September 23, 2010
The term "Grand Slam" to most big-game hunters who have been around for a while will remind them of the names Grancel Fitz and Jack O'Connor and the four varieties of wild sheep in North America. To an avid turkey hunter the term means the taking of the four subspecies of gobblers found in the United States. There is a Grand Slam for quail too, and just as it is with sheep and turkeys, only those who are seriously devoted to the sport have made it into the club.
The scaled quail was compliments of Murph Murphy and his two friends; cactus-proof running shoes are recommended.
To qualify, you must have taken all six of the quails residing in the U.S. and they must be wild birds (pen-raised bobwhites taken on a hunting preserve are fun but they don't count). Since no one state holds all six species, quite a few miles of traveling, lots of walking and a bit of luck are necessary.
I have bagged all the turkeys and am a quarter-slammer on sheep, and while those hunts hold many unforgettable memories, not a single one was more fun than my quest for the Grand Slam of quail. I have often said that if I could hunt only one bird for the rest of my life it would be quail and I would not complain a bit if I were limited to bobwhite.
My father was an avid quail hunter so he is to blame for my addiction. And since the first shotgun he bought for me was a .410, I decided that little shell was what I would use in my search of the Magnificent Six. I did, however, use a different gun.
Back when I was younger and more foolish, I traded away that first single-shot Iver Johnson and you would not believe how many times I have since kicked myself for doing so. So I used a .410-bore Weatherby Athena over-under with two three-inch loads, Federal with No. 71„2 shot and Remington with No. 8 shot.
Here, then, are a few of my field notes on each member of the coveted Grand Slam.
€‚ Bobwhite Quail
The wildest wild bobwhites I have hunted were in Old Mexico. I lost count of how many coveys we put up each day but there were so many we went from one covey to the next and seldom bothered with searching out singles after the initial flush. Their smaller size is probably why they fly faster than those I have hunted for many years in the southeastern region of the United States.
In addition to being unnerving to some hunters, the flush of a bobwhite is deceiving because the bird sounds like it is moving a lot faster than it actually is. This causes many hunters to miss simply because they shoot while a bird is too close, before the shot charge has had time to disperse into a wide enough pattern. Accustomed to shooting slower birds, I had to speed up my gun handling a bit when hunting south of the border.
The bobs I hunted on the Stasney Cook ranch in Texas were also quite challenging, but more due to their habitat than the speed of their flight. Everything in that part of the world either sticks, stings or bites and I was absolutely amazed as the English pointers ran full speed through ground absolutely carpeted with that invention of the devil called prickly pear. And not a single dog was booted.
On one day of that hunt I fudged by leaving the Weatherby over-under behind and hunted with my .410 L.C. Smith double. My host used one of his old favorites as well, a Winchester Model 42 pump gun. €‚
The apostrophe-shaped topknot of the Gambel's quail consists of several individual feathers, same as the one worn by the California quail.
Mike Schwiebert and I could hardly believe our eyes. We had just topped out on a ridge late one afternoon when we spotted quail flowing down across a pasture like ants heading to a sugar bowl. There must have been upwards of 300 birds, possibly more. After watching for a while Mike and I tried to get closer but it was getting late and by the time we got there they had vanished into thick brush.
The California quail probably outweighs the average bobwhite by two or three ounces. And while it has a reputation for holding tight to a dog's point rather than running off, some did and some did not during my hunts.
I was told that some hunters become so desperate they consider ground-sluicing to be fair chase and it probably is if you are hungry enough, but I am happy to report that I shot all my birds on the wing. With its lovely plumage along with an apostrophe-shaped plume of feathers sprouting from the top of its head, it is almost too pretty to shoot, but duty called so I forced myself to pull the trigger.
You are likely to find this handsome bird from the lower tip of the Baja Peninsula to the southern part of British Columbia, where it thrives in a variety of habitat ranging from semi-desert covered with sagebrush to tropical forest. I prefer to call it California quail but due to its preference for valleys and foothills at elevations below 4000 feet, other hunters often refer to it as valley quail. €‚
"You'll find them above 5,000 feet" was the advice given to me by a game warden who seemed to know a lot about mountain quail. If the chukar is to the bird hunter what the mountain goat is to the big-game hunter, then the mountain quail is most certainly the mountain sheep of wingshooters.
Big, beautiful and almost as tough to hit in heavy cover as the ruffed grouse, you may have to climb high in order to bring this one to bag. A mountain quail can weigh close to 3/4-pound and be almost a foot in length from beak to tail, considerably larger than its five cousins. He may also be the toughest to hunt, not just physically but logistically as well.
California and Oregon are the places to go searching for this beautiful bird although I believe Nevada and Washington have populations as well. The mountain quail has a delicate plume of feathers growing from the top of its head but it is straight rather than teardrop-shaped like those worn by the California and Gambel's.
My friends Bob and Mary have been hunting the entire opening week of mountain quail season for 16 years and they are extremely good at what they love to do. Some hunters consider themselves lucky if they manage to locate a covey in an entire season but during my first day out with them and their Brittanys Sierra and Kelly I had my limit before noon.
This Mearns completed the author's Grand Slam in the rolling hills of southern Arizona.
Some say the Gambel's quail likes to fly but you cannot prove it by me. Those I have hunted acted like they had no wings and their knack for running just enough faster than me to stay beyond reach of my shotgun is totally frustrating. But I did manage to flush a few and found that on the rare occasion when they do decide to fly they are quite good at it.
I first shot a few Gambel's for the pot many years ago while on a hunt for Coues deer in Old Mexico and I still recall those leg-melting, lung-searing sprints through gauntlets of cactus and other barbed things, some of which have yet to work their way out of my hide. While more recently hunting them quail in Arizona I discovered birds there to be no more civilized than those living south of the border.
The big challenge you'll find in a hunt for Gambel's is running fast enough to get a shot. Anytime you accomplish that you will find them fairly easy to hit, if you can shoot while gasping for breath and standing on numb legs. You could interpret that in either of two ways; the Gambel's is easier for me to hit or I concentrate more on making shots count to avoid having to run so far.
€‚ Mearns Quail
I stopped shooting Mearns quail long before I had my bag limit, not out of frustration or the inability to hit a flying bird, but out of respect for their extremely limited numbers. I ended up shooting several but I would have been quite happy with no more than a pair.
Of all the quail I have hunted I found this one to be the easiest to hit, simply because it holds so tightly. Once a bird flushes it flies quite nicely but coaxing one to take wing can take some doing. At least that held true for those I hunted in Arizona.
Even so, the Mearns is the toughest slot in Grand Slam bag to fill because in the United Stated it can be hunted only in Arizona and New Mexico€¦and in only a few places within those states. They say the western fringes of south Texas holds a few of these grand little birds but their small numbers rule out hunting them.
We are extremely fortunate to have this bird of the grasslands today for if not for the efforts of conservation-minded hunters, it might now be a thing of the past. The introduction of cattle into its habitat during the late 1800s had a devastating effect on its population and by 1929 no hunting was allowed in Arizona.
A decade later it was thought to be extinct. But the Mearns had not disappeared and managed to beat the odds by making something of a comeback. The two-day experimental season held by Arizona in 1960 was eventually expanded to the longer season of today.
Few quail hunters who live outside of New Mexico and Arizona will see a Mearns in a lifetime and a lot of people who live there are unaware of its existence. Despite the fact that only extremely serious hunters go to the trouble of pursuing them, hunter success in Arizona averages less than two birds per day.
Without a good dog you are not likely to find many scaled quail and without a good gun you are not likely to bring one or two back to earth if you do find them. Equally important is a sturdy pair of running shoes because without them you are not likely to get close enough to bust up the covey. If you are quick enough and lucky enough to accomplish that, the singles might just stick in one spot long enough for you to again sprint like the wind to get within shooting range. But then again, they might not, in which case you run some more.
These bobwhite fell victim to a couple of .410s, the author's Weatherby Athena (at left) and Doug Kenmore's Winchester Model 23.
During our first outing we warmed up on Gambel's quail and I enjoyed one of those rare days when it seemed impossible for me to miss. On one flush I dropped two birds, quickly reloaded my over-under and dropped a couple of stragglers. Yes indeed, I was hotter than firecracker.
The first day of scalie hunting, however, reminded me that I am really not all that good a shot. It was as if my shotshells contained paper shot. The easy shots were difficult and the difficult shots proved to be impossible. Sometimes if you put enough lead in the air you will occasionally hit something so I ended up with a few birds in the pocket of my hunting vest. But I'm convinced the scalies had more fun causing me to miss than I had attempting to not miss them.
So how do I rate the six quails? First of all, each and every one is excellent table fare and while the mountain quail we had for dinner in camp seemed to taste better than any other quail I had previously eaten, where I was eating probably had as much to do with that as what I was eating.
To me, the Gambel's and Mearns seem to fly ever so slightly faster than the bobwhite and that may make them a bit tougher for some hunters to hit. The beautiful country the mountain quail lives in earns it extremely high marks in my book and considering its size, it should be the most difficult to kill. Even so, I find the valley quail capable of carrying off more lead than it or the bobwhite.
The fact that scalies would rather run than fly ranks them lower in my book than the bobwhite and while I seem to have more trouble hitting them than the others, I still love to hunt the darned things. Everything considered, I'll have to rank Gentleman Bob in first place simply because he holds so nicely to the point of a good dog and we all know that's why God put him on earth to begin with.