A Bounty of Bobs

A Bounty of Bobs

The Cross Timbers and Rolling Plains areas west of Fort Worth have seen solid quail production in the past couple of seasons — and in this one, too! Exciting action awaits you at these prime locations.

By Lee Leschper

The dawn air was clear and crisp as we hunted across the ridges bordering a deep canyon in the sandy red hills, now painted golden in new sunlight.

Ahead of us, Ken Mayer's shorthair Ruby began stalking, head low toward an unseen source of sweet smell flowing over the golden grass on the frigid breeze.

"She's getting birdy," Ken Mayer cautioned us.

The seasoned pointer seemed to lose the scent and started to circle back to find it again. I circled downwind to the left as Jim Niemiec and my son Will eased to the right.

Suddenly the brilliant blue sky was alive with whirring, dodging bobwhites! I shot too fast, missing the closest rooster clean but folding two hens on the next two shots. Behind me, 20 gauges barked, and I saw other quail fall. Quail continued to pour out of the sagebrush in an endless stream.

"Shoot! Shoot!" Ken Mayer hollered.

"Out of bullets!" I responded, laughed, as I tried to shove more No. 8 hulls into my old Winchester.

Jim, who's been one of my favorite quail-hunting buddies for a decade, hollered our customary jibe: "I got a double! Did you shoot?"

Thus began another day in Quail Heaven: Donley County, on the western edge of some of the best wild bobwhite quail terrain remaining in the United States. This choice territory begins west of Fort Worth and stretches to the tip-top of the Texas Panhandle, spanning two of Texas' most intriguing geographic regions - the Rolling Plains and the Cross Timbers.

The author (l.) and hunting buddy Jim Niemiec teamed up to take these Donley County bobs last fall. Having the help of a good dog like the author's Sadie tends to be extremely useful for finding and retrieving birds in this open territory. Photo courtesy of Lee Leschper

The Rolling Plains cover the eastern half of the Panhandle and stretch south to Brownwood and east to Wichita Falls. The region holds, among other things, some of the highest populations of wild bobwhite quail left in the country. Find appropriate habitat anywhere within 100 miles east of a line stretching south from Amarillo through Lubbock to Big Spring, and you'll likely find quail - and great hunting!

The Cross Timbers, stretching east from Brownwood to the city limits of Fort Worth and north to the Red River, will offer satisfying quail hunting practically anywhere that ranches haven't been cut into tiny segments and grazed and overgrazed into quail oblivion. A huge swath of country, taking a half-day to drive across end to end, it remains the source of the best wild quail hunting accessible to hunters in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and North-Central Texas.

December is prime time to hunt the region, as cool weather improves the scenting conditions for pointers. The cooler weather also sends any remaining rattlesnakes to ground, making hunting safer for both dogs and hunters. The birds gather into larger coveys, concentrating on remaining forage, and for mutual protection from predators and cold weather.

Steve DeMaso, quail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, unabashedly opines that the southern segment of the Rolling Plains is the best wild quail territory in the state.

"South Texas can be good in a good wet year, but it can also be bad in a drought," he acknowledged. "Year in and year out, if I was buying property to hunt quail, this is where I'd be buying.

"Largely, it doesn't have as many human intrusions. It's one of the less-populated areas when you look at the U.S. as a whole. There's still a fair amount of native vegetation and native prairie, other than some overgrazing by cattle in dry years.

"There's also still a fair amount of burning. Down into the Cross Timbers, lots of those areas could use some fire and destocking to open up that oak canopy. Once those trees close up the canopy, you lose ground and nesting cover."

Texas and Oklahoma vie for top honors among bobwhite states, with the Okies claiming 1.2 million bobs harvested a year. But DeMaso, who used to run the Oklahoma quail program, is skeptical. "I'm not sure I put much stock in the numbers coming out of Oklahoma," he said. "Texas is two or three times the size of Oklahoma, and we have a longer season by 30 days. But regardless, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are the three top wild quail states."

TPWD regional biologist Danny Swepston, who supervises 43 Texas counties including most of the Rolling Plains and the prime bobwhite habitat there, reports that quail are now turning into a major economic force in this region. "Particularly in the southeast counties, people are coming in and buying up property just for quail hunting," he observed.

A study of the economic impact of quail hunting that was conducted several years ago found that many Texas quail hunters spend $10,000 or more per year on their sport.

For a variety of reasons, including the larger sizes of the ranches there and the predominance of native grasses, the Rolling Plains are regarded as the best quail habitat in Texas. "This is the last bastion statewide for wild bobwhites," Swepston said.

The Cross Timbers, closer to the D/FW Metroplex, faces the same challenge confronting most of Texas, albeit at an accelerated rate of fragmentation, said Mineral Wells biologist Jim Dillard. "Fragmentation is definitely a factor as the larger tracts are divided and subdivided," he noted. "There are a lot more little islands of habitat.

"That's especially true in the tier of counties west of Fort Worth. As you get out to Palo Pinto and Stephens counties, it's not as big an issue. There's still lots of ranchland."

Thus, landowners who take care of that land by not overgrazing it and by retaining cover for wildlife (including quail) should have solidly huntable numbers of bobwhites this fall.

Also, when cattlemen discouraged by the depressed cattle prices seen for several years in the early part of this decade sold off their herds, thus reducing the amount of grazing was reduced, which had the effect of producing more cover for quail and wildlife in general.

There'll be a lot of quail to find in the canyons, hills and grasslands of North-Central Texas this year. Indeed, th

e TPWD's DeMaso asserts that this could be the best season we've seen in a decade. Clear indications suggest that 2004-05 should be a quail-hunting season to remember.

"It looks like this should be a pretty good year for both this part of the state and South Texas," DeMaso said. "We had really good carryover and a mild winter. The breeding stock (going into 2004) was probably the highest it's been in a while. You've got to have that initial broodstock to get things going. That, weather and habitat conditions are the three ingredients you have to have for a good nesting season.

"We've had good rainfall, and in Austin, only one day hit 100 degrees through mid-July. That's unheard of. And we've had a cool, wet spring that's good for turkeys, quail and pheasants." And that moisture also helps the birds deal with the heat.

According to DeMaso, quail need three years of average or above-average precipitation to produce large hatches. "And this would be our third year," he said.

By nature quick to respond - both positively and negatively - to changes in weather and range conditions, quail kick into reproductive high gear whenever Mother Nature gives them a break. "Quail pretty much exemplify boom-and-bust species," DeMaso said.

Both the Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers are looking very good for quail hunters this fall, and Danny Swepston believes that 2004 should be as good as it gets through the Rolling Plains. "I feel real good about it," he said. "I think we probably are in good shape. Only the extreme northwest counties didn't get quite as much rain."

Referring to last spring's nesting season, he added, "Even with a warm summer, we got off to a good start. We heard a lot of birds calling."

Rainfall throughout the spring and early summer set the stage both by providing lots of ground cover for nesting and hiding and by fostering a bumper crop of insects that provided forage and nutrients for young quail.

Can adequate cover aid young quail to survive even summer hot spells? "I think so," Swepston said, "particularly if they have plenty of cover and can shade up. We've got an abundance of insects, so they get lots of protein and moisture (from bugs). And while everybody debates the importance of ground water (for quail), if they have access to ground water, they do all right.

"The year before last was pretty good - like always, spotty in some areas. And last year we had good reports, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I think we're headed toward a good year."

Besides providing superb quail hunting, this region also encompasses some of the richest country in Texas for mixed-bag hunts. In December the peanut fields, lakes and playas of the Rolling Plains and Cross Timbers will hold hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese, and savvy hunters often combine quail and waterfowl hunts. In December, pheasants and sandhill cranes can be added to the bag in the Panhandle.

While bobwhites are quail hunters' chief focus, blue or scaled quail - those dusky foot-racers of West Texas - also seem to have had an up season. "The staff on the south end of the district, Borden and Gail counties, was seeing lots of young blues," noted Swepston. "Blues are very cyclical; the bottom may fall out of them next year. They are very eruptive. One year you'll have them under every bush, and the next year you'll think they are extinct. That's just blues. Nobody's ever figured out why."

There may be several limiting factors, not the least of which would be changing habitat. "The biggest thing I think on the Rolling Plains impacting blues is the change in habitat there," Swepston said. "We used to have them throughout the Rolling Plains, but then we didn't have the deer densities, either. We're getting more and more brush."

Aided by an increase in brushy habitat, deer densities are up across the region nowadays. But what helps deer doesn't always bode well for quail. "If you look at pictures of the Rolling Plains 50 years ago," Swepston pointed out, "it was open prairie, with brush primarily in the creek bottoms. I can remember in Floyd County growing up, even into the '60s, if you saw a deer, people talked about it - so we grew up bird hunting. Now we have mule deer and white-tailed deer."

While end-of-summer quail surveys were not complete as this story went to press, biologist Jim Dillard declared himself optimistic about the current season. "The last two or three years," he said, "the trend has been upward, following the break of the drought in 2001. The (bobwhite) numbers have been coming up. I'd be surprised if it doesn't show an increase this year because of those good rains. We had a phenomenal June, one of the wettest Junes since who knows when. That's made for better habitat conditions, better nesting cover. Just listening, we've been hearing lots of quail whistling."

Considering weather and range conditions, Dillard sees no reason that we shouldn't have had a good hatch this year. "The peak of our hatch here is the first week in July, and we got by that heat problem this year. The chicks' chances of survival are better, especially with lots of vegetation and insects."

Whether that translates into more quail this hunting season remains to be seen, but Dillard is upbeat. "It should be the best in at least five or six years," he said encouragingly. "Don't sell your bird dog!"

* * *

A few years ago, quail fans were very pessimistic about the future.

"The trend hasn't been reversed just because we've had a couple of good years," DeMaso warned. "It has taken us 50 to 75 years to get to where we are today, as far as the decline of quail. You're not going to make that up in two or three years. It's a 20- or 30-year endeavor to make any strides, to get back to where we once were."

In the works: a series of initiatives that seek to continue regaining lost ground. "We've started proactive strategic things to make sure we keep what we've got," DeMaso reported. "We're working with landowners, to make it financially attractive to do things good for quail on their property like cost-sharing programs and working with the farm bill programs, protecting field borders - things like that to produce nesting habitat.

"We're the last bastion of wild bobwhites. Once they're gone here, they're gone everywhere."

* * *

We greeted 2004 with a New Year's Day quail hunt in Donley County. While a couple of our companions were still woozy from the previous night's celebrating, my 11-year-old nephew Logan was bright-eyed and eager to begin his first quail hunt.

My shorthair Sadie quickly found two nice coveys in the thick brush near a deer feeder, a likely gathering and feeding spot. Each time we succeeded in flushing the game birds, only to have them disappear in the nearest brush with nary a shot fired. The revelers were really dragging, and Logan was beginning to tire.

Then Sadie locked o

n point again, this time in an oak motte surrounded by an open field. And this covey did as it was supposed to, flushing in every direction as shotguns barked on both sides.

I watched Logan swing on a cock and roll it in a puff of feathers, and then catch up to a late-flushing hen, dropping it as well. The huge grin on his face as Sadie retrieved his first two quail made it a real New Year's celebration! And the best quail hunting of that new year is likely to come this month, when we'll be back out in bobwhite heaven.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Quail chasers seeking inexpensive, high-quality quail hunting should look to the eastern Panhandle, where two wildlife management areas offer superb quail action. Both areas are generally open to quail hunters throughout the season except when rifle deer hunts are under way. The hunter with his own dogs and gear who's willing to work for his own quail will find that these public lands can offer some of the best quail bargains in America.

Matador WMA - Rt. 1, Box 46, Paducah, TX 79248, (806) 492-3405 - comprises 28,183 rugged acres of prime quail and deer country. The area is south of Childress, two and a half miles east of Amarillo, and five hours' drive time northwest of Dallas. This is typical sandy-red country cut with deep draws lined with brush. Take a 4x4 and all the supplies necessary to fend for yourself, because there are many miles of road along which you can get stuck or lost.

Gene Howe WMA - Rt. 3, Box 19, Canadian, TX 79014, (806) 323-8642 - covers 6,713 acres near Canadian in the far northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle. Quail hunters at this area consistently have one of the highest average bags of any wildlife management area in the state.

There are also a number of hunting lodges and outfitters in the region, including:

South Pease River Ranch Resort, Roaring Springs, (877) 794-2333 or (806) 348-7082; www.speaserr.com.

Salt Fork Outfitters, Wellington, (806) 447-2322.

Terra Rosa Ranch, McLean, (806) 779-8965; www.terrarosaranch.com.

Krooked River Lodge, Haskell, (915) 773-2457.

Mesquite Country Outfitters, Roaring Springs, (806) 689-2302; www.mcohunts.com.

All American Hunting, Clarendon, (806) 874-9886.

Romero Creek Hunting Company, Amarillo, (806) 356-0902.

Stasney's Cook Ranch, Albany, (915) 762-3695.

T.A.L.A. Kennels and Hunting Preserve, Lockney, (806) 652-2540.

Big Country Kennel, Albany, (915) 762-2359.

Golden Spread Outfitters, Olton, (806) 285-3032.



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