Out of Bounds

Worth Driving for Quail?

For quail hunters inclined to drive, the 2023-24 season will probably make it worth your while

By Rob Breeding

If your fall fever dreams are filled with visions of heavy-antlered elk somewhere in the Northern Rockies, my obsession with 6-ounce birds might not seem rational. I’m not even sure I think it’s rational.

I’ve friends who think because I’m a hunter I’m equipped to survive a post-apocalyptic hellscape. What they don’t realize is that as a quail hunter, I’m one of the most inefficient predators prowling the Earth. I’ll drive 1,000 miles to kill barely a meal’s worth of quail, such is the power these birds hold over me. 

Still, I’d likely keep myself alive for a while. In the early stages of the COVID pandemic, when it was unclear if the apocalypse really was upon us, I devised a strategy to feed myself, just in case. About a quarter mile from my house is a storage bin known in these parts as a “raceway” because, when empty, it resembles an oval dirt track. In the fall these raceways are piled with No. 2 field corn and ring-neck doves gather by the hundreds, living the good life.

I’m not fond of dove meat but post-apocalyptic survivors can’t be choosy. I figure I’ll just walk up on that pile and shoot a day’s worth of corn-fed protein before breakfast.

Quail are another matter. There’s no tastier game bird, but one doesn’t hunt quail for food. We hunt quail because of our obsession.

Today I live amid quail habitat, which feels right. I grew up in a Southern California suburban neighborhood carved out of California quail habitat. When I grew old enough to be aware, I learned to recognize the sound of calling males singing “Chi-ca-go” to any female inclined to listen. Then, in 1992 I moved to Montana, the Bitterroot, which wasn’t quite yet quail habitat, but today supports a robust population of introduced California quail.

I consider quail to be California’s finest export. I’m of a far-less-endearing type.

For quail hunters inclined to drive, the 2023-24 season will probably make it worth your while. After a good, old-fashioned El Niño winter broke the cycle of extreme drought in the southwest, desert quail numbers from California through west Texas are up, in some cases dramatically so. 

California, Gambel’s and scaled quail throughout their range should be good. If quail numbers hadn’t been so low before the winter monsoons, we might be facing a GOAT of a quail season, in the deserts at least. 

The news on bobwhite quail is more mixed. In Texas, what spring moisture provided, stiflingly hot and dry summer conditions may have taken away. The heat dome that settled over the state, increasing quail mortality, is also blamed for a disappointing drop off at the state’s famed barbecue joints. It seems a belly full of brisket might not cure what ails ya when the thermometer hits triple-digits.

The news is a little more optimistic in Oklahoma, where I hunted bobwhites for the first time in 2016. I was teaching in Wyoming then and set off on Christmas Break with plans to hunt all six species of American quail before Christmas. 

After a day sorting out the bird’s fondness for the acorns of shinnery oak, I went out the next day and killed nine. Then I hurried on to New Mexico, Arizona and finally California to complete my quest, an ambition wiped out the day I hit the Golden State by a winter storm that dumped two feet of snow where I planned to hunt mountain quail.

I should have abandoned the quail quest and stayed in Oklahoma. It turns out 2016 was the best year for bobwhite quail there since 2005. Quail counts in 2016 were nearly double the long-term average. That might be the best bobwhite hunting I’ll ever see.

Never drive away from birds, especially abundant birds. I should have savored it a few more days instead of playing Don Quixote.

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