Put Arizona Quail On Your Bird Hunt Calendar
Hunting Desert Quail
Despite its foibles, Arizona quail hunting has a lot going for it. For us snowbirds, it’s a great way to extend the season and avoid frostbite. The season runs October into February, and for us the last six weeks hold the most appeal. Typical January days start out chilly, but soon turn balmy. Afternoons can top out in the 70s, even 80s, thus early starts are de rigueur.
There are three species of desert quail scattered throughout Arizona. Gambel’s are the most widespread and abundant, and account for about 90 percent of the hunters’ bag, scaled are 6 percent and Mearns’ 4 percent.
South and west of a line drawn from the extreme northwest corner of the state through Flagstaff and Pinetop to the New Mexico border is Gambel’s territory.
Scaled quail inhabit the extreme southeast corner where New Mexico, Mexico and Arizona butt up against. Scaled quail prefer open grasslands and scattered soaptree yucca. Overall numbers vary season to season, up given ample winter and spring rain, down in the dry years. Timing is critical.
Put Arizona Quail On Your Bird Hunt Calendar by Chuck Robbins
Desert quail run, but the real track stars are scalies (shown here).
Mearns’ are scattered about the entire southeast quarter of the state, but only in those places where live oaks over story at least 40 percent grass ground cover.
Look for Gambel’s where heavy roosting cover, mesquite, cat claw, and other hardwoods, adjoins dry sand washes. Arroyos between 3,000 and 4,500 feet are a primo spot.
They Flush As A Last Resort
When confronted by hunters and slavering hounds, Gambel’s and scalies (aka cottontops) play by the same rules: run first, flush as a last resort. Heavy grass helps, but don’t hold your breath. As track stars both qualify, but scalies are the real sprint champions. Kate the wirehair is a specialist. In pursuit of sprinting cottontops, tracking 100 yards is ho-hum. More the norm is trailing the rascals 200 yards to 300 yards, skirmishes that too often end with wild flushes, and perhaps a shot or two. Get lucky, and a bird or two go in the bag.
Public land abounds (only about 13 percent of Arizona is private), and finding a spot to hunt is not a problem. Bag limits are a liberal 15 quail daily combined species, (no more than 8 Mearns), so bring lots of ammo. Depending on conditions and shooting skills, you can easily blast away two boxes in a morning. Regardless of gauge, light shotguns (easy carry), IC/Mod chokes for Gambel’s and scalies, and Skeet/IC for Mearns’ with 7-1/2-shot backed up by 6s work for me.
A Harsh Hunting Environment
The desert is a harsh place with plentiful sunshine, it’s dry and often hot, with lots of “stickies,” and things that bite. Water is also scarce to non-existent. Essential gear includes a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeve shirt, sturdy, well broken in boots, chaps over brush pants, sunscreen, and lots of water. Early season, say from opening day through mid-December, snakes are a consideration. Rattlesnakes abound, you might encounter one anytime (any month, any place) the temperature reaches 70 degrees Fahrenheit. (when it’s above 85 Fahrenheit, most head for a hole). Snakebites are rare, especially rare among hunters. The best medicine is to avoid snaky places during warm periods. Should you do chance upon one, give it a wide berth, and hunt elsewhere. Goosey around snakes? Consider snake boots, leggings or chaps.
This brings us to the dog. Water is urgent for it — as much as you can carry — several quarts minimum for a five-hour to six-hour hunt per dog. Also needed are pick-me-ups such as honey, power bars and canned food. Examine dogs — between the toes, up under the legs, tails, testicles, everywhere — and relieve them of cactus spines at least twice daily; carry forceps and good tweezers. EMT gel and Tough Pad are essentials. Properly conditioned dogs (i.e. hunted, run, regularly) quickly learn to dodge stickies underfoot, consequently boots aren’t necessary; tenderfeet turn sore pronto … boots then might get you another day or two. For dogs, snakes are a real hazard. Snake breaking (by a pro) comes highly recommended. Javelinas, nasty little wild pigs, when threatened sometimes attack, even kill, bird dogs.
Dogs well-schooled in the commands, “Whoa,” “Leave It,” and “Here” tend to get along much better with snakes, pigs and other desert hazards than renegades.
A non-resident license costs $113.50 season, $51.50, for a three day. Licenses are available on line at www.gf.state.az.us/ or over the counter at various outlets. While clean and reasonable motels exist in almost any small town, we prefer camping. With a little scouting and planning, obviously hunting can be as close as right out the door. Beyond the obvious living in the desert comes with as much galaxy as can viewed anywhere on the planet, to say nothing, of the chance to kibbutz all those critters.