For many of us, the holidays fill the void left after the end of deer season, and then suddenly, it’s mid-January and spring turkey seems like a lifetime away. Those looking in from the outside might think we’d be lost without a marquee hunting season, but those of us who grew up walking hedgerows and logging roads know mid-winter is all about the holy grail that is quail.
Field and Stream ranked these little delicacies number three on their Top 10 Most Delicious Game Birds, but I think I’d put them a notch higher, or even tied for first, considering what’s readily available in the Carolinas. While quail season isn’t as technical as deer, turkey, or even waterfowl, the winter chill brings about the same feeling of excitement and anticipation as those other big seasons. If you haven’t hunted quail, you need to make this the year that you start. It’s as much tradition and heritage as it is good old fun and a chance to maintain your (and your dog’s) skills in the field. Or maybe your parents or grandparents started you off quail hunting as a kid, but you lost it somewhere along the way. Use this sign from your favorite knife makers to get back out there and rediscover how fun (and tasty) these little birds can be. But before you do, let’s dive into a little bit more about quail hunting.
How To Hunt Quail
Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) are native to eastern North America: north to about New York City, out to the Great Plains, and south into southern Mexico. The bird gets its name from its unmistakable whistle, which sounds like an emphasized, “bob-bob-white.” They’re a beloved quarry and have been hunted by presidents, actors, authors, and the poorest citizens alike. But their popularity may be one reason that an estimated 85% of the population has disappeared since the 1960s.
While you can still find wild birds in their preferred habitats of open weedy fields, overgrown hedgerows, field borders, and the quintessential long-leaf pine savannahs of the South, the best quail hunting opportunities are often found on private land. If you’re new to the sport, you may find more success starting out at a pine plantation that manages its quail population. If you’re a public land purist, you can still find good hunting opportunities, but they may be few and far between, with the exception of Alabama, Iowa, and Missouri, where they have extensive quail management on public land.
Hunting quail is best done with a trained bird dog. Quail Forever puts it more bluntly, saying, “The idea of hunting quail without a bird dog is a path to frustration, futility, and no fun.” I’ll leave it at that. If you don’t have a bird dog of your own and want a DIY experience, you’ll need to find a buddy with a good dog that’ll find, point and flush the covey, so you can focus on your shot. Otherwise you’ll be walking past dozens of birds without ever knowing.
Technically, there’s nothing unique to quail hunting when compared to other upland birds. If you’ve done any upland hunting, it’ll feel familiar. If you’re brand new to upland, start with Quail Forever’s guide for beginner’s quail hunting and find a guide or a good friend to take you out for your first time. From there, it’s just about learning in the field and getting comfortable with your preferred shotgun: a 12-, 20-, or 28-gauge are all great for upland.
How To Prepare Quail
Quail are small but tasty. And even though their numbers have struggled in the wild, taking your daily limit from a well-managed population ensures a full meal for more than just yourself. If you can take your limit home (a dozen here in South Carolina), by all means, do so.
Since they’re small, you’ll want to cook them whole, and spatchcocking a whole quail for any form of cooking will ensure the meat cooks evenly. The biggest danger here is overcooking the bird, making a meat thermometer a key tool for grilling, frying, roasting, or searing. For spatchcocking the bird, a good chef’s knife will give you leverage to easily cut through the bird’s bones, but even your bird hunting knife can get the job done (since the bones are rather small).
Quail are delicious with just salt and pepper, but it will take any seasoning you’d use on a chicken if you want to elevate it (like in a Southwestern Chicken Taco). Some cooking methods you’d use for chicken might dry out quail meat, making quick-and-hot methods (grilling or searing) the preferred way to cook quail.
Get Out There
If you thought winter was an off-season, then you’ve been missing out on one of North America’s great game birds. And if you’ve already been out hunting quail this season and know all about this amazing bird, maybe it’s time to bring a new quail hunter with you on your next hunt. Times have changed in conservation: Today, the best way to preserve the future of a game species is to introduce more people to hunting it, allowing their passion for the species to take hold and making them the new champions for the birds.