Northwest Is Best!

Northwest Is Best!

In good years and bad, the northwest quarter of the Sooner State turns out quail hunting that wingshooters in other states would die for!

By Bob Bledsoe

Statistics don't lie. But they can sure distort the truth.

Recently, I was looking over the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's roundup of small-game hunting statistics, in which harvest data and other pertinent information are cataloged by region - northwest, north-central and so on.

By looking at some of the figures on quail hunting for 2001, the most recent year for which the statistics have been released, one might get the impression that the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma are the best place in the state in which to hunt quail.

According to those figures, hunters there each bagged 15.4 quail for the season - higher than the 12 each bagged by hunters in the northwest or the 11.62 each bagged by hunters in the southwest.

But if you look a little closer, you'll see that less than a fourth as many hunters actually hunted quail in the southeast compared to the northwest, and less than a sixth as many hunted in the north-central region.

You've got to put those numbers into perspective.

Each year in the controlled hunts staged by the Wildlife Department, a single bull elk permit is awarded, by drawing, for one lucky hunter to take an elk from the resident herd at the Cookson Hills Wildlife Management Area, southeast of Tahlequah. And each year, the hunter fills his tag. The success rate is 100 percent. That makes it sound like the Cookson Hills are one of the nation's best places in which to hunt elk.

A shotgunner tumbles a single that tried to sneak out the back door. Quail hunting isn't as good in Oklahoma as it was just a few short years ago, but it still is better than a lot of hunters have in other states. Photo by Bob Bledsoe

That's not true, of course. The only elk in the Cookson Hills are in that one small herd that's kept on the wildlife management area, a carefully guarded remnant of the elk restoration project back in the 1960s or thereabouts.

If you opened the region up to general elk hunting, the success rate would be measured somewhere far to the right of a decimal point. The 100 percent success rate could be wildly misleading, unless you put it into perspective.

And the same thing applies to some of the other hunting statistics gathered and released by the state Wildlife Department each year. It's not that they're wrong. It's just that they can be misleading.

If you dumped all of the hunters who hunt quail in northwest Oklahoma or north-central Oklahoma into Southeastern Oklahoma for one season, the success rate there would plummet. The bird numbers just aren't there to support that much hunting in much of Southeastern Oklahoma. What those harvest figures reflect, it appears, is that a smaller group of hunters who have access to the best private lands in the southeast do pretty well in terms of quail harvests.

That doesn't mean the southeast offers the best quail hunting. In fact, it's probably just the opposite.

I have hunted quail in more than half of Oklahoma's 77 counties, including counties in all of the ODWC's statistical regions. It has been my experience that northwest Oklahoma is, by far, the best area for quail hunting. The north-central area can be good, and so can parts of the southwestern region. But in both of those regions, the closer you get to the northwest, the better the quail hunting seems to get.

Why is the northwest best? Well, I don't know for sure. And based on what I've read and heard in discussions with ODWC biologists, I'm not sure anyone else knows exactly why.

The type of vegetation that grows in northwestern counties is a big part of it, I believe. The shinnery and sand hill habitats and the shortgrass prairies all seem to support bobwhite quail effectively. I think the farming and ranching practices there play a role as well. The wheat and sorghum and other grain crops grown in the northwest supplement the quail's natural food sources. The crops also provide cover on large tracts of land for several months each year.

Quail need food, cover and water to survive.

Water is rarely a problem in Oklahoma in all but the driest years. Some quail get most of their water from dew-dampened plants when they feed in the mornings. But quail can also be seen drinking from ponds, streams and puddles.

Quail are primarily seed eaters. They may pull a few green shoots of vegetation such as sprouting winter wheat, and they may sometimes eat leaves and stems of growing plants. I've found greenery in the crops of a number of quail as I cleaned my birds, especially in the ones killed in December and January around winter-wheat-growing areas. They may also eat the occasional insect, worm or caterpillar.

But seeds are what quail depend on. Wild legumes - various kinds of peas and beans - are staples in their diet. Ragweed seeds may be one of their most important foods. Seeds of sunflowers, croton (or doveweed) and other forbs are also eaten readily.

The beans from locust tree pods are an important winter food out west. Acorns also make up part of a quail's diet in many areas in the fall and winter. Some hunters are surprised to learn that a bird as small as a quail can eat acorns or get at the seeds. But post oak, shinnery and even blackjack oak acorns are eaten by quail. I don't know if that's true everywhere. In Eastern states, where white oaks and their family members mostly produce much larger acorns, I don't know if quail eat them or not. But in much of northern and Western Oklahoma, I know they eat the smaller acorns found on the naturally occurring oaks.

Acorns, of course, are only a seasonal food source and probably don't make up a very large percentage of a quail's annual diet. The smaller seeds from grasses and forbs are a much larger item on the menu.

A hunter only has to walk through any stretch of pasture or grassland in northwestern Oklahoma to see that seeds are diverse and abundant. A variety of seeds can be found in pants cuffs, clinging to trousers and boots and laces, and tucked in the crevices of boots or shoes.

Cover is also abundant in northwestern Oklahoma. Cover for a bird the size of a bobwhite quail doesn't have to be massive. Even the short grasses that cover much of the ground in the northwest are sufficient to shield quail as they move about from place to place, single-filing between clumps of sage or tumbleweed.

When nesting, quail like the little pockets of cover on top of clumps of bunch grasses like bluestem. Those grasses often grow with a small opening, surrounded by grass stalks, and quail frequently place their nests in those openings.

When loafing during the day, quail like dense overhead cover, like that provided by clumps of shinnery or sumac or sand plum trees, to shield them from the eyes of hawks and other avian predators.

And when roosting, the birds like still another type of cover - cover that hides them from the eyes of predators strolling nearby, and maybe a little from owls or other predators overhead, but with enough openings in the canopy and surroundings to allow for a quick escape by flight if necessary.

If you drive out to Dewey, Harper or Woodward County, or one of several other northwestern counties, you'll see quite a few areas that provide nearly all of the needs just described - areas with abundant seed-producing vegetation and with various kinds of cover.

But just as important as the cover is the open ground. That, I believe, is one of the keys to why Western and northwestern Oklahoma make good quail country.

Quail can fly of course, but they normally cover more ground on foot than in the air. Flight is mostly an escape tool for these ground-dwelling birds.

And for quail, which have legs that are only about 2 inches long, every little twig or pile of matted vegetation on the trail is a significant obstacle. So areas that have some bare ground, or mostly bare ground, intermixed with the cover seem to be more attractive to quail than do areas covered solidly with dense vegetation.

When I moved from Western to Eastern Oklahoma back in the 1970s, I wondered year after year why the quail populations seemed so much smaller in the eastern counties. At our latitude, bobwhite quail can be found all the way eastward to the Atlantic coast, so I knew that I hadn't moved out of the quail's natural range. Heck, the quail's Latin name, Colinus virginianus, even gives you a good hint where the birds were first cataloged and described when Europeans came to the new world.

The most obvious difference I could see between northeastern and northwestern Oklahoma quail habitats was that most northwestern areas included some bare, sandy soils interspersed with the vegetation.

Over in eastern counties, even in areas with thin, rocky soils, vegetation quickly covers everything that isn't solid rock or hasn't been poisoned by oilfield detritus. About the only areas where quail can walk easily are on the deer trails worn through the woods, or in the Bermuda grass pastures that are kept cropped by cattle, or in fields where crops have been harvested.

I think the open areas are as important as the cover as a vital element in bobwhite quail habitat.

Quail in our northwestern counties tend to move with the seasons. In the spring and summer, they spend more time in the upland fields and pastures. But when the temperatures start to fall and the cold fronts start moving in to signal the coming winter, quail in this area tend to move toward the woods and to brushy bottomlands. One exception seems to be out in the shinnery oak areas, where quail use the shinnery mottes year 'round. In spring and summer, they use the little oak thickets as cover. In fall and winter, they use them both for food and cover.

But enough about quail habitat requirements. Let's talk quail hunting.

I've been bragging on northwestern Oklahoma, but I won't pretend that quail hunting in the area is in its prime right now. Bird numbers are still down in every region of the state. The northwest is no exception. No matter whether you go by the roadside quail counts, reports from hunters in the field, conversations with landowners and land managers, or any other method of assessing quail populations, you'll probably find that quail numbers are quite a bit lower than they were four or five years ago.

Even with the declines, hunting in several northwestern counties is still far better than it is almost anywhere else in the nation. The coveys are still bigger and more numerous than in virtually any other area that I know of, unless you count artificial coveys of pen-raised birds on some commercial shooting areas.

Quail hunting guide and outfitter Milton Rose, who runs Northwest Hunts out of Woodward, says he expects a good year this fall. Rose holds the hunting rights on thousands of acres in Woodward, Harper, Ellis and Woods counties and has been guiding quail hunters for a couple of decades or more.

He said that last year he had what he described as a "good, solid year" and averaged moving 12 coveys a day for his hunting parties. When I talked with Rose early last summer, he said quail were on their first nests of the season and the conditions were good for a favorable hatch.

He expressed concern about some of the food sources. One late hard freeze last spring, he said, froze the buds on a variety of fruiting trees, and so may have limited mast foods for deer, turkeys and quail in parts of the northwest. The buds on black locust trees also were nipped by the late frost, he said.

"That concerns me, because those locust beans are probably one of the most important winter foods for quail around here," Rose said. "I've seen quail gathered under a locust tree on a bed of snow or ice, with a couple of birds knocking down the pods and other birds picking out the seeds.

"I plant a lot of locust trees on my hunting areas," Rose said.

Rose said his area escaped the ravages of an ice storm that hit parts of northwestern Oklahoma a couple of years ago. That storm killed quail in many places because the birds could not access food under an armor-like coat of ice.

He said that in his areas, there were plenty of brood-stock birds left at the end of the season last winter. "I know that a lot of coveys still had 15 or more birds in them when the season ended. So there should have been plenty of birds to pair up and nest this year," Rose said.

"I'm not going to tell you it's as good as it was back in the 1980s, but there are still plenty of birds."

Rose added that he has noticed, in his many years of guiding quail hunters, that the quail seem to be getting harder to find without the aid of good dogs. "The birds are still there, but you have to hunt harder," he said. If you don't have dogs with decent noses, or dogs that know how to search the cover, you can pass by many coveys without ever knowing they're there.

It's getting harder and harder to get access to good quail-hunting spots in Oklahoma. That seems especially true in the northwest. Many of the places I once hunted while growing up in Enid, and while going to college at Alva, are now under lease to quail and deer hunters.

There are several guide/outfitt

er businesses operating throughout the northwest counties these days, too. Most of those charge fees of about $200 or $250 per gun per day.

But there are a few public tracts that offer the best public-land quail hunting in the state. Packsaddle WMA, I believe, is open to controlled hunts early in the season, then opens to the general public later. Black Kettle National Grasslands, Canton and Fort Supply WMAs, the Cooper WMA (near Fort Supply), and the Ellis County WMA (southwest of Arnett) are all places that are worth checking. I've enjoyed some really good hunts on public lands in the northwest in years past.

As Milton Rose said earlier, quail hunting these days isn't as good as it used to be. Not anywhere in Oklahoma that I know of, anyway. But even if quail hunting in the northwest declined by half, it would still be twice as good as the quail hunting in many other parts of our state. Or at least that's been my experience!

There are no guarantees, no matter where you hunt for bobwhites these days. But I still believe northwest is best.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To contact Milton Rose's Northwest Hunts in Woodward, call (580) 256-8076.

For more information on quail season dates, bag limits and hunting at northwest Oklahoma's WMAs, write to: Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, 1801 North Lincoln, Oklahoma City, OK 73105 or call (405) 521-6450 or (405) 521-2730. You can search the ODWC Web site, at www.wildlifedepartment.com.



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