I learned that temperatures in the low 100’s for over a month straight caused any early season chicks to perish from exposure, since they would have been incapable of regulating their body temperature. Additionally, due to the high heat, hens will not lay eggs. Then there was the “heat dome” itself, which caused the vast majority of the much-needed monsoon storms to skirt around the areas most needing them to create food and cover. Then there is this other massive complication, the ranchers and the Forest Service itself.
The winter rains of ‘22/’23 created a bumper crop of prairie grasses. It was incredible! So the ranchers brought in record numbers of cattle to eat all of this grass. In sixteen seasons of hunting the same region, I honestly can’t think of a time where I saw so many cattle. Then the heat dome sat in, and warded off the summer rains, aka monsoons. With that grass production halted and the huge herds acted like cancer of the prairie and consumed tens of thousands of acres of Forest Service land down to rocks and dirt. Many areas simply looked as if a bomb had gone off. The cattle were even eating young mesquite shoots, and old yucca leaves. It was surreal. Ranchers aren’t always the stewards of the land that they oft claim they are, and the U.S. Forest Service gets and F- for their management efforts.
As you might imagine, it all made for a tough year for the quail. With ground cover either being non-existent or in fairly rough shape, the Mearns, famous for holding tight, were acting a lot like desert birds and running like track stars. It was hot, mid-70’s, no cloud cover, and no air movement. Basically, it was tough, but there were birds. Some areas coveys weren’t healthy, maybe two or three birds – no shooting, and we never went back. In other areas, coveys were healthy, the typical six to eight birds and in select places there were large coveys, twelve or more birds. The trick was to find places where the rain managed to sneak in, where the terrain and cover created cooler micro-climates where the birds could thrive.
With all that being said, was it really that bad? Well sort of, but also not at all. Thankfully word got out, and the army of hunters who normally find their way to the region flagged off and went elsewhere. So, hunting pressure overall was much lighter, basically COVID levels. Still people figured out some of the bigger easier to get to areas and turned the screws, sadly decimating the quail populations that were there… We continued to explore new to us areas… We certainly found our share of birds and Ila turned out to be the hero of the trip. Despite tough conditions, she managed to come through over and over for us. Everyone else did well, and even little Rye started to figure out how to work in the hot, dry conditions.
In fact, the dogs did such good work overall, I had several days my shooting (hitting) was 100%! I don’t know that I’ve ever had a day of quail hunting where I hit everything, I shot at let alone several of such days! When the dog has the birds dead to rights, and you have the opportunity to walk up slowly and calmly, consider your shooting lanes, or on many cases, windows. Release the dog for the flush and pick your bird(s) in a quiet Zen state, wow, just wow. Of course, I had a few days I didn’t do so well, but that is rough shooting for you, and Mearns quail hunting is oftentimes some very rough shooting!
All in all, we had a solid season, and made a few new friends. We can only hope the monsoons are good this coming summer, the ranchers scale their operations accordingly, and that the Forest Service does their job to protect the land.
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I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.