Beat The Brush For Bobs

Beat The Brush For Bobs

That's the way to get good quail shooting in the eastern part of our state, says the author. Here's why. (November 2008)

It's not unusual when I'm sitting in a deer stand on an Osage County ranch to see quail moving through the underbrush on the forest floor beneath me.

I've watched many coveys passing by in single file along a deer trail, or picking their way though the leaf litter on the ground, searching for tidbits to eat.

The ranch I hunt is mostly open pastureland; maybe 30 percent is wooded. So why are the quail in the woods instead of out in the grass, or in the plum thickets or blackberry and dewberry thickets scattered about the open prairie?

Could it be that -- quite unintentionally -- we've been selectively breeding for quail that have a tendency to live in the woods?

A veteran Oklahoma dog trainer and breeder, former shooting preserve manager and a very observant outdoorsman, Greg Koch, once told me that he believed we have been systematically killing off the birds that occupy open ground, while allowing birds that live in the thick cover of the wooded creek bottoms and upland forests to get by with less hunting pressure.

I've discussed his theory with Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologists, and they declared it an interesting idea, although one that to their knowledge has never been properly studied. Koch told me once that he believes more quail are in the woods these days than in the grass. The woods, after all, afford more protection from avian predators like hawks and owls that might swoop down easily on birds in the open.

In the eastern third of Oklahoma, woodlands dominate the landscape. Yes, prairies and farm fields and pastures are present in our eastern counties, but many square miles of forests are there, too.

In central Oklahoma, the habitat is mixed. In the south-central area, a wide expanse of the Cross Timbers region -- dominated by blackjack and post oak forest but with lots of open land around it -- extends from the Texas Hill Country up to near the Kansas border. The farther north you go, the fewer the trees, and the more numerous the stretches of prairie.

In Western Oklahoma, woodlands are scarce. You'll find timbered areas along streams and the occasional copse of post oak or elm or, in some counties, shinnery. But the semi-arid climate of far Western Oklahoma is more suited to grassland than to forest.

Historically, the open lands of the west have provided Oklahoma's best quail hunting. But even out west the populations have been down significantly in recent seasons. And even there, the few trips that I've taken in recent years to hunt birds have resulted in my finding more quail in the shinnery mottes and post oak thickets than in the open grassy areas.

So finding quail these days may require spending a little more time in the woods than in the fields -- and hunting in the woods might call for adjustments in both techniques and tools.

I believe most bird hunters (certainly including me) would prefer the easier walking and shooting found in the open pastures and prairies. But if the birds are in the woods, it only makes sense to plunge in after them.

Hunting quail in the woods can be somewhat like hunting grouse in northern states. Grouse are notorious for flushing in thick cover, where it's difficult to swing a shotgun. Most grouse hunters tell tales of having grouse erupt from the underbrush but being unable to raise or swing their gun because of tree limbs and twigs all around them.

Choosing the right shotgun can help improve your chances in the woods. My choice would be a short-barreled 12 gauge with skeet or cylinder-bore barrels or chokes. Improved-cylinders are OK, but since most of your shots will be at very close ranges, tighter chokes are unnecessary, and might even cost you missed shots.

Lots of upland bird hunters use 26-inch barrels. I wouldn't use anything longer if I have a choice. I've seen upland over-unders and side-by-sides with 24-inch barrels that are great in the woods. A couple of inches of difference doesn't sound like much, but even that little bit of barrel shortening can allow you to swing your gun and make shots you might be prevented from making with a 28-inch barrel, which is probably the most common shotgun barrel length.

When I hunt in the open, I really enjoy hunting with a 20 gauge and use 7/8 or 1-ounce loads. The lighter recoil and usually lighter gun weight makes bird hunting more enjoyable. But when I know I'll be hunting in the woods, I'll open for a 12 gauge and shoot 1 1/8-ounce loads, because I know that I may be shooting through leaves and twigs to try hitting a bird that's getting away fast. In those conditions, I want to have a lot of pellets flying out of my barrel.

When you flush a covey in the open, you may get one or two really close shots, but you may also get a couple of longer shots as the birds gain speed and distance. But when you flush the birds in the woods, you rarely get time to take more than one or two shots, and those are usually within 10 or 15 yards.

A good pair of thornproof brush pants will come in handy for the woods. Oklahoma's woodlands, from Arkansas to the Texas Panhandle, are rife with greenbrier and other thorny vines that can puncture blue jeans or even tough cotton duck fabric. Those really tightly woven brush pants, or a pair of slip-over brush chaps, can save your legs from briar-thorn scratches as you kick your way through the brush. I wear chaps most of the time when I'm bird hunting anyway, but before I started doing so I came home from many trips with my legs looking as if I'd been in the middle of a catfight.

Having the right dog can be helpful, too. Those far-ranging field-trialing pointers that stay about a quarter-mile in front of you in open country are almost worthless when hunting in the woods. Even if they find the birds without flushing them, you may never see your dog.

Give me a close-hunting dog for working in the trees. I prefer dogs with a lot of white in their coats because they're easier to see in thicker cover. A liver-colored pointer or Brittany with no white on it can blend into the reddish-brown leaf litter pretty darned well and be difficult to see, especially if it's locked up and motionless on point.

It's good to have on hand at least one dog good at finding dead birds too, because locating your downed quail among the leaf litter can be tough. I was fortunate to have one Brittany that was a master at finding dead birds even after they were cold. I brought her in on several occasions to find birds that other hunters had knocked down but couldn't find by themselves or with their own dogs. I've had two other Brittany spaniels since that one, and neither was in the

same league when it came to finding dead birds in the woods.

Quail numbers have been lower than usual in most of Oklahoma over the past few seasons. I know that last spring during turkey season, and while fishing farm ponds, I heard an awful lot of quail whistling every day, so I know that breeding birds were around. Maybe this season will be different.

But we never really know what we'll find until we turn the dogs out for the first time and start walking behind them.

Here's hoping that this season will be an improvement over last year's when birds were scarce nearly everywhere in the state. The roadside counts, conducted by the ODWC and rural mail carriers each September, indicated that the populations were again low.

The results of this year's counts should be available by the time this magazine is mailed. They can be found on the ODWC's Web site at

Remember when you head to the field, though, that if you're not meeting with a lot of birds in the open, it's probably time to beat the bushes to find those bobwhites.

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