Sooner Bobwhites: On the Rebound?

After several seasons of only mediocre quail hunting, is Oklahoma's bobwhite population finally starting to make a comeback? We now have some answers.

By Bob Bledsoe

My bird dog and I are fired up!

That's because last year was the best quail season we had seen in Oklahoma in at least five years. And now, indications are strong that this year might be even better!

There are no guarantees, of course, but there seem to be lots of birds around.

Last year on one northeastern Oklahoma ranch we hunted, there were quite a few coveys of 12 to 18 birds. In the four or five years previous, we could only scare up an occasional seven- or eight-bird covey. In fact, the coveys were so small and scarce that I couldn't bring myself to shoot at them. Until last year, that is.

And when we hunted Western Oklahoma last November and December, the results were about the same out there. Where we had been finding two or three coveys the previous year, we found seven or eight last season. And they were all good-sized coveys, too.

While turkey hunting in April, we heard lots of quail whistling; birds were still bunched in coveys, some already in nesting pairs.

One of my hunting buddies even spotted a family of very small young quail in April. I'm still trying to figure that one out. He's an avid lifelong quail hunter himself, and his opinion was that the birds looked only a few weeks old.

That would mean they would have been hatched in, say, early March - unheard of for bobwhite quail, at least as far as I know. I suggested that maybe it was a family group of quail hatched very late in the summer of the previous year. No, he said, they appeared to be young birds with juvenile plumage that were barely old enough to leave the nest.

Who knows? Every time I think I know something for certain about Oklahoma wildlife, an exception comes along. Typically, though, quail don't start mating and nesting until mid-April, and the first chicks aren't mature until late June or early July. Second hatches may come off in August or early September, which sometimes produces some very young birds on the ground when our hunting season begins in November.

I was skeptical last year when the Wildlife Department's late-summer roadside quail surveys showed populations on the rise. They indicated a 21 percent increase statewide from 2002 to 2003. Even the department's upland bird biologist, Mike Sams, cautioned that the survey results don't necessarily predict what quail season is going to be like.

But the surveys were right. In the areas I hunted, I believe the populations were up even more than the surveys suggested. Sams pointed out that the statewide quail index was up 37 percent compared to the previous 13-year average.

The author saw more and bigger coveys last season than he's seen in five years! Hawk Bledsoe poses with a fat pair of bobs taken from a covey that he and his father flushed from a dewberry thicket last fall. Photo by Bob Bledsoe

That's great news. I've been watching the bird numbers decline year by year, wondering where it would all end. So I'm overjoyed to see populations recovering. Here's hoping it's not just a one-season spike in quail populations. We'll find out, beginning this month.

Where are the likely hotspots for quail hunting this fall? Well, as usual, the western half of the state is considerably better than is the eastern. Woods, Harper, Dewey, Woodward, Ellis and Roger Mills counties are the core area for of some of the best bobwhite quail hunting remaining in the country.

Are they as good as ever? Probably not. But they're probably better than they've been in several years. Even if they're no better than last year, they'll still be pretty darned good.

That's not to say that all the land in those counties or surrounding counties will be loaded with quail. Some landowners take care of their birds and the habitat better than others do. But just about anywhere that suitable food and cover is available in northwestern Oklahoma should offer decent numbers of quail this fall.

Even on public land there are some pretty fair opportunities for birds. Canton Wildlife Management Area is one good area to try. And the Black Kettle National Grasslands in Roger Mills County will prove an excellent site when compared to most of our public tracts.

If you plan to hunt public lands, my advice is to get there early. The public tracts do get hunted pretty heavily - at least those portions close to roads and parking areas do - and so getting there in the early days of the season helps you get some hunting in before the areas are thoroughly hunted. Do, however, check the current hunting regulations - by either going online to the Wildlife Department's Web site or looking at the regulations booklet (pick one up at a license dealer) - because some public tracts aren't open for upland game hunting until after deer gun season in late November and early December.

Don't do what I did last year, and wait too long. I've killed quite a few quail and even a few pheasants at Kaw WMA north and east of Ponca City. But last year, because of deer hunting, duck hunting, Kansas pheasant hunting and a couple of private-land quail trips, I didn't make it up to my favorite parts of Kaw WMA until nearly Christmas, when quail hunting had already been open for three weeks or more.

Everywhere we went we saw boot tracks, dog tracks and freshly spent shot shells, but not a single quail. And every parking area we visited had at least one hunter's vehicle parked in it. I'm sure someone got some good bird shooting in at Kaw last winter, but it wasn't me.

I noticed something else last season that made me think bird populations are rebounding significantly: I found more birds out in the open last year.

Over a lifetime of bird hunting, I've watched two trends unfold. One is that bird populations have gradually declined since I started hunting in the 1960s. The other is that, as bird numbers declined, fewer and fewer coveys were found in open grassy areas and more and more were found in denser cover - in the woods, in blackberry or dewberry thickets, in shinnery mottes or in sand plum thickets. Dog trainers, hunting guides and other hunters I've talked with have seen the same trend.

Of course, in any given season, depending on the daily weather and other local factors, coveys may spend more time in the open or under thick cover. But the general trend over the years is that quail have become more and more "woodland" birds and less and less open-area birds.

Last year though, on nearly every day I hunted I found coveys out in the wide-open spaces. One good day of hunting started when we spied our first covey running along an oil-lease road on the ranch we were visiting.

Out in Ellis County the year before, virtually every bird we found was flushed out of the woods or out of a plum thicket by the dogs. Last year, on the same property, we found about three times more birds, but almost all of them were either flushed from open grass or chased from open grass into a thicket before they flushed. It was like Oklahoma quail hunting in the old days.

Sometimes, when coveys are flushing in the open, I like to just sit back and watch my buddies raise and swing their guns and shoot as the birds rise a few at a time. Perhaps my favorite quail-hunting memory of all was from a hunt back in the early 1980s when I went to Canton WMA with my brother, Butch, and his Brittany.

It was late afternoon, the sunlight that deep golden color it gets at that time of day in winter. I was walking near the top of a small ridge and my brother and the dog were down below me in a ravine. When the dog went on point in the ravine, I motioned for Butch to go on in while I stood on the hill. We hadn't flushed a bird yet, and I think I really believed there would be no birds there, but reasoned that even if birds flushed, I might get a shot if any flew up over the ridge.

As Butch moved in close to the dog, the birds began to rise, one or two at a time. Butch was shooting an old Browning "humpback" autoloader, and as the birds flushed, he downed five birds with five shots. It was like watching a slow-motion film as he shot one bird and then adjusted his swing to home in on the next, the whole scene bathed in that warm, golden light.

It's not often that you get a covey to cooperate like that - coming up one or two at a time and giving a single hunter time to get off five shots. And you never get to watch something like that when the birds are in the woods or in thick cover. That's one reason I like hunting birds in open areas more than I do those in the woods. It's not only easier to shoot them, but it's also possible to watch your companions do it too.

Seeing more birds in the open makes me think our quail populations may be bouncing back. Here's hoping.

See you in the field!

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