Mountain Quail Madness

Throughout the West quail hunting is very popular. Despite this, only a small percentage of serious hunters have tried their hand at hunting the largest of the region's quail subspecies, the mountain quail.

Mountain quail are large, distinctive quail with a long, straight head plume that stands several inches tall. Males and females are similar in appearance, with gray heads and breasts, maroon throats, chestnut bellies marked with bold white bars, rufous undertail coverts and brownish-gray upperparts. They're found only in the mountains of far western North America including the Cascades, Coast, Sierra Nevada, Trans­verse and Peninsular ranges. Desert populations occur in the White, Inyo, Panamint, Grapevine, Coso and Argus mountains of eastern California. In Nevada, populations occur in the Toiyabe, Desatoya, Jackson and Santa Rosa ranges, and there are small populations in northeast Oregon, southeast Washington State and southwest Idaho. The northernmost population is on Vancouver Island, Canada, where they were introduced.

Less is probably known about the life of mountain quail than any of the other subspecies, but it differs from other North American quail in many ways. Unlike other quail, mountain quail are able to utilize high-elevation habitats, and can be found during the breeding season at elevations of 1,500-9,000 feet. Birds then undergo an altitudinal migration in the fall, walking (rather than flying) downslope to lower elevations to avoid snow, much like deer and elk do. During this downslope migration, birds travel in coveys, while in the springtime, migrants travel back upslope alone or in pairs. These seasonal migrations might cover distances of up to 15 miles.

Mountain quail have a varied diet. Plant matter is their main food, with invertebrates making up less than 5 percent of an adult's diet. In the summer, birds might dig in the ground for bulblets and also climb trees and shrubs for fruits and seeds. They might also feed heavily on acorns in the fall and mushrooms in winter. They're most commonly found in pine-oak woodlands, coniferous forests and chaparrals, and coveys generally range from six-12 birds.

Mountain quail prefer terrain with steep slopes, which they use to race on foot to safety when threatened. Generally speaking, if you can find thick brush that covers about half the terrain surface in an even distribution—where you can walk through the brush but not in a straight line for, say, 10-30 feet and the brush is about chest high and is on or adjacent to a steep slope—you're in excellent mountain quail habitat.

Though I've done it successfully, hunting mountain quail without a dog is very difficult. You'll walk a lot and shoot little. The birds are very secretive, don't call much and finding them is a matter of catch-as-catch-can. I like to walk cover edges and look for tracks in soft soil or along backcountry dirt roads. Once tracks are found—and I listen for calling as well—I simply find suitable brushy cover, work it thoroughly and hope for the best. If you flush birds or see them run, you have to get on them right away! Then, once everything settles down, you might even try calling to them. The birds will often answer and even, at times, come to your calling.

Those with a good dog have an advantage. Work canyon bottoms early in the morning near water. Later, when the birds are generally feeding up the slopes, try working the ridges where updrafts can bring their scent to a dog's nose.

Top Spots For Quail

The best mountain quail hunting today is found in California, with state statistics showing hunters during the 2002-2005 seasons averaging between 125,000-150,000 mountain quail in the bag annually. The top counties in order are Siskiyou, Trinity, Shasta, Fresno, Kern, Toulumne, Tulare, Hum­boldt, Sutter and Placer.

Hunting is prohibited east of the Cas­cades in Washington state and severely restricted in eastern Oregon due to low and declining mountain quail population levels. West of the Cascades, the Columbia River in southwestern Washington state and on the west side of Puget Sound in Northwestern Washington state has decent hunting. In Oregon, the mountainous southwestern part of the state is by far the best overall bet, though some areas in northwestern Oregon can also be good.

As far as gearing up goes, perhaps your best tool is a body in good hiking shape. The country is steep and rugged and the birds can run like the wind up the slope, so the better you can get around the better your chances are. Heavy pants (I like Carhartts) and a long-sleeved shirt that can buck the brush are important, as are rugged hiking boots and good socks. I prefer a short-barreled, fast-handling 12 or 20 gauge shotgun with improved cylinder choke with No. 71/2 shot, because most shots are quick and close.

The greatest threat facing mountain quail appears to be habitat destruction, especially from human development. Urban­ization in the mountain ranges of southern California has resulted in the loss of habitat there, and increased development in the Sierra Nevada might decrease the amount of wintering habitat available to this species. The same is true in other parts of their range through­out the West. At the same time, logging and fires in good mountain quail country can have a positive long-term effect by creating more edge cover and fostering new forage.

Many years ago, a couple of old college buddies and I used to hunt mountain quail religiously in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Despite the fact that, overall, we shot few birds, on occasion we would get into them. When everyone shot well, the bag was heavy, and on the ride home we'd tell each other how good we were, planning another trip the next weekend. Of course, the next hunt was just the opposite—few birds flushed and fewer brought to bag.

It was then we all decided that seriously hunting mountain quail is truly madness, in two ways: thinking that you have the game figured out and will score big, and for the way these spectacularly beautiful and rugged birds get under your skin and drive you insane.

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