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Small Game Hunting Season Information

2014 - 2015 Small Game Outlook
By Johnathan O’Dell
Small game biologist, Arizona Game and Fish Department

All small game populations have their ups and downs. Weather conditions and more specifically rain patterns play the biggest role in these swings. We’ve got some species that are up and some down.


The mild winters that have become almost commonplace in recent years have provided favorable conditions for both tassel-eared Abert’s squirrel and its smaller cousin, the red squirrel. Spring turkey hunters across the state reported seeing lots of activity during the breeding period. Should be another above average season for red and Abert’s squirrels.

Conversely, with the lack of winter precipitation and spring run-off, drought conditions remain in the Arizona gray and Mexican fox squirrel habitats. Both squirrels still remain at lower numbers throughout much of their range. Expect another below average year with squirrels scarce in some areas.


Cottontail observations continue to be high for another good year.

Jackrabbit observations also appear to be at the same levels as last year. Look for this year to be average to above average


Arizona experienced a 70 day window over the last winter with no precipitation. Since Gambel’s depend heavily on winter precipitation and the subsequent green up for breeding, a dip in the numbers was expected. Spring call counts were below last year’s numbers and the long and short term averages. Covey sizes are better in some areas. In a below average year like this, do some preseason scouting and listen for calls in the early morning hours to locate coveys.

Scaled quail typically follow Gambel’s quail in their breeding by a few weeks and this year’s winter and spring precipitation conditions were poor. Arizona’s scaled quail have been known to delay breeding and nesting until the start of the summer monsoonal period. And the monsoons have been rather good, especially those areas which have scaled quail. It’s still too early to tell, but we could see better numbers this year over last if delayed nesting occurs. Otherwise, expect a below average season.

With the monsoonal rains arriving on time for a third year in a row, conditions continue to improve. We’re still climbing out of the low experienced in the 2010-2011 season, but things are looking up in this back to average year.


The Department would like to better survey blue grouse hunter participation and success. To do this we are asking grouse hunters to provide an address or email to the Small Game Biologist so that they can be surveyed directly after the end of the season. This may be done by sending an email to: or through regular mail to the Department’s main office: Attention Game Branch.

Blue grouse in the White Mountains are still spotty around the Wallow Fire burned area, and it will be a while before those numbers fully recover. The brood rearing habitat on the Kaibab looked good and chicks per hen observed in July ranged from 2 to 6, so expect a slightly above average season there. The San Francisco Peaks still holds a number of birds with very few hunters, mostly because of the terrain.


The Department would like to better survey chukar hunter participation and success. To do this we are asking chukar hunters to provide an address or email to the Small Game Biologist so that they can be surveyed directly after the end of the season. This may be done by sending an email to: or through regular mail to the Department’s main office: Attention Game Branch.

Mild winters combined with expanding cheatgrass on the Arizona Strip are both benefitting chukar range expansion. Chukar populations should again be in good numbers for this year.


*ATTENTION* This year the bag limit for mourning doves has been increased to 15 birds per day! August marks the month when doves are at their peak numbers and the migration South begins around the start of the hunting season. If the weather holds, and we don’t get a big storm blowing through to start the migration early, the early season dove hunt should be one to remember. Especially with the new increased bag limit.


This year is anticipated to be the largest waterfowl migration in the past 60 years. North American duck numbers are again at record high numbers and goose populations are increasing. The summer monsoons have brought good rains and water to the state which bodes well for our winged winter visitors. Look out for an above average year again.

Small Game Hunting Tips
By Randy Babb, Information & Education Program Manager

Note: while these tips are from the 2009 season, many of the areas and techniques will be much the same for this season, given we had similar winter, spring and summer weather conditions.


Gambel’s quail are reliant primarily on winter rains for their production, while mearns (also known as Montezuma) quail, and to a lesser degree scaled quail, key their nesting to summer rain amounts. This year’s poor winter and summer rains will make for largely poor quail hunting in central Arizona. From what biologists have seen, hunters should be able to expect below average bird numbers in most places they visit. Gambel quail broods averaged much smaller this season when compared to last. This season we saw many late broods which are typical in bad years. Chicks late in the year are usually indicative of conditions being less than optimal for reproduction and typically have a high mortality rate.

Try starting your quail hunt early in the morning when it’s cooler and birds are more vocal and moving about. Also consider using a quail call and listen for coveys to answer; this will save walking and time. Quail calls may be purchased at most sporting goods stores. While walking in the field, stop frequently to listen for birds. Gambel’s and scaled quail make a variety of sounds; learn to recognize these calls. Once birds are found, attempt to split the covey up and work cover for single birds, this is where you're likely to get most of your birds. Estimate the number of birds on a covey rise and keep count of the number of single birds that are flushed while working for singles. This way you can make sure you've worked the covey thoroughly. If you have hunted through the area where the scattered birds settled and have only gotten up half the number of the birds that were counted on the covey rise, you know that there are still more birds in the area and can work the surrounding cover appropriately.

Gambel’s quail like to run and if the cover is not heavy enough will literally out run hunters and dogs alike. Minimize your frustration while hunting these birds by choosing areas that have good ground cover in the way of grasses and shrubs. This vegetation provides hiding places for scattered birds. On birds that want to run ahead of you, put pressure on them by unloading your firearm and trotting after the birds until you have flushed the covey enough times for the birds to be sufficiently scattered to hold. Then work the area for singles. Avoid hunting areas with little ground cover. For quail to hold (not flush at a distance too far for the hunter to shoot at them) there must be adequate ground cover for the birds to hide in (e.g. grass, shrubs, etc.). In sparsely vegetated areas quail tend to run and flush at excessive distances. This can be a problem in years of poor production as the hunter is faced with pursuing older "educated" birds. There should be plenty of young birds this season so running birds will likely not be a problem this season. Young birds hold better so it is worth the effort to find those areas that experienced better hatches.

Once the birds are scattered and holding a hunter will flush more birds if they walk in a zigzag fashion through the cover, occasionally pausing for a few seconds. Waiting can be as important as walking in areas where there is good cover and where you know there are birds. It is not uncommon to walk into an area, stop for a few seconds, and have a bird flush right behind you after you resume walking. Be ready for this. Attempt to read the cover and terrain to predict where birds may be hiding. Groups of closely growing shrubs, shallow draws lined with dense vegetation, or low thickets, should be investigated. If a hunter has a partner, develop a game plan and move through an area about 20 to 30 yards apart covering the area thoroughly. If birds are holding tightly it is not unusual to cover the same ground many times and still flush birds. Quail will often hold closely in inclement weather. Once a bird is knocked down, stay at the ready for a second or two to make sure the quail is not crippled and runs off. Also mark downed birds carefully and walk directly to the spot and retrieve the bird. If the downed bird is not found immediately take the time to carefully search the surrounding area within about a 15 yard, or more, radius. Gambel quail are remarkably tough and can take a lot of punishment. Crippled birds will run down mammal burrows, into packrat nests, or hide in most any suitable cover. Resist the temptation to shoot at additional birds once a bird has been downed. This will translate to fewer lost birds and more game in the bag.


Weed crops, which were produced by summer rains, are very poor this year. Because of this the desert will hold few birds away from agricultural lands or other man-created food sources. Because of this doves will still concentrate in traditional areas such as feed lots making for good shooting. SPEND TIME SCOUTING; a few reconnaissance trips can pay off in great hunting. Check agricultural areas for cut grain fields or fields that may be cut in the near future and feed lots. Roosting sites often make for good shooting and should be watched for. Doves will typically pick densely vegetated areas for roosts. Mesquite bosques, tamarisk (salt cedar) thickets, and citrus groves are typical roosting sites. Doves establish flight patterns and follow them. For example, a grain field that has lots of doves feeding in it will have a few spots that will offer the best shooting. Watch tree lines, washes, canals, field corners, or other structural features that birds may follow. Late season doves frequently shift their flight patterns and feeding areas, so the more spots you have lined up the better your chances are for consistent good hunting. Desert water holes can often offer spectacular evening shooting during the late season, a great way to combine dove and quail on a hunt. Avoid shooting near thickly vegetated areas such as alfalfa or cotton fields to minimize the number of lost birds. If you do hunt some place with thick vegetation try to chose your shots so birds fall into open areas. Mark downed birds and walk directly to them to minimize the chance of losing them. If the hunter stands still or sits or stands next to some sort of cover (a ditch, shrub, tree, telephone pole) birds will be less likely to shy away from them. Wearing drab clothing will also make the hunter less conspicuous. Be and sure to ask landowners before hunting on private land and to pick up all spent shells and shell boxes. Wait to clean your birds until you reach home. This way unsightly messes and trash will not left on landowner's property and help insure your privilege of hunting on private lands.


How late these birds stay around in the fall is largely dependent on how good the acorn crop is. This year the acorn crop appears to be generally poor. Hunters will likely find bandtails concentrated in areas with what acorns there may be. Band-tailed pigeons will use alternative food sources, such as pinon and elderberries, especially in poor acorn years. One way to hunt them is to sit on pine-country stock tanks. They usually come to water early in the morning (after feeding) so check stock tanks at higher elevations early. If they are using the tank, they will generally show up before 9 am. They may also be found in feeding in dense stands of gamble or other oak species. These birds like to loaf in pine snags and can occasionally be found in these trees at mid-day along ridge tops.


Snipe are one of the most over looked game birds in the state. Snipe prefer marshy habitats along rivers, lakes, and flooded agriculture areas. Birds can often be spotted by the hunter prior to entering an area by glassing the water's edge with binoculars. Snipe flush similar to quail and usually make distinctive "scipe" call on take off. The zig-zag flight of these birds makes for a challenging target. Often the flushed bird will swing around presenting the hunter with a pass shot as it returns to the water. Check suitable areas often as snipe are prone to suddenly appear and disappear in feeding areas. Snipe offer a great plus for duck hunters. After a morning duck hunt, hunters should walk nearby marshy areas or other flooded vegetation. If you prefer to jump shoot ducks, snipe are common visitors to stock tanks. Snipe are classified as an upland game bird and steel shot is not required for hunting them.


Waterfowl reproduction estimates for this year are good with most species showing an increase in numbers. Summer surveys this year indicated nesting was generally up.
A common problem we experience in Arizona, despite nesting success, is warm winter weather. Often warm winters in the western states will “short-stop” much of the migrating waterfowl before they make it to the southern US. So while states north of us (Utah, Nevada, etc.) enjoy fantastic hunting, we experience sporadic shooting at best. In the same manner if warm weather keeps Arizona’s high country waters open, many ducks and geese will spend the winter there rather than migrating to lower elevations. Simply put, many migrating waterfowl species go no farther south than they have to. If we have a warm winter, our state’s high elevations will likely offer the best hunting.

Despite generally poor winter and summer rains many ponds and marshes have water in them, which should make for some decent shooting and many places for waterfowl to rest and feed. Many of the state’s reservoirs are near full or at least nearly so, and ducks and geese should have no trouble finding places to land. It’ll be up to the hunter to find them. Hopefully this winter will be wet and cold and we will enjoy some good waterfowl hunting.

Regulations have changed significantly and wise hunters will BE SURE TO CHECK CURRENT REGULATIONS FOR CHANGES FROM LAST YEAR AND SEASON DATES. Currently the bag limit is 7 birds per day per hunter. Waterfowlers will be able to take 2 pintails a day for the first time in many years. Hunters can take canvasbacks again this year (2 per day) after being closed last year. Also it should be noted that there will be a limited season (season with in a season) for scaup and waterfowlers should note the dates during which this species can be taken.
The early part of the season offers the best opportunities for some of the early migrants like cinnamon and blue-wing teal. November is usually when waterfowl hunting in the desert areas really picks up. At this time free water at northern latitudes typically becomes scarce forcing birds southward to seek feeding and resting areas.

Mornings after big winter storms and severe cold snaps are often an excellent time to check desert stock ponds for ducks. Decoys will prove useful on central Arizona lakes, rivers, and ponds. If you are decoying, you'll want to start early. Have your decoys set and your blind built before legal shooting time comes. Once again a little scouting will be a big help in finding a productive shooting spot. Ducks tend to congregate in backwaters, slow runs on rivers, and sheltered areas on lakes such as coves and the mouths of rivers and creeks. With some scouting you will discover that though there may be several spots that seem to look good and are used by ducks there is one or a few spots that they prefer. Set out your decoys and build your blind while it is still dark so you will be situated at legal shooting time. Typically the best shooting is in the couple of hours of the day so it is important to be ready by legal shooting time. On a typical duck hunt, shooting is usually over by 10 or 11 am. Geese generally fly a little later than ducks but you'll still want to be prepared by first light. Ducks will tend to move more in inclement weather so shooting often lasts longer on these days. Ducks have excellent eyesight and color vision, keep this in mind when hunting them, camouflage is recommended. It is also very important to remain motionless while birds are working the decoys or coming in. To retrieve downed birds from stock tanks try using a fishing rod rigged with a top water plug. Cast over dead birds and reel them in. The same rig fitted with a diving plug will retrieve decoys in deep water by snagging the anchor line. Remember only non-toxic or steel shot may be used for ducks and geese.


Cottontails offer an excellent supplement to the hunter's bag and some very tasty meals. Dove hunters should watch for rabbits along field edges while hunting. Walk thick cover such as tumbleweeds, before you finish your morning hunt. Quail hunters are likely to encounter cottontails most anytime but especially along desert washes and thickets. Try a special between seasons rabbit hunt using a 22. 22's offer an excellent challenge and good practice for upcoming big game hunts. Walk ridge tops in the early mornings and late afternoon, using binoculars to search for rabbits in the washes below. Dress bagged rabbits at the first opportunity and throw them on ice. Occasionally rabbits are the host to the large grub of the bot fly. These unpleasant looking grubs do not harm the meat of the rabbit and no rabbit should be discarded because of them. Jackrabbits are often overlooked and not only provide excellent sport but good eating. Teriyaki marinated and grilled jackrabbit back-strap is excellent kidding!


Arizona has more different species of tree squirrels than any other state. Warm winters and the rain we have gotten should make for fair to average squirrel hunting this fall. Start your hunt early in the morning when squirrels are most active. Quietly walk along logging roads and search for squirrels on the ground and in the trees. Once a squirrel is spotted it may be shot on the ground or rushed and run up the nearest tree. Chasing squirrels up trees at seven thousand feet elevation is more work than it sounds. Add an up hill incline and you have the makings of a cardiac arrest. A well-trained dog makes the job easier. Abert’s squirrels spend a lot of time on the ground foraging for mushrooms in the fall and are more likely to be seen there. Gray squirrels prefer riparian corridors of sycamore, walnut, and ash. The canyons under the Mogollon Rim are a good place to try for gray squirrels and you'll probably pick some Abert's up too. They are a bit harder to come by and can make for a challenging hunt. Red squirrels are found in spruce/fir habitat and most easily found by listening for their "wurring" call. Try using a 22 for squirrels instead of a shotgun, its a lot more fun and you don't have to worry about shot at dinnertime. Bring a pair of binoculars to help you to spot squirrels in treetops. Consider a hunt for the Arizona big 5 (Abert’s, Kaibab, Arizona gray, apache fox, and red squirrels).


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An Introduction to Hunting Arizona’s Small Game by Randy Babb

The 198-page book is a fantastic resource that provides expert tips for hunting Arizona's small game birds and mammals, from quail and doves to squirrels and rabbits.

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