Limits Working the Wrong Way

Limits are just an artificial goal, but they can affect our actions in the field

By Rob Breeding

Last season on a Mearns’ quail hunt in Arizona, the Long Walker and I had had a good hunt. We both had seven birds in our vest. It was later in the afternoon, close to 4 p.m. We had just looped back to the truck, and it was a pretty good time to stop for the day.

Not a chance.

About a decade ago, a group of influential hunters got the limit on Mearns’ quail — a bird commonly referred to as Montezuma quail these days — reduced. Before that, the daily limit on all three species of quail in Arizona was 15. It didn’t matter whether you were hunting Mearns’, Gambel’s or scaled, the quail limit was the same.

Mearns’ are only found in limited grassland habitat along the Mexican border. The concerned hunters worried Mearns’ couldn’t handle the same pressure as more widespread desert birds and convinced the Game and Fish Commission to reduce the birds’ limit to eight.

So there we were, both one shy of a limit a good hour and a half before sunset. There was no way I was going to stop. I’ve hunted Mearns’ quail for years and had never come anywhere close to a limit. The Long Walker has killed plenty of limits over the years; he might be the best Mearns’ quail hunter in Arizona. But for me, eight birds was a big deal.

Instead of popping a cold one and heading back to camp early, we walked up another canyon. A half hour later we’d both killed No. 8. That day, Arizona’s eight-bird Mearns’ limit resulted in two extra dead birds. Of this I’m certain: if the limit had been 15 rather than eight, the allure of IPA on ice would have stopped me when I first reached the truck.

Not to worry, Mearns’ quail are delicious, so none went to waste. Still, I’m not sure increasing take was what those concerned hunters had in mind a decade ago.

Limits are a powerful motivator for bird hunters. We’re supposed to be happy just being afield, but the truth is the number, the limit of birds we’re allowed to kill each day, is burned into every hunter’s brain as they step into the field. Most would be lying if they said killing a limit wasn’t a goal.

Fortunately, I’ve had plenty of satisfying hunts that didn’t include killing a limit. My better instincts say I should forget about this limit business altogether and take my satisfaction from the experience, not the number of birds killed. Sheesh, I’ve released virtually every trout I’ve caught for the last 30 years. You’d think I’d be well practiced in coming home empty-handed by now.

The point is that limits are just an artificial goal, but they can affect our actions in the field. A few years back, I was hunting down at Ninepipe and killed a couple pheasant in the morning. Again, it would have been a good time to stop; I could have been back to Kalispell by lunch. Instead, I lingered, trying to add a third bird to hit my limit.

I didn’t, but I did hunt long enough to get a little fatigued, and fatigue leads to poor decision-making. I decided to call it a day when I swung on a flushing rooster and caught some hunter orange out of the corner of my eye as I shot. The hunters were across the field, well out of danger, but I’d been so focused — maybe obsessed — on bird No. 3 that I wasn’t even aware of the hunters’ presence.

If the limit had been 10, I would have been home, the birds cleaned and in the cooler, long before I’d ever stepped into that field.

This is the second in a series on the impact of limits, slams and the pursuit of trophies on ethical, fair chase hunting.

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