A Winter Quail ADventure in the Pacific Northwest
By Ben Brettingen || Photos By Aaron Black-Schmidt
By Ben Brettingen
Photos By Aaron Black-SChmidt
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The allure of bluebird skies, temperate winter weather and unique birds has driven upland-oriented folks to the Southwest for years. But judging by my white knuckles, bent posture and squinty eyes, this truck was not headed for an easy drive south.
The climb up the Montana mountain pass wasn’t the issue because if you let off the gas, you eventually stop. I guess the same could be said for going downhill, just a little more abrupt.
I am a child of snow and ice, so the winter weather was no more than an inconvenience. But as the ETA for my destination on the GPS kept shifting later and later, I pined for the sunny pavement of Arizona or New Mexico.
After successfully crossing the Great Divide, surely that destination must be close. Fast forward (so to speak) 8 hours, and I finally pulled into a western Oregon motel. The air hung wet and thick as I met up with my hunting companions, Nate Akey and Chad Love.
What would be worth exchanging desert quail in December? At the time, I wasn’t sure. The goal of the trip was to pursue the quail of the Pacific Northwest, and of course, we couldn’t forgo a lactic acid party with the red-legged devil, sometimes known as chukar.
The two quail species that call this area home are the mountain quail and valley quail. As we wet our whistle with the West Coast’s finest hops, plans started to form for the morning’s mountain quail adventure.
Until this trip came together, I had no real intentions of hunting this bird, and of all the quail species this one is spoken about the least.
The striking mountain quail is the largest quail in the United States and calls home a band stretching from southern Washington through Oregon and California, with a smaller population found on the Baja Peninsula. Many of the birds are hunted in Oregon and California, and the habitat can vary quite a bit. The cover we would be hunting looked nothing like the chapparal foothills I had watched on the Internet.
Instead, we climbed into the Coast Range. Overnight, snow had fallen, blanketing the already-soaked logging roads. Average annual precipitation for this area is around 70 inches and judging by the moss canvassing the trunks of the massive pines, I wouldn’t argue.
We wound past logging trucks until we gained enough elevation to be outside of their operations. Across a fresh coating of snow, we drove slowly and watched the road for the tell-tale tracks of our top-knotted friends. Up ahead, there was a large, exposed dirt bank, and tracks started to appear.
We collared the dogs and suited up for our first walk. To our right was a steep logged hillside, that, as a Midwesterner, I deemed unscalable. To our right was a sloping hillside covered with mature conifers. A bird scurried across the trail down the embankment, as Nate’s dog Tikka, a mountain quail hammer, crept closer until she was certain. In a flash, the covey rose, bombing downhill and uphill and about every other direction.
The flurry of gunfire yielded a pair of beautiful male birds. A photo doesn’t do mountain quail justice, as the extraordinary shades of blue and chestnut contrasted the snowscape. The long top knot, razor straight, was the icing.
At this point, you couldn’t have lured me away from this paradise. I don’t care how sunny it was in the desert Southwest. The mountain pines shrouded in dreary, foggy skies were a sight to behold.
The covey numbered into the twenties, and we decided to follow the birds that went uphill into the forest. The only issue was that every third or fourth footfall would be met with snapping twigs, signaling a fall into thigh-height thatch. This made getting around miserable for both dogs and hunters alike. An explosion of feathers in proximity gave me quite a scare as the bird quickly escaped gun range, but Nate deftly sent it earthside.
The rest of the day was spent tracking the birds down overgrown trails. We chased the little footsteps of these mountain ghosts into thickets of young pines. The birds skillfully mimicked a wily ruffed grouse, using the trees to cover their escape. The snow whimsically floated across our faces as we trekked back to the truck.
But then the intensity of the snowfall changed dramatically, and the playful flakes turned into a driving force. With waning light and no cell service, the decision was made to crawl down the mountain.
We had accomplished the first part of our goal. Now it was time to head east into an entirely different landscape.
Cheatgrass and sagebrush soon replaced trees, and a white blanket of snow was the only thing reminiscent of the previous day. On the drive in to our first hunting spot, the terrain looked extremely tame for chukar territory. That was until I approached the canyon leading down to the river.
Nate must have known his audience, as Chad and I were very thankful to be starting at the top. It didn’t take long for Tikka to do her thing and pin down a covey of chukar against a sheer cliff. As we emerged from the fog, the birds clearly weren’t interested in our shenanigans, and they top-gunned off the cliff.
My two-year-old pointer, Amos, who was just as much of a newbie as me when it came to these birds, proceeded to bump two coveys. I’m sure my hunting partners could see my disappointment and did a good job of hiding theirs.
Then the Garmin Alpha vibrated, signaling a point at 200 yards. As we rounded the finger of terrain, we saw Amos facing downhill less than 100 vertical feet above us. It was a perfect situation for chukar hunters, as the birds were trapped between us and the dog.
Amos held steadfast as we approached. A scurrying motion caught my attention just about the time the birds took to the air. Without the direct route down to the river, they were a much less menacing target. Multiple birds fell and I took a minute to just soak in the grandeur of it all.
Daylight again was the limiting factor as we couldn’t get to the brushy draw that supposedly housed valley quail. That would have to wait until tomorrow.
As the sun broke over the rolling hills, our goal for the day was to find valley quail (also called California quail). The small seasonal creek lined with brush and cattails would have looked at home in Kansas quail country.
These top-knot birds look similar to Gambel’s quail, less their intricate angular chest feathers, bluish hue and overt speckled neck. Occupying a wider swath from Washington through the Baja, and numerous points east, opportunity to hunt the valley quail is more abundant than for its mountain quail kin.
As we split the creek, the dogs worked the thick cover. Almost immediately a covey of no less than 40 birds flushed wildly out to our front. My Duetsch Drahthaar, Herb, hammered into a point that said, “This bird is right here.”
The quail flushed between me and the canyon wall less than 10 feet to my left. I mustered every ounce of selfrestraint and let the lone male bird get outside of feather pillow range before the bottom barrel did its job. We finished the walk down the creek with numerous points and covey rises.
We all reveled in the big picture: wild birds in wild places.
• • •
Don’t get me wrong. Sand and sun have some natural appeal in the dead of winter. But I’d be hard pressed to pick it over the snow, biting wind and unique landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.
Unless you’re lucky enough to live in the West, the valley quail, mountain quail and chukar are birds most hunters don’t get the opportunity to see in the flesh. As long as I am upright and able to follow a dog, these birds will always be on the short list.
When he isn’t working as a regional manager for onX Hunt, Ben Brettingen is hunting upland birds or writing about it.
This article originally appeared in the Winter Issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Quail Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Quail Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.