Quail provide another amazing hunting experience: spending time outdoors, watching eager dogs work, sporting shotgun carried open in the autumn sunshine. David McNabb shares his passion for hunting quail, plus a few tips.
Whether working pointing dogs or flushing dogs, quail hunting is an engaging pursuit for all. For some, it’s addictive. As quail hunting seasons get underway around Australia, here are some pointers (excuse the pun) for the early season hunters.
Our canine companions bring generations of breeding for this work. Keen dogs will outrun their physical condition and then you will have all sorts of problems. Make sure you’ve prepared your four-legged friend for the hunting season well in advance, and that includes a good diet and plenty of exercise. It’s as important for regular long runs to condition their pads too. Above all, make sure you have access to water, and that’s not a muddy stock wallow. Take regular breaks when hunting, especially in the early part of the season. If you have several dogs, rotate them throughout the hunt whilst the other rests in the shade. It’s not a race to fill your bag, after all what will you do when you go home, mow lawns? I’d prefer to stay in the country and enjoy it all.
It is worth repeating previous advice from vet Dr Karen Davies: hydration is vital, and keen dogs will work to exhaustion, so you need to provided breaks. You can find Karen’s previous columns at www.fieldandgame.com.au
Do you know your game and what are they feeding on? Check the crops of the birds you harvest for their preferred tucker. You can then apply this knowledge when scouting. While the majority of hunting is of stubble quail (know your local regulations for where to hunt stubble quail or brown quail), these wily game birds love native grasses and seed.
Look for variable cover that provides food sources, access to water or moisture, and cover from predators. You know you’re in quail habitat when you spot their dust baths or little circular depressions in the soil, and you may spot droppings nearby.
ID your birds
As quail hunters it’s our responsibility to know our game and the rules of the hunt. This means we must distinguish the different species of quail as they flush. Regulations vary across states, and in Victoria and South Australia we’ll be hunting stubble quail. In Tasmania we’ll be hunting brown quail, and stubble quail are protected.
Care is needed when hunting stubble quail near marshy and wet fringes, you may come across brown quail too. Do you know the difference? You may also come across button quail in some districts, after all, it’s been an incredible breeding season for all birds and wildlife, not to mention the flies and mosquitoes. It’s critical to avoid taking a shot at the wrong quail, and the simplest method to avoid problems is, if you’re in doubt, don’t shoot.
Take advantage of the cool, dewy mornings autumn has to offer. You and your canine hunting mate will enjoy better hunting. Scenting conditions are better and your dog will not wear out so quickly. Use the breeze to your advantage. Work your dog into the wind wherever possible. While you don’t need to be a slave to this with more experienced dogs, it is helpful with younger dogs learning their craft.
What about your shooting skills. Are you up to the task of taking a quick and humane shot? How much did you practice your shooting in the off-season? Remember to use your second barrel as a follow-up shot to cleanly and humanely kill the bird you wing-tipped with the edge of your shot pattern. Do not be tempted to use your second shot on another bird in a flushed covey. What if you wound it? Chances are it will get away.
Recovery of all game shot is fundamental to ethical hunting, and our own Code of Conduct. Therefore, in all the excitement of a flushing covey, focus on the first downed bird and retrieve it straight away. If hunting in teams, direct another hunter to where you saw the bird drop and get the dog to scent straight away.
Fit for the table
Nothing shows more respect for game birds than the care taken to prepare birds for the table. There are many ways to clean and dress quail; take your time and you’ll enjoy a wonderful feast.
One method that works when hunting with young dogs, and also in warmer weather, is this: after the flush or point, and the bird is well shot and killed cleanly, retrieved tenderly to hand by your canine hunting companion, then stop. Sit the dog, give them a drink and clean loose feathers from their mouth. Then pluck the bird straight away. The feathers come off cleanly without marking the skin and before any blood congeals. It settles down young dogs after the excitement of finding birds; it gives all dogs a spell. Remember, some breeds will cover four times more ground than the hunter; if you’re clocking up five to 10 km, think about how far your four-legged mate is running.
Here at Field & Game Australia, we welcome new game bird recipes. What’s your favourite way to cook and serve quail?
Most if not all quail hunting relies on private land access. Access to hunt on someone’s property is a real privilege and is to be respected. It takes time to build good relationships, and share an understanding of what we do and why. Many farmers have working dogs and our hunting buddies are not that different. Be sure to have your FGA membership card. Offer to pick up equipment from the city or in town on your way through. Remember the relationship after the hunting season is over, stay in touch throughout the year.
You can write a chapter on favourite gear for quail hunting. Aside from a good, keen, fit gundog and a well-worn pair of boots, the other essential item is your shotgun. There’s plenty of choices to be made here, too: the main ones we’ll address are for quick, humane dispatch of your game, which is such an important part of ethical hunting.
You may favour fast-moving sub gauges, or you’re a traditionalist who seeks out the balance of a side-by-side across your arm, or you may find the single-sighting plane and familiarity of the over-and-under. It doesn’t matter provided you address two critical aspects.
Firstly, you are familiar with your gun and confident when using it. Quail hunting seems to happen in seconds, and when you’re starting out, it can feel like micro-seconds.
Secondly, be sure to pattern your gun with your selected ammunition. Quail are small and fast moving; have you ever tried catching up to the quail that flushes ahead of your dog and curls off downwind in a stiff breeze? It’s gone in the blink of an eye. Ensure your gun/choke/ammo combination delivers large, even patterns at the typical range you shoot quail. Consider your preferred style of hunting too — pointing dog or flushing dog. Pointing dogs allow you to get right up to the action; with an open choke for the first barrel, shots are taken at a sporting range and the bird stays in good condition for the table. Hunting over flushing dogs the range will be longer, then you will consider tightening the choke somewhat.
And practice. More.
Don’t take the shot if your dog breaks to the flush or the shot. Similarly, don’t be tempted to shoot at a rearward flushing bird (shooting behind the line). You’re either hunting or you’re training your dog. Very few of us can effectively do both at the same time. You can train your dog in the hunting field, but it probably means you aren’t shooting and you’re putting all your effort in working and controlling your dog. And you know what, that gives someone a fantastic introduction to one of hunting’s incredible experiences (subject to all appropriate licences, of course).
There is no game bird on this planet that’s worth taking an unsafe shot or putting your dog or your hunting companions in danger. That’s all that needs to be said; it’s up to each of us to put this into practice. Every time. Without fail.