Joe Panter has been coming here from Phoenix to hunt Mearns quail for 13 years. A native of Texas who has always enjoyed hunting, he says that when he moved to Phoenix he soon learned that the epicenter of bird hunting in Arizona was down in the southeast corner of the state.

Each year, hunters who have drawn tags come to this area for large game like deer, mountain lion, and javelina. But there is one small bird that draws hunters from all over the western United States, and occasionally from much further away. Mearns (previously Montezuma) quail are found almost exclusively in southeastern Arizona, where they make their home in the rocky hills and canyons of the Canelo Hills and the Huachuca and Patagonia Mountains. Because their habitat is limited to this area, and because of the challenges they present to hunters, local guide Dave Brown says he has clients who have traveled here from as far away as Alaska and the Canary Islands to hunt them.

Many hunters consider Mearns quail to be Arizona’s prize game bird, and the most challenging. To find them requires hiking for miles up and down hills and draws and through the tall grasses where they make their nests, under the cover of live oak, mesquite and manzanita. Usually gathered in coveys of five or more, they often hold fast to their hiding spot in the grass, unseen by the approaching hunter until he is nearly upon them, at which point they burst forth, flying high and fast in all directions.

The hunter must react in a split second and may well have to sight his shot through an overhead maze of branches. Although the limit is eight birds a day, most hunters are happy to get half that number.

Mearns quail are dependent on adequate summer monsoon rainfall for the lush grass cover and plentiful insects they need to thrive. As a result of optimal conditions in 2007, coveys were plentiful in the season that followed. Patagonia resident Penny Shellenbarger, an experienced Mearns quail hunter who uses her taxidermy skills to create quail mounts, remembers working long days to complete all the orders she received that year.

But insufficient rainfall, overshooting, and cold winter storms combined to severely diminish the Mearns population over the several years that followed. Most hunters agree that this year they are seeing more birds—although it is too early to know whether they have made a stable recovery.

Dave Brown is one of several experienced quail hunting guides in this area. Brown says that during quail season—a period of little more than two months beginning in late November or early December—he puts in a full day as a guide for an average of six days a week. When he told me his fee was $1,000 per day and heard me gasp, he explained that the expense of veterinary bills and routine care for his 14 hunting dogs is substantial—especially during the season. The success of any game bird hunter depends on the skill of his or her dogs, who may cover 20 miles or more in a day seeking out coveys. Keenly focused as they are on their search for scent, they may be oblivious to the sharp, rocky soil they run through, full of cat’s claw, the occasional rattlesnake, and burs that work their way into paws and ears. Trips to the vet during hunting season may be frequent.

The hunter must have good shooting skills, but it is the dogs that find the birds, go on point to alert the hunter of their location, and hold them in place until the hunter can flush them and take his shot.

Local author Phil Caputo is likely to spend five days out of seven hunting Mearns quail with his English setter during the season. He says that he loves watching his dog work and the timeless partnership that he experiences—like that of the earliest hunters—as man and dog pursue their quarry, closely attuned to each other’s cues.

During the winter months, the presence of visiting hunters contributes significantly to our local economy. Jerry Isaac, proprietor of the Stage Stop Hotel, estimates that from December through February, 40 percent of his occupants are hunters, who also spend their money at other local businesses.

This is also a group that strongly supports the need to conserve and protect our wildlife and natural resources, as is reflected in their contributions to and membership in a great many organizations dedicated to that purpose. All the hunters I spoke with seem to have a great appreciation for the unique beauty of our high mountain desert and said that part of the attraction of hunting is simply being able to spend the day hiking in this setting. As one hunter told me, “I like to hunt quail because I like to be where they are.”