Reflections on a Lifetime Spent Hunting the Desert Southwest for Quail.
As I relax in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness waiting for an elk bugle to break the silence, the wind flows through the tall ponderosa pines as the damn cawing mountain jays expose my location. Although I’m trying to call an elk into bow range, my thoughts are on my pointing dogs and upland bird hunting.
It’s been a long, hot, and dry summer in southwestern New Mexico, but fall in the Gila Wilderness brings relief when welcomed afternoon monsoons cool down the earth. It’s out here where I refresh my soul. There’s just something special about the Gila Wilderness, given its remoteness and abundance of wildlife. Among the Gila’s local species are two of my favorites. One is the Mexican gray wolf, which is now clawing its way back from the brink of extinction. The other is my favorite upland bird of all time: the Montezuma quail.
I hear a faint bugle as the shadows lengthen and the sun creeps lower and lower into the western horizon. After six more days, I’ll return home to my pointing dogs. Years ago, while riding up near Reeds Peak about eight miles east of here, I saw a pair of dusky grouse in the Gila near a grove of aspens. I was probably eighteen years old, and I had no clue what they were. It wasn’t until later, while hunting in the Pecos Wilderness that I knew they were grouse. I’ve heard from some old timers that there used to be many grouse in the Gila. I have not seen another one in all my time there. It’s too bad.
During my horseback ride on Canelo back to camp in the darkness of the night, I wondered what the upcoming quail season would look like in Arizona and New Mexico. The forecast, as well as my on-the-ground observations, are favorable for a good season. Gambel’s and scaled quail seemed to have fared well; I know there have been a couple of hatches.
Suddenly, Canelo jumps sideways, nearly tossing me off his back. A covey of Montezuma quail exploded right under us. They didn’t come up all at once, but like pop- ping popcorn. There were eight or ten hens, from what I could tell.
Being a native of southwestern New Mexico, the gateway to the Gila Wilderness, I often forget how lucky I am. Living near an abundance of public land bursting with hunting opportunities, I often take our natural resources for granted.
Growing Up Hunting the Southwest
I was born and raised in Deming, “The Quail Capital of New Mexico,” as Outdoor Life put it back in the seventies. Growing up, those magazines were the closest thing to upland bird hunting I would ever experience, or so I thought. I’m a first-generation bird hunter who hunts over pointing dogs. My family hunted rabbits, deer, and elk, not birds.
My grandparents grew up hunting cottontail rabbits. I thought it was for fun until I later learned they did it for food. Meat was hard to come by, and rabbits were plentiful. Every Saturday, my grandfather and I would go out in his 1963 Chevrolet pickup and head east of town to a large stand of mesquite bushes. They went on for miles and still do. Conejitos is what my grandfather called them. We shot most of them in the head; my grandmother would get mad otherwise. To this day, I still love a meal of conejito in homemade red chile sauce and freshly done tortillas.
Those were simpler times in Luna County.
As I grew older, I met a few hunters in my area who pursued desert quail with hunting dogs. I set out to learn the ropes. With the help of a few mentors and some very patient first dogs, I finally started to put a few birds in the bag. I’ve learned a few things about dog training and myself in the decades since then.
Hunting quail in the hot desert requires a tough dog with good breeding. They must handle the heat and the rocky terrain and cover many miles. Dogs not in great shape will stop hunting to seek shade and water, which will often end a hunt.
I currently own a few English Pointers: seven-year- old Gila, six-year-old Sage, and three-year-old Aldo. I’ve been roading them two to three miles daily since July in the coolness after the afternoon rains. In my mind, I’m creating an athlete, a dog that is healthy, powerful, and confident. I’ve witnessed mental confidence in my dogs increase since I began exercising them on a consistent schedule.
As I age, I’ve committed to staying fit, too. I want to continue hunting behind my dogs for as long as humanly possible. During the off-season, I work out with weights a few days a week, walk a couple of miles a day with a thirty-pound backpack, also known as rucking, and eat as cleanly as possible. This includes a lot of protein, water, and an occasional scotch or tequila to help me dream of the next covey rise.
As fall arrived, the weather finally changed from unseasonably warm to that nice, chilly desert dryness. I even had to break ice for my horses this morning. The dogs heard my Ranger start up, and I just couldn’t keep them quiet. They know what that means, and I love their enthusiasm.
The sun rose over the Florida mountains to the east as I loaded up the dogs. My destination was southwest of home, along the Mexican border. Rolling hills are cov- ered with a few junipers and yuccas, and tobosa grass fills draws there. It’s an hour-long drive; in fact, that spot is not far from where Pancho Villa raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March of 1916. My target will be scaled birds today and, with a bit of luck, Gambel’s quail as well.
As we lumbered down a dusty two-track ranch road, I pondered yesterday’s dog performance and tried to determine which of my dogs I would let out of the dog box first. Even though they would each have multiple opportunities throughout the day, my heart struggles with that damn decision every time. Should this really be this difficult? I often ask myself. Do other uplanders struggle with this as well? Is it senioritis? I need another cup of coffee. Which dogs performed better the day before, or were most mindful this morning while I loaded them up? The choice always weighs heavy on my mind.
Terrain was the deciding factor, since my dogs all range differently. My oldest, Gila, is my 500-yard dog and goes hard with every step. Aldo is reaching out a bit, but not nearly as far out as Gila. On the other hand, Sage is my 200-yard dog, which is great for most of the country I hunt. I kept in mind that Gambel’s and scaled quail are not patient birds. Often, they will start run- ning or take flight, which is extremely hard on most dogs. Decisions, decisions.
My anticipation that morning was high as I looked forward to some great dog work and, hopefully, some equally good shooting. Gila it is, I thought to myself. She’s my senior dog and has earned it. From Wyoming to Nebraska, she always finds birds where I think there were none.
“Whoa, Gila. Okay, hunt ’em up!”
Ray Trejo, an avid sportsman and lifelong educator, is southern New Mexico outreach coordinator for the federation. Trejo is a past federation president and grew up hunting and fishing in southwestern New Mexico. Trejo spent the last 26 years of his career as a public-school educator, 16 of those as an administrator. Trejo attended Western New Mexico University in Silver City where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education, a master’s degree in teaching and a second master’s in educational leadership. Trejo has worked with several statewide sportsmen’s groups to promote public access, equitable tag reform and sound wildlife management practices. He was instrumental in helping to create the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument. He lives in Deming with his wife Teri, three horses, one mule, his Jack Russell terrier and three bird dogs.
Kevin is the lead filmmaker at Project Upland. He is obsessed with Ruffed Grouse, Trout, and Filming and Photographing the pursuit of both. Telling meaningful stories about people and their passions is what drives Kevin in his filmmaking career. Hailing from Pennsylvania, Kevin and his young English Setter "Torfinn" can be found in the woods all year round enjoying creation and any adventure they stumble upon.