A Banner Season For Bobs
May 04, 2010
West of Fort Worth awaits some of the best quail shooting that the Lone Star State has to offer. If past seasons mean anything and current conditions hold, this could be a season to remember! (December 2005)
Photo by Mark S. Werner
According to Robert Perez, quail program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the past couple of seasons have been the best in recent history for quail in the Lone Star State. Perez stressed the fact that banner quail hunting occurred on ranches with proactive quail management practices across the state.
And, thanks to ample and timely rains during the birds' breeding period, prospects for this season range from very good to excellent in most areas of the Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers regions.
I've hunted quail in Texas most of my life. When I was a youngster growing up in rural Red River County, quail were so plentiful that shooting a mess for a winter's supper was as simple as loading the old pump 12 gauge and easing out to the pasture behind the house. That old plum thicket was always good for a few birds, but we never overshot the home covey. My dad taught me that it was important to leave at least one-third of the covey for "seed."
Back in the fall of 1982, a few friends and I leased a section of land in northern Jack County. As luck would have it, that was the best year for quail numbers in several decades.
I'll never forget the red-hot shooting I enjoyed with Mr. Huckabee, an old-time dog trainer who lived and breathed quail hunting. Mr. Huckabee was 74 at the time and could easily outwalk most 30-year-olds -- including yours truly. He shot an old Belgian-made Browning Auto Five that he never cleaned. He did carry a can of WD-40 along on hunts and when the gun would eventually jam, I galloped back to the truck and saturated the action with oil. Then we would be right back in the field with a brace of his excellent pointers.
He would always carry a dog box with six or eight dogs and he believed in letting all of them have a workout during the course of a day's hunt. Until the past couple of years, I have never enjoyed quail shooting that came anywhere close to those glory days, when the coveys were plentiful and the shooting easy.
If the hunting this year is anywhere near what I experienced on several hunts last season, we all have reason to keep our shotguns oiled and dogs well-conditioned. My last hunt of the season was one that has served to stoke my quail hunting flame through the heat of this past summer and to remind me of those memorable hunts back in '82 on our lease in Jack County. As the phrase has it: It just don't get no better than this!
Fast forward to this past season: My buddy, R.R. "Smitty" Smith, my son Drew and I walked up behind Smitty's two fine setters, Suzie and Annie. Each dog was frozen solid on point, each staring a hole in the patch of excellent quail habitat in front of its nose.
I backed away from the action and watched my son swing on a breaking single that had nestled in tight to a patch of broomweed. We had just flushed a 15-bird covey on the edge of a small, heavily wooded creekbed and were hunting up singles that had scattered along the grassy hillside.
Smitty, the head bird guide for Quail Ridge Ranch near Glen Rose -- a preserve operation that has a very healthy population of wild birds -- is the most experienced quail hunter I know. His quail hunting history is a long and colorful one that stems back to the old days when Gentleman Bob was truly king. In those days, when someone said they were going "bird" hunting, it went without saying that they were referring to quail.
Smitty first hunted birds with his father 62 years ago in Georgia. He and his dad were possibly the first quail hunters to "go mobile," hitching up their trusty mule to a wagon with a dog box attached and traveled as far as 10 miles in one day in search of quail. I -- along with lots of other quail hunters who know him -- have learned that when Smitty talks quail hunting, the smart thing to do is to listen up.
"I've been quail hunting in Texas the past 32 years and have seen the boom and bust years," he said. "This past season was the best one I remember since the fantastic shooting back in 1982 that many of us old-timers are still talking about."
To give you an idea of just how good hunting was last year in areas with good quail habitat, Smitty and his longtime hunting buddy Larry Sherill spent a day on a lease near Gayle, northeast of Sweetwater, and the dogs pointed 14 coveys. Granted, a high percentage of the birds were blues, but this was the duo's first time on the property. Once they got the lay of the land, they returned and concentrated on areas they knew should be holding bobs; their dogs proceeded to point 23 coveys, of which 18 were bobwhites. Similar reports poured in from west of Fort Worth all the way through the Cross Timbers and Rolling Plains regions.
My longtime friend Kerry Joy, who owns the Joy Ranch in Schleicher County, says the number of quail on his ranch has more than doubled in the past two years. And welcome summer rains this year hold promise for the boom times to continue.
"I saw lots of young quail on the ranch this summer," he said. "We primarily manage for deer and turkey. We run sheep and goats on the ranch, and we've found the good grazing practices that benefit the deer and turkey also provide good habitat for quail. We had plenty of rainfall around here during late spring and early summer."
Granted, Joy's not a wildlife biologist. But he grew up on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau and has had the opportunity to watch the erratic fluctuations of quail numbers. Joy, like my friend Smitty, is a seasoned veteran of many years' observation of the cycle of quail populations. It's well known that numbers are up, and that hunting has been good.
Now, let's consult a couple of fellow Texans with sheepskins on the wall and years of experience monitoring Texas quail; from them we'll learn a bit more about why bird numbers have been so high and hunting so good recently.
It's amazing what wildlife technicians have learned about quail and ways to develop good quail habitat. Dr. Dale Rollins, a wildlife specialist for the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, likes to quote this old West Texas saying: "When it rains, we all have quail; when it doesn't rain, we don't."
According to Rollins, the June hatch makes or breaks the quail crop each year. Conditions were very good this past June in much of West Texas, and biologists were seeing lots of young birds on the ground.
"Quail went into this p
ast nesting season riding the crest of two very good years of production in West Texas," said Rollins. "We should have another very good season."
Rollins says that much is still to be learned about hens having multiple hatches during the same year, but a study in Fisher County, northwest of Sweetwater, produced some interesting facts. "Over 200 quail were equipped with radio transmitters and monitored through the spring and summer breeding season," he said. "Out of 15 hens that nested multiple times, 12 were mature hens over 1 year old."
How does that apply to our quail numbers for this fall? That's easy: With two excellent years of quail hatches behind us, it just stands to reason that plenty of mature hens capable of raising multiple hatches of birds will be out there.
TPWD's Robert Perez is equally optimistic about the current season. "It's important to remember that quail numbers were high and hunting good in areas that were proactive in quail management," he said. "Texas is on the far western edge of the bobwhite's range, and their numbers are very dependent upon moisture at the right time of the year. This is the reason for the boom-or-bust years.
"During periods like the past two years, it appears the good old days are back on ranches that are managed for quail. In truth, quail numbers statewide have been on a dramatic decline since the '70s. Ranches and leases that are well managed will always have quail. During the good years, they will have a lot of them."
With breeding seasons for quail lasting from April until early October, Perez said, quail hens often attempt several times to raise a clutch of chicks. "Just about every predator in the wild likes to eat quail eggs and the baby chicks are extremely vulnerable from everything from fire ants to birds of prey. It's very common for a hen to renest when her eggs are disturbed or when she loses here chicks to predation."
"Smitty" Smith and Larry Sherill's dogs proceeded
to point 23 coveys, of which 18 were bobwhites. Similar reports poured in from west of Fort Worth all the way through the Cross Timbers and Rolling Plains regions.
When managing for quail on ranches with livestock, Perez says, the trick is to rotate livestock to ensure the grass height never gets below 7 inches. "Quail are about 6 inches tall, and they need cover in the form of standing grass to survive," he noted. "The simple act of rotating livestock off pastureland when the grass begins to get cropped down has a very positive effect on quail survival."
In the booklet Where Have All The Quail Gone? (written by a team of learned quail experts including Perez, Rollins and several others) a chart depicts decline in the Lone Star State's quail population. The biologists say that short-term growth such as we're experiencing now is a departure from long-term downward trends in Texas' quail numbers.
Granted, ranches with good habitat have seen very good quail hunting during the past two years, but statewide, quail numbers have declined dramatically. Bobwhite numbers have decreased statewide by about 5.6 percent each year since 1980. Blue quail numbers have declined at a slower rate, about 2.9 percent per year. These numbers add up to a 75 percent lose in bobwhites and a 66 percent loss in blue quail over the past 23 years.
The Texas Quail Initiative is implementing strategies for managing habitat and restoring quail populations in Texas. The plan calls for Texans to pull together as hunters, landowners, conservation groups, agencies and researchers to identify, modify and adopt practices and mindsets that will preserve Texas' quail legacy for future generations.
Why have quail numbers dropped so dramatically the past few decades? Ask almost any hunter, and the cause first cited will probably be fire ants. Studies by the biologists, on the other hand, point to something else as the primary factor. "Although culprits such as road runners, raccoons, cattle egrets, skunks, hawks, weather and especially fire ants are often blamed for the demise of quail," the booklet states, "the fundamental reason for declining quail numbers is loss of habitat."
It continues: "While predation can certainly influence quail populations, impacts of predation increase as areas of habitat get smaller and are separated by longer distances. Local populations of quail on these islands of habitat are too few in number and too far from other quail to withstand catastrophic events such as floods, snow and ice, drought, etc. Therefore, isolated populations of quail have a greater possibility of becoming locally extinct."
Regardless of whether you're fortunate enough to own good quail hunting land, lease land for hunting, or hunt with an outfitter, this season promises to be a good one. Be sure you and your dogs take the time to enjoy it!
Like all wildlife, quail are a renewable resource. There's nothing wrong with reaping the bounty while we have it. As many hunters in this region know, conditions can change. Let's make the most of the good times while we can!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Three wildlife management areas in Texas come highly recommended by Robert Perez for their quail hunting. Keep in mind that for the nominal fee of $48 per year, hunters have access to thousands of acres of public quail hunting. That's cheap hunting in anybody's book!
Perez says that the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area, located near Canadian in the Texas Panhandle, is a top destination for quail hunters. "We have groups of hunters that hunt here year after year," he said. "They are do-it-yourself type of guys and gals that bring their own dogs and, especially during the past couple of years, have enjoyed excellent success."
Another good spot for quail, especially early in the season before the birds get really wild, is Matador WMA near Matador. This huge area of public hunting encompasses more than 25,000 acres. While much of the land here is covered in shin oak and mesquite, there's plenty of more-open country, and this is where the quail hunting is best.
Chaparral WMA, in South Texas near Cotulla, is another of Perez's favorite public hunting hotspots. He did caution that hunters there should have their dogs snake-proofed and that they should wear leggings. There should be a bumper crop of quail at "the Chap" this year, but this is the South Texas Brush Country where dealing with rattlers is a way of life.
For more information on hunting any of these wildlife management areas, go online to
www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wma, or call the TPWD office at 1-800-792-1112.
For guided quail hunts on private ranches, contact Ranger Creek Ranch near Seymour at (940) 888-2478, Quail Ridge Ranch near Glen Rose at (254) 897-3618; or the call the W.B. Ranch near Whitney at 1-800-WBRANCH.