On The Hunt For Quail
By Troy Hoepker
As my hunt for a covey came nearer to its conclusion, I noticed the sky beginning to clear to the west under the overcast blanket of clouds above me. Just then, the sun’s powerful rays peeked below the cloud line as it came closer to setting and merging with the horizon. The horizontal cast of brilliant light falling on the tawny, yellow bluestem surrounding me in all directions created an almost sepia colored landscape that remains burned into my memory. I slowed my walk to the truck, soaking up every moment of the beautiful scenery of my dog Ace working the grass in search of prey among such beautiful light. With each stride, the long tail feathers attached to the rooster buried deep in my hunting vest occasionally brushed my left arm, reminding me that the hunt had been a success even if the bird I sought had remained elusive.
I had heard and witnessed quail on that farm on multiple occasions last season, yet never with gun in hand nor Ace’s nose in close proximity. I had managed to down no less than three quail there in hunts of the two years previous seasons, but so far this year they had been elusive despite several hunts. On that day however, I made quail more of a priority. The 145-acre farm and its rolling hills were dominated by big bluestem covering almost the entirety of the farm, making for fantastic pheasant hunting. But it was along the creek bed in the thickets and down multiple fence lines providing the same cover, where I focused most of my attention for bobwhite. Ace had combed through those areas with his expert nose and we had come up empty handed. Finding a covey can be like finding a needle in a haystack, and the needle that day didn’t seem to exist.
It wasn’t until we were walking through the bluestem and brome mix 100-yards from the pickup that I saw Ace begin to slow and move purposefully to his left. His switch flipped on and with bird fragrance in his nose, he began to work slower towards the target and in that moment, I was reminded how I am not the hunter but merely the shooter. Anyone who has ever hunted over a seasoned and talented bird dog knows exactly what I mean. Delicately placing the paws of his last two steps to the ground as if stepping on eggshells, he eased into a rock solid point. After snapping a picture of the point, I moved up from his rear flank expecting to see a pheasant rise at any moment from the prairie grass. Instead, I was greeted by the buzzing whirl of a covey exploding from the grass like fireworks! Regaining my composure from the complete surprise of seeing quail instead of pheasants buried deep in the grass, I brought the gun to my eye trying desperately to pick out one of the little targets before the covey of fifteen strong made their escape. With the covey in flight, the ounce and a quarter of lead I discharged altered the trajectory of one bird’s flight path among the others and his downward descent was noticeable backlit by the sky. Ace sprung to the spot, but finding a small quail in that clumpy grass provided a challenge. I could hear his nose popping as he quickly darted his head to the left and then the right in search of the little Bob. With a quick twitch to the left he locked up in a statuesque point. I could see the quail, but he wasn’t dead. As I reached for it, the bobwhite chirped and sprang to run. Ace bull rushed through my hand and dashed after the bird upon his movement and a second later came up with the bird in his mouth.
What a pleasant surprise it was to add a quail to the game bag before the hunt was over. It went to show that quail can be found in better pheasant habitat also, just as we sometimes see pheasants lurking around good quail habitat. My hunt for that covey was successful even if it wasn’t exactly where I thought I’d find them. Holding a quail in hand is always a special treat as I prefer shooting quail to pheasants. There’s just something about a covey rise that is unique and beautiful. When it happens it surprises your eyes and your senses even when you are expecting them. The distinct buzz of quail wings in unison with the synchronized lift into the air immediately sends the heart racing all while trying to maintain some sense of focus. Our native Iowa game bird is remarkable in so many ways.
Northern Bob White quail, for the most part, are only found in Southern Iowa. If you are an avid upland hunter and have never hunted in quail country, I strongly suggest giving it a try. Generally speaking, once you start getting south of I-80 in Iowa you’ll begin to run into quail. The further south you go, the better the numbers are as a general rule. Our bottom two tiers of counties along the Missouri border traditionally hold the best quail population in the state. The experience of quail hunting is actually different from pheasant hunting. In the fall, you may find single birds from time to time, but generally if you find one, you’ll find several together. Quail usually don’t fly far once they’ve taken to the air so you can oftentimes see where they land once you’ve initially disturbed them. But don’t be mistaken into thinking these birds are easy to hunt. Even when you know where they are they have a unique ability to escape. Quail launch from the ground quickly, fly fast and can fly erratically. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen quail escape simply because of the habit obstructions around you in quail country. Because of the cover they prefer, they’ll often take flight in thickets, or slightly woody areas that assist in their escape. Not to mention that they are smaller targets.
The biggest mistake first time quail hunters make is flock shooting. I can’t say I blame them. When you see a covey rise for the first time, it will surprise you. Most inexperienced quail hunters won’t think quickly enough on their feet to pick out a single bird and follow that one bird in flight. Instead, the surprise of the moment will leave a befuddled shooter simply pointing the gun at the entire covey and pulling the trigger. That can absolutely work and some hunters find themselves downing a bird or two, but it is mostly out of pure luck. After you’ve seen a few coveys spring to the air, it doesn’t take long to learn to retain your composure and pick out a single bird as your focus.
Target your search for quail on hedgerows and fencerows of shrubbery cover that include a mixture of small trees and bushes. Plum thickets, gray dogwoods and even viney habitat provide much needed overhead protection for quail to roam and loaf under their canopy. In fall and winter, look for these areas that border a food source within close proximity. Quail need shelter from weather and predators and seek out those areas that are close to food. Field corners and edgy cover are great places to look. Timbered draws, woody road ditches or waterways near row crop are also fantastic quail habitat. It will sometimes surprise you how often quail can be found in native grasses such as Indian grass, switchgrass or big bluestem.
For the novice quail hunter, be aware that shooting quail can put you in more dangerous situations than pheasant hunting. When quail rise they can pass between hunters or fly low to the ground. The type of cover where you often find quail means that a member of your hunting party may be obstructed from sight behind a tree or a thicket. The unpredictable flight pattern of quail demands respect and awareness in shooting situations. A low flying bird can also put hunting dogs in jeopardy if you’re not aware of their location. Quail can launch from the ground in staggered intervals creating a chaotic and sometimes unsafe sequence. I’ve seen a covey rise among hunters and after hunters shoot and dogs and hunters alike are trying to recover downed birds, more quail rise to the air in the middle of the scene.
I generally like to focus on one bird, maybe two, of a covey if I have time. If I down one bird, finding it is not always that easy, even with a dog. Once a covey is rustled from their hide, there are times when you can see where they land allowing you to pursue them again. This can be repeated multiple times but the covey of birds will characteristically disperse more and more each time they fly leaving you lucky to get even single targets.. As a result, their scent disperses more and more as well making it harder for your dog to get back on them. Quail are fast runners and can cover a lot of ground but after they have been bumped a few times, they are also well known for stubbornly burying themselves into a great hiding place and holding tight.
Last winter saw some unfavorable conditions for quail in Southern Iowa, but this June their signature “Bobwhite” whistle is still a staple across the landscape proving once again of just how resilient this little bird has always been. We might not yet know the impact of the winter and spring on our populations but the last few years have seen quail numbers rise to a population we haven’t witnessed in at least 20 years. I’ve seen and heard enough quail leading up to our hunting season to be confident that there will be good numbers this fall. I dearly hope that the distant sound of the bobwhite quail will be heard over our Iowa landscape forever!