Quail Hunting Fixes
Most quail-hunting problems stem from hunter mistakes and oversights. The four most common problems that quail hunters face afield involve dogs, equipment, shooting and locating birds. Let’s dive into each of these and identify solutions that will put more spring in your step, more birds in your bag and more smiles on your face.
Quail hunters’ canine woes often start when hunters unknowingly pick a bird dog from the wrong bloodlines. This is one of the most serious errors a quail hunter can make, for an incompatible pedigree often ruins any chance of a good relationship developing between hunter and dog.
Genes serve as powerful influence over a bird dog’s actions, including the most important trait, how far a dog ranges. Some hunters prefer bird dogs that run far and wide in search of game, Others prefer dogs that hunt close. If hunter and dog are mismatched concerning this preference and trait, both hunter and dog will likely suffer.
Before purchasing an adult bird dog, a hunter should ask to see the dog hunt. If the dog hunts well and at a satisfactory range, it’s important to ask if the dog’s hunting style is more a reflection of its nature or of rigorous training. I prefer a dog that is genetically programmed to hunt my way.
When in the market for a bird dog pup, a hunter should buy out of a sire and dam that possess his or her preferred hunting style. By observing an eight-week-old pup, you can’t determine if it will have the hunting characteristics you want. If the parents hunt the way you like, however, chances are their pups will, too.
Pay less attention to a pup’s more distant relatives. Their traits are not likely to vitally important. A pup receives its genes directly from its parents, and those genes will affect a pup’s intelligence, scenting abilities and hunting style.
Regardless of breeding, bird dogs require training. Some hunters buy a pup and, when it is fully grown, think they should have a dog that will find birds, hold points and retrieve. It seldom works that way. To develop their instincts, bird dogs need time afield and training.
A hunter can take a dog to a reputable trainer and, after considerable expense, receive a dog ready to hunt. However, quail hunters must be schooled in how to handle a dog. No matter how well trained, dogs will test their owners. If allowed to disobey, dogs will quickly "forget" what they have learned. Accordingly, most professional trainers make serious efforts to ensure that their clients know how to give and enforce commands.
Before the hunting season, bird dogs also need refresher training. Two weeks of work on commands and time afield will have a bird dog ready for opening day. Hunters who forego this effort before the season usually suffer with poor dog work until their four-legged partners sharpen to task.
You also can over-handle a bird dog. This problem is the opposite of a failure to train. Those who succumb to this tendency are often new to working with bird dogs. A hunter wants to make sure his dog honors its training, so he or she gives command after command: "Here!" "Heel!" "Stay!" This can cramp a dog’s hunting efforts and leave it confused and distracted. Commands should be kept to a minimum, such as "Whoa" when the dog is on point, "Dead" when a bird has been downed and "Here" when a dog is headed in the wrong direction.
It’s also possible to overhunt a dog. Bird dogs are like athletes in that they need time to recuperate from the physical rigors of their sport. Hunting bird dogs for days on end, with insufficient time to rest, leaves them vulnerable to injury. I learned this the hard way.
Some years ago I had only one bird dog. She loved to hunt, and so we hunted birds day after day. I had no idea she was physically worn down until she dislocated a shoulder while running a field edge. She didn’t trip or stumble. Her joints had taken a pounding from overhunting, and her shoulder simply gave out. The injury plagued her the rest of her life.
Preventing this kind of problem is simple; own more dogs. I now routinely keep four pointers. Taking care of that many dogs is a lot of work and expensive, but with four dogs I can hunt two dogs one day and the other two the next. This gives each dog a day’s rest between hunts and keeps them fresh for the season. The same can be done with two dogs by hunting one dog at a time.
Dogs that bring downed birds to hand are a joy, but some develop the habit of "hard-mouthing," or chewing, what they retrieve. A hard-mouthed dog can quickly puncture and pulverize a quail, rendering it unfit for human consumption.
A dog’s tendency to bite into game is often magnified by hunters who attempt to forcefully pull game out of their dogs’ mouths. Tugging encourages a dog to clamp down harder.
If a dog refuses to give up a bird, place your hand along the skin that joins hind leg to side and pull up while at the same time saying "drop." The sensation will cause the dog to reflexively open its mouth. With stubborn dogs I have had to lift their hind feet off the ground before getting them to drop the quarry into my hand, but I never tugged, regardless of how stubborn they were.
Playing fetch games using a frozen quail is a good way to practice this release system. The bird gets slimy and dirty after a couple of retrieves, but it is good training. A frozen bird further discourages a dog from clamping down.
It also pays to feed a dog an hour or so before a hunt. This reduces a dog’s feeding instincts, which makes it less prone to bite into birds. If a dog doesn’t want to eat, drizzling honey or maple syrup over its food is often all the encouragement that’s needed.
Force-breaking a dog to retrieve also solves hard-mouth problems. A good description of this method can be found in Bill Tarrant’s book, Best Way To Train Your Gun Dog - The Delmar Smith Method.
Wing Shooting Problems
Why do you miss when you shoot at quail? You can come up with plenty of technical excuses for your shots straying, such as the fit of shotgun to shooter, mounting of shotgun to shoulder and cheek, stance, swing and lead. However, most quail hunters miss their birds for two basic reasons.
One is a lack of shooting practice. Your mother may have told you to practice the piano when you were a kid. If you didn’t, you probably didn’t develop into much of a pianist. The same principle goes with wingshooting. You have to practice to gain proficiency.
Most of us, even if we gave our best efforts, would never make the Olympic shooting team. That level of shooting requires superior talent, hand-eye coordination and reflexes, but most of us can become solid wing shots through regular practice.
I’m not a great shooter, but I usually connect with quail because I work at it. After quail season I shoot a little hand trap - maybe a box or two of shells every month. In late summer before dove season, I get more serious about practice. Over a two-week period, using a full choke to provide extra challenge, I’ll shoot a case of shells as I work on fundamentals. During dove season I will shoot another case or two of shells. This "practice" hones my shotgunning skills and leaves me ready for quail season.
The other reason many hunters miss quail relates to the choke, or muzzle constriction, of their shotgun barrel. During the quail season I enjoy the company of friends who like quail hunting, but they go only a few times a year. Their guns are choked for general purpose - modified - and they have a tough time hitting birds.
Shooting quail over pointing dogs is close-range business. Most shots are under 20 yards. Accordingly, chokes should be open. Improved cylinder is a favorite of many veteran quail hunters.
A few years back I bought a straight cylinder-bore choke tube for my 12 gauge to see what type of pattern I would get.
In comparison to the improved cylinder choke I had been using, the cylinder-bore choke - in combination with an ounce-and-a-quarter of 7 1/2 shot - provided a wider pattern and one that was just as dense out to 25 yards. This load and choke combination improved my quail success immediately.
Hunters who can’t find quail in Missouri need to look harder. Granted, density varies across Missouri. In some counties where fescue and clean fence rows predominate, quail may be limited to pockets of prime habitat, but birds are there.
Quail hunters who hunt frequently need many places to search for bobwhites. Once a covey is shot down to eight birds or so, the covey should be left alone to repopulate the area for the next year.
I quail hunt, on average, 40 times a season. That amount of hunting requires lots of hunting spots. So year-round, when in rural areas, I keep my eyes open for new places to hunt. I study county plat books, determine land ownership and ask permission to hunt. Some hunters feel uncomfortable about asking a stranger for permission to hunt, but it does no harm to ask, and often it’s the only way to get new places to hunt.
I do my best to honor the privilege of hunting someone else’s property. I don’t run my dogs through uncut crops; I ask landowners if they would like to join me on a hunt, and I offer them the quail I kill - dressed and ready to eat. I help put up hay, dig potatoes and cut wood. I drop off a pie now and again. I don’t overdo the thanks, but I want a landowner to know I appreciate the privilege of hunting his or her land. In this way I have become good friends with many landowners.
With places to hunt, a quail hunter needs to know how best to look for birds. Persistence is important. On many occasions I have found coveys early in the season but had difficulty finding them on subsequent hunts. The birds were in different places. Last season at one of our hunting spots, my dogs found a covey of 15 birds along the edge of a cut bean field surrounded by timber. We failed to kill a bird on the covey rise and had no luck working singles in the woods.
I worked through that spot four other times during the season and never again found the covey. I thought maybe the birds had moved on. The last hunt of the season, we looked for the covey one more time. On the north edge of the bean field, one of my dogs pointed. We walked in, and 15 quail took flight. This spot is hunted hard by other hunters, which shows that quail can do a good job evading detection.
Another key to finding quail is knowing where to look for the birds in relation to their daily routines. Some bird hunters spend most of their time walking brushy draws in their quest for quail. In doing so they often overlook many coveys.
Quail tend to relate to specific places during different times of day. At first light they are often found in open fields of knee-high grass where they roost. Shortly after first light, quail typically feed. To find them at this time, it’s good strategy to hunt 20 to 30 yards out along the edge of cut grain fields or other feeding areas.
Once quail have filled their crops, they move to brushy areas. Here you can find them loafing until about mid or late afternoon. Later, they move to the fields again to feed before going to roost. With persistence and a hunting approach that matches the habits of quail, hunters in Missouri should find birds.
Quail hunting is not a sport that requires a lot of gear. A few items, however, might well be considered necessities.
On most hunts, even with well-trained dogs, hunters will need a leash. Most bird dogs have a rude streak. If a hunt starts close to a farmer’s house, bird dogs may urinate on the farmer’s flowers, defecate close to the front porch or do any number of equally inappropriate things. Discouraging such behaviors by way of commands is usually futile. Fresh out of their kennels, bird dogs are excited and prone to disobey. This is time for a leash.
A leash also has other uses. It offers control and safety for dogs when crossing roads and other hazards. It also provides a means of controlling a bird dog that has disobeyed a command.
For safety, every quail hunter should wear hunter or blaze orange. A hunter-orange cap should be the minimum. Visibility in thick cover is often poor, and blaze orange helps hunters keep track of one another. It’s a good idea to have an extra hunter-orange cap handy in case a hunting partner fails to bring one.
Aside from hunter orange, quail hunters have other specific clothing needs. Boots should be a special concern. Quality hunting boots are expensive, usually well over $100, but what you pay for is cushion, support and comfort - exactly what a quail hunter needs in footwear. On a half-day quail hunt, it’s common to walk six miles or more over rough and irregular terrain, and that can be tough on ankles and knees.
Walking generates a lot of heat, so quail hunters should dress as lightly as possible. On a typical winter day in Missouri, a long-sleeve sweat shirt, game vest, brush pants, hat and gloves provide for comfortable hunting. Going light on clothes also tends to improve shooting. On bitter, windy days when a hunter needs layers of clothes to stay comfortable, the bulkiness can lead to awkward and slow gun work.
For all-day hunts, food is another important concern. I’ve been on bird hunts where the dog work was poor, shooting was awful and equipment broke, but I’ve never had a bad lunch. Lunch offers an opportunity to sit back with buddies and recall the morning - to laugh over the bad shots and compliment the good, to console over poor dog work and brag over that which was admirable. It’s part of quail hunting - a fine sport made finer through thought, planning and work.