As I sit here in cold wet Spokane in early January looking to collect my thoughts about the previous month. It boggles my mind we spent the entire month of December in Arizona hunting quail. In fact, we spent thirty of thirty-one days in the field on the prowl for quail and it was glorious!
We lost the one day to some emergency dental work on Fowler and Powder. Broken teeth in one form or another, extraction, or root canal, neither are inexpensive nor effectively covered by any pet insurance. But hey, we got a multi-pet discount so that made it alright – cough, cough, as I wipe a tear from my eye…
Without going into a daily account, as I am prone to do, I’ll endeavor to stay above board so to speak. To help set the stage, it was supposed to be the best year in over thirty years for desert quail, Gambles and Scaled. While Mearns were predicted to be in for an extremely poor year. With that said, what did we experience?
Year after year I promise myself to add days of desert quail to the schedule, but I always succumb to the allure of hunting Mearns. The day we lost was one allocated for desert quail hunting due to the dental dramas of Team Double Dutch. Jenna did an amazing job of organizing their care while we were on the road heading south. This on-the-fly arrangement could be a story unto itself…but I’ll spare you. The area we normally hunt has these desert quail on the periphery – should be easy. LoL famous last words.
We arrived safe and sound, but couldn’t check in for nearly five hours and Jenna was concerned about what we would do with the time we had to kill. It was an easy answer for me, go hunting of course! So that is what we did and immediately found a covey of forty or fifty Gambels quail right exactly where they were supposed to be. Clearly they had been schooled and had an exceptionally low tolerance for our piss poor just wheeling in off the road tactics. We did find a few other coveys in the few days spent chasing ‘desert birds’, one with probably close to a hundred birds or so, but they had been well-schooled by hunters. They all got up and vacated the area in a jiffy. Not even one willing to help get us on the board.
When I lived in New Mexico I found hunting Gambels to be a pain in the butt, apparently, they are the same in AZ. I have a better idea what to do for our next trip, and possibly get my Arizona Quail Slam – something I’ve flirted with doing, but never really set myself to do. Always the call of the Mearns is my downfall.
Jenna is a research junky and a huge asset on trips like this. She asks me a bunch of questions, and off she goes… With her effort, we hunted almost all new to us places this year, and only did a repeat on a couple of places. All in all, I am sure we hunted the full range of habitat that Mearns will live in. From altitudes of over 7,000 feet amongst the pines and juniper. Some of the rockiest and devoid of grass places I never would have ever thought to hunt. Let me be clear, places that looked much better to just drive on past. We pushed the truck hard, and my off-road driving tolerance to its limit. Yes, we had the rock sliders banging and grinding, low range has never been used more – and there were a couple of times we turned back without reaching our destination.
We found coveys in horrifically cattle-bombed places, and nothing in places that just last year held so many large coveys the excitement of having the location pop up on the schedule would make sleep the night before difficult to achieve. We had one day of being skunked, I don’t care who you are, it happens. Mostly though we averaged three coveys a day with several spikes of seven or eight coveys found in a day – a good day regardless of how the overall season is supposed to measure up.
All quail live and die by the rain. Each species needs rain at a different time of year, and when they get the rain they need, their populations can really explode. When they don’t, they retreat into prime areas or those which got the rain they need. With Mearns it is the summer monsoon that drives their success. Monsoon rains are fickle. One area gets just what it needs, the coulee over got none, the one over was pounded too hard and so the birds are where the rain was just right, and not where it wasn’t. Figuring this out is crucial to being successful.
With Mearns there is always the specter of over hunting. Coveys live in relatively small home ranges, so once you find one, your ability to find it again goes up. I have gently hunted specific coveys for over a decade. It takes a good bit of disruption to cause a covey to hightail it to a new location – but it does happen. Even if it is only one individual or two at a time. For example, a few years ago hunting with Booker I had a covey get up, and one little Bull just motored. He cleared the broad rocky streambed, then rocketed up and over a mammoth cottonwood tree on the far side. And G.O.N.E. he was. We have found coulees in the late season that were totally subpar but held astounding numbers of birds with no sign of hunting… those junk coulees were always surrounded by those with prime habitat that got hunted hard – just by looking at the boot tracks and spent shell casings. These birds, they have a brain the size of a lentil, but they aren’t dumb.
Small coveys? Interestingly we kept getting early season reports of small coveys consisting of only two to four birds – this is what many people were finding. Which perpetuated the thought the 2020/21 Mearns season was one of the worst in years. Well, I’m here to say it was an interesting season, that much I am sure of. With some areas plum full of birds, and others, that usually held good numbers, with none.
It wasn’t long before Jenna and I started finding these ‘small’ coveys. In one case, I took the second double I managed the whole trip, and soon realized there were no other birds – I felt ill. Now before I am vilified, here is the rest of the story… like all the other times we had ‘small covey’ experience one or both of the dogs had always been doing a lot of tracking, and then whamo there they were. Shortly after the other dog working 30 to 70 yards away would go on point. We’d go and work that and then we’d have a proper covey flush, easily more than ten birds. So, it seems to me it was the large coveys that did the most running and tended to ‘drop off’ a few birds so the others could escape. Several times we heard them casting their vote on who to sacrifice. This scenario played out time and time again where we found larger than normal coveys.
I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Fourty some years later this is what you get.