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Pacific Northwest Quail Duo at Cabela's

Pacific Northwest Quail Duo

Author: Scott Haugen

If you're looking for a change of pace this quail season, try hitting the mountains and valleys of the Pacific Northwest.

The author with a brace of striking mountain
quail.
When bird hunters think of the Pacific Northwest, waterfowl come to mind. But in addition to waterfowl and other upland bird hunting, quail are available to eager scattergunners. Both mountain and valley (California) quail range throughout this region, and now is the time to seek them out.

Often taken as secondary quarry on big game or grouse hunts, mountain and valley quail are worthy of being pursued in their own right. Both offer differing challenges, yet both can be had on the same day, in the same areas. Here's what to look for when it comes to outwitting these blue bombers of the West.

Mountain Quail
It's difficult to single out which of North America's quail species is the most breathtaking, but the mountain quail has to rank atop the list. His slate blue breast and head, and maroon with ivory highlights -- coupled with a distinctive 4" plume -- set him apart from other quail. A mature male will measure 11" in length, making him North America's largest quail species.

The habitat of the mountain quail is what you'd expect: rugged. They prefer hanging out along the Coast Range and western slopes of the Cascades anywhere from 500 - 10,000 feet. Mountain quail east of the cascade range can be sparse, and tough to locate. In their western habitat, rarely have I found these birds amid large stands of Douglas fir, or scurrying along a green carpet of lush moss, where you'd think they might thrive. Rather, I find most mountain quail in areas that have been logged or thinned and are now dense in brush. Not only do the bushes and grasses which grow in such areas provide sanctuary, they provide food as well.

The straight plume of the mountain quail set
it apart from all others.
During the hunting season, a mountain quail's diet consists of seeds from grasses, sumac, pines, clover, thistles and ragweed. They will also dine on manzanita, elder and service berries as well as acorns. Finding where these food sources prosper is key to locating birds. Reclusive by nature, your best opportunity to spot mountain quail will be when they are scurrying around for food.

The edges of logging roads and stream beds are prime locations in which to find mountain quail. At the elevation at which these birds live, little grit exists beneath the forest canopy. Thus, quail frequent roadsides, searching for grit to grind their food. I've also caught them several times along rushing rivers and high mountain creeks, where erosion has exposed gravel.

Given the quail's expansive habitat, hunters usually have the best success driving logging roads or walking streams, hoping to catch the birds feeding or gathering grit. Once seen, the birds usually run and must be approached on foot. This may force them into heavier cover, but if you get on them quickly they may take to the air, where the shooting can be quick. Mountain quail are among the toughest upland game bird to hit, thanks to their lightning quick speed and the thick foliage through which they maneuver.

Hunters using dogs may have success in large areas of scrub brush where the canines can work their magic. Groves of scotch bloom are favorite hangouts of mountain quail and will test any dog, as will frequently visited tangles of alder and fireweed.

Valley quail abound throughout the West.
Valley Quail
Utilizing dogs for valley quail is a different story. These smaller cousins of the mountain quail typically hold tighter and inhabit terrain that is more dog-friendly. From sea level to approximately 2,000 feet you can expect to find these little speed demons, west of the Cascades. East of the summit, valley quail will occupy higher elevations, usually wherever there is farmland with ample cover and a supply of water.

Stunning to the eye, valley quail gather in flocks of up to 200 birds in the fall. Their slate gray bodies with scaled breasts offering multicolored yellow, buff and chestnut hues, all combine in the making of this gorgeous little bird. The curved, black plume of the male sets it apart from the more drab, petite female; but don't let their dainty features fool you. They are fast fliers with a strong instinct to survive. When these birds flush they sporadically take to the air, scattering in different directions, offering shooters chances to take multiple birds.

River bottoms meandering through valley floors are my favorite place to hunt these birds. One season, a buddy and I worked less than a mile of prime creek bottom before taking our limits of ten valley quail each. These birds love hanging around large swaths of blackberries as they provide impenetrable shelter and promote the growth of grasses around their fringes. They can also be found foraging for clover, grass and weed seeds, as well as grains and wild berries.

The edges of grain and seed fields with water and shelter nearby are good bets for holding valley quail. Look for fence rows covered in grass, providing sanctuary. Birds will often work out of fence rows and brush bordering fields. These are ideal settings in which to work a dog, especially since pheasants occupy the same habitat.

Valley quail are more vocal than mountain quail. I've had good luck using my Lohman quail call to locate birds, then stalk to them. I've also broken up flocks, then called. This appears to have a calming effect, and like turkeys, seems to promote reassembly. Hunters can use the gregarious nature of these birds to their advantage.

While I have my best luck on mountain quail early and late in the day, valley quail can be happened upon at any time. I've caught them along fences, ditches and in dirt fields taking dust baths throughout the day. I've also found them congregating near water at mid-day.

If you're looking to score a double on this unique quail duo, hunt the zones where their ranges overlap. I like the 500 to 1,000-foot lines, as both birds seem to thrive in the habitat that exists there. Long range shooting in their brushy domain is rare on these speedsters, so modified or improved cylinder chokes throwing a payload of 71/2 Game Loads works best. If I'm hunting open fields for valley quail, I'll slip in Remington's Express 6 shot for a bit of extra distance and punch.

Underrated and somewhat overlooked, the quail of the Pacific Northwest have much to offer. Miles of searching and challenging shots in tough terrain make bagging them very rewarding. Once in hand, you'll be hard pressed to find birds so pleasing to the eye, and the pallet.


Editor's note: Scott Haugen's recently released book, Hunting the Alaskan High Arctic, is available directly from the author. To order your copy contact him at sthaugen@yahoo.com.