Pheasant, Goose, Duck and Quail Hunting in Texas and New Mexico

I combined a “big trip” with my dog for quail hunting with my annual opening weekend pheasant hunting trip.  Instead of flying, I loaded the pup in the truck and drove to Amarillo, Texas for pheasant hunting, then to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico for 3 days of quail hunting and then back home.  It was a LONG trip and I also managed to squeeze in a little goose hunting in North Texas to go with my quail hunting.

 

 

 

Pheasant Hunting in the Southern Range

Tough Pheasant Hunting Weather with Cold Temperatures and Snow Covered Fields
Tough Pheasant Hunting Weather

I had my annual pheasant hunt as a prelude to my big quail hunting trip.  Pheasant hunting weather in North Texas is always a crap shoot.  I think I’ve seen every different type of weather up there.  This year, it was very cold with a light snow on the ground.  This wasn’t a great year for pheasants in North Texas due to the drouth.  Compounding this problem – or in some cases helping it – the farmers who usually leave some stubble in their fields had baled literally everything n- including the cotton stalks.  This had the effect of either eliminating their cover entirely or concentrating them in the sparse cover that was available.  As usual, you can’t expect to go the very farthest Southern range of pheasants in North Texas and expect to bag a limit every time.  We had a lot of walking and some great dog work but getting in range of the few we saw was very challenging.

 

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Goose Hunting in North Texas

North Texas Goose Hunting Spread using White and Grey Full Body Decoys
North Texas Goose Hunting Spread

Instead of two days of pheasant hunting, we elected to hunt geese in North Texas near Dalhart.  it was a clear cold day and there were plenty of lesser Canada geese in the area roosting on large water.  Goose hunting in Texas, or goose hunting anywhere for that matter, is always a challenge.  Those birds are smart!  WE did manage to draw in a few birds but the majority of the geese elected to head in a different direction that day.  Goose hunting tends to be all about being on the X – being where they want to be.  Scouting helps a lot to improve the odds but good old fashioned luck is always a critical factor when hunting geese in Texas.

 

 

 

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Turkey Restoration and Hunting

Texas Turkeys NOT for Hunting on a Road in a North Texas Neighborhood
Texas Turkeys NOT for Hunting

As I was driving out from Amarillo on Monday morning to go to New Mexico for quail hunting, a flock of neighborhood turkeys were out on the road looking for some food.  A blistering Norther had blown in overnight bringing lots of snow and freezing rain and the turkeys were hungry.  I’m not a turkey hunter but I do remember when I was a kid that turkeys tended to be a myth.  Congrats to all of the great associations and habitat management that has taken place over the last 25 years that has restored this amazing bird to huntable populations.

 

 

 

 

 

Valley of Fire

Quail Hunting Near Valley of Fire Showing Black Volcanic Rocks
Quail Hunting Near Valley of Fire

My journey from Amarillo Texas to Truth or Consequences New Mexico for quail hunting was planned over two major interstate highways.  Much to my surprise, the interstates were closed in New Mexico due to the storm and I had to take the back roads.  I got off the interstate, bought a paper map – imagine that – and then just kept heading South and West with the hope that I’d get to ToC without a major mishap.  Turns out that it was a wonderful drive through the back roads of Eastern New Mexico with a ton of great sights to see.  The Valley of Fire is an amazing place where a volcano “leaked” some lava to the surface a couple thousand years ago.  New Mexico is rough country anyway but this was incredibly rough!

 

 

 

 

 

Quail Hunting and Tracking in the Snow

Quail Tracks in the Snow on Gravel
Quail Tracks in the Snow

My first of 3 days of quail hunting started in the mountains east of ToC New Mexico.  The goal was to bag one each of Mearns Quail, Gambels Quail and Scaled quail.  On Day one we were after all or any of them.  The storm over the previous few days provided us with a very unique opportunity that I’d never had before – tracking quail in the snow.  New Mexico is BIG country and requires that you cover a lot of ground when you are hunting quail.  It helped tremendously that we were able to see quail tracks in the snow which allowed us to spend a little more time truck scouting and a little less time foot scouting.  Nevertheless, I covered about 8 miles this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rain Water Collection for Wildlife

Grey Concrete Quail Water Retention Device in a Bare Canyon
Quail Water Retention Device

New Mexico Game and Fish have built numerous large rainfall collectors to aid the wildlife and improve the quail hunting.  In Texas, we use a much smaller version that drains into a 55 gallon drum.  This unit was easily 15 steps on each side and drained into a large underground cistern.  These divces typically hold some quail for hunting but the drouth in the Southwest made finding birds a challenge this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working the Arroyos for Quail

Tough Quail Hunting Territory with Steep Slopes in a Brushy Ravine
Tough Quail Hunting Territory

Day 2 of quail hunting was in the arroyos beside the Rio Grande river.  There are numerous arroyos and they have been modified to retain as much rainwater as possible to minimize downstream flooding.  These arroyos make perfect spots for hunting quail – I wish we had some of these, and the public land, to hunt quail in Texas.  That said, hiking, working and hunting these arroyos definitely requires some great dog work.  They are intricate with lots of little hiding places and  you need a dog to sniff out every possible nook and cranny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quail Hunting on the Rio Grande River

Quail Hunting on the Rio Grande River Canyon with small Green Brush
Quail Hunting on the Rio Grande River

While quail hunting, I tended to work the canyon bottoms and let my dog work the edges and tops.  Sometime vice versa when I got tired of looking at the canyon walls and needed some better scenery.  I logged about 8 miles/day and I know my dog logged at least 5 times that working for me to hunt quail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duck Hunting on the Rio Grande River

Beautiful Red, Orange and Gold Duck Hunting Sunset
Duck Hunting Sunset

Since we were on the Rio Grande for quail hunting and there were ducks working the river, we took the opportunity in the evening to hunt ducks.  I found it amazing that ducks could be found in the desert.  We bagged a few ducks as they worked up and down the river feeding in the evening and then enjoyed the magnificent New Mexico sunset after hunting ducks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracking and Quail Hunting

Mearns Quail Hunting Tracks in Grey Gravel in a Canyon Bed
Mearns Quail Hunting Tracks

Day 3 of my quail hunting was back to the mountains east of ToC to find some blues and Mearns quail.  I was mostly interested in Mearns quail so we spent the majority of the time working closely and carefully along the sandy bottoms of canyons near oak brush where Mearns quail like to hide.  We saw plenty of tracks that were obviously Mearns Quail but never managed to find a covey.  This was the last of 5 days of hunting for my pup and she was getting pretty tired.  She never failed to answer the call but she also no longer jumped back into the truck after a swing through an area.  She had the will but the energy was draining quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Is What You Experience – Not the Size of the Game Bag

Orange and White Brittany Quail Hunting Dog Near and Ancient Oak Tree
Quail Hunting Dog

I can’t say this often enough.  Quail hunting or hunting ducks, makes no difference.  The true benefit and enjoyment is seeing something new with your best friend.  I never fail to be amazed by the desert and what has adapted to thrive there.  I found this one scrub oak tree that was only about 10 feet tall but had a base and trunk that indicated that the tree was very old.  How long had that tree been there and how many other quail hunters had it shaded?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Headed Home from Quail Hunting

Exhausted Brittany Quail Hunting Dog Sound Alseep in a Truck Seat
Exhausted Quail Hunting Dog

Heading home after 5 days of pheasant, goose, duck and quail hunting is both relaxing and sad.  It was an 11 hour drive from ToC back to Austin where I live and most of that drive is horribly boring through West Texas.  My pup was exhausted and slept the entire way home – knocked out!  She is my first quail hunting dog and I never cease to be amazed at what she can and is willing to do for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summary of Pheasant, Goose, Duck and Quail Hunting

All in all it was an amazing quail hunting trip and I’m already looking forward to more in the future.  We went pheasant hunting in Amarillo and goose hunting in North Texas – both with marginal results in the game bag.  We braved the snow storm and back roads of New Mexico to hunt Gambel, Scaled and Mearns quail in the mountains of Southern New Mexico.  We also managed to squeeze in a duck hunt along the Rio Grande River.  After 5 days of hard hunting, we turned back South and headed home – two exhausted hunting buddies with some fantastic memories of some great quail hunting.

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Mearns Quail and the Arizona Grand Slam

About a year ago, I read an article in The Bird Hunting Report about hunting Mearns Quail in Arizona with Steve Hopkins from Arizona Quail Guides. I got in touch with Steve via email and scheduled a trip in December, 2010. The article praised Steve highly and I was thrilled with my hunt with him. I’d read somewhere that Steve is the “hardest working quail guide I’ve ever met” and I heartily second that opinion.

I talked with and traded emails with Steve several times prior to my trip to make sure everything was squared away. I scheduled a two day hunt specifically for Mearns Quail as we don’t have very many in Texas and the ones we do have are illegal to shoot. I had originally planned to take my dog but found out that Southwest Airlines will not allow dogs to travel in the cargo hold. They let you take those damn little yippy dogs in sacks on board under the seat but won’t let you put a working dog in a kennel underneath in the cargo hold. Go figure!

Steve mentioned that “they are up high this year” and I assumed that he meant that they were higher up in elevation than usual. They were, just not in the way I expected!

Steve is based out of Patagonia Arizona and my brother and I stayed at the Spirit Tree Inn. It’s a very nice bed and breakfast and the owners go to great lengths to make you very comfortable. One of the owners used to work in the dining and hospitality industry and makes some truly tasty and unique breakfasts.

Steve met us bright and early on Saturday morning at the B&B and took us in his truck down into the Coronado National Forest.

Mearns Quail Country

We went to one of about a dozen small canyons in the CNF. The scenery in the canyon was markedly different than the scenery above the canyon. It was amazing to find these lush, oak laden canyons in the middle of the Northern Mexican Desert.

More Mearns Quail Country

Since we were hunting in canyons, there was quite a bit of hiking up and down. I’m used to quail in the Texas flatlands so this we a new experience.

Quail Hunting In Steep Canyons

My brother is demonstrating just exactly how steep the canyon sides were. This is where “they are up higher this year” comes in. Seems as though in normal years, the Mearns Quail can usually be found almost in the bottom of the canyons. For some reason, this year, they were almost at the top of the sides of the canyons. Steve related a story about Mearns Quail being a “gentlemans’s hunt” because you can comfortably walk down the bottom of the canyons in the shade of the big oak trees to hunt them. Not so much this year – it was a lot of hard hiking and zig zagging up and down the steep sides of the canyons to find the quail. Here is just one of the places where Steve earns his praise of being the hardest working quail guide. I’m in good shape but had to hustle to keep up with Steve and his dogs.

Immature Male Mearns Quail

We managed to flush two coveys of Mearns Quail that day. This is an immature male with beautiful spots. I counted myself fortunate to have bagged one on the first morning out.

Mearns Quail Feet

Mearns Quail have larger feet than other quail. They use these larger feet to scratch in the dirt and eat roots rather than seeds on top of the ground.

Mearns Quail Territory

We were almost in Mexico as we hunted in the Coronado National Forest.

Public Quail Hunting Area

We hunted on public lands, as was evidenced by the 1950’s style signs on the gates and fences.

Steve Hopkins Arizona Quail Guides

Steve packs a delicious lunch made by a deli in Patagonia and we rested for an hour or so before heading to another canyon. This one was a little steeper and deeper. That didn’t slow Steve down at all. We jumped another covey in this canyon but weren’t quick enough on the trigger to bring any down. It’s tough shooting when you’re standing on a 45 degree incline!

Hunting Quail Near Mexico

We were close enough to Mexico for Steve to offer us a quick tour of the Million Dollar per Mile Fence that is made out of railroad tracks. We also found a geographical marker on the US – Mexico border so that warranted a quick trip to Mexico for the more daring of the intrepid hunters – sans passport!

Public Quail Hunting Registration

Since the Mearns Quail were sort of thin, we elected to hunt “desert birds” the next day. Steve picked us up again and took us just North of Tombstone onto some more public hunting lands. These were State controlled public hunting areas and required that we register each time we moved from one location to another.

Gambel Quail Territory

Hunting “desert birds” means Scaled Quail and Gambel Quail. Hunting “desert birds” means “lots of walking in the desert”.

Scaled Quail Territory

The desert is big! One of the challenges of hunting either/or Scaled Quail/Gambel Quail is in HOW you approach them. The dogs will go on point and then you have a very quick decision to make based on what type of bird you think they are pointing. If you think they are pointing Scaled Quail then you need to start running, because the birds are running already. If you make a mistake in your guess and they are Gambel Quail then you are going to run right past them. If you think the dogs are pointing Gambel Quail and you sneak up on them and they turn out to be Scaled Quail, they will be long gone by the time you get there.

Scaled Quail

I managed to get lucky and guess right. and bagged a Scaled Quail.

Steve Hopkins Quail Guide

Walking in the desert requires a lot of water and we took frequent breaks to rehydrate. This is one or two times when Steve showed his “guide humor”. He’s a pretty serious guy when it comes to hunting quail.

Hawks Prey on Quail

We covered a lot of territory hunting the desert birds – even finding a hawk nest occasionally.

Curious Pile of Dirt

While we were traipsing around the desert, we saw quite a few of these strange piles of dirt and rocks nestled up on the sides of the hills. They varied in size from several square yards to almost an acre in one case.

Abandoned Mine Shaft

Turns out, they were piles of mine tailings. This particular mine was about 30 feet deep and carved out of solid rock. That’s a hard way to try to make a living but this is the Tombstone Area so there are minerals there – somewhere.

More Gambel Quail Hunting

As the day waned, we hunted one more area. Nobody had said the words “Grand Slam” but you could sort of feel it in the air. An Arizona Quail Grand Slam is a hunt where you can bag each of the three species of quail in Arizona – Mearns, Gambel and Scaled. Nobody wanted to jinx anything. Afterall, I’d originally gone to hunt Mearns and had bagged one the previous day so the hunt was already a success.

Hard Quail Hunting

This area, while appearing rather easy to walk on the last afternoon of our last day, was just riddled with gullies and washes. Steep ones. For a desert, there sure was a lot of up and down hiking.

Gambel Quail

Just as the sun was setting and we were walking back to the truck, one of the dogs went on point and flushed a Gambel Quail. I was lucky enough that there wasn’t time to think and I brought one down.
Partial Arizona Grand Slam

This is me holding 2/3 of an Arizona Grand Slam. The Mearns from the previous day was already in the freezer.

End of the Quail Hunt

We hunted hard all day for two days and the sunset and drive home on the last day was spectacular!

All in all, I am tremendously pleased with my hunt with Steve Hopkins of Arizona Quail Guides. Steve is a man of many talents and also provides outdoor camp cooking and taxidermy services. He’s working on a mount for me with all three birds so that I have a souvenir to remember my hunt.

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Training the new dog to Hunt Quail?

I enjoy hunting quail and a dog is absolutely required to do that – you’re just not going to find many birds without the help of a nose that is designed to find them.  The Bobwhite Quail Decline is making finding and hunting bobwhite quail that much more challenging every year.  All great quail hunting dogs combine two factors – good genetics and great training.

In the Spring right after I got her, I took her on a few hunts to see if she had a nose and interest in birds. I was very pleasantly surprised. She had both!

She also had the “freeze” that great pointers need.

She had the ability to find quail, point them and track them. I also got lucky as I found out later. While I didn’t take out on the hunts, I did bring back some birds for her to play with. Here’s where I got lucky. While I was playing with the birds and the dog, there was shooting going on in the background so she very quickly got used to hearing gunfire. It wasn’t intentional.

Training a dog who has a natural hunting nose and technique is obviously significantly easier than working with a dog without the hunting instinct or without a gifted nose.  Using dogs is certainly preferable, but it’s not essential to have a dog to raise wild quail or to hunt them.

To read the next steps in training a dog to hunt wild quail, read the follow-up post.

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