Expect mountains and difficult terrain when hunting the wily game birds of the Southwest desert
We had walked about three hundred yards from the trucks when I heard, “Lexi’s on point!” My breath formed a small cloud as I exhaled. The temperature that morning was a brisk twenty-eight degrees. I could not believe that I was in Arizona hunting desert quail. Funny thing is that it didn’t look like we were in the desert, per se. The elevation was much higher than I’d expected and the scenery was not very desert-like, or at least not as I’d imagined it would be. That thought quickly faded. I was making my way through, under, and around all kinds of strange cactus plants in various shades of green that I had never seen before. Cacti in the mountains? Each one had a different sort of sharpness about them. I quickly learned that it was unavoidable to somehow encounter something that would cut, poke, stick, scrape, slice, and/or embed itself into me.
My leather gloves creaked as I tightened my grip on the borrowed 1957 Remington 870 Wingmaster. I made a mental note to cycle the forend, as I was used to using an over-under instead of a pump shotgun. Suddenly shots started to ring out and shouts of “Quail!” broke the silence on the mountain. The distinctive sound of quail flushing was unmistakable. That unique fluttering of wing beats is the same no matter which quail species one is hunting.
My hope that one or two of those desert quail would venture into my airspace was quickly granted. The shot couldn’t have presented better…a left-to-right blur at about twenty feet high at my one o’clock traveling at Mach 3.
I placed the barrel of the Wingmaster into an empty space of green background, deliberately pointing toward where the bird was going to be. I squeezed the trigger and the bird dropped from the sky. I forced the forend back, ejecting the spent hull, then forward, violently chambering the next red number 7 ½ shell. The smell of spent gunpowder hit my nostrils. The chill I felt quickly vanished. My heart was racing. I marked the bird where I had seen it fall. Spencer, a stranger to me less than twenty-four-hours hours ago, called for his dogs, “Dead bird.”
I glanced down and picked up the empty red Federal shell near my feet. I started walking towards the bird with my right hand extended out, pointing, while holding the pump in my left hand. I didn’t care if other quail flushed; I did not want to lose the bird that I had knocked down. At the base of the large, bushy tree, I could see the white-and-liver German Shorthaired Pointer with what appeared to be something in her mouth.
Spencer called for Lexi, removed the feathered body from her mouth, and extended his arm towards me. I mirrored him and took the bird into my gloved hand. My first Gambel’s quail! The pear-shaped, plump body was mostly gray with buff coloration on her underside and chestnut sides streaked with thin white stripes. On her head was a small black topknot that resembled an exclamation point as if to punctuate her emphasis on flying away.
I stroked the feathers before gently placing her in my bird vest. The hunt could’ve ended at that moment and the trip would have been complete. One was enough for me. Nothing else would matter for me that day. All I wanted was for my best friend, Hutch, and his brother, Jeremy, to shoot one. I wanted to see their faces and share in their excitement on their first desert birds.
Finding Gambel’s quail in their unique habitat
From there our group of four continued on. The covey had dispersed in several directions. The hope was for the dogs to locate singles and hold them from running long enough for us to get close. After covering some ground, the whir of wingbeats inspired another barrage of gunfire. Three singles! I shot twice in vain. Maybe it was the wall of cactus that snagged my sleeves and kept me from hitting my mark? Excuses.
I noticed something peculiar about the way these desert quail flew that is not typical of the more gentlemanly Kansas bobwhite quail to which I was accustomed. These Gambel’s quail would rocket out from the ground and appear to fly in a semi-straight trajectory, then suddenly decide to turn on a dime. Left, right, up, or down… these quail used whatever natural structure was in their flight path to form an escape route.
Their evasive maneuvers are impressive; they can instantly change their course mid-flight while flying 40 miles per hour. Pilots refer to it as flying “nap-of-the-earth,” which is a low-altitude flight course taken in a high-threat environment. Pretty much sums up trying to not get shot by bird hunters.
The landscape gradually started to change. I had envisioned walking semi-flat, arid desert interspersed with cactus and giant saguaros looming over our footsteps in the sand. Instead, I felt the incline of the rocky land beneath my leather boots as I climbed upwards. Water and rest breaks were becoming more frequent. Spencer and Hutch were ahead of me. A beam of sunlight shone down on Spencer like a spotlight. It seemed almost celestial.
Spencer, an experienced desert quail hunter and part-time guide, had graciously agreed to take us out and show us around. He offered the use of his three dogs: Lexi, an eight-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer; Paisley, a four-year-old brown Pudelpointer; and rounding out the trio was Jack, a two-year-old brown roan Braque Francais. The dogs worked up and down the slopes, disappearing and reappearing suddenly from the foliage.
All three dogs covered large expanses of horizontal and vertical ground. Spencer would break away from the group to take the dogs up into a wash in order to find us more quail. Then he would magically emerge on a different ridge as we contemplated how to climb up. Spencer was quickly dubbed “The Mountain Goat.” We climbed up and down mountain sides, traversed washes, walked ridges, and then inched our way down very carefully, only to return to the top. I was cautious with each step for fear that one misstep would send me on a plunge down a rocky slope. My leather gloves, in conjunction with my boot treads, served as a braking system as I maneuvered along to create my own switchback trail. Hutch and I would frequently glance at each other and shake our heads in disbelief while muttering a word or two about how tough this hunt was becoming.
Ghostly fluttering of quail wings could be heard on occasion. This signaled our path. Most of the time, it meant climbing up to get to them. Upon arrival, we’d see all three dogs positioned in a triangular pointing pattern, waiting for us to catch up in the hopes of some shots. Almost every time, the quail would re-flush and fly higher up the mountain. Spencer would’ve chased them, but he knew the flatlanders weren’t much for mountaineering.
Climbing and more climbing for quail
The mountainside was interspersed with juniper and chaparral trees, amongst others. It was a mosaic of green shrubs and cactus-type plants. Catclaw was the worst. It’s a tree with numerous hooked prickles with the shape and size of a cat’s claw that tend to hook onto passers-by such as myself.
It seemed to me that every time Spencer spoke, he would always motion “upward.” We ended up getting into two more coveys with more missed shots. But the smiles on our faces told the story, even with just the one lone Gambel’s riding at the bottom of my vest. The three of us continued to follow Spencer across the valley until we reached a familiar dirt road that led us back to the trucks. Once there, we loaded up for the bumpy ride back down the mountain. I was glad to be off the mountain and not have to climb anymore.
As Spencer drove, I continued with my constant barrage of questions. I felt the truck slowing down. Spencer was looking out his window and appeared to be focused on something other than me. The truck came to a stop. Without looking at me he said, “Get your shotgun.”
“I don’t have it. It’s in the other truck,” I responded.
“Get out of the truck and take mine.” I figured I’d better listen to him, so I exited the truck. As I turned, I saw one little Gambel cock bird closely followed by two more jaywalking across the dirt road! They reminded me of little wind-up toys. I looked over across the bed of the truck and Spencer was loading his Beretta.
He handed me the shotgun and I snapped it shut. Hutch and Jeremy had stopped, too. I motioned for them to get out, though I’m sure my hand gestures and violent pointing were not very easy to interpret. We walked toward a clump of bushes where we figured they’d gone. Sure enough, I could see the silhouettes of quail nervously darting around on the ground at the base of the bush. Suddenly they erupted.
Shots were ringing out everywhere. Both of my barrels were now empty. Spencer was on my boot heels with another pair of red shells, acting like an English loader. I snapped the shotgun closed as I received more directions from Spencer while the quail took flight toward another small mountain across a deep wash. Westerners will no doubt laugh at my description and refer to them as “hills,” but it’s my story so mountains they were.
A bird zoomed by, only to tumble back down. Hutch ran past me to a feathered body in the short grass. His first Gambel! No matter how old you are, there’s always a time when you revert back to being giddy, laughing kids…and that day was one of those times. Hutch passed me again; apparently he had shot a second quail.
The melee continued as quail showed up seemingly out of nowhere. Three dogs ran past me without slowing as they made their way down the deep mountain ravine. It was Lexi, the German Shorthair, who once again retrieved a bird for me. A blur of white raced up the side of the ravine to deliver the little game bird. The male Gambel is an elegant looking bird. Its black, curving plume is actually several feathers that droop forward as a sort of lazy exclamation point. The male’s brick-colored flanks with white streaks match well with his brick-red cap and black face outlined in white. His grey body reminds me of a regal knight’s armor. I placed the silent knight in my vest alongside the mountain queen that I had shot earlier in the day.
Suddenly an audible eruption came from across the ravine. The quail’s distinctive assembly call, “Chi-ca-go,” could be heard all around us. There were birds in front and on either side of us, and even birds answering behind us. Those that were the closest sounded like they were between our location and the truck. Maybe not all the quail had flushed. Like sirens from Greek mythology that lured sailors to their doom with their enchanting singing, we too were under the quail’s hypnotic spell. The three-note call was calling us to our fateful doom of climbing down a treacherous ravine and up a steep incline.
With plenty of shells and a shotgun in hand, I looked at Hutch and away we went. We knew that the descent to the bottom and the tedious climb would take us up to where at least twenty quail had landed in a cluster of large bushes. The potential outcome far outweighed any climbing hazards. We stepped forward and started our descent.
As I climbed down, my mind wandered back to the day we’d landed in Arizona. I’d imagined walking along a road or irrigation ditch filled with brush, or maybe slowly meandering our way across the flat desert with cacti scattered about as we chased after running Gambel’s quail. That’s what the YouTube videos had depicted. I’m the sort to study my adversary and learn as much as possible prior to hunting a certain upland game bird. I had read about mountain hunting but scoffed at the idea that we would be climbing such terrain. An error on my part. Who knew we would be hunting desert quail in the mountains?
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.