We saw the birds in the distance a few minutes after parking the 4Runner. They were milling around in an open area near a stand of oaks. In the early morning light, we could see their small triangular outlines against the hillside.
“Can you tell what they are?” I asked my hunting friend Holly Heyser, wondering if it could be meadowlarks.
“I’m not sure,” she muttered, quickening her pace. Then one flushed, and the other—scurrying up the hillside with a quick flap of wings before gliding toward a cluster of manzanitas.
“Quiet,” Holly said simply as she darted after them. The rest of the neighborhood blushed wildly and she fired several quick shots at them as they scattered. I rushed only to catch up with Holly, who was speeding up the hillside. Out of breath from the climb and disoriented by the burst of birds, I wondered what world I had entered.
We took a quick break to catch our breath and then parted ways. I took the draw to the right while Holly worked the ridge to the left. By the time we met again at the top of the hill, we were both panting, empty-handed each, and otherwise empty-handed—and smiling stupidly, regardless.
We were hunting California quail—or “valley quail”—together on a piece of public land in Northern California. And we were in for one of the most exciting and challenging days of mountain hunting I have ever experienced. Here’s why it was so much fun.
Find the right mix of cover and open space—and you’re sure to find birds
Finding California quail during hunting season is not very challenging, even without dogs and on public land. The best place to locate them is along habitat edges or transitional areas. Partridges need large shrubs for support, trees such as oaks for shade and shelter, and open areas to forage.
“California grouse seem to prefer a successional habitat—not a flat grassland, but something that combines grassy ground, bare ground and woody cover together,” explains California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist and expert mountain games Katherine Miller. “They like blackberry, toyon and manzanita bushes. From a foraging standpoint, they need to be able to see the seeds on the ground. Their diet usually consists of things in the pea family.
During the fall morning and evening hours, California quail can be spotted foraging in the wild from a distance. During the middle of the day – especially when it’s hot out – they tend to be held tightly in thicker cover, which can make them harder to find. But if you’re shooting on your feet and start early, you’re likely to get some action. Field hunting that has open areas also means that when you hit a bird, you need to be able to retrieve it without the help of a bird dog.
You can follow large groups of birds
Where California quail really differ from other mountain species is their typical group size. While other quail typically form roosts of 8 to 12 individuals, California quail congregate in much larger groups. According to Starker Leopold in California quail, the species forms broods of 27 to 73 birds. While running into a roost with 70 birds would be incredible, finding a roost with 30 or 40 birds is not. “It’s super satisfying to see so many birds,” said Heyser, who primarily hunts mountain quail.
And once you find a shelter, the action is non-stop. The birds will flow in any direction – which is a survival adaptation of the species meant to distract predators. Such massive flushes are exciting. Just make sure you focus and pick your target – and if you do land a bird, mark it right away.
But the fun doesn’t stop there. Keep an eye on the birds you miss or don’t have opportunities to shoot. Once you’ve destroyed a roost, you can shoot smaller groups of birds, and so on, which can keep the action going for a long time.
Shooting is challenging—but fun
California quail are fast and small, averaging only 6 to 7 ounces. And they are cunning. California quail that get pressured tend to flush either at cover height, often keeping you from resting, or when you least expect it. Several times during our hunt, the birds flushed just as Heyser and I turned our backs on cover. Additionally, the land they occupy can become bushy, and unless you release a bird in an open area, your chances of retrieving it without a dog are reduced, which limits when and where you can shoot effectively. reasonable.
For all these reasons, ethical hitting opportunities come and go quickly – but that’s all part of the fun. Valley quail hunting requires you to always have your gun ready and be aware of your shooting lanes. You likely only get a second or two to shoot when a bird flushes, and this quick shot pushes your limits as a wing shooter. And if you miss it a lot, that’s okay; The next time you go for grouse, pheasants or ducks, it will be easy.
Birds Are Vocal
It’s not turkey or deer hunting, but the California quail has a nice sound component. Californian quail make a special lot chi-ca-go call. This assembly call is used to join the birds. In the early morning and evening when the birds are feeding, it can be helpful to wait quietly until you hear this call and then move in that direction. Also, after flushing a roost, some birds are likely to start calling almost immediately after reaching the new roost. Even if you didn’t see where some birds flew, keep listening and you’ll likely find them soon.
Hunting with a buddy pays dividends
Quail hunting can be done alone, but I recommend hunting with a hunting partner. You’ll have plenty of time to talk when you’re hunting for quail—and you’ll have an extra edge once you get into the birds. As I mentioned earlier, quail like to get away from you, often before you are in range. If you have a few sets of legs on the ground and a bead to fly a roost to, you can work together to make sure at least one person is in a shooting lane to ward off the early flush birds.
Another common strategy for chasing California quail with a partner is to have each of you work on one side of a hill. Partridges love to run uphill, and chances are you’ll be able to pin them on top of the hill and both have a chance to shoot when they take the wing. If not, at least you’ll have someone to commiserate with as you breathe.
A final word on quail hunting in California
“There, more partridges,” I said, pointing to two distant birds pecking at seeds in a meadow 100 yards away. We rushed towards them, but they flushed before we could get into range, flying towards an oak tree, where we could already see other birds moving through the branches.
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We climbed the hill again, this time pushing a line of 40 to 50 birds. Most of them flushed long before us, but a few sat long enough for us to shoot. By the time we reached the top of the hill we each had a bird in our vests – small prizes but well earned.
“That’s crazy,” I said, bumping fists with Heyser.
“Definitely,” she said, before looking along the ridge to a distinguishable bird chi-ca-go, chi-ca-go assembly call. And we set off after her.