Hunting Arizona Scalies
Written by Bill Watt
Published by Quail Forever Magazine
Photo credit: istock.com/gewildnatuurfotografie
Bagging scaled quail in southeastern Arizona starts with finding the right habitat and my friend Web was leading us to a spot he’s been hunting for decades. Web Parton has hunted and guided in Arizona for nearly 30 years; he’s also been a bird dog breeder and trainer.
Although Web is no longer in the breeding business, he’s still actively training dogs. We would be hunting over two of his current class of canines plus one of his last pups, Jack, a 10-year-old English setter owned by my friend Rob Breeding, who now lives in Wyoming. Jack is getting on in years, but his enthusiasm for finding birds has not diminished.
When we met in Safford, Arizona, it was still dark and cold, having snowed in the high country. As daylight arrived on the Pinalenos cresting at 10,720 feet above sea level, we could see layers of fresh powder dressing the mountain. One of the larger “Sky Islands” scattered throughout this part of Arizona, its beauty when covered with fresh snow is stunning. We would be hunting at lower elevations, but the sight was still a bit unnerving. As we headed off into the gray dawn, we could see fresh patches of snow and heavy frost covering the landscape along our route.
The southern part of Arizona is dominated by basins mountain ranges. Scaled quail like the shoulders, or bajadas, of those mountains and range down into the grassland flats of the basins. We were targeting grasslands dominated by Tobosa grass with sparsely scattered shrubs, soaptree yucca and staghorn cholla cactus. Mike Rabe, small game program supervisor with Arizona Game and Fish, emphasized hunters seeking scaled quail should look for open native grasslands with washes and draws and a water source nearby. “Scaled quail prefer areas with infrequently occurring low bushes less than about two feet high, so hunters should look for places dominated by grasslands”, said Robe.
Photos by Bill Watt
Hit the Brakes!
Hunting scales, or cotton-tops as they are also known, can be like finding a $20 bill stuffed in your shirt pocket; sometimes they just show up. On one of our previous forays into quail country, we were heading from our morning hunt to another promising site when we bumped a large covey as it crossed the road. We’re not road hunters; nor are we fools. Scalies are perhaps the most difficult of all quail to locate. But here was no flying gravel or spinning tires. We simply stopped the truck and took our sweet time getting ready for the hunt so the birds would settle and resume their normal routine. We had found a covey and were going to make a hunt of it.
We headed out into the grassland expecting the first flush would be wild and well before the dogs could find the birds and point. Sure enough, we hadn’t gone far before the first flush. Scaled quail are known for flushing wild and running, the trick is to first get them to fly, and then watch where they go and follow. Often after one or two flushes or runs, the birds will hold long enough for a good point. According to Rabe, scalies are only capable of two or three flushes per hour before they are wasted and need to rest.
“Quail and other gallinaceous birds typically don’t want to fly and would rather run given the opportunity. And scalies really love to run. They are a very visual bird and when they lose sight of the hunter or their fellow quail, they get nervous and flush or run,” said Rabe. “Without a dog it’s almost impossible to pick them up individually,” he added.
After the initial flush, we headed to where the largest part of the covey had landed. Carefully working out way through the area and watching the dogs closely, we were able to get more birds in the air and bag a few. Eventually the birds became widely separated and we ended the hunt to give them time to regroup before day’s end.
Photo by Bill Watt
Scalies and Gambel’s Team Up
Hunters can also find scalies while hunting Gambel’s quail in the Southwest. Gambel’s prefer Sonoran Desert habitat. They also do well along the washes and draws in the bottoms of the grassland habitats in the Chihuahuan Desert where scaled quail typically dominate. Zigzagging across the face of large sloping bajadas down into washes can produce flushes of both species during a single hunt. Using this tactic, we bumped a covey of Gambel’s quail as we skirted a mesquite-lined wash. Jack, the aging setter, was in top form as he worked the area for singles. We had yet to bump a covey of scalies and were hoping this was a mixed covey. In places where scaled and Gambel’s quail overlap, they will form mixed coveys during winter months. And although our covey could very well have been mixed, none of the birds we took were scalies.
Web had to head home after the morning hunt, but Rob and I still had three days of hunting ahead of us. The next morning we headed out with Jack and Rob’s young setter, Doll. Sometimes even good dogs, promising habitat and good conditions don’t produce quail. After Rob declared that “there aren’t any quail around here,” we decided to head over to Mearns’ country near Sonoita, Arizona, and try our luck with a different species.
After coming up empty on scaled quail, I talked with Rabe about his year’s population levels. “It’s been a very dry year down in southeast Arizona,” said Rabe. “Although scalies are less affected by the extended drought throughout the Southwest. We’re hearing from biologists in both New Mexico and Texas that scaled quail are doing very poorly. However, hunters wiling to work for their game should be able to find isolated coveys, just not in high numbers.” He pointed to areas in the Sulphur Springs Valley near Wilcox Area and places around Tombstone, Arizona, that held some birds.
But Rabe sounded words of encouragement for the future. “Scalies seem steadier than Gambel’s reproductively because they are not so tied to good winter rains. Quail have a very high reproductive rate and are capable of bouncing back quickly when conditions change. But habitat for scalies has been declining and degrading. Some of the pronghorn grassland restoration (reseeding and removal of invasive species) that has been done is benefiting scalies. We do have opportunities in Arizona to improve scaled quail habitat so when good rains return we’ll be positioned for a stronger rebound,” said Rabe.
Climbing for Mearns Quail
Southeast Arizona is immense and hope is the hunter’s master; we were in Mearns’ country. If the needs for rainfall is an undeniable truth in the production of quail, then its first cousin is that summer monsoon thunderstorms are highly localized. That leas to localized areas where quail prosper. Simple, but here are no roadmaps showing the way.
Rob lives in Wyoming now, but as a former Arizona resident, he’s hunted Mearns a long time and ha a favorite spot he wanted to try. Arriving after dark is never the best option, but we did nab a great campsite in time to settle in and get ready for the morning hunt. Our camp was situated in a wide canyon bottom with steep shoulders holding side canyons and draws cut by erosion and thick with live oak. We headed up one of those side canyons in the morning behind Jack and Doll as they dodged about searching for scent. Rob had mentioned that as the season progressed the birds get pushed up higher into the heads of the side canyons.
The steep climb and thick vegetation made going touch for humans, but the dogs seemed oblivious to the terrain. These conditions are what make a hunter appreciate a good bird dog. While we two-wheeled bipeds struggle and wheeze (speaking for myself), our canine companions use four wheel drive to power up through the most difficult terrain. Near the canyon head it split into two branches; I went left and Rob when right. I heard a shot a few minutes after we split up, but in that terrain 100 yards feels like a country mile, so I head up out the canon and onto the mesa. When Rob arrived he confirmed bumping a small covey of Mearns and taking a shot, but not putting any birds in the bag. After a water break, we headed over to the next canyon and worked our way slowly back down toward the truck without finding another covey.
Back at the truck we stowed our gear, got Doll into her kennel, but couldn’t find Jack. Rob found him no far from the truck, on point! It turned out to be a large covey of Gambel’s quail that gave us a great hunt before heading back to camp.
Chasing quail in southeastern Arizona puts a hunter in line to bag one or more of three different species. If that weren’t enough, add the spectacular scenery of pine covered mountains and sparsely populated grassland basins and you have the makings of a memorable hunt you’ll want to repeat. Some hunters even drive all the way from Wyoming.