dick Cheney).

The best hunter is not the one with the most birds, but the one with the most “passed” shots (bird not shot at because of partner’s position).

Bird Opinions

The most beautiful quail: let the debate begin.

The tightest holding covey bird: Mearns’; the tightest holding single bird: Gambel’s

The most physically demanding quail to hunt: Mearns’

The toughest shot in all of quail hunting a Scalie on the wind – lead, lead, lead (maybe a Mearns’ flying into your face?).

The most sensational shot in all of quail hunting: a towering Scalie (maybe a Scotch double)

Although the most spectacular of all upland game birds (unpredictable on the flush, beautiful, tight holding for dogs, tasty, rare, the habitat it resides in) Mearns’ are also the most dangerous because of their tendency to flush in any direction. You must be especially careful with your partner (willing to pass up a shot).

The Achilles heel of each species: Mearns’ – strong site fidelity, Scalies – road penchant, Gambel’s – calling

Your important quail allies: Nervous Norm (the flusher), Sentinel Sam (the percher), Running Roger (the runner), Chatty Charlie (the talker).

*The single most powerful determinant of Southwest quail breeding success is timely, abundant rainfall (amazing resiliency). The critical period is different for each species (some overlap). Rain may be spotty and adjacent areas may vary widely in terms of the bird populations they are supporting.

Be prepared to travel to other states for birds when your populations are sparse.

High percentage shooting requires:
1. Numerous birds (thus obviating frustration shots)
2. Careful shot selection
3. No wind
4. No obstructions (trees)
5. Excellent retrieving by your dog.

Quail hunting is a demanding sport and to succeed at a high level requires excellent vision,acute hearing, cardiovascular fitness, orthopedic health, quick reflexes, knowledge of your quarry and intense concentration. What other sport requires this many attributes? Your dog, of course, adds scenting and ground coverage beyond your capabilities.

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