Mearns’ Quail south of Tucson
By Gary Lewis
South of Tucson, harsh mountains rise steep out of the arid desert plane. The Huachucas, Santa Ritas, Sierritas and other high desert ranges of the Coronado National Forest are home to Mearns' quail, a long-toed scratcher of the tall grass, scrub oak and cactus uplands.
Once thought to be extinct, the black and white and mahogany-colored birds are found in huntable numbers in wide flats with thick grass as high as a man's belt buckle.
Jim Heffelfinger is the regional game specialist for the Tucson area and a quail enthusiast. "The 2007 Mearns' hunt was the best that any of the old timers could remember," he said. That translated into good breeding stock for 2008, which, thanks to late rains, turned out to be a pretty good bird hunting year as well.
At the end of November, a day after the season opener, we rolled east out of Tucson on Interstate 10 and turned south into the foothills. We were not the only hunters. Some wore camouflage and probed the thickets for Coues deer. Others had dog boxes in the back of the truck and shotguns in the rack.
The mountains seem to rise suddenly from the plain, but are usually preceded by a low range of foothills. This is edge habitat, utilized by diminutive deer, javelina, coyotes, doves and Mearns' quail.
For the birds to thrive in spite of bobcats, coyotes, hawks and long, hot months without rain, they require tall, thick grass, loose soil and overstory, qualities found in highest proportions when the land is grazed lightly.
Mearns' quail, also called Montezuma quail, hold better for a gundog than any other quail, yet they fly faster and are more unpredictable, when flushed. At the covey break, the birds scatter and the singles hold so tight that the hunter must almost step on them to get them to flush. The dry air and grass hold very little scent to allow the dog to find them again.
We had intended to use an outfitter, but he canceled a week before the hunt. Instead, we hunted on our own – four hunters and one overworked German shorthair.
We began our first morning on flat ground in tall, thick grass. 15 minutes later, Lady was on point at a canyon mouth, with a covey of birds, from which each of us bagged the first Mearns' quail of the season. For three of us, it was the first Mearns' we had ever seen. In two hours, we put seven quail and one dove in the bag.
The second day, we hunted west of Rio Rico, all the way to Ruby at an elevation of about 4,900 feet above sea level. The third day, we hunted the Patagonia area.
Off the highway, the roads were well-maintained, but required a shift into 4-wheel drive mode in a few instances. A high-clearance 4x4 is a good choice for hunting remote areas.
We encountered the Border Patrol every day and found the spoor of the quarry they hunted: empty cans and water bottles and cast-off clothing.
In the best habitat, the birds employ catclaw, cactus and oak thickets for cover. Mearns' may be located in areas that are easy to hunt, but they can also be found in cliff and canyon country that would make a chukar hunter feel at home.
December temperatures average 66 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and drop to an average of 42 at night. Bring brush-busting pants or chaps, a long-sleeve shirt and high-top hunting boots.
The hunter should bring boots for the dog. A vest is great protection against needles and thorns.
The Arizona Quail Hunt runs from the fourth week of November into the second week of February, with a limit of 8 birds per day. A three-day license costs $61.25. Additional days can be added for $9. To hunt doves, add a migratory bird stamp for $4.50. For more information, visit this helpful site.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department collects wings and hunt data to keep a count of quail harvested for hunter effort. While on the hunt, watch for wing collection barrels. It only takes a couple of minutes to fill out the questionnaire on the Quail Wing Envelope. One wing must be left on the bird while in transit from the hunting area.
15% of Arizona land is privately-owned. There is a lot of ground open to the public. Guides are available, but with a couple of good dogs and a few days to make it happen, a first-time Mearns hunter should be able to find birds in the tall grass among the cactus and the scrub oaks.