For normal people, the turning of the calendar to a new year is a time for celebration and setting resolutions with the certitude that this year they’ll be observed. For normal people, it’s a time for watching the ball drop, hugging loved ones and bracing for another trip around the sun.
For me, however, the turning of the calendar wasn’t such a rosy time. I dedicated most of the last two days of 2018 to an obsession of mine, an old nemesis: mountain quail. Mountains are the one quail species of the six native to the United States that I have yet to successfully hunt, and for purposes of this discussion, that means I’ve never killed one. Gambel’s, Mearns (these days just as often called Montezuma), California, scaled and bobwhite — I’ve successfully hunted each of these birds. But not mountain quail.
Since I work as a teacher, I’m afforded the benefit of time off around Christmas. I usually take advantage of this luxury to visit my old home in Southern California to spend the holidays with family. The mountains that surround my old stomping grounds have plenty of quail.
I used to see them all the time before I started hunting.
I spent those two days in the desert foothills of those mountains, surrounded by Joshua trees, scrub oak and yucca, but no quail. We hunted hard, but this has so far been a mild winter down south. The birds move up and down mountain slopes with the seasons, and this year there hasn’t been enough snow to move the birds off the high country.
I spent New Year’s Eve wandering a broad plain of sage studded with Joshua trees. Doll and I meticulously worked the mouths of the canyons that poured down from the mountain ridge on the plain’s edge. She showed only brief hints of interest, and even then she only made quick passes through bird-holding cover. We found a raceway of tracks in the sandy wash, but we never converted sign into living birds.
Mountain quail seemed to be everywhere when I lived down south. We flushed them while hiking into streams to fish, or, when I briefly lived in the mountains, they’d putter about our cabin eating seed we spread for them.
I’ve gone back and hunted mountain quail five or six times now, but only occasionally — once, in a thick stand of manzanita on the edge of that sage-covered flat — have I seen a mountain quail while I was holding a shotgun. That bird, flitting about under the brush, now seems almost like vaporware. I moved in for a potential flush and shot, but the bird moved too. I last saw it flying out of range, clearing a saddle and dropping down into a deep canyon.
Friends who’ve had slightly better luck say mountain quail can be so frustrating that folks sometimes resort to ground sluicing. I’ve approached that level of frustration, but haven’t yet succumbed.
Though I offered a different definition of “successfully hunted” when explaining my quail obsession, I have to say I don’t consider any of my mountain quail excursions a failure. I love the country those birds live in, but if I wasn’t hunting them I probably wouldn’t make it back. Quail are my connection to place, this place at least, so I return again and again trying to make it six of six.
Obsessing over finishing my “quail slam” could be a bad thing, as obsessions sometimes lead to corner-cutting, such as the aforementioned ground sluicing — that’s shooting birds on the ground for you non-hunters. For me, the good in my pursuit is that hunting all six quail has been my path to reconnect with the wild places of my youth.
That might be enough to draw me back for another mountain quail go-round in 2019.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.