I’m sitting in the Valley Cafe in Hatch, New Mexico, enjoying a breakfast burrito smothered in green chili. There are certain things you do when you’re in Hatch. Smothering stuff in delicious chili sauce before you eat it is one of them.
My egg, chorizo and potato burrito — green this time, but I go both ways — marks the beginning of my seasonal migration. With the spring semester looming, it’s time to return to the snowy north, where bird seasons are generally closed, either by regulation or drifting snow. There may be time for another pheasant excursion or two, if weather and regulations allow, but basically bird season is closed for the next nine months.
The season was a good one, though the highlights were less about filling my vest and more about reconnecting with old friends and places I’ve been apart from longer than I prefer. I may write about those friends and places later. Today, my focus is on the birds. These are my favorite upland species.
Sharptails. This is one grouse that hangs out in the kind of country I love: grasslands. My first setter, Jack, learned to hunt on Columbian sharptail in Idaho. We were later joined by Doll on trips over Marias Pass to the Sweet Grass Hills. Not everyone’s favorite on the plate, I love properly cooked (that means medium rare) sharpie.
Gambels and California (valley) quail. I lump these top-knotted species together because they are so similar, in appearance and behavior. The main difference is location: coastal chaparral for California quail and desert for Gambels. Recent fires in Southern California have been devastating for residents, but not quail, clearing out overgrown scrub oak to make room for birds, and bird hunters.
Pheasant. The favorite of the north, these Eurasian imports are hardy and tough to hunt. Pheasants are not particularly inclined to cooperate with pointing dogs, instead running like banshees when threatened. If you’re lucky enough to hunt where pheasant and bobwhite quail overlap, you’ll have to make strategic decisions about how to load your shotgun. I usually walk with No. 4 shot, then switch to lighter quail loads if Doll starts getting solid points on tight holding Bobs. But the best laid plans don’t always work. I’ve killed quail with pheasant loads, and vice versa, but only at close range.
Bobwhite quail. I first hunted bobwhite in Oklahoma a few years ago, in what I now know was a banner year for Okie bobs. There, quail forage acorns in stands of shinnery oak, which grows in thickets dotting the grasslands. Bobs hold tight for pointing dogs, and are the tastiest of all game birds, in my opinion.
Chukar. The second Eurasian import on my list, and often the toughest to hunt. Chukar disdain for flat ground exceeds even that of a Montana rancher’s for vegans. You never find them far from steep slopes. I once lived in Wyoming near the kind of rugged mountains chukar prefer. Fortunately, hunters in Wyoming are obsessed with big game. I had the chukar grounds all to myself.
Mearns (Montezuma) quail. We called them Mearns when I lived in Arizona. Montezuma, as the birds are known in their primary range in Mexico, is now the preferred term. Whatever you call them, these are stunning birds that live in stunning habitat. You can hunt them only in high-elevation grasslands in Arizona and New Mexico north of the border. That grass is key. Mearns are the best holding of all game birds. We’ve lost track of dogs in that country, only to search for them and find our pups 20 minutes later, locked on point with a covey still holding tight. Those grasslands are studded with oak, while the canyons overflow with Coues whitetail, javelina, and most importantly, quail.
When I die I want my ashes scattered in Mearns country.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.