A Quail Hunter's Paradise

A Quail Hunter's Paradise

That's just how some shotgunners regard the South Texas Plains -- and with good reason. We review the great quail action to be found across the region. (January 2006)

Photo by Steve Lamascus

Crashing along one on each side of me with shotguns held at high port, M.D. and Bo Beale charged through the blackbrush, huajilla, and cenizo like a pair of canvas-clad bulldozers. Ahead of us Sweetie, my yellow Lab, and Sergeant Rock, M.D.'s yellow Lab, slipped more quietly and easily through the brush underneath the thorns, their noses enthusiastically sucking up the molecules of quail scent that the huge covey had left in its passing.

We knew we were close, as the dogs' search had turned almost frantic. We had seen the covey from the truck earlier as we drove along a ranch road. Unfortunately, by the time we dismounted, loaded the guns, and released the dogs, these blue quail, running like the little track stars they are, had disappeared into the quagmire of vegetation and thorns that gives the South Texas Brush Country its name.

So we were trying to catch up -- not an easy task when you're being held back by brush thick enough to stall an Abrams tank -- and, we knew, we were gaining. The real trick was to stay close enough to the two Labrador retrievers to get some shooting when they finally ran the birds down.

A hard 200 yards later, the first of a blue took to the air with the indescribable stuttering roar of air against its wings. Its takeoff triggered an exodus in staggered volleys by the rest of the covey. Suddenly the air was full of whirring wings and banging shotguns.

I picked a single going straight away and dumped him with my first shot. Then another roared away at an angle to my left and I missed him with the second barrel of my Ithaca side-by-side 12 gauge. Thumbing the release lever, I broke open the shotgun and let the ejectors kick out the empties. Then, without looking, I stuffed two more dark green shells full of No. 8 shot into the chambers and snapped the gun closed. In an instant I was again loaded and ready for the stragglers that usually waited for their more nervous brethren to draw fire.

I'd taken a couple of steps when a second group of quail roared from the sage at full throttle. This time I managed to miss a hard left with both barrels when a small Texas persimmon tree jumped in front of my gun. Then it was quiet again, and the dogs were bringing in the quail we'd knocked down.

Sweetie brought my one quail to me, dropped it in my hand and then headed back into the brush; in a moment she was back with one of Bo's quail. In the meantime, Rock had found M.D.'s single. We had knocked down four quail with nine shots and found all of them.

Now, for those of you who are accustomed to hunting semi-tame birds with pointers trained in table manners by Emily Post, this probably sounds like a pretty poor exhibition of shooting skills. But let me tell you this: In the heavy brush that covers much of South Texas, especially along the Mexican border, four for nine is pretty good shooting -- and finding all four downed quail is even better!

I used to brag that I seldom missed a quail, and back when I hunted wide-open grasslands and semi-open woods, that was a true statement. With a .410, I've taken a full limit of pen-raised quail over pointers on a preserve -- and without missing a shot (a quail is really a pretty easy target under those conditions). But then I started hunting the Brush Country. I promptly found out that there's quail hunting -- and then there's quail hunting!

A quail dodging around and through thorn bushes higher than your head and thicker than you can imagine, moving as fast as a frightened bobwhite or scaled quail can move, bears very little resemblance to a quail flushed from under the nose of a pointer in a grassy field. Add to that situation the inconvenience of having to fight the brush clutching at the sleeves of your shirt or jacket as you try to raise your shotgun and swing with the quail, and you have a situation that is, in my book, the greatest quail hunting scenario imaginable.

This isn't just shooting, folks -- this is hunting!

The South Texas Brush Country is generally considered to be the area south of a line from Del Rio to San Antonio to Victoria. Quail populations contain both scaled quail and bobwhites. Most scaled quail live in the rougher, drier western half of the area, primarily in the Rio Grande Plain from Laredo to Del Rio. The closer to the coast a hunter gets, the higher the percentage of bobwhites he will encounter.

A true hardcore bobwhite-pointing-dog man should probably concentrate his efforts in the Coastal Prairie region on the east side of Highway 281. The best time to hunt this region is during the winter months from about the first of December to the first of February.

When I was a kid growing up on the plains of Knox County, the real dyed-in-the-wool quail hunter was the guy who hunted quail with a high-grade side-by-side 16 gauge, maybe a Parker, an Ithaca, or even an top English grade like a Purdy, and who trekked to the Deep South each fall to shoot birds in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. I grew up on stories of such hunts by Gene Hill and Havilah Babcock, in such wonderful titles as Tales of Quails and Such and My Health Is Better in November.

This was the dream for most of us: We wanted to shoot birds on the great plantations over pure-bred pointers that we followed around in a mule-drawn wagon. This was and is still the epitome of genteel Southern quail hunting, but sadly, it's a type of hunting -- for wild birds, anyway -- that seems to be a thing of the past.

The quail population in the Old South has plummeted to the point that the shooting preserves are all using pen-raised quail for their hunts. And as anybody who has shot such "quarry" knows, a pen-raised quail bears about as much resemblance to a wild bird as a Piper Cub does to an F-16. I've actually caught a pen-raised, planted quail in my hand as it flushed. Many times they won't even fly far enough to get out of shotgun range before they give out and land. Then, when flushing them the second time, you almost have to help them get airborne. More than once I've nudged a pen-raised quail with the toe of my boot to make it fly. That isn't really hunting; it's just shooting. Sometimes it's fun, but it's not very challenging.

Texas is, arguably, the best of the remaining quail-hunting states. South Texas, in particular, has some astoundingly good hunting, and that region has the added benefit of holding a mixture of bobwhites and scaled quail. You never know what the next covey will reveal.

Kathy Bader and Connie Hall are two of my best friends, as are

their husbands. They are, also, two of the most avid quail hunters I know. They both raise their own bird dogs, and both are deadly wingshots. Last season, we hunted a South Texas ranch leased by David Mann's Horns and Thorns Outfitting that was prime quail habitat. This time Connie and Kathy were kind enough to allow their husbands, Jimmy Bader and Chuck Hall, to come along. Connie was working a little English pointer; Kathy was working her Brittany spaniel. I had Sweetie along just to clean up after the pointers, and to help retrieve the dead birds.

We found the first covey in a triangle of brush that was bounded on three sides by ranch roads. I knew there were at least four coveys of quail that called that couple of hundred acres home. We put the dogs out near a deer feeder at the east end of the tract and within three minutes were into our first covey. They were blues and didn't hold for the pointers, but flushed wild. For a few seconds everything was noise and chaos; then, suddenly, came the crushing silence of the aftermath of gunfire.

"Over here," yelled Jimmy! "I've got two down -- somebody bring a dog!" I headed his way with Sweetie, who was very upset with me because I wouldn't let her loose to run with the pointers.

In another direction Connie was coaxing her dog to "hunt dead," while Kathy was trying to call back her dog that had disappeared after the remainder of the covey. The first covey of the day, especially with a young dog, and particularly with a high-strung pointer, is usually a test of patience for the handler.

Kathy quickly rounded up her dog and took him to the place she had marked with her hat, and shortly she had a plump blue quail in her bag. Connie found her single, and Sweetie found and retrieved one member of Jimmy's double while Jimmy picked up the other, which had miraculously fallen in a small clearing. Chuck had been caught out of the action, but he didn't care; he was enjoying the day.

We gathered everybody up and again headed for the far end of the little triangle of brush. This time we made it about another 100 yards before one of the pointers locked up like a marble statue.

"Are there any bobs in here?" asked Kathy, who was well aware that scaled quail seldom hold well for a dog.

"Yes," I replied. "There's at least one good-sized covey."

Kathy walked in on the point with Connie on her left and Jimmy on her right. Once more that soul-cleansing sound of whirring wings and banging shotguns drifted away on the breeze. Even Chuck, who was inclined to let the ladies do most of the shooting, managed to pick up a single this time. One sneaky little bobwhite tried an end-around on Jimmy and flew right past Chuck on the flank.

We put up three of the coveys in my little triangle. The fourth had probably wandered off to try the cuisine on the other side of the pasture. We'd been hunting about 30 minutes.

The rest of the day was spent driving ranch roads and checking areas in which I knew that large coveys lurked. We had a poor day, comparatively speaking, in that we put up only 18 coveys of wild birds. The weather hadn't cooperated, being cold and damp most of the day, and the birds didn't move as well as they usually did. Still, I know very few places where a hunter can consider an 18-covey day less than outstanding.

But back to Bo and M.D. This hunt was in January -- my favorite month for hunting quail, since most of the deer hunters are finished for the season -- and the weather was letter perfect. The weather in South Texas in the winter is usually bright and sunny, with the temperatures in the 60s and 70s. It gets cold in the mornings, but by 10 a hunter will usually be discarding his coat and rolling up the sleeves on his flannel shirt. If a cold front happens to roll through, it'll usually be cold for a day or two and then return to the glorious norm until the next 'norther blows in, maybe a week or so later.

In the hunt with the Beale brothers, we put up well over 30 coveys in a day and a half of hunting. It was seldom that we went more than a few minutes without flushing a new covey. It was remarkable hunting -- so good, in fact, that we seldom hunted the singles as we'd do it in other places; instead, we'd flush the covey, maybe make one pass at the singles, and then go find another covey.

South Texas is a marvelous place to hunt quail for more reasons than just the incredibly benign weather. Many of the ranchers in this part of the world have come to realize that wildlife management can be a major factor in the bottom line for their annual income. In the past much of the range got overgrazed. The rancher wanted to make as much off his livestock as he could, but the wildlife habitat suffered for it.

Nowadays, the ranchers recognize that the wildlife will pay for itself if given half a chance, and land management has become a more widely understood science. Therefore, the land and the game are better protected, the ground cover so necessary for the quail is not destroyed by overgrazing, and, consequently, the quail population is in good shape.

The fact is that, in some areas, quail leases are beginning to bring almost as much money as deer leases. The ranch we were hunting on -- only one of many -- offers a good example of what type of cover and habitat is required to produce high numbers of quail. In most places the grass is thick enough to give the quail plenty of cover and nesting places, and the weeds and other plants that the quail depend on for food, particularly broomweed, are plentiful. The livestock is kept to levels that will not damage the habitat, and water sources are built and maintained.

One well-kept secret is that Texas has over 1 million acres of public hunting lands. I've hunted quail on some of these places and the hunting is often very good. Chaparral Wildlife Management Area, near Artesia Wells, is 15,000 acres of Grade A quail habitat; we had a wonderful hunt there a few years ago. You can get more information about the public hunting opportunities in Texas by going online to

www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hunt.

Obviously not all of South Texas is tall brush covered with needle-sharp thorns. The Brush Country is a brushy plain or savannah and there are many areas of grassy oases interspersed with the brush. These edge areas are another reason for the good quail hunting. The birds are able to hide from their enemies in the heavy brush, yet come out into the more open areas to feed.

Once you get to know the country you will recognize the difference in the type of cover preferred by bobwhites and scaled quail. The blues generally prefer rougher and more sparsely vegetated country than the more civilized bobwhites do -- but don't bet the farm on it! The bobwhites seem to be learning from the blues and vice versa.

At times I've taken both bobs and blues from the same covey, and the bobwhites have learned to run like little thieves to hide in the wicked thorns right along with the blues. It makes for an incredible experience and a challenging hunt.

A good dog that will retrieve is indispensable when hunting this kind of cover. It isn't difficult to find the birds without dogs; neither is it difficult to flush them and get some good shooting. The problem lies in finding the quail once they hit the ground, and without dogs, a loss rate of 50 percent is common. The cover is so thick that a person can't get into the places that the quail decide to land on, or fall, run, or crawl into. I wouldn't hunt here without a good dog.

Also, there isn't a huge advantage in using the pointing breeds over the flushing breeds -- both will suffice. I once did all my hunting with Brittany spaniels and loved every second of it. Now I hunt with a Lab, and I think I find a higher percentage of downed birds with the retriever than I did with the pointers. The reason is that the retriever will spend more time looking for the downed birds than the pointers will. A dog of the pointing breed's instinct is to go find more birds to point. The retriever's instinct is to find the dead bird and bring it to his hunting buddy.

The look and character of the modern quail hunter has changed, as has that of the modern quail. The gentleman shooter, all tweeds, Southern drawl, refined manners and mint juleps, has given way to a new breed whose style isn't quite so polished -- more roguish scoundrel than model of chivalry, speaking with a Texas drawl or, maybe, a hint of a Spanish accent and preferring margaritas to mint juleps. But take it from me: The hunting here is every bit as good as it ever was in Old Dixie -- and a lot spicier!

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

To contact David Mann's Horns and Thorns Outfitting, call (830) 563-9161.

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