Quail hunters are about a century behind duck hunters
By JIM MATTHEWS
I came to the realization this week that quail hunters are about a century behind duck hunters in their understanding and pursuit of their quarry. I’m sure that part of that comes from the fact that market hunters didn’t spend a lot of time developing the best ways to kill lots of quail because it wasn’t profitable. And then when market hunting was outlawed, there wasn’t all this knowledge passed on the sport hunters.
If duck and goose hunters practiced their activity the same as quail hunters, most of them would be paddling around in boats and jump-shooting ducks when they could see birds and then get within range.
That might be a bit harsh because decoys, boats, and camouflage don’t have a lot of utility for quail hunters, but most quail hunters I know either don’t own or know how and when to use a quail call. The guys who hunt with bird dogs are the worst, believing their dog’s nose will find all the birds in an area. Since I’ve hunted with dogs for over 30 years, I can safely say that dogs are most valuable for retrieving downed birds that non-dog hunters would otherwise unintentionally leave for the scavengers. Most of the time, I’ve led my dogs where there were birds, and then they pinned down exactly where they were at the time.
The best quail hunters find and hunt birds through a three-step process: 1) learning what the best habitat looks like and where the quail live in that habitat, 2) scouting to find coveys, and 3) learning when and where to use a quail call to find out where the birds are when you are hunting.
I have been teaching public land bird hunting seminars and naming the list of favorite food plants doesn’t help much because most hunters have never taken field botany. So telling them atriplex (saltbush) or chamise (sometimes called Greasewood) are two of the best valley quail food and cover plants doesn’t help much, even if they know the plants. It is difficult to teach without being in the field over time because it is how the food plants form a mosaic with key cover and roost plants. That only comes with time.
Quail are fairly widespread across the Southern California landscape – valley quail in the foothills and desert margins, Gambel’s quail in the desert, and mountain quail from the piñon-juniper elevation and higher in our local mountains. You can find them by scouting and driving through country looking and listening for birds, and learning how their distinctive tracks look in sand and soft earth. Over time you will figure out “look” of the best habitat if you pay attention to such things, and you will become an expert at seeing the best locations to look for birds from the vehicle. Here are my three tips for basic scouting.
For scouting (and hunting), you need to understand that the birds need ready access to surface water. During the late spring, summer, and early part of the hunting season, the birds will be within a mile of a permanent water source. They will wander much further from those permanent sources once it rains and there is both green growth and water splashed across the landscape. Water is number one.
Second, you will find far more birds if you focus your efforts on north-facing hillside and slopes. Even in the flat desert country, the north-facing edge of a wash will always hold more birds than a south-facing edge. In rolling or steep county, where most of us hunt, the birds are almost always on the shady side of those washes and canyons. Why? It is because these areas hold moisture longer because they are shady, growing better food and cover for the birds. It’s not rocket science. If I had all the hours of my early hunting years when I was wandering around on birdless hillsides back, I’d be a decade younger.
Third, learn how to use a quail call. Quail are among the most vocal birds. During the summer and early fall, when young birds are still learning the routines of the covey, they are talking almost constantly. While quail have a number of vocalizations, the rally or assembly call is the most important call to learn for the hunter. This call is the famous “Chi-ca-go” call for valley and Gambel’s quail, although the Gambel’s call has a stutter in it. For mountain quail, is it a whistle of repeating notes. (You can listen to just about any bird call in the world at the xeno-canto.org website.) This call is made by either bird separated from the covey or mature birds making sure everyone is close.
Like the duck call can be for duck hunters, a quail call is perhaps the most important tool a quail hunter can own and learn how to use – even if you hunt with dogs. Because the birds call so much, they are accustomed to hearing and answering calls. You can reduce the amount of ground you cover when hunting by using a call to locate birds in an area. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve hiked through what I thought was the best area to hunt and not found a bird, even with my dog’s nose working out the terrain. Stopping, I’ll blow the call and frequently get an answer from a bird on a bench across a wash or in the side canyon we didn’t work out.
There are a lot of calls on the market, and all of the ones I’ve used can be made to sound like the real birds. Most use a simple rubber band as the “reed” for valley and Gambel’s quail calls, and a pintail whistle can double as a mountain quail call. They do require a little practice to use properly, but the assembly call is pretty simple to imitate.
Some dos and don’ts: Don’t call too much. Quail aren’t making their assembly calls constantly. Call and listen. Don’t talk to a hunting buddy, yell a command at the dog, or make other noise, and then call. The birds aren’t idiots. Don’t call during the heat of the day. The birds are usually assembled and sitting in the shade together. Call less as the season progresses than you would early in the season. By December and January, the young birds have the covey routine wired and there is not near as much calling. They also know that predators can hone in their location by calling, so the calls dwindle this time of year. Sometimes the birds will only call a time or two in the morning and then again before going to roost.
Nationwide, there are nearly a million quail hunters, which is only a little less by about 200,000 than the number of duck and goose hunters. It is a rare thing to find a duck hunter who doesn’t have at least one or two duck and goose calls, and many of them even know how to use them correctly. Quail calling is a lot simpler, but many hunters don’t have them and even more don’t ever use them. Using a quail call will make you a better hunter.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.