October 12, 2016
You can find ruffed grouse in the golden hardwoods of New England or the Great Lakes states.
There are raucous, bronzed ringnecks in South Dakota's cattail sloughs. You can bump barred prairie chickens and flickering sharptailed grouse in Nebraska's shimmering prairie sandhills. And in Idaho's Hell's Canyon it's possible to flush chukars, gray partridge, California quail, ruffed and blue grouse.
But there's only one place where you can complete the quail trifecta.
Southeast Arizona is a place where isolated "Sky Island" mountains leap from the Sonoran desert floor, with habitat sufficiently diverse enough to support three species of native North American quail. Play the game right and you might collect all three in a single weekend.
That was young Andrew Howard's plan. And he dragged four more of us into it, tempting us with Federal shells, a loaner Stevens 555 and the newest D.T. Systems e-collars. Apparently all this gear needed "testing" and we were the lucky guinea pigsâ€¦
"Point," Brett Browning called calmly from the oak woods somewhere ahead and above.
"Where did he get to?" Andrew asked, and not for the last time that day. Our guide Brett Browning, busy keeping track of three dogs at once, was not so much woodland wraith as hard-charging forest buffalo. Uphill or down, heavy cover or light, Brett attacked the hunt. He runs marathons to stay in shape for quail hunting. We don't.
"Over here," Brett hailed.
"There he is. Behind that tree," Brian Lasley called from farther up the hill. Brian, the fittest among us, was nearly a match for Brett, and he got there first. "Head toward the creek bottom," he called. "One of the dogs is on point there." Actually, two were. The brown and white pointer, Kriegy, and the black and white, Rita, had something sandwiched against the cut bank beneath an alligator juniper.
"I see one," Andrew said, and he wasn't referring to the dogs. "Under that log. Just above the rocks." The dogs didn't move. Neither did the quail. I finally spotted it anyway. Then I eased in to take pictures. Spied another bird, snapped more pictures, moved closer, saw one more. True to their reputations, the Mearns quail sat tight, trusting camouflage over flight.
"There's one for each of us," I crowed. "But it's tight in here. Two seconds at most and they'll be behind those oaks." I backed off a few steps, hoping to buy more space.
I don't remember who stepped close enough to force the little birds out, but about a dozen exploded twice as fast as I anticipated. Even though I already had my gun shouldered, I still missed my first shot. But the second ensured I wouldn't go home skunked.
Andrew's wide smile proclaimed his success. "How about Brian?" I asked.
"I think I got two down!" the North Carolinian called. "Bring a dog." After Rita and Kriegy delivered Andrew's and my birds to Brett, we scrambled over to Brian. Tess, alerted by the shooting, raced down from wherever she'd been and immediately picked up bird scent. Two short casts and she nosed out the winged bird. Kriegy trotted up with a young male, its polka-dot breast and clown face gleaming in the early morning sunlight.
Four birds down, four in the hand. A half-hour into our three-day hunt and we'd already accomplished stage one of our triple-header.
Windy City Serious upland hunters know Arizona is Nirvana for three species of quail. Fewer know it actually supports five. The masked bobwhite is endangered and, despite years of attempted restoration, probably extirpated due to habitat changes.
There's a disjunct, localized population of California quail along the Little Colorado River near Springerville. But the big three are the Gambel's, scaled and Mearns. Gambel's is the common, low desert quail fond of brush and thickets from which they call, "Chicago, Chicago, Chicago" while racing to catch up with the curved plumes jutting from their foreheads.
Scaled quail dart through higher, semi-desert grasslands sparsely dotted with brush and cacti. A rakish topknot of white feathers inspired the nickname "cottontop." From the blue cast of their rounded, black-edged breast feathers comes "blue quail." Regardless of the moniker, these are infamous runners, able to disperse in 14 directions and disappear in grass so short it would make a golf green look lush.
Finally, where mountains climb sufficiently to support oaks, the Mearns quail appears. Also called Montezuma, Harlequin and fool's quail, this is the most prized specimen, thanks to its limited range, colorful plumage and unusual habits of digging for tubers and crouching to avoid detection. Mearns don't run. They melt right into the rocks, and there are plenty of rocks on the live-oak slopes where they live.
Gravity on the slopes took its toll, but crumbling, rolling rocks hidden under an unusually dense blanket of dried grasses really slowed us down. And not just in Mearns country. On our second day Brett and his hunting partner, Kirby Bristow, drove us to some of the better scaled quail habitat they knew — high, dry grasslands interspersed with hills and ridges mantled with basalt stones and boulders.
"Mearns, scaled and Gambel's quail await — and outsmart hunters — in the Sonoran desert."
"Scaled quail are way down again this year," Kirby said. "Drought. Same with Gambel's. Mearns are up because late summer rains have been good for three seasons now, but Gambel's and scaled quail need winter rains, and those have been poor."
We hiked and climbed anyway. Bill Dermody, Director of Marketing for Savage Arms/Stevens Shotguns, Andrew and I followed Kirby and his two German shorthairs around one flank of a hill while Brett led Brian and GUN DOG editor Rick Van Etten 'round the other. We were to meet at the top, but our quarry changed those plans. "Dogs are birdy here," Kirby called from near the top of the wind-swept ridge 30 yards ahead of us." He paused to let us catch up. We moved toward the dogs, Andrew and I flanking left and right, Kirby right up the middle.
No birds. Kirby released his hounds to relocate. Within 20 yards they did. We hurried up as quickly as the hidden, jumbled stones allowed. Rushing through this terrain invites a painful face plant. You don't want that, especially not when approaching a point.
Again, no birds. Good old scaled quail. Always running. Kirby turned both shorthairs loose again. They cast ahead, then crouched into that low, anticipatory, stalk upland hunters live for. Scaled quail were here. Someplace. Had they already flushed, unseen? Streaked over the ridge? Or were they flattened just in front of the dog's noses?
They were flattened. And then they weren't. The covey leapt into the wind, riding it low over the ridge top. Gone. But before they disappeared, I swung on one that tumbled just before I shot. Desperate, I swung far right on a bird just cresting the rise and cleared a deadly swath of air behind it.
Kirby pocketed a couple of birds and Andrew stood beaming. For the second time in two mornings he had a "lifer." The man was one bird away from completing his Arizona triple. It turned out to be our only flush of the morning.
Mearns Magic Back at the trucks we learned Brett's party saw only a bobcat, which made a convenient excuse for the paucity of quail. We loaded guns, dogs and discouraged hunters for a long, slow, creeping crawl over an extended pothole with remnants of old road clinging to its edges until we fetched up against a waterhole that actually had water in it. Surely a magnet for quail?
Nope. Another hour, another 2 miles, another high hill and nary a single quail. Even the dogs looked discouraged. If they'd only knownâ€¦
As we picked our way back to the gravel road, commiserating on drought and insufficient upland bird numbers, Brian spotted remnants of a covey hopscotching through a field of waist-high mesquite.
"Weren't meadowlarks, were they?" I asked.
"No, no. Brett saw them too. They're quail. Definitely."
"Saddle up, boys!" Kirby said.
Well, it was a red-letter half hour or so, our eager little band of merry men wading into a classic covey that flushed into a brisk wind at 25 mph and accelerated in two wingbeats to the speed of my wishful thinking. I couldn't catch up to a bird. Never mind that all around me my compatriots were dropping scaled quail faster than five dogs could scoop them up.
I continued hitting only frustration. Twice I called perfect holds, perfect swings on birds well in range. Both continued flying as if I were setting off firecrackers. It was the gun's fault, of course. Or the shells. Maybe the stiff, new Quilomene bird vest. Everyone knows a new vest will jinx any shooter. Yeah, right.
We still had one species to go. Since I'd already missed my six chances at bagging a scaley, I opted out of the Gambel's chase the next day. I'd completed my Arizona trifecta way back in the 1990s in one morning's hunt near Wilcox. What I'd never done was hunt Mearns quail when their numbers were as high as they were last December. Brian joined me and Brett on an all-day Mearns marathon while the rest of our troop accepted the Herculean task of finding a Gambel's quail or two.
And they did. More than two, in fact. I wasn't there to witness the enterprise, but, having hunted Gambel's quail extensively over many years, I can guess what happened. The team drove to a low, Sonoran desert wash with a water source nearby, maybe a cattle pond, maybe a homestead windmill, perhaps even a freak spring. Then they set the dogs loose in the palo verde, cholla, catclaw and prickly pear thickets bordering what would amount to a stream course when it rained.
The dogs smelled quail, went on point, broke point, pointed again, etc. until the covey more or less held until my erstwhile hunting partners stepped within range. The Gambel's then flushed in ragged clusters of three and fives, some here, some there, some squirting right and some left. Yes, young Andrew scored. He'd secured the holy quail trinity.
Meanwhile, Brett, Brian and I indulged in a marathon. Despite a slow morning, we pressed ahead and by mid-afternoon waded into Mearns magic. Tess pointed. A covey flushed. Rita pointed. A single went out. Kriegy pointed and Brian nailed a double. The terrain was a convoluted series of shallow draws bleeding off a high, curved ridge. The habitat was a savanna of oaks and yellowed grass tangled with an abomination of shin-high catclaw that gripped with the authority of a bulldog and ripped like its namesake.
We just pushed through because the dogs were ahead somewhere, pointing. Covey after covey. Singles and doubles. We followed up. We scrambled down, trudged ahead, clamored over, ducked under and shot, shot and shot again.
Twice, three times we said we would quit. We should quit. And each time we noted the perfect breeze, the ideal temperature, the jet blue sky, sunlight painting the rounded oaks, eager dogs leading us onward.
"This is one of those days you talk about for the rest of your life," Brian said. "You can't quit something like this. Let sunset end it."
So we did, running to the last golden rays striking the highest ridgetop, finding freshly-turned soil where a covey had been digging tubers under the oak leaves. Two dogs were on point over the top, the other was looking birding down the draw. Birds. Shots. Points. Shots. Retrieves.
Despite seven hours of hard hiking, climbing and scrambling, we were positively buoyant on our trek back to the truck, laying plans for next year, anticipating one more perfect day with guns, dogs and quail...of any species.