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.