Dry-Weather Bobs

Rainfall -- or the lack of it -- can make a definite impact on Texas quail populations, but the area west of Fort Worth always seems to turn out good hunting. Here's why. (December 2006)

Even in years of sub-par rainfall you can find good shooting on lands west of Fort Worth, especially those with a few quail management practices in place. The author got this fistful of bobs from a spot at which CRP acreage abutted crop fields.
Photo by Brandon Ray.

It's an unfortunate but all-too-common situation across the western half of the Lone Star State lately: drought transforming ranchland into parched expanses containing more dust than grass.

In the Panhandle region alone, dry conditions contributed to wildfire burning a record-breaking amount of acreage in early 2006. Below-average rainfall in many of our counties has affected livestock and wildlife alike.

During years in which rain's as rare as gold, life's tough for many critters -- including quail.

QUAIL HUNTING

IN THE DRY YEARS

To understand why dry years can be so tough on quail, you first have to understand why wet years can be so good. I asked Ty Bartoskewitz, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to explain.

"What hunters perceive as good quail years usually have generous amounts of rainfall at the proper times," he said. "Too much rain at the wrong time can have negative impacts, too. Winter rains usually will set up conditions in the springtime for good forb (weed) production.

"Continued rainfall in the spring will help with cover, insect production, and nesting structure. An abundance of insects and seeds provides quail with energy and required nutrients to nest, lay eggs, incubate, and successfully raise a clutch.

"Quail chicks feed heavily on insects during the first stages of their life cycle. Rainfall provides ground moisture used for grass and forb growth. This herbaceous layer is important in food, cover, and nesting structure.

"Additionally," he continued, "cover provides an escape from predators and helps to shield against intense summer heat. Wet spring and summer months usually offer a respite from the normal 100-plus degree days.

"Why are dry years hard for quail? The main reason is a loss of the opportunity to nest. Dry years will have fewer forbs available, which reduces seed and insect abundance and overall bird fitness. Dry years do not promote grass growth, which offers cover from predators, nesting structure in the form of bunchgrasses, and the thermal cover from the hot summer days. Dry years generally decrease the number of times a hen will attempt to nest and thereby decrease overall quail numbers.

"As far as management strategies in dry years, be mindful of your grazing regime. Try to leave suitable amounts of nesting structure." (That usually means bunchgrass clumps.)

Even in dry years, ranches west of Fort Worth still have quail, although fewer than would be typical in a wet year. The region as a whole is managed well, as landowners appreciate the income from deer and quail hunters. Ranchers who know when to reduce stocking rates and to rotate cattle and who maintain properties that feature plenty of waterholes and offer supplemental feed will be the ones with quail. Done intentionally or incidentally, these things benefit quail as much as they do livestock or deer.

I asked TPWD biologist Jeff Bonner in Pampa to elaborate on quail management in drought years, and to remark on recent wildfires.

"For management in dry years, you have to keep in mind what quail need," he said. "Dry year or wet, they will always need a balanced mixture of tall grass, weeds and scattered brush. The nesting cover comes from grass that was grown the previous year and was not eaten by a cow. Proper stocking rates using a rotational grazing system is the best way to ensure nesting cover as well as encouraging proportional weed growth.

"If you want quail, never spray weeds. Those weeds provide green, leafy groceries in late winter and early spring, attract insects during spring and summer (chick food), and then provide seeds through fall and winter. Scattered brush provides hiding cover from predators and cool loafing cover during summer. That's the same quail recipe I'd recommend for a wet year.

"So what I'm saying is: Plan for dry and enjoy the bounty of wet.

"The fires were a train wreck for all ground-nesting birds," Bonner went on to note. "Prescribed fire is a very valuable and important tool in quail management -- but this was no prescribed fire. These wildfires did not burn a mosaic: They burned everything. It consumed around 750,000 acres in the Borger and I-40 fires and covered large portions of Hutchinson, Roberts, Carson, Donley and Gray counties and smaller portions of Ochiltree, Hemphill, Wheeler and Collingsworth counties.

"Along the perimeter of these fires, I would expect a great increase in quail numbers (even in current drought) because those birds will have the benefit of nesting cover and the regrowth of vegetation in burnareas. However, in the interior of those fires, they're out of luck. Each fire was about 50 to 60 miles long and around 10 to 15 miles wide -- well outside a quail's home range."

Brothers Michael and Marc Haggar, of Dallas, have been passionate quail hunters for 20-plus years. Having seen great quail years as well as sorry ones on the ranches they hunt near Abilene, they shared some thoughts on hunting during dry times.

"In dry years you have to cover more ground to find birds," Michael offered. "That's tough on hunters and dogs. Without a doubt I will hunt closer to waterholes or rivers or whatever holds water, leaking windmills, etc.

"On the ranches I've hunted over the past few years, the swing in quail numbers from wet years to dry ones has been huge. On our place last year, it was so hot and dry during quail season the dogs could not scent the birds. Combine the tough scenting conditions with the fact we had fewer quail to start with, and that makes for tough hunting.

"Last season we found two to five coveys per day. The year before, the 2004-2005 season, was one of the best we've ever had. We found 30 coveys per day on two separate hunts."

Marc Haggar agreed that it's much harder to find quail when moisture's at a premium. "When it's hot and dry the dogs just can't smell the birds. My dogs have the best success finding coveys when there is high humidity, usually early and late in the day. Moisture in the air

, such as fog or mist, can greatly improve scenting conditions.

"When the vegetation is damp after a rain, that also helps dogs to smell quail. When it's dusty, dry and hot with low humidity it's very hard for even seasoned dogs to point coveys."

WHERE AND HOW TO HUNT

You can find huntable quail even in lean years -- but it may take more effort. Consistently good hunting, even in dry years, can be found around towns like Albany and Throckmorton, Sweetwater and Colorado City. San Angelo annually offers good hunting for bobs and blues. In the Panhandle, I've encountered numerous coveys near places like Childress, Clarendon and Pampa.

Farther out west, near towns like Big Lake and Fort Stockton, you find mostly blue quail. Way out west, near El Paso, Fabens and the Rio Grande River, you'll even find a few Gambel's quail roaming the desert.

Of course, there are other good places to go, but these towns represent a few reliably productive locations at which to start any search for some quail hunting.

Sometimes I focus on edges, where two different types of

terrain or vegetation meet. Specifically, I like hunting wherever thick brush and open

pasture intersect.

When I'm trying to decide on a specific place to hunt, I follow my friend Michael Haggar's advice and spend time around water sources. Ponds, windmills and creeks are all frequented by quail. Water also fosters insect life. "Grow more insects and you'll grow more quail," I remember one of my professors telling us in an upland bird class at Texas Tech University.

I know one San Angelo rancher who keeps a close eye on his quail crop. He lets his troughs run over and create wet spots on the ground in the knowledge that those moist places will bring forth insects: more wet spots, more insects -- more quail.

Talk to ranchers and look at the landscape to see where cattle have grazed the most heavily. Sections of a ranch that haven't been grazed either because the land's too rough for cattle or because the cattle have been rotated off of it are good places to inspect. Beaten-down ground that looks like pavement and offers only limited woody cover won't favor quail.

Sometimes I focus on edges, where two different types of terrain or vegetation meet. Specifically, I like hunting wherever thick brush and open pasture intersect. Examples: dense mesquites bordering a food plot; senderos carving their way through thickets; rough canyons adjoining open grasslands. Quail have protection from predators in the cover, and can move easily into the open to feed along the edge.

Winter months are tough on quail when it comes to finding food. They'll key in on any seeds they can find from plants like ragweed or broomweed, but they also feed on small green winter forbs and weeds that sprout up. Look for quail food along these edges close to cover and you're likely to find birds nearby.

Automatic corn feeders -- whether intended for deer, turkeys or other game -- are also worth investigating. Quail eat cracked and even whole corn, but it's easier for them to digest smaller seeds. By simply mixing milo seeds with corn, you can make any deer feeder more quail-friendly.

A quick way to survey the hunting prospects of any new ground is to drive from one hotspot to another, making short walks around each location searching for quail, listening for calling birds and looking in the dirt for quail tracks. Drive to a windmill, ease out and walk loops around the surrounding brush; then, drive to a feeder and walk a widening loop; then, move to the next water source. By studying a ranch map to locate potential hotspots close to one another, you're apt to run into some quail. It's a quick way to plan a hunt without wasting dog and hunter energy in unproductive terrain.

LAST FALL'S FIRST HUNT

Too many interests laying claim on my attention -- mainly, whitetail and mule deer bucks with big racks -- kept me from hunting quail any sooner than mid-December. It was hot for a December afternoon, 70 degrees to be exact, but I had the free time and a place to go. Studying the aerial photo of the ranch, I planned to focus my energy in the pasture with the most water, and specifically that corner of the pasture in which cattle grazing was limited, leaving more grass cover for quail. I planned to hunt the last two hours of the day, when temperatures would start to cool. My hunting buddies for the excursion, a pair of 2 1/2-year-old English pointers named Sue and Jane, were just as eager as I was to get started.

As I unloaded Jane and fastened a collar around her neck, Sue whimpered like a week-old pup from inside her kennel. "Don't forget me, Dad!" she seemed to say, plainly not wanting to be left behind on this, our first quail hunt of the fall season.

Parked next to a windmill, I planned to make a wide loop across rolling rangeland past another windmill, where the dogs could cool off, and then return to the truck at dark. As I released both dogs, I paused to study the earth around the run-off puddle. Dozens of fresh pitchfork-shaped quail tracks were visible in the powdery dust.

Just 200 yards from the windmill, Sue locked up stiff as a stone statue, her nose tipped into the wind. I had my doubts as to what she'd found -- but when I shuffled closer, a half-dozen bobwhites filled the air. Two shots later, I had a cock bird in hand.

We hiked along the rim of a steep canyon towards the second windmill, where, I remembered, I'd seen both bobwhite and blue quail while I was deer hunting there. Sue was zooming 60 yards ahead of me, weaving back and forth tasting the wind, while Jane stayed close. (Jane always stays close. She'd rather stay home and sleep on her plush doggie bed in our house, but occasionally she acts enough like a real hunting dog to earn the chance to tag along.)

In a brushy draw near the second windmill, Sue went stiff as a coathanger, pointing under a cedar bush. Jane and I stalked closer, and birds buzzed out from under that bush like miniature helicopters. My 20 gauge barked twice, and two more bobwhites hit the dusty dirt.

The weight of three plump birds in my vest pocket was satisfying. Both dogs were hot, panting with their tongues hanging out, so it was time for a break.

Kneeling in the shade of a tall cedar, I sipped water from a plastic bottle and the dogs slurped water from my cupped hands. Then they chewed string cheese and venison jerky that I'd hidden in my coat pocket. For 20 minutes or longer we just sat under that tree, cooling down, enjoying the fading shadows of late afternoon and the sinking of the western sun. Sue whined and moaned the whole time, as if to say, "Let's go! Let's go! Hunt, hunt, hunt!"

Late in the day we made our final charge back toward the truck. By the time we ended it, I had six bobs in my game bag, enough for my wife and me to have a satisfying quail dinner.

If I'm afield with friends or with my dogs, in wet years or dry ones, be the quail many or few,

any time I can walk the rugged landscapes of West Texas with gun in hand is a good day. And that memorable day last December was just one of many good days I've experienced -- even in dry years.

RY-WEATHER DOG CARE

Even though Texas' quail season opens in late October, most hunters I know don't get serious until December. They wait for vegetation to die off, colder weather and improved scenting conditions for their dogs. Unfortunately, in some parts of Texas it might still be 80 degrees or more in December. For these reasons, it's important to take special precautions to keep your dogs safe in the heat.

I asked Travis Wier, owner of Mist Kennels in San Angelo, for tips on hunting quail with your dog when it's hot. Travis deals mostly with English pointers, but his advice is applicable to other dog breeds as well.

"The first thing is to keep your dogs in shape in the summer," he offered. "Don't let them sit in the kennels and get fat. Get them in condition before the season starts. This is important for their cardiovascular conditioning and to get their pads in shape to run on rough ground.

"When it's hot, I change dogs every 30 minutes, usually running one pair at a time. When I start with a fresh pair of dogs I dip each dog in a water trough or tank before I turn them loose. If tanks or ponds are hard to find where you hunt, carry lots of extra 1-gallon jugs of water in your truck. Wet the dogs down every 10 minutes, and make sure they drink often.

"After the hunt, feed your dogs in the evenings, not the morning before the hunt. Add water to their feed and let it soak into the dry dog food prior to feeding; this will help prevent dehydration. Another tip to keep dogs fresh is to put them up for lunch or the evening in the shade where it's cool. At night, return your dogs to their boxes or crates. This saves energy, since bird dogs often dig or bark at night if they are left outside."

Readers interested in buying an English pointer for quail hunting or for field trials can go to www. mistkennels.com for more info.

Another product worth trying on hot-weather quail hunts is Hydro Dog. Developed by a veterinarian, it's like Gatorade for your dog, but without the sugars found in human sports drinks. Go to for details.

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