feature By: Mike Gnatkowski | November, 19
Quail populations in southeastern Colorado are boom or bust, depending largely on moisture. Ample winter moisture and timely spring rains typically produce a bumper crop of quail, given an ample carryover from the previous year. The last time southeast Colorado quail numbers flourished was during the 2015-2016 season. Word had it that the stage was set for another banner year in 2019-2020.
Normally, prime habitat for any given game bird species encompasses a large area, and there’s a gradual transition between habitat types. However, that’s not the norm for blue (scaled) quail and bobwhite quail in southeastern Colorado. Their preferred habitat couldn’t be more different and yet are near enough to each other that you can hunt both species in a single day or weekend. On rare occasions, you’ll find both in the same habitat.
Blue quail were on my bucket list. I’d shot bobwhites before whenever I stumbled into them. I didn’t dream that I could hunt both species the same day.
Strong and I determined some mutually agreeable dates in late December, and we were fortunate that Colorado Wildlife and Parks biologist Jonathon Reitz, who works out of the Lamar office, could join us for a hunt. Strong and Reitz worked closely together managing habitat and wildlife populations in the area. The Quail Whisperers I labeled them, given their shared curiosity and knowledge about quail.
There was no shortage of dog power when we hit the field. Reitz had a young German shorthair named Mud that could cover some ground. Strong was coaching Amber, a young yellow Lab that was a superb hunter for her age and showed she had had plenty of exposure to quail. I had Keifer, my aging Lab with 13 hunting seasons under his belt. I wasn’t sure he’d be much help in rooting out birds, but if we killed one, he certainly could find it.
Blue quail in the 463,373-acre Comanche National Grassland have a symbiotic relationship with cholla cactus. The grasslands are leased for grazing, which suits them just fine. They like foraging in the wide-open spaces but still need somewhere to hide. Cattle avoid the thorny cactus, which results in a grassy oasis around the base of each cactus that blues relish. In between is a mix of both tallgrass and shortgrass prairie and junipers that provides a bounty of seeds.
The plan called for us to first hunt for blues in Comanche, where the morning started out in the single digits. But the temps rebounded nicely under the bright sun to the point where eventually we were hunting in our shirtsleeves.
For someone who grew up hunting ruffed grouse, the grasslands looked like an upland desert. How could a game bird survive here, I wondered. And it wasn’t only the terrain that was new to me; so also was the hunting strategy. Rather than walking in a straight line as when hunting pheasants in South Dakota, each hunter took off on a tangent for a distant ridge. Covering ground was key to finding blue quail, and the more cover we traversed, the better.
Blue quail rarely hold still on a dog’s initial contact. They have taken a page from the rooster pheasant’s playbook, counting on their legs to escape because “if you fly you die.” Fortunately, though, they also have a propensity to hold tighter with the second encounter. Taking advantage of the best traits of the dog breeds we had — flushers and a pointer — provided a distinctive one-two punch advantage.
Keifer and I just strolled along in the general direction we thought everyone was headed. The walking was relatively easy, and I followed cattle paths while Kiefer sniffed the bases of the cacti here and there.
Without warning, a bluish gray streak whizzed past my head. A nanosecond later it registered: “Hey, those were quail!”
About then Reitz popped up over the ridge and queried, “Did you see those quail?”
Nodding, I pointed to where I thought they had landed. We got Strong’s attention and formulated a pinch plan on the patch of cactus where I’d last seen the birds. Approaching from three different directions, we closed the trap, and just when the dogs started to get extremely birdy, things detonated. Quail exploded in every direction, and Reitz leveled on a bird escaping to the left. Strong’s gun barked as I wheeled around on a bird buzzing past me and crumpled him with my second going away shot. Keifer quickly brought my first blue quail to hand. Reitz and Strong each pocketed a bird, too.
The scenario replayed itself several times. We split up to cover more ground, and once we found a covey, we’d converge to work on the reflush. The plan worked to perfection. I spied where a covey of blues had lit one time, and Keifer and I eased toward the spot. Relatively indifferent up until this point, Keifer suddenly had a burst of energy. His tail was a whirligig as he poked his nose into the base of one side of a cactus, and a covey of blues squirted out the other side. I leveled on two going away birds, dropped them both, and Kiefer made the final two retrieves of his life.
Blue quail are common not only in the Comanche Nation Grassland in Colorado, but also to the north in Cheyenne County and as far west as I-25. Besides the BLM lands, an abundance of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Walk-in property in Baca, Powers, Kiowa and Kit Carson counties offers plenty of opportunity for freelance hunters in search of blues.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground in southeast Colorado is a stronghold for bobwhites. After spending the morning chasing blues, Strong and Reitz suggested we try our hand at finding some bobwhites. Strong and Reitz work closely with landowners enrolling CRP lands for the CPW Walk-in program and have an intimate knowledge of the plots that hold bobwhites. But you don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to find quail there. Nearly every piece of public ground we hunted produced a covey of quail. Private ground can be exceptional, too, if you can locate the landowners. When quail numbers are high, as they are likely to be this season, hunting can be phenomenal.
Timing is critical when hunting quail. Hunt good cover at the wrong time and you’ll come up empty. One type of cover is generally used for loafing and another for foraging. Both species prefer to walk if they can although we saw several coveys of bobwhites flying between loafing cover and private agricultural fields. Usually you can see if birds have been in the area by the highways from the little footprints they leave.
At midday, Strong and Reitz agreed that we’d be better off hunting loafing cover. Bobwhites love old farm equipment, abandoned buildings and grain bins thick with head-high Russian thistle, kochia weed, four wing salt brush and plum thickets that protect them from avian predators. Abandoned farmhouses with rusting windmills surrounded with brush up to your neck scream Quail! especially if the surrounding field has harvested grain.
Strong and Reitz plunged into the thick of it while I played the senior card and skirted the edge. A harvested milo field butted up against the thick kochia weed providing everything a bobwhite could want in one location. I could barely make out the orange hats my companions sported above the cover when a covey of bobs burst from the edge of the field. I managed to drop a striking cock bird, and at the shot another covey erupted from the other side of the grain bin and wheeled down to the other end of the field before alighting.
I skirted around the grain bins and then slipped into the field to apply a pinch on the area where we saw the quail land. Mud was on point somewhere in the jungle, and when Amber joined the fray, all hell broke loose. Most of the covey broke Strong’s way, and he dropped two birds with one shot. Reitz dumped another, and I managed to scare the heck out of a buff-colored hen quail that whizzed across in front of me. Two other plots of CRP Walk-in ground produced a couple more covey flushes before we decided to call it a day.
“We had a great winter!” exclaimed Marina Osier, the current Pheasant Forever biologist for southeast Colorado. “We had good snow cover, fall rains and not a lot of moisture lately so the habitat is in good condition. I think the birds carried over pretty well. I’ve been seeing a lot of pairs when I’ve been out in the fields. The Comanche Grasslands has the potential to be phenomenal!”
Osier said that the region did experience some hail, but it was on a very localized basis. She said the moisture should benefit both species, but that blues can tolerate drier conditions. There have not been any major losses with regard to CRP, and Osier said that the habitat that’s already enrolled shouldn’t change until 2020. She’s hopeful there will be an increase in acreage then.
If the status quo holds true, the 2019-2020 season could rival the great hunting of 2015-2016. Colorado’s quail season in the southeast part of the state runs from mid-November to Jan. 31, 2020. Bag limits are eight of each species with 24 of each species in possession.
Reitz had business to take care of so he couldn’t join us the next day. Strong decided to try some CRP ground closer to Lamar where he knew some coveys of blues hung out. A gate, normally opened, was locked, which forced us to make a long trek across the entire section to where the blues normally hung out. The habitat near the road had been severally overgrazed to the point where it likely would never rebound and offered little hope of holding any birds, so we had little choice but to make an abbreviated version of the Bataan Death March.
We reached some stacks of PVC pipe that Strong said the quail used to loaf near. It was obvious they had been there. There wasn’t an inch of ground that wasn’t littered with tracks, but there were no quail to be found.
“Well, if they aren’t here, then they have to be out there,” I said, pointing to the middle of the field and a sea of sand sage. We hadn’t gone too far when a knot of blues exploded. I’d burned through most of my atypical quail loads and had a 3-inch no. 5 in the modified barrel of my over-under, which turned out to be a blessing. The only quail I had a shot at was 50 yards distant, and he looked like a speck in the sky. I swung and touched one off at the departing quail, and he crumpled.
I held my ground and motioned Strong and Amber to the vicinity where the bird had fallen. Amber’s sharp nose found the bird in short order, and when Strong walked over to give me the bird, he said, “I was sure that one was gone!”
Stuffing the blue in my game bag, I chided, “I ain’t never killed a bird I didn‘t shoot at.”