Story and photos by Chad Love
A quail in February is not the same animal it was in November. By the end of January it’s been hunted, hammered, harried, and hounded by legions of hunters, and it’s seen the warm salad days of the early fall change over into the cold, icy grips of winter.
This is the time of year when birds seem to get scarce, and you may wonder if they exist at all. Make no mistake: the birds are still out there. But there are some key differences between hunting quail early on and hunting them in the twilight of the season.
If you focus on the things and places that quail need to keep them safe, warm, and fed, while also adapting your tactics to fit the season, you’ll find the birds. And what are those things? The exact same things you need this time of year: A nice cozy place to hang out, and a hearty meal. In other words, food and shelter.
As we get deeper into winter food sources become increasingly important, but so does cover. Insects and greens are gone, the leaves are off trees and brushy cover, and predators are on the prowl. This time of year birds shift to high-value foods that offer the most bang for the caloric buck while providing nearby shelter. You should, too.
Row crops such as sorghum, wheat stubble, and even corn may not seem like typical quail habitat, but these represent concentrated food sources for quail, and if found near escape cover like plum or briar thickets in the corner of an ag field, you can bet quail will be found there, too.
Beyond row crops, look for thick patches of mixed weedy forbs such as native sunflower, ragweed, croton, and planted pollinator strips. Think seedheads and cover. A beautiful patch of food surrounded by bare ground won’t be utilized nearly as much by late-season quail as a patch of food with a gnarly patch of escape cover next to it.
And always remember to inspect the crops of the birds you shoot. This gives you a definitive answer to what the birds in your area are keying on.
Cover is always key to finding quail, but it becomes even more critically important late in the season, for two primary reasons: predators and temperature. This is the time of year when avian, mammalian, and yes, human predation is highest, and the weather is the lousiest and coldest. Quail need shelter from the weather and shelter from all those creatures out there looking for a quail dinner.
There are two primary types of cover to look for this time of year: escape cover, and thermal cover. Escape cover offers a relatively bare understory that a quail can move through quickly (like a pheasant, a quail’s legs are just as important as its wings when evading predators), while offering an overhead canopy to keep it hidden from predators. Sand plum thickets, briar patches, and other stands of dense woody cover offer ideal late-season escape cover for quail.
These types of cover also offer the other thing quail look for this time of year : shelter from the cold. Quail cannot take the snow and cold like a pheasant can. Even just a few degrees, or a little less snowpack can make the difference between death and survival, and areas like sand-sage and other low-growing brush, plum thickets, small stands of evergreens like cedar/juniper, windrows, shelterbelts, all serve as protected little micro-climates for quail.
Tactics and Mindset
Just like the birds themselves, late-season hunting is a different animal than its earl-season counterpart. Especially for public-land hunters, this is the time of year to forego the obvious in favor of the overlooked. If a spot, especially a spot that’s close to a road or easily accessible, screams “Quail!” to you, then it’s screamed the same thing to every other hunter who’s seen it.
There may be birds there, but then again, there may not. So don’t always hit the obvious spots that have been hammered all season. As long as the requirements of food and cover are met, marginal-looking, low-percentage, overlooked spots become late-season hotspots. You may have to search a little longer, and walk a little farther, but this is the time of year when effort pays off.
Speaking of walking, try slowing it down a little this time of year. Birds in heavy, late-season cover will often hold tighter, so if you’re used to covering a lot of ground, throttle back and be a little more like a pheasant hunter. Be methodical, give the dog time to cover ground thoroughly before moving on. Consider a later start, as well. Quail will often stay roosted up a little later in the morning in the cold of winter.
And perhaps the number one consideration for hunting late-season quail is to adapt your mindset to the season. Your parameters of success now should be a little different now. A quail born in July is a grizzled, middle-aged veteran by January. The birds are smarter, the coveys are smaller. Adopt a trophy mindset. Birds killed in the late season are earned. Don’t worry about numbers or limits. Quail that make it to February are that spring’s breeders, so consider self-limiting the number of birds you take. Make it about the experience.
The late season is a fantastic time to hunt quail. As the youngsters say, there’s just something about that “hits” differently. Yes, it’s nice hunting in the sunshiny, full-of-promise days of the early season, but don’t pass up the opportunity to hunt late-season quail just because it’s cold or you think they’ve been “shot out.” If you miss that, you may miss out on perhaps the most rewarding time of the season.
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal