As you read this, quail hunting season opened up just a few days ago in the normally bobwhite and scaled quail-rich state of Texas, a wingshooting campaign this season that runs from Oct. 27, 2018 until Feb. 24, 2019.
True to form, plenty of pick-up trucks with four-wheelers on an accompanying trailer were observed in many small, dusty Texas towns over the last several days, along with dog boxes and orange clad bird hunters filing through the front door of many of the region's most popular diners.
That includes legendary spots like Mary's Cafe in Strawn, Texas, where the town's famous plate-sized chicken fried steak worked to fuel many hunter's appetites for a day of chasing pointing dogs running through the mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus flats, and thorny brush that usually harbors plenty of quail.
To the north of the Red River in Oklahoma, expect to see plenty of similar scenes at the local hamburger joints and Tex-Mex cafes in places like Cheyenne, Woodward, and Enid as bird hunters roll into town for the Sooner State's forthcoming quail opener as the season (Nov. 10, 2018 to Feb. 15, 2019) prepares to run its course.
While opening day brings excitement in both states, don't be surprised to hear some grumbling, too. Why is that? Because this year's quail hunting prospects aren't receiving the kind of up-tempo fanfare that wingshooters in both states have come to expect over the years.
Such grousing comes thanks to a 2018-19 quail hunting season forecast for Texas and Oklahoma that will be fair at best, poor at the worst, and likely somewhere between those two extremes. And as usual, you can blame the weatherman for at least some of that.
"Our surveys statewide indicate bobwhite numbers are below the 15-year average, and that's due mainly to the weather," said Robert Perez, upland game bird program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in a news release.
"That doesn't rule out hotspots where quail production did maintain some birds. Our surveys don't fine-tune down to the county level, but overall, right now it's just a big unknown."
Those 2018 projections are based on TPWD's annual statewide quail surveys, something that allows the Austin, Texas-based agency to monitor quail population fluctuations across the state since the surveys began back in 1978.
Using randomly selected, 20-mile long roadside survey lines, TPWD biologists are able to determine annual quail number trends in each of the state's various ecological regions versus numbers in previous years and the 15-year mean.
What does the number-crunching look like this year? Starting in the Cross Timbers and Prairie region of North Texas west and northwest of Fort Worth, TPWD says biologists noted 0.71 quail per survey route as compared to 6.11 a year ago and 2.89 in the long-term mean.
In the normally quail-rich Rolling Plains out towards Abilene, biologists observed 5.43 bobwhites per survey route in 2018 as compared to a staggering 26.72 birds per route in 2017 and some 19.63 birds in the 15-year mean.
The Texas Panhandle's High Plains region is a bright spot this year (where both bobwhites and scaled quail exist) since TPWD counted 15.78 birds per survey route this year. That's as compared to 18.33 a year ago and 9.91 in the long term mean.
Another bright spot for Texas is in the quail-rich Brush Country and plains down in South Texas near Laredo where TPWD biologists noted 10.48 quail per survey route this year as compared to 11.52 a year ago and 11.77 in the 15-year mean.
Finally, one more bright spot is out towards Alpine in the Trans-Pecos region of southwestern Texas where mostly scaled quail (also known as blue quail) are found. Out there, TPWD biologists found 11.80 quail per survey route as compared to 21.00 a year ago and 20.62 in the long term mean.
If overall quail numbers are down in most of Texas this year, it's due in large part to dry conditions last winter in prime bobwhite country, weather that left quail hens just barely able to scratch out any sort of existence.
“This past winter was exceptionally dry across all of quail country, especially in the Rolling Plains where some places went without any precipitation for 100 consecutive days,” noted Perez in TPWD's news release. “Unfortunately, these conditions can reduce the availability of foods like winter greens which are needed to get quail into breeding condition.
"Spring was also dry over much of these areas with few exceptions," Perez added. "Fortunately, quail are opportunistic when it comes to the breeding/nesting season and can take advantage of the rains even if they come late like they did this summer.”
But if there was any late nesting success in Texas, the recent fall flooding rains - along with the unseasonably cool weather of recent days - may not have helped those birds. Perez is hopeful, however, that late nesting birds escaped the flooding, enough to help fill in the gaps this year.
Things aren't any better to the north of the Red River this fall. In fact, biologists with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation note that during the agency's August 2018 roadside quail survey across the Sooner State, the statewide bobwhite quail index is some 74.5 percent below the 28-year historic average.
Biologists in Oklahoma note that a large portion of the Sooner State's quail decline may have stemmed from the significant drought conditions that gripped southwestern portions of the state this past winter, spring, and summer.
Much like their counterparts in Texas, ODWC has conducted annual roadside surveys in August and October since 1990 to index quail populations across the state. The Oklahoma survey provides an index of annual population fluctuations as biologists survey 83 20-mile long routes in 75 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.
Statewide, the 28-year average for Oklahoma is 5.54 quail observed per 20-mile route. This year, the statewide number is a dismal 1.41 quail observed per route.
In the south-central part of the state down near Ardmore and the Red River, it's even worse with zero quail observed per survey route this year as opposed to the long-term average of 2.1. And in the southwestern corner of the state toward Lawton, only one quail was observed per route versus the long-term average of 13.59 birds.
The state's best spot in 2018 appears to be the northwestern portion of Oklahoma near Woodward, where 3.5 quail were observed per route in 2018. That'scompared to 4.94 quail per route a year ago and 7.78 birds per route in the long term.
There is a glimmer of quail hunting hope in the Sooner State, however, since biologists with the Oklahoma City-based agency note that this year's decline could be influenced by observation error caused by the unseasonably thick vegetation across the state. That came thanks to wet conditions that have gripped most of the state since late June.
With the Sooner State's peak quail production seeming to occur later this year - perhaps as late as August as compared to the normal peak in mid-June - that could also be impacting the low August survey numbers.
Certainly numbers were down this August (1.41 bobwhites observed per 20-mile route) as compared to August 2017 (3.38 bobwhites observed per 20-mile route). But ODWC biologists point out that there is additional hope since juvenile bobwhites were observed in 55-percent of their samples this year. That means there was likely high survival rates for any quail that did hatch late this summer.
Fortunately, as TPWD's Perez notes, quail are opportunistic when it comes to the breeding/nesting season. Since they can readily take advantage of the late summer and early fall rains, there's hope for some late production success that could boost prospects in the normally quail rich states of the southern Great Plains.
That means there's still reason to load the pointers up, grab your favorite shotgun, and zip up your hunting vest filled with some quail hunting shotshell loads.
Do that and head afield over the next few months to see what might happen. Take a few birds here and there as the opportunity presents itself, but don't put too much hunting pressure on any one covey. All in all, enjoy the bird-dog and wingshooting experience this season and know that next year has a chance to be much better.
Why is that? Rain, rain, and more rain across the region this fall, something that always seems to rule the hunting season prospects in the Texas' and Oklahoma's quail-hunting world.