Arizona Road Trip: Mearns Quail

On the last two days of our Arizona quail hunt, Patrick Flanagan of Border to Border Outfitters and his string of guide dogs took Patty and I off into some totally different country.  Instead of the brush filled pastures and mesquite crowded grasslands where we’d hunted Gambel’s and scalies, we headed into the hills where the Mearns quail live.

Patrick told me that we’d typically find them at higher elevations in oak and cedar shaded draws.  He also told me that the prime hunting time would be in the afternoon.  There is a sort of inversion after mid-day when the cool air drops down again and scent conditions start to favor the dogs.

Nevertheless, he took us out on another long hike in the morning.  His philosophy is that birds are earned with shoe leather spent.  We saw some beautiful country and the dogs were clearly in their element.  Still, no quail rose for us before lunch.

My hotel base was in Sierra Vista but we had been hunting in spots that Patrick had scouted in all directions.  One of our long marches was within sight of the Mexican border and that added a little bit of an exotic flair to the hunt.  The range of the Mearns quail is, after all, mostly in Mexico.  It is only the northern-most extent that crosses over into Arizona.

At one point we parked the truck on the top of a finger ridge that dropped down from the highlands to a vast savanna below.  The view was spectacular and even included the peaks of the distant Santa Rita Mountains.

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Finger ridges separate shaded draws that drop down from the mountains to the savanna below.

Our ridge was just one of many and Patrick’s plan was to work several of the draws between those fingers.  So we walked.

Patty was hunting together with Rita, the liver roan GSP and Pearl, a beautiful pointer that just never quit.  The three of them made a good team.  Pearl was ranging the furthest, often out to 200 yards, hitting the ridge tops on either side of the draws that we were walking.  Patty was in the middle, typically hunting at between 50 and 150 yards.  Rita worked just a little closer then that.

Pearl found the first covey.  She was out about 170 yards when Patrick’s GPS receiver started buzzing.  We couldn’t see her at that distance but Mearns quail tend to hold and Patrick was confident that Pearl would be staunch on point.  So, although we wanted to close the distance quickly, we didn’t have to run.

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Pearl showing fine pointer style on a steep, shaded side hill.  (Photo by Patrick)

We found her at the very bottom of the draw but she was pointing up the steep side.  I did my best to get into a position where I might have a clear shot from above and Patrick moved in with his flushing whip.

Of course the covey jumped from an inconvenient spot.  The steep slope made for difficult footing and the birds were rapidly passing me from right to left, a tough shot for this left-handed shooter.  I mounted the 20 gauge, twisted till my torso screamed and  shot well behind the safely escaping bird.  Arrgh!

Patrick had told me to bring plenty of shells and I had just glimpsed the reason why.  These birds held tighter than the Gambel’s or scaled quail, but the terrain was hilly and treed.  There would be no easy shots.

Patty got into the action soon enough too.  He had a shaky start and ran over a few birds when he should have honored Pearl or Rita’s points.  But eventually he found his way in Mearns country too.

Over the next hour or so we got into another covey or two and, between misses, I even managed to bring down a couple, a hen bird and a male.  Patty made a retrieve on the male and so, like many a dog owner before me, I forgave and forgot all his previous sins.

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Patty’s first Mearns quail!  (Photo by Patrick)

Rita made a great find for us, just off the side of the water tank where the dogs had freshened up.  We were already heading away but Patrick’s GPS started buzzing indicating Rita was on point behind us.

We found her up a side hill all locked up.  Since we’d just come from cooling down the dogs, all three were in close proximity and we ended up with the whole team pointing and honoring.

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Rita’s fine point with Patty and Pearl backing.  (Photo by Patrick)

I moved in on Rita’s nose and the covey flushed from right under my feet.  Whether it was the surprise or something else, I can’t say but I was agonizingly slow mounting the gun.  By the time I’d picked a bird out from the covey there was just enough time to squeeze off a shot before they were out of range.  Amazed to see the bird fall, I called out, “One down!”

I opened the gun to reload the first tube and two more quail popped up right beside us.  Oh brother, how many more ways could I screw this up?

Pearl hunted up the downed bird and Patrick graciously only teased me for a short while.  We had three birds in the bag.

On the last day of our hunt Patrick and his dogs (Pearl, Lily, Rita and Hank all took turns on the ground) had put us into several more coveys and I’d knocked down two more beautiful male birds.

Lily had a great hunt and on one pointed covey, where I made a shot for a change, she made her very first Mearn’s quail retrieve.

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Sweet Lily points up the valley. (Photo by Patrick)

On another flush, the birds flew across between me and about a dozen head of watching Angus cattle.  I had to wait until my bird was well past and shot him at long range, going away.

We’d had a wonderful time hunting in the hills and draws.  The Mearns quail were great fun to hunt, holding tight for the dogs and providing a thrill when they burst up, seemingly always unexpected despite the fine points.

The cover and terrain made the hunting a challenge.  Steep hillsides with dodgy footing and the birds quickly darting between the oaks and cedars.

Was it easy?  No way.  Would I take Patty there to do it again?  In a heartbeat!  Thanks again Patrick.

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