Hunting valley quail in Klamath County
By Gary Lewis
Darren said, “These things are runners. You’ll want to hunt with sixes today.”
Number six shot, like we’d use for chukar, like we’d use for pheasants or even turkeys.
It was a day better than we had any right to expect. With a little wind to start, Oreo would catch the scent of the birds Darren said we would find.
“I want you to spread out. I’ll be in the middle,” Darren Roe said. “Gary, you take one side, Bill, you take the other. Oreo will range out as far as you guys are on the sides and work close out in front. If she runs toward you, stop and let her work, if she goes on point, get up there fast.”
Oreo, the German wirehair, galloped several circuits around the yard in front of the corral while Darren watched. It was a hunt for California quail and the birds would be close, even now in the chill of the morning, dropping down out of their roost trees.
Bill Herrick thumbed three 20 gauge loads into his pump gun and I dropped two loads into the twin tubes of my CZ Ringneck 20 gauge and closed it.
We stayed the night before at the Running Y Ranch, west of Klamath Falls then met up with Darren Roe, of Roe Outfitters and headed east into the sunrise on Highway 140. A light snow blanketed the fields; perfect for tracking quail behind a pointing dog.
Beneath our boots, the new snow squeaked; the air was so cold it caught in our chests.
“Hup,” Darren said, and Oreo threw him a look.
This was the German wirehair I first met in June when Darren took delivery of the six-week-old pup. Barely old enough to hunt, this second week of December, she quivered with the anticipation.
I followed three-toed tracks in the snow.
Bill spotted them first, a dozen birds dropped down out of a juniper, hit the ground and scattered into the sagebrush. Moments later, we bumped two birds that buzzed away. Alerted by the beat of the wings, I spun and glimpsed one, too fast and too far to shoot.
At the foot of the second canyon, Bill Herrick kicked up a small group of quail that scattered like a handful of dimes. He shot twice and connected. I saw one of his birds crash into an opening in the sage.
A bird kicked out and buzzed straight away. I followed it with a load of sixes then swung on another from right to left.
Oreo marked Herrick’s first bird then Darren sent her in after the second. When they had those in hand, Oreo started up the canyon to look for mine.
“All year long, these quail are hunted by coyotes and bobcats and hawks,” Darren said. “Their survival strategy is that once they flush, they land in a dense bush and try to hold their scent so the coyote or dog won’t find them. Sometimes they fly into a juniper; you have to be ready for a bird to come out over your head.”
Among our first birds was a juvenile. Most quail, whether hunted or not, do not survive the months of cold.
Meet Mr. California
Studies show that as many as 60 to 90 percent of the California quail population turns over each year due to natural causes. Hunting seasons and bag limits are set to allow hunters a portion of birds that are expected to die over the course of a winter.
Mister California is the most common quail in Oregon. Also called valley quail, he is a native to southern Oregon and has been transplanted around the state. In Umatilla and Morrow counties, the season runs through December 31, while in the rest of the state hunters can take quail through the end of January. The daily bag limit is ten quail with 30 in possession.
For me, the bag limit is academic. I quit when either I have shot a self-imposed limit on a covey or, more often, when I have reached my limit chasing them up and down the hills and over the creeks.
Old-Fashioned Quail Management
“If there are several coveys of 10 to 20 birds, I only want to take two or three, from each one,” Darren said. “That way, I know there will be birds the next time I come.”
As we finished our morning hunt, we heard quail calls in the sagebrush.
Almost back to the corral where we started, Oreo whirled and stopped, one foreleg off the ground, nose locked on scent. Darren didn’t trust the point, but a bird streaked away and I dropped it. When I opened the gun to pluck out the empty, Oreo turned a half-circle and pointed the bush again. We thought it was old scent, but then another bird blasted out. I closed the gun and dropped the second five feet from the first.
That afternoon we hunted in some foothills above the ranch. There were birds, but fewer in number, and more scattered in the sagebrush. We followed elk tracks and found the prints of coyotes on their trail.
We had bumped birds all day long and our game vests sagged with the weight. It can happen at any time, moments out of the truck to start the new day or at the end of it all, tired, footsore and cold. I had to remind myself. Don’t take your eye off the dog.
It was a lesson we learned all day long. Even if it was a young dog as yet unschooled in the ways of wild quail.
We turned back toward the trucks and followed Oreo along a barbed wire fence. She plunged back and forth through the sage and then she spun, stopped and swiveled her head.
In a flash, I saw four things: the bird, a big male, was in the air, Sam was out of the way, Bill was 30 yards behind and Darren stepped back to give me a clear swing. The bird cleared the fence and hooked left behind a big juniper. I turned at the waist, flicked the safety, pressed the trigger and kept the barrel swinging. As if on a string, the quail stalled and turned cartwheels into the sage.
Oreo punched through the barbed wire for the retrieve. And three middle-aged men with old shotguns watched a young dog come of age.
“What I didn’t tell you is that this is Oreo’s first guided hunt,” Darren said. “She is doing better than I hoped. I’m a proud dad.”
Call me the proud uncle.
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