The expansion of "dog-training areas" in Georgia is breathing new life into bobwhite hunting on public lands. Here's a look at what the action's like. (December 2007)
Steve Carpenteri of Dallas found that J.L. Lester WMA offers a well-groomed setting for a west Georgia quail hunt.
Photo by Polly Dean.
It's said that of the five senses, none will more reliably trigger sharp-etched memories long ago stashed away in our brains than does the sense of smell -- no matter how long ago an aroma might have been inhaled. For me, for instance, the fragrance of pine trees, especially after a drenching rain, ignites images of childhood family vacations spent in a cabin at Callaway Gardens.
Pleasant recollections of those Pine Mountain summers in the 1960s and '70s also bring to mind the distinct bob-bob-white whistles of quail that I heard echoing frequently through warm Georgia evenings. The perfume of pine and the sound of bobwhites are still today fused in the mind of this South Florida girl who back then was more accustomed to the scent of salt and the cry of seagulls.
Once upon a time, the Peach State was known as the "Quail Capital of the World," but those days have passed, and the bobwhite's whistle is less prevalent. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, quail flourished in our state, left in peace by the low-intensity farming and forestry practices of the times. But changes in agriculture and land use have caused the quail population to enter a steady decline in recent decades.
Data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services indicate that the birds' numbers did in fact drop more than 70 percent from 1966 to 1998. Land-use changes responsible for decreased bobwhite numbers include "clean" farming methods that leave no treelines or vegetative borders along agricultural fields. Larger fields and the use of pesticides, along with increasing numbers of pastures containing exotic grasses, also contributed to decreased bird populations. Another factor: higher numbers of intensely managed pine plantations whose short rotations of plantings reduced the prescribed burns conducive to favorable habitat.
With decreasing quail populations, the number of quail hunters and birds harvested has fallen off dramatically as well. In 1962, an estimated 135,000 hunters in the Peach State harvested nearly 4 million quail and by the late 1990s the number of hunters declined to less than a third, while birds harvested dropped to around 900,000 within a season.
Fortunately, biologists know more about the management of bobwhite quail than about that for any other species of upland game bird. The key to providing ideal habitat for the quail is to understand its entire life cycle and that cycle's relation to the current habitat. And all aspects of attracting a healthy quail population must be addressed: Planting food plots is fine, but if lack of brood habitat is also in play as a limiting factor, that issue can't be neglected.
Happily, the wealth of knowledge on quail management that's been gathered in recent years has enabled Peach State wildlife biologists to groom a number of our public hunting areas for quail hunting such that the pursuit is viable there.
A MODERN HUNTING OPTION
This past season, I was able to experience a first-rate season of public-land quail hunting by taking advantage of J.L. Lester Wildlife Management Area's specially designated dog-training area. A hunting buddy of mine acquired what he hoped to be a well-trained Brittany. Another friend who runs beagles mentioned the well-managed the dog training area at J.L. Lester, so after a few phone calls, we located a supplier of pen-raised quail, and with birds and receipt in hand, we headed to Polk County.
The plan for the day was really to test the newly acquired Brittany, so my buddy planted the birds in groups of two or three around the area, taking note of where he'd placed them. After an hour or two, the three of us, our shotguns and the dog, Chris, headed to the fields. It was soon apparent that Chris was quite capable, and we had a great day of downing birds -- along with plenty of missing them as well, but Chris again sniffed out the ones that got away, By day's end I had a serious case of quail fever!
My buddy soon found that he enjoyed working the dog almost as much as he did shooting birds, and so eagerly began planning on taking out small groups of other hunters. All agreed that the trips yielded rewarding days of public-land hunting. Even if you're fortunate enough to have access to any of our state's fine private quail plantations, you may find, as I did, that this method of planting and hunting quail with friends was just as challenging. I even felt less pressure than I have when hunting sometimes with guides and very expensive dogs.
Just like the pen-raised quail at pricey private quail-hunting locations, the birds occasionally needed extra urging to fly, but at other times they flew so well that we wondered whether the dog had sniffed out a wild one. We learned that some birds may stay pretty close to where they where placed, but most moved to a different location, and even regrouped into larger coveys. We also realized that the dog usually knew better than we did where the birds were: Even if we had placed a bird or two in a certain clump of cover, and the dog went another direction, the dog was almost always right. It really is hunting!
BIRD DOG TRAINING AREAS
The 17 bird dog designated training areas in a number of our state's wildlife management areas provide excellent opportunities for hunters to spend a day running bird dogs and honing shooting skills at a covey of flushed birds. That number increased from 14 during the 2006-07 season, the three recently designated areas being at Allatoona and Paulding Forest WMAs in the northwest portion of the state, and Penholoway Swamp WMA in the southeast, near Mt. Pleasant.
Within a WMA's designated dog-training area, pen-raised quail may be released and harvested, providing a day of high-quality quail hunting not unlike a day spent at a private plantation -- except that you do a lot of walking.
Those owning a hunting dog or even a brace of them can take advantage of the dog-training areas year 'round for training purposes. Another great benefit: Quail may be released and hunted from Aug. 1 through March 19. To accommodate other activities within that period, hunting dates vary greatly from one WMA to another, so pick up a copy of the 2007-08 edition of the Georgia Hunting Seasons & Regulations booklet wherever hunting licenses are sold, or check the Department of Natural Resources' Web site for exact dates on specific WMAs. Also note that quail hunting is prohibited at all the areas during managed deer hunts and scheduled field trials.
When releasing birds into the dog-training areas, be sur
e to keep the receipt of purchase with you. Your hunting party must have a dog, and someone in the group must have proof of purchase of the released quail. Only shotguns with No. 6 shot or smaller may be carried or used during the designated season. The limit of 12 birds harvested a day per person applies, unless posted otherwise for specific WMAs.
WHERE TO HUNT
The terrain and even how the dog-training areas are maintained vary greatly from one WMA to the next. J.L. Lester WMA -- its dog-training area included -- is well groomed and managed for dove and quail. It was obvious that its fields were harrowed and disked every few years, leaving pine borders along the field edges. Thickets of briars made good cover for bobwhites, but weren't so overgrown as to be impassable or to cause us to lose sight of the dog too easily. There was even a pond in the training area that Chris found refreshing during the afternoon. We also observed that prescribed burning is practiced at J.L. Lester.
This WMA is quite heavily used on weekends for field trials, and is closed on those days to dog training or hunting. You can check the schedule at the check-in station bulletin board or call (706) 295-6041 to get the field trial dates. In fact, we planned some of our outings a day or two after a scheduled field trial, hoping to flush our birds along with any others that were left behind from that event.
We also explored other dog training areas in our vicinity last season. Coosawattee WMA in Murray County, just west of Carters Lake and Ellijay, was another nearby option. The terrain here was quite a bit different, and hunting it more strenuous.
An overgrown clearcut in which clumps of trees appeared only sporadically, this area showed no sign of being actively managed for quail. We had to climb up and down hills, and sometimes keeping sight of the dog was challenging with the hilly terrain and thick briars. More than once Chris seemed to be motionless and holding a point -- and we'd then realize that she was simply tangled in the briars and was taking a moment to extricate herself.
Even the birds had trouble escaping the thick briars of Coosawattee WMA. After we'd busted a covey, Chris located a single that we'd missed. She had it pointed in a clump of briars, but my husband couldn't even get anything to fly even by kicking the thicket. We wondered if Chris really had a bird.
Then there was a commotion within the clump -- and because feathers were flying, we thought we might have an injured bird fluttering up in the briars. But the quail finally busted loose and got airborne; apparently, the stuff was so thick that the bobwhite had simply had a difficult time escaping. He was on our dinner table that evening.
Coosawattee WMA's dog-training area did provide an alternate location for quail hunting, and we had a successful day of finding and flushing our planted birds. There were even a couple of quail that Chris flushed that we weren't so sure were ours -- they'd come up too unexpectedly and flown too fast to be pen-raised!
BEFORE YOU GO
To locate licensed quail dealers in your area, consult the "Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin" on the Georgia Department of Agriculture's Web site at www.agr.georgia.gov. Follow the links to the "Market Bulletin Ads"; then go to the category "Poultry/Fowl Requiring a Permit/ License," where you'll find a list of licensed breeders or dealers with contact information.
It'd be a good idea to call your local game management office for exact locations of the dog-training areas within the WMA you intend to visit. They aren't always clearly visible from the main entrance, and maps indicating the designated areas aren't always available at the check-in station. However, signs marking the boundaries of the area will always be present.
WHERE TO HUNT
With the addition of the two newly dog-training areas this season, Game Management Region 1 in the northwest corner of the state boasts five options for places to go with your dog and purchased birds. As mentioned earlier, Allatoona WMA in Bartow County and Paulding Forest WMA in Paulding County have joined Berry College, J.L. Lester and Coosawattee WMAs. For more information call the Region 1 office at (706) 295-6041.
Hart County WMA, in Region 2 just south of Lake Hartwell near the South Carolina border, has a dog-training area. The regional office can be contacted at (770) 535-5700.
Region 3 contains three WMAs with designated dog-training areas: Walton Public Dove Field in Walton County, and Alexander WMA and Mead Farm WMA in Burke County south of Interstate 20 near the South Carolina border. To contact the Region 3 office, call (706) 595-4222.
In the center of the state, Ocmulgee WMA's Gum Creek Tract contains the sole dog training area in Region 4. Contact the office at (478) 825-6354.
Albany Nursery WMA lies amid traditional quail plantation country in the southwest portion of the Peach State and contains the only dog-training area in Region 5. Phone the regional office at (229) 430-4254.
Region 6 in the south-central portion has Beaverdam WMA in Laurens County, Grande Bay WMA in Lowndes County, and Horse Creek WMA in Telfair County. The regional office's phone number is (229) 426-5267.
Newly designated Penholoway WMA and Richmond Hill WMA are in the extreme southeast part of the state. The Region 7 office's number is (912) 262-3173.
Additionally, 98 wildlife management areas are scattered around the state, and many are potential options for harvesting quail, as those that have groomed dove fields may support a bobwhite population as well. Another option: Check out WMAs featuring areas clearcut in the last one to three years. Tracts owned by timber companies and leased to the state are good bets for that type of terrain and may provide adequate cover for quail.
Pine Log WMA, near Cartersville, and Joe Kurz WMA, in Meriwether County, are both possibilities. Much of the Kurz tract is maintained in early successional growth, while Pine Log has dove fields and clear cuts.
Di-Lane WMA outside of Waynesboro consists of 8,100 acres of mixed agricultural fields and forested land. Prior to the state's purchase of the property, it once served as a quail plantation and is still managed for the species.
Nine days are set aside for quail hunts on the property between Dec. 1 and Feb. 6, but all dates are for quota hunts, so you need to make plans to enter next seasons drawing to get in on that action.
By using the designated Bird Dog Training Areas, you can create your own hunts, and enjoy a day of bobwhite action -- or, with a lot of legwork and exploration of your nearby wildlife management areas, you may even locate a wild covey of quail. If you choose this latter option, however, just keep in mind that you shouldn't expect a plantation quail experience -- you'll be doing more hunting than shooting.
Find more about Georgia fishing and hunting at: GeorgiaSportsmanMag.com