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Bird Hunting State Spotlight: California

Solid hunting can be had on the West Coast for those willing to burn some gas and boot leather.

Bird Hunting State Spotlight: California

If you’re in the Golden State and gotta have a day in the field, it can be worth the effort. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

The People’s Republic of California isn’t known as a bird hunting Mecca, unless you remember the other name for valley quail starts with a capital “C.” They are still huntable near towns that really belong in a neighboring state, not the one home to Hollywood elites and dot-com billionaires.

Good starting points are the towns of Barstow, Susanville, and Alturas. The country surrounding these burgs resembles most other Great Basin communities: sagebrush, juniper trees, bunchgrass, and the key ingredient: cheatgrass. Quail will eat a variety of seeds and greens, but chukar are somewhat dependent on cheatgrass. My rule of thumb: No cheatgrass, no chukar, no climbing.


SoCal

Barstow in southeast California puts you on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve. Gambel’s quail dash from rock to mesa in this unforgiving country where gold prospectors still seek the Mother Lode. It’s a popular destination for hunters commuting over the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles, so you’ll want to choose your spot carefully.

bird hunting in California
Many popular California quail and chukar haunts are full of imposing mountain terrain. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Gambel’s will scamper along the arroyos (dry river beds), especially early in the day. If you stumble upon a guzzler, you’re probably in the right place. Once the sun is broiling unsuspecting hunters, birds are hunkered in shady dells and hillsides. They don’t call as much as their cousins, the valley quail, so a big-running dog is critical.

The chukar here are notorious for their paranoia. Pursued relentlessly all season by legions of SoCal residents, sentinel birds are wary and skittish, sounding the alarm at the first sign of danger. Stealth, strong legs, and strategy are the key to hunting success. Get above bird hangouts, use boulders and terrain to cloak your approach and you might get a trigger pull or two for your effort. You’ll be wandering a landscape reminiscent of western movies and Star Trek episodes, which might itself be worth the drive.

Pointing North

Drive north—way north—and you’ll find the town of Susanville. This town has all the comforts of home, juxtaposed by a wasteland of high desert administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). On my last hunt, I stumbled from rock to rock, rounding a corner to find my dog stock-still on a staircase of lava-rock. Wild horses stared at us from the bottom of the hill, and my return glance gave the covey of valley quail the head start they needed. Rising as one, they looped over the bottom “stair” before I could get the safety clicked off. Later, we found sage grouse (permit only hunting) in the flats, and chukar on the heights. A few of them were grilled streamside that night.

Susanville too big for ya? Head farther north to the town of Alturas. Beyond the city limits, BLM land dominates, access limited only by your nerve and your rig’s fuel capacity. The terrain is a bit more forgiving than my other recommendations, and not surprisingly the predominant species is valley quail. They’ll loaf in the brushy bowls surrounded by low ridges, and a block-and-drive strategy covering their escape routes can pay dividends. These birds are more willing than chukar to buzz among the small trees that pepper the landscape, so poke around a bit.

bird hunting in California
Hunting California can be rewarding so long as you can properly navigate the regulations and rough topography. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Hard, But Possible

California’s arcane firearms and ammunition laws are under constant litigation and appeal, so get current before you go. Key areas include: How to legally transport guns and ammo (usually separated, each in a “locked container,” trigger or cable locks don’t suffice); buying ammo (virtually impossible for non-residents); use of non-toxic ammo required for all hunting, everywhere; and possible requirements for a firearms safety course, even for adults. There is (as of this writing) one tidbit of good news: If you come from another state, you can bring as much ammo as you want and share with fellow hunters in the field.

They’re not “five star” by any stretch of the imagination. The greatest joy of hunting these unsung states may be the sheer wildness of the birds and their environs. That’s especially true when you remember the bright lights and traffic jams are just over a mountain range to the west. You can camp virtually anywhere on public land, roam at will until your thighs burn and your lungs sear. Each night, your dog will snore and twitch—and so will you.


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