Quail In The Sunshine State

Should quail and the sport of hunting the birds in Florida be put on the endangered list? Here's an in-depth look.

Quail hunting has gone through a number of changes in the Sunshine State in the last three decades.
Photo by Polly Dean

The fall sun is just beginning to warm what passes for a crisp morning in the Sunshine State. As those early beams angle in through the pine stand, they spread across the mat of wiregrass that is broken by clumps of palmetto and scrub oak.

Against this backdrop, a pair of pointers crisscrosses a wood's road that meanders through the thicket. Alternately the dogs place their noses on the ground, then raise them to test the slight breeze coursing over the understory. The pointers' excitement is communicated in the frantic twitching of their tails and is mirrored in the faces of the brace of hunters that pace behind, watching each move of the canines.

Often ranging far ahead, then doubling back, the bird dogs work the brush at a frenetic pace, until one of them suddenly locks down in a statuesque pose. The pointer's nose angles down toward a nearby array of palmetto fans, his forefoot raised and tail standing rigidly aloft. The second dog freezes a dozen feet away, honoring its running mate's discovery.

When the hunters approach, shotguns at the ready, the command is given and the dogs lurch forward to flush more than a half dozen beating pairs of wings. The unmistakable flutter of bobwhite quail taking to the air both startles and pleases the ear and is quickly followed by the report of several 20-gauge shotshells.

The dogs scramble through the brush to the hunters' calls of "dead bird," while a few feathers trail off in the breeze, marking a well-placed shot.

Such a scenario is at the heart of the mystic that surrounds quail hunting in Florida and it is the stuff from which memories are forged. Unfortunately, for many Sunshine State sportsmen, such a morning is only a memory, or even worse, a tale handed down from a past generation.

Much has been written about the decline, or even demise, of bobwhite hunting in the South. Indeed, quail populations in Florida are thought to have declined as much as 70 percent in the last four decades. Nationwide, between 1980 and 2000, the population of birds dropped from 59 million to just 20 million. Just as precipitous has been the fall in numbers of hunters targeting bobwhites. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that only 78,000 hunters still pursue any type of small game in the Sunshine State. Also, because the samples are so small, they cannot even estimate how many of those folks are quail hunters. That is very different from when bobwhites were the prince of game birds and garnered far more attention than even whitetail deer.

So what ecological horror has been visited upon our woodlands to eradicate quail from the landscape? Actually, it is a case of mankind as a species more or less taking a hands-off approach! Instead of 40-acre, family-farm fields with plenty of edge areas, pine plantations dedicated to forest products, citrus groves or cattle pastures now dominate our rural scenes. What row crops are still grown are in gigantic fields farmed from fence to fence. The great abundance of quail in the past was actually a manmade anomaly, not the norm. As land uses that produced edge habitat have declined, so has the bobwhite population. Unless we plan to abandon city life and shopping malls to go back to subsistence farming, those good old days are gone forever.

So is the bobwhite quail destined to go the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker? In a manner of speaking, probably. That woodpecker was long thought to be extinct, but within the last year has been rediscovered in the swamps of Arkansas -- which is to say that if you give any critter the kind of habitat it needs, it usually finds a way to survive.

To be successful today, bobwhite hunters need a good dog and plenty of perseverance.
Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

With quail in Florida and throughout the South, this holds true. Provide the habitat and quail will appear. Granted the size of the coveys will never rival the golden age of half a century ago, but given enough living space, bobwhites can maintain huntable populations.

Of course, our traditional concept of a quail hunt is one reason for much of the pessimism rampant in the wing-shooting fraternity. If you go afield expecting to find 10 to 15 coveys of a dozen birds each, you are assured of disappointment. That kind of shooting action is found only on commercial hunting preserves with pen-raised and released bobwhites. When hunting forest clearcuts or public lands, a good day may entail only three or four coveys of half a dozen birds each -- and the emphasis is on that being a good day.

The fact is, if you want a lot of shooting, plan on visiting a dove field. The sport of chasing bobwhites these days is no longer as much about "shooting" as it is about "hunting." The daily limit on quail in the state remains at 12 birds per day, but limiting out is probably an unreasonable goal. On the other hand, even on some tracts of public land, flushing two or three coveys and downing three or four birds for an evening meal is attainable.

Even that level of success, however, calls for having an understanding of quail and their habitat, as well as a good bird dog or two. Then the final ingredient is access to some land that holds quail. Such property is any tract that has transition areas at the fringes of open fields or clearings, or early succession growth in forest clearcuts that are two to four years old.

WHERE TO HUNT?

Surprisingly, there are a number of public tracts throughout the Sunshine State that offer quail hunting options. These are all highlighted on the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission Web site at www.myfwc. com. Follow the links through "Hunting" and "Small Game Hunting." Then click the region in which you are interested. A list of the top public lands for quail and other small game appears. These picks are based on the FWCC regional wildlife biologists' observations, along with harvest data from last year where applicable.

Northwest

In the Northwest Region, there are four WMAs that merit a rating of good. These are the Blackwater Wildlife Management Area, along with its Carr Unit and Hutton Unit. Also falling in this category is the Apalachee WMA.

Two other WMAs get a rating of fair

, but do hold enough quail to provide hunts. These are Apalachicola and Joe Budd WMAs.

North Central

The Potts WMA in the North Central Region is the only one in the state that merited a rating of excellent for quail hunting. Additionally, Citrus and Goethe WMAs were mentioned as having good options for quail. In the fair rating category were Jennings Forest WMA and the Tide Swamp and Hickory Mound units of the Big Bend WMA.

Interestingly enough, Camp Blanding WMA achieved only a poor rating for quail hunts, yet the harvest total reported there was greater than that coming from some areas with higher ratings.

Northeast

In the Northeast Region, the Three Lakes WMA and its Prairie Lakes Unit were both rated as good, as were Triple N Ranch, Bull Creek and Lake Panosoffkee WMAs. The Half Moon WMA offers fair conditions for quail hunts in the region.

Similar to the Camp Blanding situation, the Seminole Forest WMA achieved only a poor rating, but produced more quail than higher-ranking tracts.

Southwest

Though none of the public tracts in the Southwest Region were rated any better than fair for quail, there were seven in that category, indicating there are bobwhites there for the taking. Among these is the Babcock/ Webb WMA, which led all of Florida's public lands for quail harvest, giving up just shy of 1,200 quail in the last reporting period. But as mentioned, it received only a fair rating.

Other options in this region for some bobwhite action are the Croom and Green Swamp West WMAs, Yucca Pens Unit of the Babcock/ Webb WMA, Myakka State Forest Public Small Game Hunting Area, Kissimmee River Public Use Area and the Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area.

South

In the South Region, the only tract getting a good rating for bobwhite hunts was the Dupuis WEA. However, the Okaloachoochee Slough, Big Cypress and J.W. Corbett WMAs all managed a rating of fair for the species.

CREAM OF THE CROP

In the final analysis, the biologists of the FWCC produced an elite list of the nine best public tracts in Florida for quail hunts.

Babcock/Webb WMA

First on the list is Babcock/Webb WMA in Charlotte County. This 65,770-acre tract achieved only a fair rating from the FWCC biologists, yet gave up an astounding 1,191 quail last season.

Blackwater WMA/Carr Unit

The No. 2 property on the bobwhite list is a bit of an odd circumstance, despite its rating of good by the game managers. The 590-acre Carr Unit in Santa Rosa County yielded 442 quail last year, but it also hosted 16 Special Opportunity hunts during the season, with each of these lasting four days. In each of these sessions, the hunters were allowed to release pen-raised quail on the tract for the hunts.

Three Lakes WMA

This Osceola County public hunting land covers 52,976 acres and received a good rating from the biologists. Last season, it produced 293 bobwhites

Triple N Ranch WMA

Coming in at No. 4 with a good rating is the Triple N Ranch in Osceola County. This 15,391-acre area yielded 149 bobwhites to hunters last season.

Potts WMA

Situated in Citrus County, Potts WMA spans 7,408 acres and is the only public hunting area in Florida that was rated as excellent for quail. However, there was no harvest report compiled for last season.

Blackwater WMA

By the far the largest of the WMAs on the bobwhite list is the Blackwater WMA. Located in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties, the property covers 186,475 acres and is rated as good for quail. Again, however, no harvest figures are available for this tract.

Blackwater WMA/Hutton Unit

Another Santa Rosa County unit of this WMA, Hutton spans 5,243 acres. Like its parent tract, Hutton received a rating of good for bobwhites from the biologists, but no harvest numbers were available.

Goethe WMA

Located in the North Central Region in Levy County, Goethe WMA is rated as good for quail by the FWCC staff. The WMA covers 48,442 acres, but no harvest data was available from last season.

Bull Creek WMA

The final entry on the list of best quail-hunting public lands in the Sunshine State is Bull Creek WMA in Osceola County. Its 23,646 acres are rated as good for bobwhites and the tract gave up 126 quail to hunters last season.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jimmy Jacobs is the editor of Florida Game & Fish, and a long-time fan of following bird dogs in the pursuit of bobwhite quail.

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