Go West For Sooner Quail

You can kill your fair share of birds in Eastern Oklahoma these days, but come December, there's no finer place to pursue bobwhites than at these western locations. (Dec 2006)

New York newspaperman Horace Greeley once urged those in early adulthood who sought to make their fortunes to heed this advice: "Go West, young man."

Greeley's words were written in an era during which western North America was an expanding frontier with lots of opportunities for advancement. But the noted journalist's counsel is just as appropriate today -- for Oklahoma quail hunters!

True, at least some quail will be found in all parts of the state. I just spent a weekend camped on a creekbank in far Southeastern Oklahoma. There I heard bobwhites whistling in the early-morning light in a pasture just across the creek.

But if you want to find lots of quail, Western Oklahoma -- and especially northwestern Oklahoma -- is where you want to be.

I grew up in northwestern Oklahoma, and was spoiled in my younger years by being able to grab a shotgun after school and just walk the fields at the edge of town. With or without a bird dog, I could shoot a limit of quail. Quail were so abundant then that we rarely chased singles unless we saw them land really close by. No reason to: We knew that we wouldn't have to walk far to find another covey.

I don't know of a place where you can still get that kind of easy action anymore. Nowadays, you pretty much have to have a big tract or tracts of land to hunt. And you'd better have one or more really good dogs and be able to walk several miles a day if you even plan to get close to a limit of bobwhites.

But it still happens. My 18-year-old son Hawk and his friend Jon Mann, from Arnett, bagged their limit one day last fall as they hunted over my single Brittany on lands owned by Mann's family and friends.

But I haven't killed a daily limit of quail in several years, even though I've tried. More often, my friends and I wind up with two or three birds, or, if we're lucky, five or six birds each after several hours of hunting.

Of course, it could be that my shooting skills haven't held up as well as they might have. On my last day of quail hunting last year I missed nearly everything I shot at. In my defense, the birds were flushing wild, and most of our shots were long ones. But there was a time when I would have filled my bag, even under those conditions.

But I'm straying from the subject: the best sites for hunting quail in Oklahoma these days.

Even if you haven't donned a pair of hunting boots in several years, and so don't have a lot of current first-hand knowledge, you have only to look at the annual hunting/harvest statistics compiled by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conser-vation to see where most of the birds are killed these days.

The department surveys hunters and gets information in order that statistical data can be compiled and analyzed each year. As you might guess, the process takes several months, so at this writing, the most recent statistics available are from the 2004-05 quail season. They pretty much mirror the results of the previous year's season -- and I'll bet they're not much different from last fall's results, either.

What they show is that more than three-fourths of the quail harvest takes place in the western third of the state. Nearly half of the harvest came from a single region -- northwest Oklahoma.

For management purposes, the state is divided into six harvest regions -- northeast, southeast, north-central, south-central, northwest and southwest.

In the season for which I have the latest figures, hunters bagged 1,023,086 quail statewide. Of that number, 474,518 came from the northwest region alone. And if you add the southwest region, where 288,122 quail were bagged, the total for the western third of the state was 762,640 birds -- about three-fourths of the total kill.

Let me repeat that. Nearly three-fourths of the birds were killed in the western third of the state. That should give you a pretty clear idea of where in Oklahoma to look for quail.

Bobwhite numbers have declined pretty much throughout their range. In some Southern states where hunting bobwhite quail was once a very popular sport, quail have all but disappeared from public lands as well as many private holdings. Intensely managed game farms and shooting preserves offer most of the remaining quail shooting opportunities there. Even in Texas, once perhaps the best state in the nation for quail hunting, bobwhite numbers have declined.

Obviously, the reasons for reduced harvests in the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma over the past few years aren't unique to the Sooner State.

So far, though, the sandhills, pastures and shinnery mottes of Western Oklahoma continue to produce good numbers of quail. Yes, even there the harvests aren't what they were 20 or 30 years ago -- but in comparison to most of the nation, Oklahoma's western counties may be among the best places in the nation to hunt wild bobwhites these days.

Even today it's not unusual in, say, either of the counties of Woodward and Harper to find 40- and 50-bird coveys, especially on lands whose habitat is protected and the landowners take care of their birds. Compare that to, say, Osage County, where if you see a 10-bird covey these days, you feel as if you've found the mother lode.

I don't mean to paint too dire a picture of bird hunting in central and Eastern Oklahoma. Some areas in those regions still seem to hold plenty of birds. Certain places in, for example, northeastern Oklahoma's Craig, Nowata and Rogers counties still make it possible to find several decent coveys of birds in a few hours of hunting over competent dogs. And diehards who chase quail in the young, densely overgrown clearcuts of far Southeastern Oklahoma -- kicking their way through some of the thickest cover imaginable only to hear birds obscured by the brush flush as they get near -- are still at it.

Actually, in the most recent hunting statistics report available, quail hunters in Southeastern Oklahoma bagged more quail per day than those out west. That statistic is misleading, though: Southeastern quail hunters bagged 4.16 birds per day, while northwestern hunters bagged only 4.12. But fewer than 2,000 hunters hunted the southeast, while more than 15,000 hunted the northwest. The collective bag was less than 33,000 birds in the southeast, but pushing 500,000 in the northwest.

Some southeastern hunters have taken to a form of road hunting. They slowly drive the loggin

g trails while their dogs search the clearcuts on foot. The hunters watch from the truck and if the dogs get birdy or go on point, then the hunters park the truck, grab their guns and go try to find the quail.

Since it's illegal in Oklahoma to transport loaded firearms (I know there are exceptions for those with permits for carrying concealed handguns) and illegal to hunt from a motor vehicle or to shoot from or across public rights of way, anyone employing that method of hunting must be extremely careful to avoid breaking the law.

Out in Western Oklahoma, though, plain old-fashioned walking behind a dog is still the preferred method of hunting bobwhites. And it can still produce some exciting shooting.

Hunters come from all over the country to find quail in our Western Oklahoma counties. Last fall a group of North Carolina hunters traveled here to hunt one piece of property I hunted later. We heard through the grapevine that they had fired a lot of shots but didn't seem to bag a lot of birds.

On my hunt several weeks later, I verified at least one part of that story. I found several spots on the ranch where it appeared that at least four hunters had completely emptied their guns -- four or five rounds each. At first I was puzzled, but then I learned from the landowner that at least a couple of spots where I found the ground littered with hulls were the spots where the North Carolina group flushed coveys of birds. The hunters reported that they'd seen more quail in two days in Oklahoma than in two years at home.

As with most hunting, the best and easiest opportunities are usually found on private property. But it's still possible in Oklahoma to find quail on public lands, especially out west. Several state and federally owned tracts consistently yield good results.

The Black Kettle National Grasslands and Wildlife Management Area out near the Texas Panhandle west of Cheyenne may be the best tract of public land in the country for hunting bobwhites. It's probably better known for its springtime turkey hunting opportunities, but the numerous scattered tracts of Black Kettle's public land, interspersed with pastures and privately owned crop fields, hold many coveys of quail.

Just a little way north, across the Canadian River in Ellis County, lies Packsaddle WMA, another public tract with a good quail population. The portions of Packsaddle north of Packsaddle Road get a considerable amount of hunting pressure, and so probably don't produce as many quail as they once did. But there are thousands of acres south of the paved road, between the road and the river, where few hunters ever venture, because it requires longer walks from the vehicles. That portion of the WMA is rugged in spots -- cedar-filled box canyons slicing into the high ground from the river bottom, arroyos filled with big cottonwoods, and shortgrass prairies interspersed with hundreds of groves of post oaks and mottes of shinnery oak.

Shinnery, which grows only in a small portion of Western Oklahoma, is a low-growing oak species that provides excellent habitat for deer, turkey, quail, lesser prairie chickens and other types of wildlife. Each motte is actually a single "tree" with multiple "branches" that grow like trunks above the ground. If you stand in the middle of a clump of shinnery, you're not standing amid 100 small trees, but amid the numerous branches of a single tree with a spreading root system in the soil beneath your feet.

Because shinnery grows so densely and often produces such abundant acorn crops, it provides both cover and food for many creatures. Quail can hide in it and be safe from hawks and owls.

Never pass up a shinnery motte in Western Oklahoma. Bird dogs that hunt in shinnery country soon learn to check out every shinnery motte they pass. Good dogs learn to approach the mottes from downwind.

Don't think that you have to have shinnery to have good quail numbers around, though. As I said earlier, shinnery only grows over a fairly small range in Western Oklahoma, but some of the best quail hunting is present in areas where you'll see little if any shinnery.

Other kinds of dense, protective growth -- blackberry vines, sand plum thickets, multiflora rose clumps or overgrown fencerows -- provide good cover and food for quail in those portions of western counties where no shinnery grows.

Packsaddle is one of the few WMAs in the state in which shinnery abounds. But other public tracts in western counties -- Fort Supply, the Hal & Fern Cooper WMA, Canton WMA, Hackberry Flat and Sandy Sanders WMAs and others -- have little or no shinnery but sometimes have plenty of quail around.

If you plan to hunt public lands for quail, it might be beneficial to pick up a current copy of the Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet and look at the rules for each individual WMA. Some are open the same as statewide, but some have different dates or are closed during deer gun and/or muzzleloader seasons.

Some of the federal areas or areas with waterfowl refuges on them require the use of non-toxic shot. A few years ago I found 12-gauge 1-ounce loads of steel No. 7s in a gun shop in Tulsa. Those have proved to be good loads for hunting quail and doves when non-toxic shot is required. I'd like to find No. 7 steel in 20-gauge as well, but so far I haven't found any stores that carry that load.

These days, several commercial hunting operations in northwestern counties provide quail hunting on large tracts of private land. I won't name them here, but some advertise in this magazine and some have Web sites where hunters can check out prices and arrangements. Sometimes the commercial operations can be a good value, since you'll almost always find birds on their lands. I'm not talking about released birds on small shooting preserves, but about wild birds on lands leased or managed by commercial hunting operations in northwestern counties.

Many serious bird hunters these days lease private lands or join a group of hunters in leasing lands. Quail leases can be somewhat pricey. You can lease just 40 or 80 acres in many places and have good deer hunting or even turkey hunting. But if you're a quail hunter, you're probably looking at leases involving hundreds, maybe thousands of acres of land. And since most leases are priced by the acre, securing a big quail lease can be a costly proposition.

Of course, if you're lucky enough to have friends or relatives with land out west, that's the best hunting situation of all.

However you gain access, finding hunting land in a county west of I-35 and north of I-40 can probably greatly increase your chances of getting plenty of shooting this quail season. Hunting land west of Highway 81 is even better.

If you've hunted Western Oklahoma, you probably know that you may need boots for your dog's feet. Sand burrs are thick in many spots out west and a dog can spend half the day whimpering and trying to bite stickers out from between the pads on their feet. Booting them up, or fashioning temporary boots from duct tape, can help them hunt more easily and with less p

ain. Be careful not to apply tape too tightly, though. You don't want to cut off circulation to the dog's feet.

Another potential hazard: porcupines. I've had to stop and pluck quills out of bird dogs' faces a couple of times while I was afield in northwestern counties. Take some pliers along -- just in case.

Don't despair if your hunting spots are in another region of the state. There are still some birds to be found in every management unit. I hunt northeast and north-central areas on both public and private lands each year. Although I haven't killed a daily limit in any of those areas in several years, I often find enough birds to make it an interesting day and I take home a few quail for the skillet or grill.

Just thinking about this makes me hungry for quail. I believe I'll go thaw out a package of quail and fire up the grill this evening. A delicious meal is a fine reward for time spent in pursuit of Oklahoma quail.

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