Over the years, wingshooting for quail has gone through an evolution, but not necessarily for the better. Here's what the action is like now in the Sunshine State.
By Carolee Boyles
My first experience at flushing a covey of bobwhite quail happened on a day when I wished I had a shotgun in my hand. Instead, the event turned out to be a terrifying, but educating, moment for Casey, my Irish setter.
We were walking along a country road, not expecting anything special to happen. As we made our way down the road, Casey suddenly stopped, obviously onto the scent of something of great interest to him. I hadn't noticed anything special, but I decided to let him test his dog instincts and investigate.
With approval from me, Casey headed into a dense grassy area, taking a few steps and then stopping to analyze the scent. Instinct told him where to head, but Casey wasn't really a bird dog even though he fancied himself to be one and the hunting instinct is in his bloodline. He approached a spot in the grass and suddenly went rigid. His tail straightened, he assumed the classic pose of a hunting dog onto something important.
I knew that quail lived around our house in the woods because I'd seen the adults parading their youngsters around the property on many occasions. I had a pretty good idea Casey had found some quail. With no chance of taking a quail or two, I decided to let him have some fun.
Quietly, I told Casey - who was so motionless he'd looked like he'd been taxidermied - "Go get 'em!" He looked at me as if he were a kid given the key to the candy store and leapt full tilt into the source of the scent. I stood back and watched about a dozen birds bust out of the covey. The noise of that many wings beating as if their lives depended on it startled me even though I knew what was going to happen.
But the poor dog nearly had a heart attack. He had no idea what just occurred and no clue as to how to react. As fast as he jumped into the covey, he stumbled backwards and came to rest on his rump. Panting and with eyes as wide as a dog's could be, he looked up at me. And if he could have talked, he would have let out a string of epithets that would make the feathers curl up on a quail.
The problem with this story is that it happened back in the early 1980s, when you could still find a reasonable number of bobwhites in the wild. Almost 25 years later, it's been years since I've seen a quail around my house. It's partly owing to the influx of more people and more houses and, as a most unfortunate consequence, an increase in the abundance of feral cats. These obnoxious critters are very effective predators of ground-dwelling birds, and they have wiped out most of the quail in the semi-rural area of southwest Florida where I live.
But there is a much larger problem with quail, one that is of statewide proportions. It's all about the habitat.
"There's been a 70 percent decline in the bobwhite quail populations in Florida since 1980," says Tommy Hines, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission small game biologist. "The land-use changes are so dramatic, in part, because we don't use fire as a management tool in the pine timberland. That leads to succession occurring in which thick underbrush and non-native grasses replace the native plants that created good quail habitat."
Another problem, Hines points out, is the conversion of over 4 million acres of pastureland into Bahai and Bermuda grass.
"This does not make good ground cover for quail," Hines notes. "There is no food or cover, the essentials if you want to have this species on the land."
These changes signal more than a problem for quail. Bobwhites are an indicator species, which is a species that scientists know a good deal about and from that knowledge can extrapolate data applicable to species with a similar lifestyle and habitat about which much less is known. Thus if the quail is doing poorly, so too will be species with similar food and habitat requirements. The loggerhead shrike, a non-game bird, is one such example. A downturn of the numbers of these birds is also being seen.
Hines adds that even the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally listed threatened species in much of Florida, shares some habitat requirements with quail, and there is also a documented decline in these birds.
Photo by Bob Bledsoe
Hunters looking for a quality quail hunt on public land are out of luck unless they have a really close friend willing to reveal what is one of the most closely guarded hunting secrets in Florida. The FWCC says on their Web site that the persistent hunter can still find good quail hunting in Florida. Most quail hunters would be more likely to laugh and say "Good luck!"
The state's premier public quail hunting site, on the Fred C. Babcock/Cecil Webb Wildlife Management Area in Charlotte County, will have quail hunting this year. On the other hand, there will not be any Special Opportunity hunts, an indication that the land is not considered to be productive enough to support a high-quality hunting experience for the limited number of hunters lucky enough to receive one of the permits. In fact, there are no Special Opportunity quail hunts planned for anywhere in Florida for the 2004 -2005 season.
Hunters visiting Babcock/Webb this year can use swamp buggies, as they have in the past. Hines also strongly recommends using at least four, if not six, bird dogs that you can rotate, so the dogs don't get overworked.
"One way for hunters to work an area like this if quail hunting is going to be tough is to spot-hunt," he says. "By that, I mean let the dogs run for a while and if they don't find any coveys, move on to another area rather than just let the dogs keep moving until they find the birds. It allows you to cover more land, but it's hit-or-miss and there is less chance of the dogs finding coveys this way."
Other public areas where Hines says you might find some quail are the Apalachee Wildlife and Environmental Area, Blackwater WMA and maybe at Three Lakes WMA.
"Quail hunting won't be a first-class experience on any public land. The pickings are pretty slim," Hines adds with a note of sobering honesty.
With such a downbeat report, it isn't surprising that quail hunters don't talk about hunting public land.
"I'll shoot birds if we happen to come across a covey," says Mike Cooper, who hunts on leased land. "But even on leased land, we just don't see that many."
David Graham is an
avid quail hunter who says he doesn't bother with public land.
"The game plantations are the places to go," he says. "You know there will be birds there."
THE PLANTATION EXPERIENCE
A check on the Internet or perusing a copy of Black's Wing & Clay booklet reveals that there are numerous quail hunting opportunities on plantations and hunt clubs in Florida. Most are open to the public, but some operate through memberships with varying degrees of public access.
How these commercial operations differ from hunting on public land is that plantations practice put-and-take operations. That is, the operators buy birds that are then released onto the land. In turn, hunters pay a fee to hunt the quail. There is no question that this type of hunting does not appeal to some purists. But hunters come in many flavors, and for some this is a great experience that is looked forward to year after year.
Frank Fanizzi is the managing partner of Quail Creek Plantation near Okeechobee. The plantation occupies 3,000 acres of native pine flatwoods with a cypress swamp separating the upland areas.
"The native flatwoods have an understory of palmetto, wire grass and runner oak," Fanizzi says. "It is good quail habitat and we try to improve it by a management plan that includes roller chopping and prescribed burning."
Quail do well where there is plenty of edge habitat, so Fanizzi chops 7-foot swaths through the woods in a criss-cross pattern.
"We space the cuts out so that we are on a four-year rotation with our roller chopping program," he explains. "As for burning, we spot-burn 50- to 100-acre areas and burn them every other year.
"Intense management of the land is necessary to provide plenty of food and cover for the birds released at the plantation. Even though we are a put-and-take operation," the manager continues, "only about 40 to 50 percent of the released birds are taken by hunters."
An unknown number are lost to predators, and some survive the hunting season.
"We begin releasing birds in September, so these penned-raised birds have three to four weeks of the quail version of boot camp," Fanizzi says. "With hunting beginning in October, they have a chance to find natural food, cover and water - the equivalent of getting the lay of the land. This results in birds that behave more like a wild bird."
And Fanizzi adds that since not all the first-released birds are killed, there will always be some "street-smart" bobwhites to help subsequently released birds learn some survival behaviors from the old-timers.
Quail hunting on a plantation where clients pay a fee is significantly different from hunting with your dogs on public or private land you have access to. One of the most important differences is that, unless you are a terrible shot, you will shoot some quail. The entire operation is geared to make sure hunters get some shots. But it is then still up the individual whether that translates into a heavy game bag.
On public land, given the current dismal conditions, there is no guarantee of even seeing a quail, much less getting a shot at a bird busting out of a covey.
At Quail Creek, only a third of the 3,000 acres are hunted at any time. With the habitat managed to keep the quail on the property and the staff providing expertise, success is almost a certainty.
"We take one to four hunters on a quail buggy, but for safety reasons we only allow two hunters on the ground at any time," Fanizzi explains. "They are accompanied by the dog handler and two of our dogs. We actually have six dogs on each buggy, but we rotate them so they don't get too tired out."
Each hunter is allowed a maximum of 12 birds without any additional charge. Fanizzi's guides keep track of the total number of birds taken by the hunters on each buggy, and once the buggy limit is reached there is an additional charge for any more birds killed.
The daily fee on the preserve is all-inclusive, except for guns and shells. They do have rentals available for hunters who don't have a shotgun with them.
"We cater to our clients and provide them with a light snack before leaving, have drinks on the buggies, provide the guide and dogs, and finish the hunt with a traditional Southern-style fried quail lunch in an air-conditioned dining room."
The birds eaten at the lunch are not the ones shot during the hunt. Those are cleaned and given to the hunters.
"A traditional hunter would think of this more as entertainment than hunting, since everything is catered. All the hunter had to do is get off the buggy, have the guide hand him his gun, follow the dogs and shoot when the covey flushes."
Quail Creek Plantation operates quail hunts from Oct. 1 through mid-March.
"Each year our business is getting better," Fanizzi says. "Last year we had to turn some hunters away because we didn't have any openings."
OF QUAIL HUNTING
Biologist Tommy Hines is passionate about restoring native quail populations and quality hunting opportunities on public lands. He also believes that there is an income potential for private landowners who supplement their current income from the land if they can modify their land management activities.
"The commission is making real efforts to do something about the quail situation," Hines says enthusiastically. "The Southeastern U.S. Quail Study Group developed a national quail restoration plan. It is written so that each state with quail can use it to write an individual plan."
The plans call for landscape-level changes that restore the habitat to that favorable for quail.
"Besides burning, ranchers who want to bring quail back to their land can implement different grazing programs that will encourage better quail habitat," Hines notes. "There are up to 4 million acres of (potential) quail habitat left in Florida, so there still are plenty of opportunities to bring quail back."
The FWCC has an ongoing research project at Babcock/Webb WMA. Ralph Dimmick, a biologist from the University of Georgia, is looking at how differing hunting pressures affect native quail populations. His work includes the use of radio-collared birds that are providing data on quail production rates under differing hunting pressures. Hines also says there is another study on a ranch in South Florida.
"We are looking at the economics of restoring the land for quail habitat and if we can use current farm bill funding to help farmers manage the land to benefit bobwhites and associated species."
Neither project is far enough along to know if e
ither will be helpful, but Hines is hopeful.
"We know people will pay to hunt put-and-take birds," he says. "Ranchers who could set aside 10,000 acres or more could, with the proper management, establish a self-sustaining population of bobwhites."
Those lands might then be used to provide hunting opportunities for wild birds and produce income for the landowners.
Similar situations have existed on the large private plantations in northwest Florida since the turn of the century. Those privately owned operations are not open to the public, as most are either family- or corporate-owned and only family, corporate executives and invited guests can enjoy a quality native quail hunting experience.
"If some ranchers were to get interested, they might find that an operation like this can generate a good income in addition to what they already make," Hines believes.
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