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The Pilot

The Pilot
The Pilot

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Old Days and Places: Quail Hunting - A Measure of Class

...I felt the solid recoil nudge against my shoulder and heard the muffled pop of the shotgun echo across the draw. The bird rocketed across the opening then at the report of the shotgun crumpled and fell near a tangled mess of vines. My old Friend Ralph blurted out, "Good Shot..." as I sauntered over to my small trophy and examined it...

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Based on the Oklahoma Backcountry article from August 2002.

I have lived in many places scattered across several states but my ancestral home is Oklahoma. For many years I traveled across its landscape in search of hunting and fishing opportunities. Over those years hunting for quail became one of the grandest and exciting forms of hunting I was able to participate in and historically Oklahoma possessed some of the best quail populations in the country. This article was written originally for the old Oklahoma Backcountry website about 15 years ago before we moved to Kentucky. I hope you enjoy this special look into what is truly a sport with a measure of class.

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Any day spent afield hunting develops its own aura and magic. No two are ever alike. A rising sun casting a glow into wispy clouds or that feeling of change in the air when the first cold front blows in and the weather shifts. There is the wide open fun of an opening day dove hunt, the quiet reflexion and humbling atmosphere that hovers around the campfire at deer camp, and the exhilarating rush of the frigid days of duck hunting. They all contribute to the collective memories a hunter builds over time. But, one kind of hunting stands apart from all the rest; one that retains a measure of class and represents everything good about the outdoor world.

Who can forget the aggressive nature of a noble pointer working heavy cover, then spin and lock on point just before a covey of quail explodes at your feet. When you  finally react and lock onto that blur as it rockets away and feel the recoil  of a favorite shotgun, then to finally hold in hand one of natures survival experts, well, most people are forever changed by the experience of quail hunting.


The dominant colors across the Eastern Oklahoma landscape in late November is burnt tan and gray. Accented with a chilling wind, steel blue sky laced with high, thin clouds, and the encroaching dark green of Oklahoma's red cedar, a typical November day hunting in Oklahoma can run anywhere from unseasonably   warm to wintry cold. I remember it being somewhere in the low 40’s, maybe a little overcast and breezy those twenty odd years ago when Ralph and I worked our way down the eastern edge of the Verdigris River then up a tangled draw in pursuit of bobwhite quail. The draw tapered from about 50 yards wide to close to 75 yards wide and snaked between two plowed fields bracketed by thick woods. Across the outer edges bordering the plowed field, stood banks of thick, neck-high grass. Inside the draw it was more open with saplings, tangles of vines, brushy river cane and a soft semi-muddy bottom. Old Dooley, Ralph's liver and white Brit, diligently worked the cover as we strolled through the center of the draw for the first couple hundred yards. By then the high grass along the edges looked so temping we split up with one of us working the upper, more difficult path, and the other staying inside the draw.


I carried my old Stevens 16 gauge side by side, loaded with number 8 field loads and Ralph lugged his old 12 gauge Winchester Model 1894 thumb buster as he called it. I really miss that old 16 gauge. It was one fine quail gun with its relatively short barrels and modified/full chokes. It would swing as lightly as a broomstick and looked like a classic with its refinished walnut stock. It was great in heavy cover like we were encountering on that day.

As cool as it was, it didn't take long to work up a sweat stomping around in the thick grass, but the effort paid off. I don't remember how large the covey was, maybe eight or ten birds, but they busted out of the grass right at my feet and before I could react, scattered across the draw. A few of them flew down the edge; most flew into the draw and crossed in front of Ralph. With Ralph's not so good hearing, I yelled at him and he spotted them as they randomly sat down inside the tangles and along the opposite edge. Old Dooley, Ralph's liver and white Brittany Spaniel was birdy for the rest of the morning with all the quail scent floating around in there. As we worked up the draw we’d flush a single here, a double there. After the first couple of flushes, the old 16 gauge once again snapped to my shoulder and swung with the flutter that erupted a few yards in front of me. The bird rocketed up then across the opening then at the report of the shotgun crumpled and fell near a tangled mess of vines. My old Friend Ralph blurted out, "Good Shot..." as I sauntered over to my small trophy and examined it. To my surprise, it was not a quail but a migratory woodcock, the first I'd ever shot or seen in the field.

Woodcock are not all that common that far west, but some stragglers do migrate through the eastern edges of Oklahoma even as far west as Tulsa. The cane and tangle infested draw was the perfect holding area for them with its muddy bottom and tall thickets. Being the migrants they are, they stop over in these soft bottom areas to feed by poking their odd looking snout into the mud in search of worms. I can't remember how many birds we collected that day, but we had good action, good dog work, and our aim was good enough to place a few birds in our game bags. That year was a good year for quail, as were the next few years following.

We'd return to that draw on a regular basis, made an occasional foray ‘out at Morris’ and other assorted places, and made trips to Hitchita, where we almost froze on a bitterly cold, snow spitting winter day, and the Okmulgee game refuge. Two of the largest covey rises I have ever witnessed occurred in those two places. Can't say for sure how many birds got up, it seemed like a hundred or more, but was probably closer to forty or fifty. Both rises erupted in slow motion like a dark, thundering cloud when they busted, one at the end of a narrow draw and one on the edge of some heavy cover. I've never witnessed such large covey rises as those two times. It was truly an amazing example of how quail can and will survive and repopulate an area given good habitat.


For a good number of years I all but stopped quail hunting. The dogs got to old, or other events syphoned off what available time there was to get out.  Maybe it was more of an observation than anything, but not long ago I couldn't recall the last time I had jumped any quail, except for an isolated single or an occasional brace of birds seen running along the edge of the road. Way to much time has gone by since I've seen a covey of any consequence while out in the field. I've not forgotten the good times, the long hikes, the crisp wind in my face, and the sound of a covey rise. My good friend Rocky and I spent many a day in the field chasing after old Mr. Bob White. I do miss those days.

So, where have all the quail gone? The experts say the habitat is all messed up. Some hunters claim there are too many hawks that prey on the young birds, and skunks and raccoons that get into the nests, and even domestic cats take their toll. A lot of blame is placed on finicky weather and disease or some combination of the two. Some even say there's been too much hunting pressure. I tend to think, at least in part, it is because of all the above. About 80 percent of the quail are lost each year whether they are hunted or not, so hunting pressure has little effect on the overall population, unless of course the population is severely or adversely stressed from other factors. Historically, quail can bounce back rather quickly even after their numbers are reduced, but when you have habitat problems combined with too many predators and weather too hot, or too wet, or too dry, or too cold, then factor in some bird disease. It's a wonder the quail populations still exist at all. Unfortunately, some hunters think they must shoot every bird they see and forget or simply do not understand that you must leave enough birds in an area so they can survive and rebuild the covey. The old saying ‘Leave some for seed’ is a valid statement and a vital practice for today’s quail hunting environment. Oklahoma still ranks as one of the best quail states in the country, and there are still pockets of good quail populations, mostly on private land, but the old haunts I used to always find quail in just don’t produce anymore.

Sometimes in the spring or late summer would drive the twenty miles or so northwest of my home in Edmond and scan the open prairie and wheat fields of central Oklahoma. Along those back roads I'll stop and listen to the sounds of the prairie and feel the hot wind blowing across the open ranges. If I stay long enough, I'll usually hear the unmistakable high pitched 'Bahb....Whhite' whistle somewhere out in the tall grasses. It is comforting to know they are still there, still surviving in spite of the pressure placed on them from urban sprawl and the whims of nature. My home is in Kentucky now which offers it own adventure rewards, but quail hunting here is sporatic at best. Even so, I will often hike around the edge of the cornfields behind my house and will on occasion jump a small covey. When I do, I am transported back to those days in Oklahoma hiking the edge cover of a tangled draw where the quail loved to hide.

My old friend Ralph is gone now, but I will never forget those red-letter days of quail hunting we experienced all those years ago. I only hope the future holds the same for the generation coming up behind us. For now, I'll bet on the new generation of hunters and on the quail. I think they'll be around for a long time and will bounce back with a little help from nature, and a greater understanding from landowners and hunters. I plan on being there, to continue with and to pass on that legacy, with possibly a new hunting dog, a renewed spirit, and respect for a classic upland bird, and maybe another old 16 gauge, double barrel shotgun.

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