Chasin’ the Winter Blues: Hunting Kansas’ Other Quail
Article Contributed by E. Castillo.
When it comes to divulging information to one’s hunting locales, hunters in general tend to not be very forth coming about releasing that sort of information to friends and fellow hunters, let alone strangers. So it came as a big surprise to me, when I had the opportunity to politely intrude on someone’s fortune and invited to go after one of Kansas’ scarcest and hardest gamebirds to hunt.
It all started when I received a sort of cryptic description of a location in the Southwestern part of Kansas to hunt the ever elusive scaled quail. Scaled quail are not common in Kansas, but can be found in small numbers in pockets of areas throughout Southwest Kansas. The most well-known place to hunt scaled quail in Kansas is the Cimarron National Grasslands. Very few hunters as well as Kansas natives are aware that scaled quail inhabit the sunflower state. Typical upland hunters to Kansas usually target the more famous of the quails…the bobwhite. Scaled quail are also referred to as scalies, cotton-tops, or blue quail. Their description is based on the blue coloration of their plumage and their resemblance to scales.
I had a very short window to drive and find the location mentioned and hopefully get into some quail. My time-frame consisted of one day. That meant leaving the comfort and warmth of my home and setting out on the road several hours before daylight peeked over the horizon. With extra-clothes, gear, and guns packed, I headed down the highway towards a place, possibly mythical in nature, as locations of blue quail are not usually freely given but guarded. With each passing mile, my skepticism grew like adding wood to a fire. Where was I going? Did this quail Shangri-La even exist? Who would give up such a place, especially a public access area just outside the grasslands? It was worth my time and worth the chance.
My travel lasted several hours westward, driving down lonely highways and roads with the occasional headlights that seemed more like summer fireflies dancing in the dark. My chances for a successful hunt was somewhat low, as I was going to be dogless during this hunt. Fresh snow on the ground would better my chances, but I knew the reality of hunting blue quail. My plan was to arrive at the location and listen for quail calling in the predawn hours and look for signs (quail tracks) in the snow.
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Arriving at the so called secret destination, I quickly assembled my gear and made ready for a day of walking or at least until I found some blues, then it would turn into running. The high for the day would be 20 degrees. Feeling around in my vest pocket, I produced three purple shells that I inserted into my pump. With the pumping action, I loaded one purple round and the ever-so “thwack” sound commonly associated with pump shotguns signaled the start of my quest.
Trekking across the white landscape with no signs of any “blues”, I continued to press onward. I walked the rolling hills intertwined with yucca plants, plum thickets, and the occasional cactuses scattered throughout this so called hidden gem. A location that wanted to keep its secret of scaled quail to itself. I was literally “chasin’ the blues.”
With an overcast sky and the sun fighting to get rays of warmth and light onto my location, it was starting to feel like a dull and dismal day. Hours had passed and I knew my time was fleeting like sand through an hour glass. Something needed to happen and fast. Standing on a hill, I noticed a patch of snow that appeared to be “trampled” on. Walking towards it, I immediately recognized quail tracks all over the area. A closer inspection showed the footprints to be far apart, an indication that birds were running. Not a good sign, as they may have been alerted to my presence and decided to high-tail it out of there.
No sooner did I realize this, when out of the corner of my eye, I sensed movement and saw several “blues” running. I knew from experience that without a dog, I would have to get these little blue devils into the air or I would end up running a marathon across the desert grasslands.
In an instant, feathered wings took to the air and a covey of birds erupted from the ground in front of me. What seemed like slow motion, I raised my Remington shotgun to my shoulder and tracked a bird who was desperately gaining speed. Nano-seconds passed and I squeezed the trigger, only to hear and feel the blast from my 16 bore. The puff of feathers falling from the sky made it seem as though it had started to snow. I took a mental picture of where the bird had fallen and swung my shotgun to the left as another bird was clearly out of my range. I pulled the trigger again, and saw the bird tumble to the ground. I found both birds laying in the snow. There plump little bodies colorized in hues of gray. The feathers resembled scales with specks of tan with a bluish tint, and the white tuft on top of their crowns reminded me of cotton. The smell of spent gunpowder in the air permeated the area making its way along a slight breeze that carried the feathers off onto their final resting place.
With birds in my vest, it was time to head home. On the walk back to the truck I reflected on the day’s events. I could have easily have dismissed the information and rhetoric on the location of these scaled quail and spent the day chasing bobs and roosters a bit closer to home. I could have ignored and dismissed the notion that someone would provide me with an opportunity to hunt a hard to find and hunt bird. The day still had plenty of hours of daylight left, but I had come for what I was after and that was enough for me.
WANNA GO? The Cimarron National Grasslands is located in extreme Southwestern Kansas. It is the largest tract of public land in Kansas at just over 108,000 acres and is bisected by the Cimarron River. The area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. There are also several thousand additional public access acres that are enrolled in the Walk-In Hunting Area access program spread throughout the area.
The terrain is mostly flat and consists of mostly shortgrass prairie grassland, dotted with sand sagebrush, yucca plants, cholla cactuses, and cottonwood groves found along the river. For the adventurer, primitive dispersed camping is allowed throughout the grasslands, except the river corridor or one can stay at the campground. For the bird hunter, bobwhite and scaled quail, pheasant, and mourning dove make up the upland game population. Opportunities for big game exists for mule & white-tailed deer, and pronghorn.
Additional information on the Cimarron Grasslands can be obtained by writing Cimarron National Grassland, P.O. Box 300, 242 E. Hwy. 56, Elkhart, KS 67950, or by calling (620) 697-4621. A map of the grasslands, which is very helpful to hunters, can be obtained by sending $10.00 to the same address, with a note requesting a map and hunting information packet. www.fs.fed.us/
About the Author
Edgar Castillo is a twenty plus year veteran law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. Edgar also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Besides his faith and family, his passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.
Follow his upland adventures on Instagram @hunt_birdz and Facebook hunt birdz – Gear Reviews, Tips, & Info for the Uplands.