By Ray Sasser
Former All-American shotgunner Rick Pope says the ideal quail gun is a 20-gauge over-and-under or side-by-side with skeet or improved-cylinder chokes.
Two mild, wet summers in a row have created a wild quail renaissance in Texas and Oklahoma, arguably the two best bobwhite hunting states remaining in America. Nationwide, biologists say that quail populations have dropped 70 percent over the last 20 years. It’s no wonder that the average hunter has a problem when wild quail erupt in a flurry of commotion and feathers.
Armed with a radar gun, a Texas biologist compared the speed of wild quail to pen-raised birds. Not surprisingly, the wild birds were twice as fast in the open. When flushed in tight cover, the wild birds flew slower but used brush or trees as obstacles between themselves and danger. Telemetry studies done in Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas indicate bobwhites are much more inclined these days to run or fly away from pointing dogs before hunters ever show up. Birds have also been documented to simply hide from the hunters, refusing to flush and sticking tight to cover until the threat passed.
Still, there’s no moment in upland bird hunting quite as exciting as walking up behind a pointing dog, knowing that a covey rise could come at any moment. The dog is trembling with excitement, but the hunter must keep his cool. To make the most of these increasingly rare opportunities, says Rick Pope, you should match your equipment to the game.
Pope is a Dallas businessman whose company Springbrook sells fly-fishing gear. In a previous life, Pope was an All-American skeet shooter who held several shotgun records. Though totally immersed in fly-fishing, Pope still manages to spend a few days each fall following bird dogs.
“The game has changed in the last 20 years,” says Pope. “I used to hunt quail with a .410 or a 28 gauge, but I leave those guns in the closet now and rely mostly on a 20-gauge over-under. Quail shooting happens quickly, and the 20 gauge delivers the perfect compromise of quick-handling characteristics and plenty of firepower to cleanly drop the birds.”
Pope thinks most quail hunters choke on the covey rise because their shotguns are overchoked. When cover is good and the birds are holding as they should, the perfect combination for quail shooting is a 20-gauge over-under or side-by-side bored skeet and improved cylinder.
Most of the time, the second shot at quail will be longer than the first shot. Thus, the two-barreled gun is a top choice for quail shooting. Fire the skeet barrel first and the improved cylinder second, but don’t assume that your choke tubes shoot the way they are marked. Pope frequently measures choke tubes sold by a number of companies.
“Just about every choke tube I’ve measured was tighter than marked,” says Pope. “I’ve seen some improved-cylinder chokes that would pattern closer to improved-modified. Any gunsmith will be able to measure your choke tubes. If they’re too tight, you can order custom tubes from somebody like Briley Manufacturing in Houston (Briley replacement tubes start at about $15) and specify the amount of constriction you want in the tube.”
Browning, Beretta, Weatherby, Ruger and many other gun companies make breechloading 20-gauge doubles and over-unders that are ideal for quail hunting. With a suggested retail price of $1,299 (you can buy them for less), the Weatherby Orion Upland model over-under is recognized by gun dealers and hunters alike as one of the best bargains in an upland bird gun.
The Ruger Red Label is likewise a good buy, while Browning’s popular Citori lineup features several good choices, including the Citori 525, the Citori Lightning, the Citori Lightning Feather and the Citori Superlight Feather. For hunters who prefer a side-by-side shotgun, Beretta offers its excellent 471 Silver Hawk model.
The next consideration in becoming an efficient quail shot is to load your shotgun with good ammunition. Pope has fired hundreds of thousands of rounds at skeet and thousands of rounds at quail, and has come up with his own idea of the perfect quail load.
“What works best in most situations is a 20-gauge load with at least a full ounce of No. 8 shot with a powder charge that’s 2 1/2-dram equivalent,” says Pope. “That’s the perfect combination for quail. I’ve shot Remington, Winchester, Federal and lots of other shotshells with a similar load, and they’ve all worked great. The load has enough knockdown power to cleanly kill the birds without messing them up. I’ve seen guys shooting lighter loads that resulted in too many cripples. With quail, you’re shooting a bird that’s flying away from you, so you’ve got to have enough load for good penetration.”
While Pope favors No. 8 shot for pellet count, Federal Game-Shok 20-gauge loads are available with 1 1/4 ounces of No. 7 1/2 shot. This combination matches a slightly larger pellet for added shock power and about the same pellet count as 1 ounce of 8s. When you buy shotshells, read the box carefully. It should tell you the shot size, how much shot is loaded and the powder charge expressed in dram equivalent. Some shotshell boxes also provide muzzle velocity information.
Now you’ve got a functional quail gun loaded with efficient ammo. You still have to get into position for a good shot at flushing birds, and that’s another area of weakness for modern bird hunters.
“Most hunters are not as aggressive as they should be when approaching a point,” says Pope. “I think they’ve read too many stories about the gentlemanly bobwhite holding tight until the hunters are ready. Bobwhites aren’t nearly as polite as they used to be. They’ll run from the dog or flush out of range. The more time you allow them to get nervous, the less likely you are to get a good shot.”
As soon as the dog points, Pope hurries into position. He reads the cover, the wind and the dog. He tries to figure out where the birds are likely to be and how they’ll fly when they flush. As Pope approaches the covey, he takes short steps. He doesn’t want to be caught out of position when the birds flush. He positions himself to have a good shot at the covey’s most likely escape route.
Once the flush occurs, Pope picks out one bird and shoots it. If the bird appears to be hit hard, he swings on a second bird. If the first bird is not hit hard, Pope shoots it a second time. Otherwise, the crippled bird is likely to hit the ground running and may get away.
“Quail hunting is a social event, and you’re usually hunting with one or two companions,” says Pope. “The best scenario is with two hunters. Two hunters will kill about as many quail as three hunters. It’s important to shoot the birds on your side of the covey and leave birds on the other side for your hunting partner. Inexperienced hunters frequently pick the most obvious bird, and both hunters wind up shooting the same bird.
Sometimes quail flush in such a way that you don’t have a good shot, Pope adds. The best advice is don’t shoot at all. There may be one or two confused birds that didn’t flush with the main covey. They’re called “lay birds.” If you empty your gun at birds that are low-percentage shots, a lay bird will sometimes flush and give you an easy shot - at least it would be easy if your gun was loaded.
If you don’t have a good shot, concentrate on watching the flying quail to determine where they will land. If you drop one or two birds on the covey rise, get a good mark on where they fell and pick them up as quickly as possible.
In some areas, there are still enough wild quail to provide good hunting. There are not enough wild quail that sportsmen can afford to waste birds, either through poor equipment selection or failure to retrieve fallen game.
-- Reprinted from the November 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine