by Barry Oliver
(This article was originally published in Hunter 6. It has been adapted for 2018.)
Quail shooting presents its own set of challenges. On a cold, still, early morning shoot the birds tend to sit tight, fly straight when flushed and possibly a bit slower - or so it seems. On these occasions quail shooting can seem to be a relatively straight-forward task and it's not hard to feel confident about your shooting prowess.
However, on a day when the wind is blowing so hard that you can hardly see because of the tears in your eyes, quail shooting can be something else again. On such days the birds will often turn and swerve, sometimes taking full advantage of a tail wind. On windy days birds will often rise well out from the hunter, making the job doubly difficult. It's in weather like this that the quail hunter begins to doubt that he will ever shoot well again.
The confidence factor, always an important ingredient in successful shooting really takes a battering when bird after bird flies away unscathed. Successful quail shooting is inextricably linked with successful quail hunting techniques and technique involves a lot more than just walking around a paddock and hoping for the best. For what they're worth, here are some points that might help put a few birds in the bag.
Think about the terrain that you're hunting over and don't always start where the car happens to be parked. It's said that ten per cent of the fishermen catch 90 per cent of the fish and the same applies to quail hunting. Successful fishermen spend time planning exactly where they are going to fish given the prevailing conditions and quail hunters should do the same.
Study the paddock carefully. Are there likely looking 'birdy' spots? If so, what is the best way to approach them? Try to plan things so that you cover the area before you in a thorough way rather than just wandering all over the place. Five minutes or so spent sizing up the area you are going to hunt can pay dividends later.
If you are using a dog, and practically all quail hunters do, think about the wind in relation to the paddock and how you are going to work it. Dogs scent best when they are working into the wind and you should try to maximise this so that your dog can get every advantage from whatever wind there is. If this means a 15-minute walk down to the end of the area you are going to be hunting over, then put the dog on the lead and spend the next 15 minutes doing just that, sticking to fence lines if possible. After all, once you're off and hunting you are heading back to base.
Days with no wind are extremely rare and even on a so-called 'still' morning there is usually some wind. If you are unable to detect any breeze at all it might be a good idea to have another cup of coffee and wait half an hour or so until there is a bit of movement.
Dog maintenance during the off-season
Given that practically all quail hunters use a bird dog, it is worth the time and effort to have Champ fit and well before the season starts. Dogs are not machines and while their fitness develops rapidly once the season starts and regular outings become the norm, this level of fitness declines during the off-season unless the thoughtful owner spends time keeping them up to the mark.
All gundogs should be given daily exercise and bird dogs need to be given lots of running. Free running, running next to a bike and lots of swimming are all excellent ways to keep Champ fit. Remember that an older dog will not run around as much a younger dog would when just taken for a walk, especially if that walk is over the same route every day. Some thought and effort needs to be put into Champ's exercise program if you want him to put in long days when the season opens.
Dog care during the season
Don't expect Champ to be in tip-top physical condition early in the season. Even young, superset dogs require a few sessions under their belt in order to become really working fit.
The physical demands put on a quail dog during a day's hunting are astounding. Careful attention to the dog, including perhaps limiting the time spent afield early in the season (especially if it's warm), carrying water at all times, checking the dog's pads signs of wear, and checking all over signs of dangerous pass seeds are 'must do's' for the owner of a gundog doing its best during a day's hard hunting.
And don't forget your best mates comfort travelling to and from the paddock. A comfortable ride is the best way to ensure that Champ is at his/her best when you arrive at the paddock. When travelling home, first of all make sure that your tired dog is completely dry. Then check that the back of the 4WD, car or dog trailer has comfortable bedding where he can stretch out and sleep.
There's nothing wrong with rugging a gundog after a hard day's work. A warm dog will relax and sleep better than a tired, cold animal. Remember that the best racehorses in the world are rugged up; your mate will appreciate the same thing when he's tired and cold.
The traditional quail gun in this country for many years has been an over and under with fairly open chokes, Because of the amount of walking involved, and the fact that the gun has to be carried every step of the way, quail hunters favour a light gun with short barrels.
Shooting glasses, great for keeping the wind out of your eyes and for making things 'brighter' on a dull day; good walking boots; hunting coats; windproof and waterproof hunting clothing and high quality shooting gloves for those freezing days are all things that add up to make the day afield more comfortable and productive.
Quail hunting, especially in the southern states, can be either warm in the autumn months or freezing later in the season when winter sets in and the right gear can be money well spent.
A good game bag is often an item overlooked by quail hunters. Hanging quail off a lanyard on your belt is not the best way to carry birds around all day. Birds can break off when swinging around, especially if hooked up while getting though a fence. A good game bag with a mesh outer bag that airs and dries the birds is the way to go. Placing shot birds inside a plastic bag is not a good idea, as the plastic causes the birds to sweat.
In the field
A day spent quail hunting can be a tiring affair. It makes good sense to be aware of your own fitness levels if you want to enjoy a day that might last for several hours and involve walking many kilometres. If you have spent time walking with Champ during the off-season, those hours will be well repaid during the season when the car is still a 30-minute walk away at the end of a long day.
It also makes sense when in the field to make sure that you plan breaks. If you are going to be out all day it's a good idea to have a rest every hour or so. The well-organised hunter will make certain that a thermos flask is in the car or perhaps in the game bag. There is little to be gained from doggedly walking on when you start to get weary. It is far better to stop for half an hour or so and recoup. Not only will you appreciate the break, so will Champ.
If you have a second dog, plan to swap dogs during your break time. A word of caution here, make sure that your resting dog can't do any harm to himself in your vehicle when he's being left for a rest. Even the most placid dog can get so anxious when it is left behind and can see its kennel mate or another dog out working. Stories of dogs wrecking car interiors under such circumstances are not uncommon. It’s far better to have Champ in a dog trailer or on a leash attached to a steel peg via a swivel that that prevents him tangling up.
Don't tie Champ to the car, he might jump on it, or to a fence where he might jump over or, in a worst-case scenario, hang himself.
Best time of day
Some days are perfect for quail hunting no matter what time of day it is. Cool, cloudy and breezy days - who could ask for more? Other days are not so ideal, especially early in the season when temperatures can still be too warm. Most quail hunters start early in the morning and this is undoubtedly the best time if the day is going to be warm.
Many quail hunters talk about a 'dead spot' in the early afternoon when birds are sometimes hard to find. In my experience this relates more to the temperature that the time. Often this is the warmest part of the day and a hard going dog is going to be worried more by heat. On these occasions it might be better to have a siesta until later in the afternoon when conditions improve.
So there you have it, some pointers that should make a day spent quail hunting more comfortable and productive. Like all true field sports, the charm of quail hunting is its unpredictability. Weather, scent, natural conditions and a host of other factors help to create new environments that confound the hunter. However, the application of some common sense techniques, combined with a bit of luck, can help to shorten the odds in your favour.
Quail Shooting Tips
- If a covey rises in front of you, don't shoot aimlessly into the middle of them. This is a certain way to miss. Pick out one bird only.
- If you drop a bird, make sure you mark exactly where it falls. Even if you are using a dog, make it a habit to mark fallen game.
- When firing at a swinging bird, follow through as you pull the trigger. Don't stop as you fire.
- When a bird rises, don't be in a hurry to fire. Relax. A load of 8s or 10s will bring a quail down at 45 metres.
- Don't shoot over your dog's head. The hearing damage done by a shotgun blast at close range is as bad for dogs as it is for hunters.
- If you clean your birds at the end of the day, don't leave a mess of feathers all over the place. Clean up thoughtfully.