California Quail Hunting Forecast 2019


Three species of quail, strong numbers and quailty habitat make California a destination for upland hunters

By Curtis Niedermier

Three species of quail, a 10-bird daily limit, long seasons and more public land than any upland hunter could cover in a lifetime make California a destination state that any bird dog-following troubadour ought to consider visiting. An annual non-resident license runs a little higher than other popular states at $174.45, but there’s a two-day option for less than $50. And considering the quality access to mountain, California and Gambel’s quail, plus a productive hatch and brood-rearing season in several key zones of the state, the price is probably worth it. 

Weather and conditions

According to Katherine Miller, an upland game bird biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, winter conditions throughout most of the Golden State were favorable for quail.

“In November, conditions were warmer than normal across most of the state, with rainfall higher than normal in the Great Valley [north-central, west of the Sierra Nevada] and the Mojave Desert,” she says. “In December, conditions were drier than normal throughout most of the state. From January through February, conditions were wetter across most of the state, with temperatures varying from warmer to slightly colder than normal."

“Following the wet conditions of February, March through May experienced above normal rainfall. This drove the growth of forbs for forage and cover and increased insect populations critical for young chicks. Summer conditions have been very favorable for quail populations as well.”

Hatch and broods

Due to the habitat and terrain, California does not have a statewide survey system for quail, but anecdotal reports so far indicate a strong year for mountain and California quail and a little tougher situation for Gambel’s, though nothing bad enough that hunters should shy away.

“The hatches have been really, really good,” says Quail Forever Regional Representative Matt Hardinge, who lives just across the state line in Reno, Nev. “I’ve been seeing birds like crazy. I hunt mountain quail pretty extensively out of California. Basically, anywhere in the northern part of the Sierras is prime for them. I haven’t hunted the coastal ranges, but I’ve heard there’s pretty good numbers there."

“The hatches were good,” he adds. “We had a scare with a late snow around the end of May, beginning of June, but the chicks were not on the ground yet. It was a late hatch, but a strong hatch. The rain around the hatch time wasn’t significant enough to be detrimental to the hatches.

“Down in the southern part of the state, for the valley [California] quail, I’ve heard reports of double hatches, which is pretty cool. I have actually seen a few up around where I am. I think it’s going to be really good for them."

“The Gambel’s quail are very specific, and they need a lot of moisture. I’m not sure they got it. I think they’re going to have a little bit of an iffy year.” 

Habitat and programs

Even though there’s a good bit of variety from one end of the state to the other, California’s quail habitat is in good shape overall. The key to success is understanding the needs of each species.

“Just speaking generally, I’d say you find the mountain quail in forested areas, not too far from where you’d find blue grouse,” says Hardinge. “They like to be in the lower height shrubs; up to about waist-high. Manzanita is a pretty popular thing for them to hide in, and is pretty common in the lower portion of the Sierras. You’ll find valley quail in sagebrush and riparian areas. Gambel’s quail you find in the desert in washes with shrubby growth, maybe where there was water at some point. Finding washes is probably the easiest way to narrow them down.”

Top spots

Pick your poison when it comes to quail in California. There are plenty of places to go hunting.

“Hunters should expect to find fair to good numbers of quail in their favorite hunting areas throughout the state,” says Miller. “For mountain quail, hunters should be successful throughout the Sierra Nevada and the forests in northwestern California. California quail populations are locally abundant throughout the state, but are best located in chaparral [shrubland] areas along the coast. For Gambel’s quail, hunters should expect to find birds throughout their range in southeastern California, but may wish to focus more on the area around Joshua Tree.”

Insider tips

The scale of opportunity in California means that hunters must also scale up their efforts to find birds, says Miller.

“Expect to put in some effort in scouting for quail before you hunt, due to the variation in quail populations this year,” she says. 

In other words, a good pair of boots and quality maps will be key tools. Also, effective July 1, 2019, non-lead ammunition is required when hunting with a firearm in California, so plan accordingly.