Long drives, foggy walks, and mishaps in pursuit of a mountain ghost
By Trey Johnson || Photos By Trey Johnson & Nate Akey
By Trey Johnson
Photos By Trey Johnson
& nate Akey
It was late November when the dogs and I piled into my pickup along with all the gear needed for a month-long bird hunting adventure. We were staring down a 26-hour drive from my home in West Texas to our destination in southwest Oregon, the longest single trek we’d been on to date. The reason for the drive? Mountain quail, the least-known and least-hunted of our six native quail species.
I informed Matt, an old college roommate and wildlife biologist, of my departure. He would be my partner on this hunt. With his address plugged in, I hit play on our “Bird Hunting Road Trip” playlist and away we went, barreling down the interstate.
After a caffeine-fueled blur through New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, I arrived safely in Oregon. The first battle had been won. That evening we sampled a few local craft beers and feasted on elk tacos from a bull Matt had harvested in Colorado earlier in the season. With full bellies, it was time for a good night’s sleep. We would need it, for tomorrow would mark the first day of chasing birds in the Pacific Northwest.
The next morning, we grabbed some breakfast burritos and black coffee from a gas station before heading into the mountains. We came to a seasonal closure barricade about five miles up a washed-out forest service road. From there, we parked, geared up, collared the dogs, and began walking up the closed logging road. Matt explained he often saw mountain quail along the side of these kinds of roads while out working in the area.
The dogs and I had never seen, heard, or in their case, smelled or tasted a mountain quail. And for that matter, none of us had spent any time in the Pacific Northwest. The heavy dampness of the coastal mountain air was far different from the arid portions of western Texas we had come from. That morning there was a layer of fog cloaking the forest of massive Douglas firs. Below the firs was an understory of blackberry bushes and ferns drenched by the ever-present moisture in the air.
While we walked along the mountain road, the dogs disappeared into the fog as they cast up and down the steep slopes on either side of the road. On this morning, we were hunting behind Ranger, my shorthair, and Pearl, one of my English setters. Ranger tends to hunt big, but isn’t a very consistent retriever. Pearl, on the other hand, works close by, checks in frequently, and lives for the retrieve (and sitting in my lap). Running the two dogs in tandem tends to work well until they begin to compete against each other!
We began to see fresh bird droppings on the road edges that looked the right size and shape to belong to quail about an hour into the hunt. A few moments later, I realized it had been a while since Ranger had checked in. I pulled up my GPS unit to look at his tracks on the map. Typically, when he is searching for birds, Ranger makes a large semi-circle and then returns from behind the hunting party. When his tracks are headed in a straight line, you can be sure he is trailing something. However, you can be less certain of what lies at the other end of that trail. In this instance, Ranger was headed in a straight line down a steep drain. And he was on the move!
I gave Matt a heads up and we picked up the pace. Based on Ranger’s trajectory, we decided to stay on the logging road as it curled sharply back towards him. We blindly followed the road until my GPS unit buzzed, alerting us that Ranger was on point 210 yards away. We immediately dove off the side of the road and down the hill into the hip high ferns. As we came within 100 yards my German shorthair, he began moving up the hill on the other side of the valley. “Well rats,” I thought while crawling out of the drainage.
Reaching the hillcrest, we popped out onto an older logging road than the one we had walked in on. About that time, my GPS buzzed once and then a second time to inform me that both dogs, Ranger and Pearl, were on point 60 yards down the road from us. The dense fog prevented us from spotting the dogs until we were about 30 yards out. Closing in, birds began to rocket up from beneath the ferns one at a time. Amidst our hail of gunfire, all the flushing mountain quail sailed safely down the other side of the crest. Five shots, five misses. It wasn’t all bad though; the dogs had performed well and pinned the covey, blocking their escape route.
Not entirely sure where the covey landed, we again bailed off the road after them. During our search for Ranger, we had moved into a portion of the forest that had burned a few years prior. All that remained of the trees were their scorched trunks, many of which had fallen, creating a maze of debris to navigate over and around. Those still standing protruded like blackened spears from the newly sprouting shrubs. The rocky soil was also impacted by the severity of the fire. Once held in place by the vegetation rooted within, the soil was now unprotected, loosened, and gradually eroding.
Ranger again went on point near a few downed logs a short distance below. By the time we had scrambled down, Pearl had joined Ranger and was now backing him. We approached the dogs with our guns in the “high and ready” position. Moving closer and closer, the anticipation of the flush grew. I was now standing in front of the dogs on the side of the downed logs. Shrugging my shoulders, I attempted to release the dogs. They wouldn’t budge. I circled back to Ranger and started to climb into the pile of logs in from of him. In that moment, two mountain quail shot out from underneath the nearest log.
Still in disbelief, I mounted my shotgun and fired my first barrel at the second bird as it flew back up the mountain slope. The shot felt good, and the bird crumpled near the top of the hill. Pearl headed up after the downed bird on a beeline. As she approached the spot where I had marked it down, the quail got up again and flushed straight towards me. Pearl followed suit and barreled down the precipitous decline after the bird again. Entranced by the adrenaline coursing through her veins, my setter lost her footing and began to tumble through the loose rocks, slamming into a fir stump that spun her in circles before finally skidding to a halt.
I was petrified. The whole scene looked like a complete trainwreck. I was worried she had been impaled by a fire-scorched branch or broken a rib or limb, but to my amazement Pearl hopped up before I was able to reach her and continued searching for the wounded bird. She was on a mission now, with a vengeance! A few more moments passed as Pearl chased the little devil through the deadfall before she crawled out from under a log with the plump quail in her mouth.
Sitting on the side of the mountain, I gave Pearl a once-over to make sure she hadn’t sustained any obvious injuries from her spill. Confident she was healthy, I turned and scrambled up the precarious terrain back to the crest where Matt was waiting.
I sat on a boulder, pulled the quail from my bird vest, and took time to admire the bird I had taken. In the late 1800’s, John Muir, an avid conservationist and the “Father of the National Parks,” described mountain quail as “nature’s beautiful mountain chickens.” I must concur with Mr. Muir. The quail’s unique characteristics, its cobalt blue body, orangish-brown stripes, and tremendous black topknot feathers, measuring two inches in length, make them an exceptional little game bird. A beautiful mountain chicken indeed.
Trey Johnson is an upland game bird biologist and an avid wingshooter. If he’s not at work researching game birds, you can bet he’s in the field with his dogs chasing the next flush.
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.