Carving an Upland Niche

I’ve spent my upland career chasing whatever flies on the Palouse of southeast Washington and nearby Idaho. I’ve logged hundreds of miles, my setters four times that, traversing the bunchgrass hills and brushy wetlands. Upon moving to Washington from the east coast, I was quickly suckered in by the brilliant plumage and cackle of a rooster pheasant bursting confidently from thick reed canary grass. But truth be told, there is not one upland bird I don’t enjoy hunting; such is the case for many uplanders. 

Dabbling in all things winged and wily certainly never gets old, but like a refined appreciation for that one particular classic double you can’t seem to leave in the cabinet, our taste for a particular upland cover or critter matures over time. And with maturity comes wisdom. As an upland jack of all trades, my setters have adapted to a variety of situations, most of which (exception = chukar) they handle well, but there is something to be said for those who carve a niche on a particular quarry. 

Upland legend Ben O. Williams published his last column as a staff writer, naturally, about hunting his favored Huns, in the May/June 2019 Issue of Pointing Dog Journal. He reminds the reader to hunt a variety of terrain rather than following a relatively constant contour along the drainage bottoms. Huns are largely found on the open slopes and hill tops, but as Ben points out, they also frequent the brushy bottoms, generally mornings and evenings. 

Ben’s wisdom seems so obvious. I have only ever flushed Huns on or near ridgetops and generally target them there, but targeting other covers at various times of the day can keep you into birds. I have published on this exact technique, leaving the creek bottoms, hunting high for pheasant and understanding their daily behaviors to increase success on the Palouse, but the thought never crossed my mind to search low for Huns. This single edit from Ben O. Williams could bridge the gaping chasm between trial and error learning and immediate success for a Hun novice. Devoting time to the bird (coupled being well-read) can pay dividends in excitement and success. 

With this in mind, it’s no real surprise that my attention is steadily grooming to an explosive little rocket of the riparian. Back when I was a hard-core pheasant hunter, I viewed the California quail or valley quail as an ancillary opportunity. A peculiar little critter that occasionally flushed while working a brushy slough. It was not until I purchased my own small homestead that I came to appreciate these beauties for what they really are; a 5-ounce, gray-blue, bibbed time-bomb whose scurry and flush can fray the nerves of any seasoned hunter and pointing dog.

Valley quail are a highly adaptable bird native to southern Oregon, western Nevada, California, and Baja California in Mexico. They have also successfully established in Idaho, Washington, northern Oregon, Utah, and southern parts of British Columbia, Canada. Their brilliant occupation of brushy habitats includes everything from chaparral to palustrine wetlands, shrub-steppe to the urban/ag interface, among climates coastal to arid.

Valley quail are quite vocal, and the only thing more impressive or amusing than their explosive flush is the mystery of how such a small bird with three narrow toes can run at such high speed, much less stir dust in their wake. The way they strut along a fence board or command a low branch to proclaim their territory as the covey feeds, and how their topknot bobs carelessly about their brow, is both charming and silly. My opportunity to observe these magnetic little birds every day has established a deeper fascination with them. But what makes these birds such a hoot to hunt?

Valley quail prefer to run and hide rather than fly, but their short burst flights can reach an impressive 58 miles per hour. What’s more, the scattered remains of a flushed covey hold remarkably well; so well that I have nearly stepped on singles sitting in plain sight in cut pasture. And they never flush far. A single covey can provide hours of opportunity for the pointing dog and hunter alike.

Traversing the outskirts of red osier dogwood and blue elderberry, Yuba locked down her fourth covey of the morning. Her enthusiasm progressed through a series of stages from the trembling, excruciating excitement of the first covey find, to the more level-headed, “business as usual”, skirt the scurrying covey and pin them between a wall of brush and the cover’s edge. 

Sending my partners Randy and Jonathan in for the flush, I knelt behind Yuba, teaching Zeta the nuances of backing a staunch point. Before the covey broke, Yuba predicted where the survivors were headed, and sought to mark them down. With swift reaction, the beads found their birds. Two fell while singles, doubles, and quintuplets scattered about the riparian. Approaching a downed bird, Yuba turned away, locking on point. Foolishly trying to sway her to the bird at my feet, a threesome erupted at the edge of her gaze while we all looked on, flustered. And so, the morning went. Nary a pheasant hunt has been so exciting.

The dog work and camaraderie I have experienced in the quail coverts, particularly over the 2018-2019 upland season, has piqued my interest and opened my mind. Jimmy Carter once said that “life’s just too short to go quail hunting with the wrong people.” On the contrary, show me quail hunters and I’ll show you the right people. Just ask Jorge Ramirez about valley quail, or Robert Jones about mountain quail in California. 

Mearns, scaled, and mountain quail are on the near horizon. In the meantime, the girls and I shall carve our upland niche to the confidence of second nature on the Palouse valley quail coverts. 

So, what’s your upland niche?

About the Author: Brad Trumbo
Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State, serving the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. He also serves the Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever chapter in the positions of Secretary, Public Relations Officer, Newsletter Editor, Advisory Board member, and Habitat Committee member.  When not working habitat projects, he can be found chasing his Llewellin setters across the grasslands and penning tales of outdoor pursuits.

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