Check out the quail hunting these Sooner shotgunners enjoy for some of the very best upland shooting that Oklahoma has to offer.
By Bryan Hendricks
After a full day of chasing quail halfway across Blaine County, my friends and I were running on fumes. As we neared the end of our hunt, a leaden December sky muted the soft afternoon light while we entered a cutover milo field.
With me that day were a friend from Arkansas and two fellows from Georgia. One of the Georgians owned a hard-driving German shorthair named Zeke, a talented, close-working dog that had found a lot of birds for us over the last three days. At lunchtime and during breaks, nobody begrudged sharing bits of sandwiches and other treats with Old Zeke. He had earned them.
The other Georgian was a quiet, amiable fellow named Dave who was experiencing his first Oklahoma quail hunt. Dave had hunted pen-raised birds on shooting preserves in Georgia and South Carolina, but he had never hunted wild birds before. His demeanor suggested that he didn't much care for it, either.
Action had been rather slow for a few hours, so in addition to being tired, we also were a little bored and perhaps not quite as alert as we should have been. Nevertheless, we fanned out over the milo field and walked four abreast, each to our own row.
As we walked, we kicked milo stalks, and whooped and hollered to unnerve any birds that might have been holding tight. When we reached the end of the field, we turned "column right" and covered four more rows going the other way. Zeke zigzagged in front of us, nose to the ground like a canine minesweeper, desperate for even the slightest whiff of scent. He didn't smell anything that even caused him to slow down.
We covered the field twice and then debated on what to do next. Zeke's owner sat down against a fencepost and told us he was going to rest awhile.
Heavener quail hunter Nan Buckenhoeffer has three bobs in hand and is well on her way to a full bag. Oklahoma had excellent nesting and brooding conditions last spring and summer, which should spell good hunting for birds this season. Photo by Bryan Hendricks
My friend Warren and I opted to work both sides of the brushy fencerow bordering the field. The birds had been skittish and were running us ragged. We figured that if there were any birds in that cover, Zeke would push them to the end. If we could get there ahead of Zeke, they'd probably fly when they reached the open ground at the end, and we'd get a few quick shots. Dave took up the rear to pick up any birds that tried to double back behind the dog, or those that tried to fly back into the fencerow.
Warren and I had taken just a few steps down the fencerow when we heard that unmistakable, thumping whir of flushing quail. We looked back at Dave, who was still in the milo field. About 15 quail flushed right behind him and scattered across the field like a loose shotgun pattern.
Dave wheeled around, gun still at port arms. As he did, another big bunch of birds thundered up behind him, directly where he had just been walking. He wheeled around on them, too, but at that instant another big bunch took off to his side. In all, there were between 35 and 50 birds.
Warren and I both doubled over, hands cupped over our mouths, bellowing with every decibel of volume we could muster: "SHOOOOT! SHOOOOOOOOOT!"
Quail fluttered out in every direction, juking and weaving before cupping their wings and sailing into the refuge of a distant woodlot.
Dave never fired a shot.
He never even shouldered his gun. He just staggered around out there, twisting and reeling like a birthday pinata under a hail of brickbat blows. He was so rattled that he wasn't worth a hoot for the rest of the day.
Even now, we often wonder how four hunters and a really fine bird dog could have covered every inch of that field without finding those birds. Even more mysterious is how they could have totally surrounded Dave in the short time that we had been separated, and why they hadn't flushed when Warren and I surely must have walked right through them on the way to the fencerow.
Well friends, that's why Oklahoma quail hunting is so maddening and so intoxicating. None of it makes sense. You go out and walk yourself to a frazzle over impossible terrain, running pell mell to catch up with dogs that are running pell mell to catch up with quail, only to have them vanish into thin air. You end the day sore, hungry and parched. You cuss, groan and gripe, and you can't wait for morning, so you can lace on your boots and do it again.
Danny Pierce is a do-it-all guide from Reydon. He caught this disease early in life, but he's refined this brand of suffering into a fine art. He suffered more than most during the last few years as drought preceded by cold, wet springs decimated the quail populations.
This year, however, spring and summer were mild and moist. Quail reproduction in his area has been tremendous, and Pierce said he's seen more birds than he has in years.
Of course, these reports are from private ground, but quail numbers are also excellent on nearby Black Kettle National Grasslands.
"The government hasn't been letting them overgraze at Black Kettle lately," Pierce said. "The habitat is good, and birds are nesting real good this year. Of course, nobody's been able to overgraze this year because it has rained so much. The grass is growing faster than the cattle can eat it."
Roger Mills County, in and around that Black Kettle country, is great quail habitat. It consists of bluestem prairie interspersed with sand plum thickets and shinnery oak. The creek bottoms have cottonwood groves and brush thickets. Then, of course, you've got the sandhills. There are a lot of birds in this country, and even though you might get into 12 or 15 coveys in a day, it can be a long walk between them.
"You've got to walk if you're going to hunt out here," Pierce said. "A lot of young guys don't understand that walking is how you have to hunt for wild birds."
For example, Pierce guided six men from Alabama last year. They envisioned a genteel, Southern-style hunt, so they even brought their mules.
"We split up into groups of three. They were on the mules, and I decided to walk with the dogs," Pierce recalled. "We went about a quarter of a mile, and the dogs went on point, but those boys couldn't hear me because they were so far behind. I told them to get off those mules because the birds were running off before they cou
ld get to them.
"We finally found that covey at 9 a.m.," he added. "They never got back on those mules, and they were in birds from then on. We met the other group at lunch. My three had 20-something birds, but the other three wouldn't get off their mules. They only had six or seven birds. We went back out that afternoon, and my group killed another 18 or 20 birds. The other guys got seven or eight, and it was like that the next day, too."
A similar situation happened with a group from Georgia. Half of the group hunted on foot with Pierce and killed a good number of birds. The other half didn't. By the second day, Pierce's bunch was starting to wear out, while the other group was growing dispirited.
The third day arrived with 3 inches of snow!
"I said it was going to be really good, and them boys limited out," Pierce said. "We were in birds like you couldn't believe. They were out trying to feed, and they couldn't get away from the dogs. These ol' boys played football together, and they wouldn't let one outdo the other. They just shot and shot and shot. Man, there were a lot of birds!"
Pierce guided another hunter last year that surely had the most memorable hunt of his life. Pierce's dogs were working several big coveys toward the middle of a pasture. The birds were running, and the dogs were taking their time, circling the pasture in tightening arcs.
"The coveys got to running together, and when we finally cornered them in the middle, about 100 birds took to the air," Pierce said. "That ol' boy had an over-and-under shotgun, and he just stood there with his mouth open. He never pulled the trigger.
"For hunters who have never seen stuff like that, it's hard to explain what's going on," he continued. "The trick is, by late season, those birds have learned not to fly. They'll do whatever it takes to keep from flying. They'll run like crazy, or they'll dig in and let you step on them unless a dog gets them up. If scenting conditions aren't right, heck, even good dogs can't find 'em."
To book a hunt with Danny Pierce, call (580) 655-4690.
For Jeff Dillard of Enid, quail hunting is a passion to be savored like fine wine. A partner in Drop Tine Guided Hunts (580-438-2668), Dillard and his colleagues lease several ranches west of Enid. These areas are full of wild birds, but since most of Dillard's clients are more interested in hunting deer, the quail aren't bothered much. The few who pay to bird hunt find the experience unforgettable.
"We took a group out from Enid last year," Dillard said. "There were five, counting my guide. They had a good hunt. They moved five coveys. If they could have shot a little better, they could have limited out with no problem. They killed 30-some-odd birds, and that was just an afternoon hunt."
Personally, Dillard enjoyed one of his best hunts last year, thanks to a cancellation.
"At the tail end of last season, we had some guys coming from Tennessee," Dillard recalled. "They wanted to hunt here before going to Mexico, but they decided not to come here because of time. Four of us went out and moved nine coveys in four to six hours. We killed right at our limit.
"A lot of those coveys were 10 to 15 birds, but one covey had about 30 birds in it," he added. "We already moved three coveys before we hit that big one."
Like Western Oklahoma, the area around Enid has a lot of bluestem prairie, sandhills and plum thickets. Dillard and his colleagues run pointers to find birds, but they also have a couple of Brittanies to find dead and crippled birds.
"In our area, pointers are nice to range out," he explained. "Around here it's pretty flat so you can see a dog working a long ways off, but they're like bulldozers. They don't want to stop for anything. I like Brittanies when a bird gets knocked down, especially in heavy cover."
While late-season hunting is always good, Dillard always looks forward to his Christmas hunts. They're special for many reasons, not the least being the great shooting they always provide.
"A few years ago, I went with a friend on Christmas morning over to a place that borders my granddad's," Dillard said. "There was about 8 to 10 inches of snow on the ground, and it seemed like every covey for miles around was in there. They were all together, and we were chasing them around through the haygrazers (sorghum stalks). The haygrazers were over our heads, and we could hardly swing our guns, but we did kill our limit before noon, before we ate Christmas dinner.
"The next day, we went out with some buddies and they were still there," he added. "As soon as the snow melted, they just vanished."
A hunt with Drop Tine costs $250 per day. Along with Dillard, Drop Tine partners are Monty Doty (580-237-1006), Dick Broomfield (580-883-4436) and John Hamand (580-438-2650). All are avid bird hunters.
Although Charles Dodson puts most of his clients on liberated birds, he still enjoys hunting wild birds in the mesquite thickets around Lawton in the southwestern part of the state. Unlike northern and Western Oklahoma, the country around Lawton is rugged and unforgiving. If you move a covey, you have to shoot quickly before the birds melt into the mesquite. If you kill birds, finding them in that tangled mess can be a chore. On the other hand, plentiful birds make the hunting worth the trouble.
"With wild birds, this year I'd say a guy could get into 10 to 15 coveys a day pretty easy," Dodson said. "We hunt them on the North Fork River. We take nine dogs and hunt them three at a time, just me and some buddies. By the time we're done, we're plumb wore out, and we've plumb wore out nine dogs, and we might not kill four birds all day. It don't matter, though, 'cause it's so much fun.
"Those birds over there are some kind of wild," he added. "Dogs don't even get close to them. There's all that sagebrush and stickers, not to mention walking up and down those sand dunes. Those birds will fly through the trees, or just barely go over the top of them. You can't hardly walk in those mesquite thickets, and every bird in that place will get in there eventually. It's all hip-shooting in there."
Obviously, that's too much for older hunters, so Dodson tames it down for them a bit with liberated birds. They're not as cagey as wild birds, but the thick cover still makes for some challenging shooting. Dodson guides each group, he furnishes the dogs, and he treats his guests to dinner at a local restaurant.
To book a trip, contact Dodson at (580) 597-6609 or (580) 585-2413.
As mentioned earlier, Oklahoma had a banner year for quail reproduction, especially in the western half of the state. If you want to hunt public land, you can enjoy some excellent hunting this year at places like Sandy Sanders WMA (19,100 acres) in Greer and Beckham counties, Cooper WMA (16,000 acres) in Harper and
Woodward counties, and Fort Supply WMA (5,418 acres) in Woodward County.
The hunting should also be good at Black Kettle and Rita Blanca national grasslands. Public areas can get pretty crowded on weekends. For the best hunting and the most enjoyable experience, try to hunt during the week, if possible.
While its quail have had their problems, Oklahoma is still one of the best states for hunting wild birds, and this season should be one of the best we've seen in a long time. Maybe Warren and I can even talk Dave into giving it another try!
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