Panhandle Bobwhites

Although quail populations are down all over the Southeast, the Florida Panhandle still offers some options for these game birds. Here's what the action is like in West Florida today.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

by Jeff Samsel

Having dropped one quail from the initial covey rise, Ted Everett stands back and watches as hunting guide Bill Baxley; two dogs, Patches and Lou; and a pair of hunters work toward a couple of singles. Those birds escaped the first blast of shotguns with quick, low flight and went a hundred yards or so before dropping back into the high underbrush.

Everett, whose father and grandfather worked the same land for timber and turpentine and whose family has owned the property since the turn of the 20th century, is obviously at home in the open pine forest. He harvests timber from parts of the 6,000 or so acres that make up Hard Labor Creek Preserve in the central Panhandle, but his primary management goal for the entire property is to create the best possible habitat for wildlife - primarily bobwhite quail.

Everett cuts and burns often to encourage the young growth needed to provide good food and cover for quail. He also manages the property as a patchwork of fields and forests, with seeded roads winding through the woods and brushpiles scattered about. A former commercial real estate agent who abandoned city life to return to his roots several years ago, Everett is trying to bring back some of West Florida's quail-hunting tradition.

Farms and forests throughout the Florida Panhandle used to be alive with quail, and bird hunting was extremely popular on public and private lands alike. Bobwhite numbers and bird hunting popularity have both declined dramatically over the past couple of decades, however, in West Florida and the rest of the Southeastern United States.

Stan Kirkland, a public information officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), grew up in Jackson County, and he remembers when you could find plenty of quail just about anywhere.

"This part of Florida was phenomenal," he said, "and it really didn't matter what county you were in. There was a lot of farmland and timber cutting that favored early regeneration, which provides good cover for quail."

He pointed toward bird hunting on the Apalachee Wildlife Management Area (WMA), in Jackson County, to illustrate how things have declined. The area, which covers a little less than 8,000 acres, used to produce annual quail harvests approaching 2,000 birds. Hunting Apalachee quail was a popular West Florida tradition. By the end of the 1990s, harvests had dwindled to a meager 50 or 75 birds. Minuscule harvests, which reflect huge drops in quail numbers and consequential drops in the number of hunters participating in quail hunting, are representative of declines throughout the region on public and private lands alike.

No one can point to a single definitive reason for such a sharp and sustained drop in quail numbers, Kirkland noted. Major culprits commonly pointed toward include "improved" agricultural practices, which leave no edges for quail to use as cover; heavy use of pesticides; and complete change in land use in many areas. Myriad factors, mostly related to human population growth, technology and ever changing economic structures, seemingly have contributed to the problem over many years.

While there may be no broad-scale way to bring back the quail to the entire Panhandle landscape, the FWCC is seeking to bring back populations on historically popular quail hunting areas and provide Florida hunters with the best shooting opportunities possible. On areas such has Apalachee and select portions of the Blackwater WMA, the FWCC has used both targeted land-management strategies and very restrictive regulations to help restore quail numbers and allow for higher quality hunts.

As is the case in most of the South, the bulk of the best quail hunting that remains in the Panhandle exists on private lands that are managed with at least some consideration for quail habitat. Landowners who remember how quail hunting used to be and who enjoy bird dogs and bird hunting leave cover around their fields, plant food and conduct controlled burns in their woodlots primarily with the quail in mind.

On such lands, almost all of which are hunted exclusively by the landowners and invited guests, wild-bird prospects may be decent if hunts are held only occasionally. If lands are hunted frequently, supplemental releases of commercially raised quail are almost always needed, no matter how well the habitat is tended.

For the majority of hunters, who don't have "ins" to gain invitations to private hunts, the best opportunities to enjoy first-rate wing-shooting are on preserves, or on the special hunts on public land. Let's look at both types of opportunities, beginning with the best WMA hunts.

APALACHEE WMA
Because of its quail hunting tradition, Apalachee WMA is getting a lot of attention, management-wise. Over the past few years, the FWCC has put emphasis on bringing back quail hunting to the fields and forests that make up this 7,952-acre area, which borders Lake Seminole.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land that Apalachee is located on, is working closely with the FWCC in its quail-management efforts. The cooperative plan includes cutting timber annually in targeted areas to get sunlight to the ground and encourage fresh growth.

The FWCC is also using a highly specialized piece of heavy equipment, which Kirkland described as a cross between a tank and a bulldozer, to plow through virtually impenetrable thickets. This basically turns the ground over, to encourage the types of growth that are beneficial to quail. Other quail-management steps include a fairly extensive prescribed-burning program.

Because quail population declines have been widespread, however, and because quail fly, the FWCC has to change more than the habitat to help facilitate a rebound in bird numbers and provide good opportunities. Lacking similar targeted management plans on surrounding properties, 8,000 acres will only hold so many birds, and those birds tend to scatter when hunting pressure heats up. The second step, therefore, was to severely limit the hunting opportunities in the hope that those opportunities which remained would provide high-quality hunts.

Quail hunting on Apalachee WMA is permitted from Dec. 24 to Jan 12, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and only in Zone A, which encompasses most of the WMA. Only 10 hunters are permitted on the entire area each of the 12 open days, and all hunting must cease by 3 p.m. That allows the birds rest days between hunts and gives coveys time to regroup without any hunting pressure during afternoons.

Ten hunters receive a free

daily quail hunt permit from the check station on a first-come, first-served basis. Because other special quail hunts in this part of Florida are on special-opportunity WMAs, requiring permits that were awarded months ago, Apalachee provides the best public-land prospects for hunters who have not already received a permit for the other hunts.

Check-in and check-out are required. The daily limit is 12 birds. The possession limit is 24 birds.

BLACKWATER WMA, HUTTON UNIT
The Blackwater WMA stretches across 186,500 acres in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, near the western tip of the Panhandle. Limited quail hunting is available throughout small-game seasons in fields that are scattered amid the forest throughout the area, which is also managed as the Blackwater State Forest.

By far, the best opportunities on Blackwater WMA, however, are on the Hutton Unit, which covers 5,200 acres. A relatively new addition to Blackwater, this area is being intensively managed for quail and has gotten very good reviews form hunters, according to Kirkland.

As on Apalachee WMA, the FWCC is doing a lot of cutting and burning in an effort to create the best possible quail habitat. In addition, quail hunting is allowed only by special-opportunity permits, which are selected by random drawing.

"We are trying to provide a quality hunt on that area," Kirkland said.

Quail hunting is confined to seven two-day hunts, which are spread between Nov. 9 and Dec. 29. Two group permits, each for a group of up to three hunters, are granted for each hunt. That equates to a maximum of only 14 open hunting days, with no more than six shooters working the entire unit on any of those days.

The daily limit is 12 quail per group, and all hunting must cease by 3 p.m. each afternoon. Applications for permits are available in late June and accepted for a two-week period during July, after which the drawing is held. Any permits not issued after the drawing has been conducted are issued on a first-come, first-served basis from applications subsequently received by mail.

BLACKWATER WMA, CARR UNIT
Not far from the Hutton Unit, another portion of the Blackwater WMA provides a unique opportunity for Panhandle quail hunters. On this area, which officially covers 590 acres but has about 300 huntable acres, hunters are drawn for the opportunity to bring in pen-raised quail, release them and hunt the birds for the next four days.

"The pen-raised-quail hunts have been very popular," Kirkland said. "The managers do a really good job of getting the area ready for the hunts, creating good habitat for the birds and areas to hunt. There are also some wild birds on that area.

"This gives people an option that they otherwise would only have on private land."

The FWCC permits 16 special released-quail hunts on dates between Nov. 9 and Feb. 23. A single group permit, which costs $100, is granted for each of the four-day hunts. During those days, no one other than the four hunters in that group may hunt on that area. Groups may release as many quail as they like, but the daily limit remains 12 birds per hunter and the possession limit is 24 birds.

The quail may only be released during the days of the drawn hunt or the day prior to that hunt, and they must be purchased from a licensed game farm. Cartons used to bring quail in must be tagged with the name, address and license number of the game farm from which the birds were purchased and the name of the person who transported the quail. Permit applications for these hunts become available May 1 through regional offices of the FWCC or from the FWCC Web site.

HARD LABOR CREEK PRESERVE
Walking fields and open forests at Hard Labor Creek last fall, I saw no hints of anything that fit into negative shooting preserve stereotypes. The dogs worked like artists, and the birds, though mostly pen-raised, flew unpredictably, quickly and acrobatically. Our guide had not been part of the quail release, so he did not know where the birds would be, and coveys varied dramatically in size.

Located just outside Chipley in Washington County, Hard Labor Creek Preserve encompasses roughly 6,000 acres on a couple of different tracts. While deer hunting, bass fishing and a nice lodge are part of the offerings at Hard Labor Creek, quail hunting is the main attraction and the passion of owner Ted Everett.

Hard Labor Creek is in the heart of Florida's best quail country, historically speaking, and hunting guide Bill Baxley recalls land all around it once being loaded with quail. Baxley has hunted quail in the Florida Panhandle all his life and has trained bird dogs for more than 45 years.

Ted Everett offers half-day and full-day guided quail hunts at Hard Labor Creek, and all hunts are fully inclusive, with guides, dogs, transportation around the preserve and even cleaning of birds. While Everett relies on very experienced dog trainers as quail guides and has fabulous dogs available for all hunts, he also allows hunters to bring their own dogs. An avid bird hunter himself, he knows that a huge part of the fun of quail hunting for many hunters is watching their own dogs work.

The bulk of the birds hunted at Hard Labor Creek are pen-raised and have been purchased from local farms. There are a fair number of wild birds in the mix, however, and the entire acreage of the preserve is managed as premium quail habitat.

There are also a lot of "reciprocal birds," guide Bill Baxley noted as we walked, which are birds that were missed on previous hunts and have lived on the property since. Native quail and reciprocal birds continually move among tracts of Hard Labor Creek and neighboring properties, but Everett's land offers much of the best habitat in the area.

Everett manages and runs hunts on close to 6,000 acres, about half of which he purchased from his father. He considers quail habitat and quail hunting in almost everything he does to the land, which includes cutting, burning of sections and planting of food plots.

He wants both grasses and legumes on the land to provide food for quail at various times, plus plenty of edges for the birds to hold along. He spreads some brush in the woods to provide fuel for controlled burns and piles other brush to provide cover for the birds. He uses no pesticides or other chemicals, which he believes have caused a lot of harm to quail populations.

"I think that the only way to do things is the old-fashioned way," said Everett, who went back to school to earn a forestry degree and take wildlife-management classes before returning to the family property.

His management schemes also make for a more enjoyable and authentic "old-fashioned" bird hunt. For veteran quail hunters, it undoubtedly adds to the experience to see nothing but perfect quail habitat as far as they can see in every direction. The plantation also is large enough that no s

ingle area ever gets hit terribly hard. Everett continually rotates where he sends hunting parties.

The preserve quail season runs form Oct. 1 to April 1. No hunting license is required. Hard Labor Creek's lodge, which sits beside a spring-fed, bass-filled private lake, is available for rent to hunters.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To learn more about hunting opportunities at Hard Labor Creek Plantation, give Ted Everett a call at (850) 638-4316 or log onto www.floridaquail.com.

For complete quail hunting regulations, including hunt dates, license and permit requirements, and details about special-opportunity hunts on WMAs, plus printable WMA maps, check out the FWCC Web site, at www.floridaconservation.org.



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