Trans-Pecos Scalies

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In the corner of southwest Texas, lies the unique region known as the Trans-Pecos. The Trans-Pecos is often revered for its mountains, ranging in elevation from 2500 to 8750 feet, and its hot and dry climates, some of the hottest and driest in Texas. The region is composed of Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, scrublands, and mountains. The locals of the region will tell you that everything down there will sting, stab, or bite. They aren’t wrong. Dominant plant species throughout much of the Trans-Pecos include cactus-like prickly pear, lechuguilla, dog cholla, tasajillo, and catclaw acacia. In contrast to the inhospitable vegetation, the region is home to many charismatic wildlife species like desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, javelina, black bear, mountain lion and scaled quail.

If you have ever hunted scaled quail, then you are familiar with their propensity to run. We have all been humiliated by the uncanny speed that their little legs can produce. Their flighty behavior is enough to demoralize the most seasoned bird hunters. However, if you would like to intensify the challenge of hunting scaled quail, head down to the Trans-Pecos and give it a go.

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I started off my first hunting season with a bird dog in this remote region of Texas. On the hunt, I was accompanied by Cash, my 1.5-year-old French Brittany, and work colleagues/friends, Jacob and Matt. The first evening we camped out in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, surrounded by cactus and mountains. Dinner consisted of quail from a previous hunt, potatoes, and ranch-style beans all cooked over a mesquite fire. After the meal, we soaked up the heat of the campfire, sipped our favorite libations, and planned out the next day’s adventure.

The expansive sky was cloudless that night, dotted brilliantly with constellations. As I drifted off to sleep, the chorus of coyotes sounded off somewhere in the distance. But all the while, the only thoughts running through my mind were the rapid wingbeats of quail.

The next morning, we woke before sunrise in anticipation of what the day might hold. It was a cold morning in the desert that demanded that the fire be stoked. As we warmed around the coals from last night’s fire, Matt prepared a choice breakfast of tacos and coffee. We had finished scarfing down breakfast by the time the sun peeked over the horizon.

Rising in the east, it began to illuminate the distant desert mountains. Numerous bird species exploded into song. We were loading up our gear into Jacob’s Toyota Tacoma when all of a sudden, everyone froze and perked up their ears. A nasally whistle, “suck-er, sucker-er, suck-er”, echoed across the hillside. The game was afoot. We quickly scrambled to find our bird vests, shotguns, and shells. I put Cash’s collar on, and we were off.

Cash and I had spent all summer training on wild scaled quail. During that time, he had accrued valuable knowledge on the behavior of the quarry running ahead of us. The months of exercising on rocky slopes at the edge of town had prepared his feet for the tough ground he was now traversing. HIS hard work was about to pay off.

Jacob, Matt, and I spread out across the hillside as Cash quartered back and forth out in front. We all worked diligently, weaving through the ocotillo and negotiating the loose rubble beneath our feet. The place where the quail had been calling from had fallen silent. As we neared their assumed locale, the young Brit contoured around the edge of a catclaw/mesquite thicket with his nose to the ground. At the far side of the thicket, on the ridgetop, Cash went on point facing down the other side of the hill.

We hurriedly made our way to the top. From his vantage point, we could see the birds several hundred yards below. Our pace quickened. The covey had moved from their escape cover during our ascent. They were now in the wide open and traveling downhill at a full-tilt sprint.

Heading down the slope, Cash continued to point and relocate until he drew near a small drain that was filled with dense grasses and prickly pear. He froze. Standing motionless and glaring into the vegetated abyss. We cautiously approached the draw. Quail began to appear from within a clump of prickly pear and dump out the backside. As they cleared the cactus, the first few birds flushed one by one, and then all at once, 30 birds blew up at our feet. It was a spectacular covey rise with each bird’s cotton-top head lit up by the sunlight.

A volley of shots rang out, bouncing off the bold cliff faces and echoing throughout the canyon. Feathers floated down to the earth in small clouds to join their fallen comrades. Holding their birds at eye level, Matt and Jacob relished the events that had just transpired.

When Cash arrived at my side with his first delivery of the day, I noticed that his legs were riddled with cactus spines. I pulled from my vest, a hunting essential, a pair of surgical forceps, and made short work of the unwelcomed thorns.

In what had seemed like only minutes, the first few hours of hunting had passed by and it was time to stop for a break. Though it had been a chilly morning, the dry desert air had heated quickly as the sun rose higher into the bluebird sky. It was around midday now and the temperatures had peaked at 85 degrees. The sunlight radiated off the rocky canyon walls, creating an oven. The heat pressed down on our backs. We stopped off at a guzzler near the truck so Cash could get his fill of water and cool off for a bit. Unfortunately, the heat prevented him from hunting during the heat of the day. But still, everyone stripped off a layer, resituated their packs, and then we were off again.

Because of the scarcity of water in the region, we were able to find quail near every guzzler and stock tank we came upon. This may sound like a stroll in the park, but I can assure you it was not. Many coveys would run uphill or flush up to the rimrock edges, frequently using the topography to their advantage. The only way to best them was to be persistent and give chase wherever they went.

By the end of the day, we were battle-worn and cactus-torn. When it was all said and done, we had found 17 coveys. We finished the hunt with bags heavy, filled with quail. An unbelievable day. But we all paid the price and put in the work to find them. That day I hiked 16 and Cash had trotted for 52 miles through the unforgiving desert mountains. Though we faced many challenges, we found what we came for. It wasn’t the added weight in our bird vests. That was only window dressing. The trip had built a comradery through the sharing of an arduous day in the field. The three of us now live in three separate states but still meet up annually for another trying weekend in the mountains, chasing after our feathered, fast-legged friends.

Trey Johnson

I was born and raised on a small ranch Northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. From a young age, nature always provided an outlet from reality. I have continued to cultivate this passion through formal education and creative writing. When I am not working as game bird research assistant, you can find my bird dog and I in the field chasing birds.

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