by Jason Brooks
With just a few weeks left in the upland bird hunts for Washington it is time to start changing up tactics a bit to increase your success on late season quail. The birds have been hunted hard now for several months but thanks to these small and tasty birds the broods are often large enough to handle the extra-long season of opportunities. But once the temperatures plummet you will need to change how you approach the day’s hunt.
Don’t start too early
Though we often like to be in the hills at first light, and with that being somewhere after breakfast anyway this time of year, birds are slow to come out of the roost. Quail are mostly a ground roosting bird which means they will often be holding under sagebrush and dense cover until the sun hits and starts to warm them up. The tiny birds will roost in thick spruce or pine trees if available so look for a sage covered hillside that might also have a stand of evergreens. I find most of my birds in the middle of the day.
Don’t hunt late
Just like how the birds don’t really get moving until mid-day they also tend to head for their nighttime safety early in winter. As the sun starts for the far horizon quail will start to shorten their movements and stop feeding. The key to a late season bird hunt is to maximize the middle of the day when the birds are out moving and actively feeding.
Pick the right shotgun, load and choke
With the cold temperatures I will bundle up in layers of wool, down jackets and gloves. Auto-loading shotguns help with the lack of needing to move a pump and aid your follow-up shots. If you do use a pump-action then be sure to use a gun oil that can take cold temperatures. I prefer to use my side by side as it is a challenge as well as a great gun to shoot. Tighten your chokes up from Improved Cylinder to Modified if you wish to continue to use light shot such as size 7 1/2’s. This will help with the dense plumage the birds have put on since early fall. Instead of changing the choke consider moving up to size 6 shot in a high brass. The wider choke allows for an increased pattern size and the larger shot helps penetrate the feathers.
Expect tight holding birds
In the early season it seems I can barely get close enough to a covey before they bust and flush. I don’t mind this as it allows me to pick up singles and doubles on the second approach. But in winter the cold weather and snows make it so the birds don’t want to flush easily. This past weekend we were hunting with our Hungarian Vizsla and one bird was six inches off her nose and still wouldn’t flush. The dog held point and I kicked the bush a few times to get it to fly. Since the birds hold so tight most shots will be very close which is another reason to keep the choke wide and use a larger shot.
Watch the weather
Cloudy days and days with lots of moisture, either in snow or fog, makes for a long and tough day of bird hunting. This is mostly because the birds will be in dense cover to keep from getting wet and cold. It can be almost impossible to get a covey to move or flush in these conditions. More than once I have seen quail running around in a big thicket but no matter what I did they wouldn’t flush. Try and hunt sunny days as the birds will be on the move and out in the warm sunlight. If there is a breeze then make sure to work your dog into the wind as the scent can travel and cause your dog to “false point” when hunting with the wind or even pick up birds from behind. I’ve made the mistake of hunting with the wind and walk right past birds only to have them flush behind me.
Keep in mind that if you are cold then so is your dog. Give them some extra food at the end of the day to help them regulate their temperatures and get their strength back. Water for your four legged hunting partner and for yourself is often overlooked in the winter. Be sure to offer it to your dog regularly. The season is only a few weeks away from the end so on the next sunny day get out and chase some late season quail.
The Outdoor Line Blogger