It's like hunting a jack-in-the-box. You know they're out there, but the great anticipation of when the brown blur will take flight is a big part of why quail hunting is such fun.
With a 5-month quail season opening today, hunters can look forward to plenty of shooting opportunities that will only get better as cooling temperatures make the birds more active.
Unlike dove, duck and turkey hunting, where you stake out a promising spot and hide from your quarry, quail shooters take the hunt to the birds.
Stealth matters less than a deer stalk, as this is less about ambush and more about reaction. Traveling in groups called coveys, quail are notorious for waiting as long as possible to flush.
"They'll sit there until the last second — you'll just about step on them," said Christian Graham, a hunting guide at the Gilchrist Club in Trenton.
Once the birds flush, the noise of so many wings sounds like a motorcycle roaring out of the brush.
Needless to say, the "Boo!" factor rattles many hunters.
The key is to block out the auditory surprise. Just visually define your field of fire and when a quail flies across your radar, aim and squeeze.
Where to hunt
Graham described ideal quail habitat as a sparse wooded area with lots of low cover such as palmettos and wild grasses. Seed-bearing vegetation yields the food that attracts quail.
Wildlife Management Areas, as well as other public lands or hunting lease properties hold plenty of productive quail habitat. Graham said hunters will do well by following fence rows with underbrush. Quail relate to fence rows the same as a tree line and overgrown areas often hold birds.
Wherever you hunt, be aware that quail are quick on their feet. They won't hesitate to fly when threatened, but with perfectly camouflaged plumage, these sneaky little birds will tuck their noses into the grass and walk right past you.
What you'll need
Quail hunters typically use 20-gauge shotguns. A 12-gauge will work, but that's more firepower than you need for what is mostly close-range shooting. Also, on a busy day with 50 or more shots, the 12-gauge will leave your shoulder bruised.
Accomplished shooters may go with a 410 shotgun to test their accuracy.
You'll appreciate a good field vest with shooting pads; front pockets for your cell phone, a GPS unit and a water bottle; elastic loops for quick access to shotgun shells and a rear game pouch for carrying your birds.
Quail hunts often take hunters through inhospitable terrain, so protect yourself by wearing field pants with nylon facings or chaps (to repel thorns and brush) and hiking boots. Wellington style knee-high boots are a good choice if you expect to encounter wet areas.
Camouflage clothing isn't necessary for quail hunting, but guides like Graham require blaze orange vests and hats for safety.
Man's best friend
Walking through the woods, shooting any quail you see and picking up your birds works just fine. However, hunting with dogs greatly facilitates the operation.
Pointers like the English short hairs that Graham and fellow guide Randy Ransom use on the Gilchrist property are trained to sniff out quail and freeze in an unmistakable "point."
Guides and/or hunters can flush the birds with a simple kick or stomp to the brush, but a flush-and-retrieve dog — usually a Lab — will move ahead of the pointers and force the birds out by sticking his head into the cover.
"The quail fly higher with a flush dog because the dog tries to get them," Graham said. "When we flush them, we're just trying to get them off the ground and they don't fly nearly as high.
"The higher the birds fly, the safer the shot and the more window you have to shoot."
After the shot, both types of dogs may be trained to pick up fallen birds, but the retriever gets most of them.
Muzzle discipline — controlling where your gun points — is a constant hunting concern, but it's especially important on quail hunts. Even well trained dogs and seasoned hunters can end up in dangerous positions in a split second when folks forget to mind their weapon.
Starting with gun posture, double-barrel shotguns should be carried in the breech (open) position until you're in active hunting mode. Hold pump-action or semi-automatic shotguns with the muzzle pointing up between shooting.
When hunting in pairs, with or without a guide, divide the field of fire with the hunter on the left taking 12 o'clock to 7 o'clock and the hunter on the right shooting from 12 to 5.
If a bird passes your window, let it go. Also, avoid low, line drive shots. You may hit your bird, but you'll put the dogs in great risk.
"A lot of dogs like to try to catch the birds in the air," Graham said. "Some dogs can jump 7 feet in the air and if he jumps when you shoot, that's a dead dog."
Statewide, quail season runs from Nov. 14 to March 7. Daily bag limit is 12 and possession limit is 24. Hunters can shoot from a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.
Hunting licenses and permits may be obtained at county tax collectors' offices and license agents, at www.wildlifelicense.com or by calling 1-888-486-8356.