It's tough to find good quail hunting in the Sunshine State these days. But in the Panhandle, there are some places to find a bird or two. (November 2007)
To find bobwhites in the Blackwater WMA of the Panhandle, plan to do a lot of walking.
Photo by Polly Dean.
There was a time when hunters in rural areas of the Florida Panhandle could head out the door, head in just about any direction they wanted and find quail. Those days may be long gone, but a surprising number of Wildlife Management Areas in this region still offer good quail-hunting opportunities.
These public areas managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission include the Blackwater WMA north of Milton -- in particular, the Blackwater Field Trial Area, Hutton and Carr Units -- and the Apalachee WMA near Sneads.
For decades, the Blackwater WMA has been synonymous with quail hunting. Fred Robinette is the FWC wildlife biologist who oversees Blackwater and several other WMAs. Whether you have championship caliber or ordinary "meat" dogs, he said they should be able to find birds on the area.
BLACKWATER FIELD TRIAL AREA
The 2007-08 hunting season marks the third season quail hunters have had access to Blackwater's famed 6,000-acre Field Trial Area. During the 1970s through the '90s, hunters with championship dogs came from all over the country for field trails. They came because the trails were expertly run by FWC and Division of Forestry staff, but also for the area's open rolling terrain and ease in finding birds.
The popularity of field trials -- at least on Blackwater -- has dropped, and Robinette said it was only natural to allow hunters some use of the area.
It, as well as most of the forest, is covered in longleaf pines with an understory of wiregrass and gallberry. About 4,000 to 5,000 acres of the area are burned annually, keeping it open.
Robinette said that quail feed heavily on pine seeds in December and January, but they also have plenty of supplemental feed available in the form of 37 small-to-medium fields scattered about the area and planted in such crops as Egyptian wheat, sorghum, velvet beans, iron clay peas and bicolor lespedeza.
A total of three group permits are issued through the FWC quota-hunt process for February hunts. Two hunters are allowed on each group permit.
Hunters are required to record their hunt information at the Coldwater Stables by 3 p.m. at the end of their hunt.
BLACKWATER HUTTON UNIT
Blackwater's Hutton Unit is an up-and-coming area with lots of potential for hunters willing to walk a little. The 5,243-acre area was first opened to quail hunting in 1999.
Robinette said it's been a struggle getting the area into optimum shape for bobwhites due to droughts, which has limited their ability to burn substantial portions of the area each year. Also, hurricanes felled lots of trees and delayed work even more. Still, he said the area now looks great.
Much of the Hutton Unit was clearcut prior to its purchase, which has resulted in some areas being thick. The burring program and hardwood-removal work is opening up the area, making it better for wildlife -- and for hunters.
In an effort to augment native cover, a 100-foot-wide powerline right-of-way that crosses the area and an additional 40 acres in food plots have been planted in browntop millet, bene, and sorghum.
Robinette offered some advice for hunters:
"For one thing, they should concentrate their efforts from near the entrance on Pond Road up to Stagecoach Road," he explained. "With the exception of one nice block in the northeast corner of the area, everything north of Stagecoach Road is sloping down to the river and is poor quail habitat.
"Secondly, hunters always hit the food strips looking for birds. But they need to make sure and work the areas between the strips where pine mast is on the ground."
Hunters willing to walk and push their dogs should be able to find two or three coveys a day. The birds know where the thick areas are. Once the covey busts, that's where the singles head, and they can be tough to hunt.
A total of seven quail hunts are available in November and December. Each hunt runs for two days, and permit holders can invite two other hunters along.
The permits must be obtained via the FWC quota-hunt process.
BLACKWATER CARR UNIT
For hunters who want to be absolutely certain of finding birds, this 590-acre tract is located near the FWC Fisheries Research facility near Holt. It's one of the few public areas in the state where it's okay to release pen-raised quail.
Dubbed the BYOB or "bring your own birds" area, the property is open to one permit holder for each of the 16 seven-day hunts. Permit holders must pay a $100 fee and are allowed to invite three other hunters along.
The Carr Unit looks like the rest of Blackwater with mature longleaf pines and a mostly open understory.
Elsewhere on Blackwater, roughly 180,000 acres are open to quail hunting each season. The best quail habitat lies south of State Route 4 in the area designated for deer still-hunting.
Hunters need to consult the WMA regulations for open dates and whether a quota hunt permit is required.
In terms of sheer aesthetics, you won't find a public area that looks any better for quail hunting than Apalachee WMA in Jackson County. Although the area is listed as almost 8,000 acres in size, only the 6,000 acres in Zone A offer good quail habitat.
Nate Bunting is the FWC wildlife biologist covering the area. He said they try to burn most of the area every two years.
"We burn to stimulate the growth of seed-producing plants and to get rid of rank growth on the ground. It's something we can do that really helps quail," he pointed out.
Apalachee WMA has scattered longleaf pines, red oaks, wiregrass and lots of ponds. A good interior road system makes all of the area accessible.
Bunting and fellow staff plant roughly 200 acres each year in bene, sorghum, Egyptian wheat and iron clay cowpeas. Additionally, the FWC leases about the same acreag
e to local farmers who grow corn, peanuts and soybeans. The only stipulation is that farmers must leave 10 percent of their crops for wildlife.
Like just about everywhere else in the southeast, Apalachee's quail population took a nosedive in the 1980s and '90s. In 1998, the FWC implemented a 12-day quail season on the area. Unlike other areas that require a quota permit, the first 10 hunters who show up at the check station are allowed in.
This fall's open hunt dates will run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from Dec. 18 through Jan. 6.