Pursuing Idaho’s Public Land Valley Quail

1e957fbf-9bb2-4e48-8c81-dafc7b29bb4f Idaho’s native quail is rarely seen, but we commonly hunt an invader in all the worst places: sage deserts, rock slides, cliffs, mountains, thorn thickets, the edges of overgrazed pastures and thin ribbons of deciduous brush in the tortured bottoms of canyons. Here we lucky Idahoans find our smallest upland game bird, the California or valley quail. 
“Hold on. There they are. Walking under that sage way up there.” I pointed and Brandon followed the line up the snowy mountain slope to our target. “Oh. Yeah. Guess we won’t be leaving just yet.” We’d just returned to the truck after a short hunt in snow too deep for quail, so we were planning to search lower elevations. The quail sighting changed all that. Sun on the south-facing slope had exposed patches of greening cheat grass. We trudged up the slope, hoping the late-season birds would hold for Cheyenne. To our delight, they did.
Our setter pointed, crept, pointed again and held firm even as four quail trotted out from under a sage no more than 20 yards uphill. I was afraid they’d run instead of fly, but a nervous bird finally flushed. That inspired 13 others. Brandon’s 20 gauge Rizzini coughed twice above the muffling snow and the first quail of his life tumbled. I swung my little 28 gauge Ruger through one bird and just caught a second before it disappeared around the hill. Once again we’d found California quail on public land in Idaho.
Historically, only mountain quail skipped and fluttered in the high desert brush and mixed coniferous forests of west Idaho. In the first half of the 20th century hunters could move hundreds of mountain quail a day from the Owyhee Mountains north to the Lewiston area. By 1984 populations were too low to support an open season. California quail, introduced around 1900, took up the slack. They seemed to thrive amid the new mix of agriculture, grazing, logging and altered landscapes.
Biologists don’t understand exactly why mountain quail barely cling to existence along the Salmon River near Riggins while their late arriving cousins seem to flourish. We’d all like to know how to bring mountain quail back, but in the meantime we happily pursue those California invaders in a state where some 60 percent of the land is public and wide open to hunting.       
Snake River Quail Hunting in Hells Canyon Idaho“There’s more quail,” I announced, braking the truck. Brandon and I had taken two more birds from that first covey before steering toward lower elevations and less snow. This new covey settled into dense sage lining a seasonal stream that carved through foothills controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The snow was still deep here, so we soon found quail tracks. Cheyenne again struck her pose, Brandon stepped in front of her and our second covey of the day erupted in easy gun range.
“This is great,” my son-in-law said as we pocketed two more birds. Had I known what would unfold a few days later, I’d have said “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Four days later we both watched at least 100 quail go airborne in a single flush at the base of a basalt cliff near the Snake River. The birds scattered across a pile of hell bubbled over and broken into blocks as big as refrigerators, terrain more suitable to chukars and rattlesnakes than quail, but nobody had told the quail that.
A pile of birds like this might seem wonderful, if not fantastic, to most Midwestern bird hunters, but you pay a price to see it. And a steeper price to hunt it. So much of Idaho is federal land as a matter of degrees. Like 30-degree, 40-degree and 50-degree slopes; 100-degree summer temperatures and less than 12 inches of precipitation each year. There are millions of acres open to hunting, but most don’t include quail. They are limited to riparian zones and irrigated crop fields. The densest concentrations dart in and around edge cover where water, brush and weeds meet corn or wheat fields. You can hunt this if you don’t mind knocking on lots of doors and cultivating relationships. On public land, prepare to work harder for your birds. Here’s how to go about it:

Public land tips

Work the southwestern border from Nevada clear up to the Coeur d’Alene area. Stay at about 3,500 feet elevation or less. Find riparian zones, creeks, seasonal washes and tangled draws with a mix of brush, grasses and weeds. Nearby grain fields are a big bonus. On the Snake River plain from about Twin Falls west and north to Weiser, irrigation ditches serve much the same function as creeks. Water, weeds and brush. Those are the magic ingredients. Major river drainages worth hunting include the Boise, Owyhee, Payette, Weiser, Snake, Salmon and Clearwater.
Access through private lands to public areas can be limited. One exception is the Snake River in Hells Canyon. This is not for wimps. A 30-degree slope here is considered level. Creeks are choked with brush, blackberry vines and broken boulders. Access is fair from Forest Service roads leading west from Riggins to Whitebird. Get atop the mountain spine separating the Snake and Salmon and you’re free to walk down any number of watersheds to the river. Climbing 1,000 to 4,000 feet back up isn’t fun, so many locals jet boat the river for access. Most quail are nearer the river than the ridge tops. You’ll find gray partridge and chukars in the grass and rocks, blue and ruffed grouse in the trees higher up.
Similar habitats off the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers are excellent for birds, but often blocked by private lands. Brushy draws in the Palouse wheat country from Lewiston north through Moscow nearly to Coeur d’Alene harbor lots of quail on private lands. A county plat map or GPS/Smartphone digital map (like onXmaps) showing public/private ownership are real time savers.

Idaho valley quail huntingUse a rugged retriever

Because quail coverts are usually narrow and rugged, tough, rugged dogs with strong retrieving instincts are better than fleet-footed, wide ranging pointers. You want a dog that will search diligently and pull fallen birds from thorns, rock slides and rivers. A small flushing breed eager to wriggle into the thickest cover may be needed to dislodge birds. Veteran Idaho quail chasers postulate that valley quail thrive here because they’ve cross-bred with chukars and perhaps a ringneck or two.
Idaho’s season usually opens in mid-September and runs through January. Early season can be extremely hot and dry, concentrating birds near water. Fall rains in October encourage coveys to venture farther from permanent water. Late season cold and snow concentrates them near heavy cover or grain fields.
In addition to forest grouse and gray and chukar partridge, quail hunters are likely to flush pheasants, perhaps a sage grouse or sharptail grouse and possibly a black bear, mule deer, whitetail, elk, moose or cougar. If that’s insufficient for keeping your spirits up, you can throw a line to salmon, steelhead, rainbows, smallmouth bass or giant white sturgeon.
Yeah, it’s wild out here. Be ready for it.
Story by Ron Spomer

Photo credits:
First image - Forest Service Northern Region via Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Main image, second image - Ron Spomer