Our Guided Trip With Aaron Grabiel | Keith Marcott


Last year, somewhere along the road of my bird hunting Odyssey, it occurred to me that, at one time or another, and over one dog or another, I had successfully hunted most of the upland birds that are available to legally pursue in north America. And the thought that followed was, “hey, with just a bit of additional effort, I could probably one day say that I had actually hunted all of them. “ Hmmm. The seed of this notion was no doubt planted by my hunting buddy Jim Sorenson, who happens to have successfully completed the quest of shooting all twenty upland game birds over not just one, but two different dogs. Which is a story unto itself and better told by Jim.

I’m not quite that driven. Nor am I much of a numbers guy when it comes to my pursuit of bird hunting. In fact, my wife Ann will attest that I’m so bad with numbers when it comes to hunting and fishing that I can’t seem to keep them straight and they constantly change when I tell stories – somehow always getting bigger… Nonetheless, the idea of closing that circle appealed to me. I’m not talking about hunting all the birds over a single dog – not even necessarily collecting them all over solid points. Nope. Just being able to say that I’ve successfully hunted them all in my lifetime is more what I have in mind. Which brings me to my “quail slam.”

Turns out there are six species of quail that one can hunt in north America – the bobwhite, blue or scaled, valley or California, gambel’s, mearns, and perhaps the most elusive of all, the mountain quail. I have hunted the first three on numerous occasions and in various states over many years. And then last year, I shot both mearns and gambel’s on a trip to Arizona with Jim. And couldn’t help but realize that mountain quail were the only one of the six I hadn’t hunted. Huh. Just one more. How hard could that be? Well let me tell you – pretty damn hard! But I did not fully appreciate that when Jim and I planned a trip to California to hunt mountain and valley quail.

So a few weeks ago, Jim and I travelled to northern California and I don’t have to tell you that although I didn’t drive all that way to check a box, I certainly entertained the thought that when I collected my first mountain quail, I would have completed a quail slam - of sorts. Not all over the same dog. Not even all in the same year. But all the north American quail for sure. Note that the question of whether I could actually shoot one never entered my mind. How hard could it be, right? Cue the laughter of the hunting gods…

I arrived in California with high expectations. Jim had hunted mountain quail here twice before, successfully I might add. And sly guy that he is, he was a bit vague about how tough a task this might turn out to be. We had four days to hunt and had hedged our bets by booking a guide, Aaron Grabiel of Harvest Wild (https://www.harvestwild.com/), for the two days in the middle of our stay. And a good thing too! I should also point out that Jim hunted with Aaron almost ten years ago on his first ever mountain quail trip, and assured me that Aaron knew his stuff. Which he certainly does.

Our four days of hunting are somewhat of a blur, which is appropriate because so are mountain quail on the rare occasions that you actually see one. The country is steep and the cover ridiculously thick. The deck is definitely stacked in favor of the birds. The Reader’s Digest condensed version of our hunt goes like this:

Mountain quail cover is steep, but its not uniformly thick. Just where the birds are.

Day one – Hit Jim’s “go to” cover first thing where he felt we’d have our best chance to collect both some mountain quail and maybe even a few valley quail as a bonus. I was surprised by how steep and brushy the cover was, but undeterred. Almost exactly four hours later found me at the vet with my setter Timber - tired, covered with scrapes and bruises, and with indeterminant injuries – and Timber was in even worse shape! Seven staples to close a tear in his chest and diagnosed with a serious blunt trauma injury to his front leg left Timber sidelined for the remainder of our quail hunt. We finished the day hunting valley quail in much more hospitable country and I even collected a couple over solid points by Dory, my veteran campaigner.

Dory and I both worked hard for this bird - our first ever mountain quail.

Day 2 – Meet our guide, Aaron, and head to his “go to” spot for mountain quail. Locate a covey via their calls (pretty cool) and mount a campaign to ambush them. Get out-flanked by the quail which then spread out at the top of an incredibly steep and rocky hillside covered in brush literally too thick to walk through – unless you’re a small French Brittany with incredible drive – or a mountain quail. Spend the rest of the morning trying to get to Dory on point and invariably experience the frustration of quail departing just before you can get within gun range. Often we only hear the flush and don’t actually see the birds. Finally, get lucky and kill a wild flushed bird as it passes within gun range at Mach 2. Did I mention luck? And yes, clutch the bird to your chest and give thanks to the Red Gods, knowing full well this may be the only mountain quail you get to hold. Ever… Finish the day hunting valley quail on more or less flat ground.

Day 3 – Aaron wisely spends the morning driving forest service roads scouting and stopping to call in an attempt to locate birds that have lost their way and might be loafing in cover sparse enough for a human to walk through comfortably. No dice. OK, back to what I have dubbed the “Hell Hole” cover where we hunted yesterday morning. But wait. En route to the Hell Hole, Aaron spies exactly the kind of wayward souls we’d been searching for – a covey of mountain quail on flat ground not far from the road. We fall out of the trucks, hastily develop a strategy, and to my utter amazement, Jim and I connect with two birds each before the rest of the covey have melted into the brush. Success! And later, at the Hell Hole, we score again when Dory, who honestly seems to love hunting these demonic birds, locates a covey that, despite leading us on a merry chase up a crazy-steep slope to a ridge top where he then finds enough singles that we collect a few more between us. The scotch tastes great back at the motel that evening!

Jim and I pose with our well-earned take of mountain quail at day’s end. Like ruffed grouse, mountain quail success is measure better in terms of numbers of birds located, pointed, and flushed rather than number bagged!

A beautiful valley quail drake. You can see from the background that these birds are in country that at least occasionally offers more open shooting.

Day 4 – With multiple mountain quail in the bag and my modified quail slam accomplished, we decide to count our lucky stars and concentrate on valley quail on my last day in town. Jim agrees knowing that he has two more days to attempt to exact his revenge on those devious mountain birds. On this day, Dory again performs like a champ, and I collect half a limit of valley quail, the most quail I’ve shot in any single day of our trip, and am more than satisfied.

All in all a wonderful and successful trip. I can say that from the warmth of my study in Sheridan, with a more or less fully-healed Timber and recovered Dory sleeping in front of the stove. I’m certainly glad I went and yes, it feels good to know I’ve hunted all the quails of north America. I think my overall feeling about hunting mountain quail is pretty well captured in the exchange I had with Aaron on our second day. I commented that this mountain quail gig was pretty damn tough hunting and, knowing that he also guides for fishing and big game, asked how often he guides mountain quail hunters? “Not very often,” he said. “I can imagine,” I replied. “So how often do you get repeat customers for mountain quail?” Aaron looked at Jim. “This is the first time ever…”

A successful valley quail hunt. By this point, Dory was feeling the affects of doing all the heavy lifting with his kennel-mate on the Injured Reserve List.

A successful valley quail hunt. By this point, Dory was feeling the affects of doing all the heavy lifting with his kennel-mate on the Injured Reserve List.

DECEMBER 15, 2018