Habitat & Conservation  |  03/16/2020

Overcoming Barriers to Bobwhites

By Curtis Niedermier

Somewhere I read that, on the eve of opening day of quail season, the secretary of famed writer and Southern bobwhite quail hunter Havilah Babcock, a college English professor, would hang a sign on Babcock’s office door, telling students and faculty that the professor would be out sick the next day. 

Luckily for Babcock, his prime in life coincided with the golden era of quail hunting in the South in the early 20th century. It was a time when even college professors hunted small game, and all a middle-class bird hunter had to do to hunt up a mess of quail was, apparently, skip out on work. 

These days, it sometimes seems like hunting bobwhites is less about skipping work and more about working your ass off. Due to habitat loss and changes in land use practices, bobwhite populations have succumbed to the reaper throughout most of the bird’s native range.

While there are bastions of wild bobwhite hunting on the southern plains and in the Red Hills region along the Florida-Georgia border, and small pockets of great hunting in places such as southern Iowa and elsewhere, a lot of folks would have a hard time considering today to be part of the bobwhite glory years. To the pessimist the barriers are simply too high.

I’m more optimistic about the current situation. I didn’t live through Babcock’s era, or the generation that came after his. I was born around the transition from Gen X to Millennial. No matter if the hunting is good or bad, these are the only years I’m going to get. That’s why, in my opinion, adding the “glory” to these years is up to me. 

I don’t live in one of those modern quail strongholds, either. I was born in Ohio and now live in western Kentucky. They’re old “bobwhite belt” states where the number of birds and hunters have waned. For me, hunting quail takes a lot of work – also windshield time and, often, credit card swipes. That’s OK. They say most things worth doing aren’t easy, and they are right in this instance.

I really think becoming a quail hunter should be just a little hard. It’s like pledging a fraternity, but with fewer keg stands: If you make it, you’ll always belong, and that’s special. There are hundreds of thousands of big game hunters in this country, but quail hunters enjoy a more exclusive club. Assuming you’re not interested in paying to hunt on upscale plantation properties or shooting liberated birds, which isn’t really hunting anyway, you can go a la Carte or all in on your bobwhite addiction. 

A la Carte quail hunters dabble in the sport. To them, bobwhites sometimes get treated as bonus birds; occasional craft beers to six-pack pilsner drinkers. They’re season extenders for Midwestern pheasant hunters who like to travel south in the winter or bycatch birds in areas that pheasant and quail ranges overlap, where a lot of quail have been missed by surprised hunters who loaded up with No. 5s and expected a rooster pheasant. 

Treating them that way is fine. I’d never criticize. After all, my love for bobwhites isn’t exclusive. I’m guilty of hunting around – checking off as many upland species as a guy with a job and kids can. But I always come home to quail. I pursuit the birds with real intention all season long. There’s nothing “bonus” about them. For me, I’m all in.

How you get to that point depends on where you live and what you want out of a hunting season. From Virginia to Florida, Louisiana to southern Illinois and most of Missouri, plus many places in between, you can still hear a bobwhite whistle on a summer evening. If your home is in that zone, you can probably find a covey or two during a weekend of hunting on public or private land if you put in enough time scouting, asking permission and walking. 

That’s how I did it when I started almost a decade ago. Still new to Kentucky, I was living in a crummy rental out in the county when, while standing at the grill one evening, I watched a quail run out into my yard from a 50-acre CRP field. That bird set me in motion.
I visited the courthouse the next week and tracked down several local landowners. By fall, I had permission to hunt that 50-acre farm as well as two larger properties around it, as long as I promised to wait until after deer season.
I could take you to the place where I flushed my first wild covey that year. I was walking south along a shallow, wet draw when I came to a corner formed by a narrow swath of honeysuckle and timber that snaked away to the west. There at the intersection, from the short grass and brambles, about a dozen quail got up in a staggered flush. I dropped the last bird. 

That little bobwhite was my patient zero as I began to figure out how to become a real quail hunter. For me, it started locally. Getting permission really wasn’t too hard. The one positive of living in this deer-obsessed era is that small-game hunters can get access easily if they wait until after the rut to ask.

Plus, most of the landowners where I live are former quail hunters or have a connection to it. Maybe their dad or grandpa raised Brittany spaniels, or they grew up hunting birds after church. Each time I’d meet one, if I could get them started reminiscing, I could go ahead and start planning how to get to the best fencerows from any wind direction. It was a lock. 

You might have a tougher time where you live, but I suspect it’s easier than you think, if you’re enthusiastic and follow the basic protocol for such matters. Eventually, we all want to hunt bigger and better parcels.

Thankfully, for that, there are wonderful bobwhite habitat restoration projects happening on public land throughout the Southeast. Here in the Kentucky coal belt, I’ve had some great days hunting a reclaimed strip mine that was converted to a wildlife management area. There are other reclaimed mining properties leased for public hunting that I just haven’t made it to yet. The birds that live in these jungles of honeysuckle and serecia lespedeza are tough to find and tougher to kill, but they’re there for the hunter who’s willing to shred his chaps to try.

Partnerships between Quail Forever, Tall Timbers Research Station and several state wildlife agencies have improved large tracts of good habitat in other Southeastern states, too. All of these projects give quail a foothold to hang in there, and new hunters another opportunity. If you want to be a quail hunter and want to stay close to home, you better know these areas well.

But then, there’s a big world out there for the bobwhite enthusiast. Eventually, you’ll want to travel, and travel you should.

For every day I spend hunting in Kentucky, I probably spend two or three hunting out of state, mostly on the southern plains. In fact, I’ve come to know some covers in Kansas better than my home turf. It’s not exceptionally hard to find hunting grounds, either, thanks to onX Maps and the willingness of local biologists to dish out intel to out-of-state hunters.

Anyone east of Mountain Time Zone is only a day – maybe a day and a half – drive from great quail hunting in states like Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri, where public lands have enjoyed an uptick in quail numbers and internet research can direct you to good habitat. 

Hunting out of state takes a different level of commitment, but it’s worth it to me. Here at home, I view every bird is a survivor; a throwback to another area. They’re trophies, and I treat them as such. When I travel to places like Kansas, I set loftier goals. Being a quail hunter can’t only be about honoring some bird, after all. It’s also about killing quail. And Kansas has got ’em.

Depending how far you live and your work situation, forays into the heart of bobwhite country don’t need to be limited to a once-a-year trip, and you don’t have to burn through your PTO time, either.

Here’s my strategy for a minimal-expense central Kansas hunt: I pull out at 4 a.m. on a Friday morning, put in 10 hours behind the wheel and spend the last few hours of daylight with my shorthair, roaming fields that we scouted online beforehand. Then I hunt all day Saturday, a half-day on Sunday and still make it home before midnight so I can be back at work on Monday morning. (Adjust accordingly for your home and destination.)

It’s a grind, but I pull it off a few times most years, saving money by tent or truck camping, or bumming a bed off friends that live in or on the way to bird country. I also pack my food, and stick with states that sell season-long out-of-state licenses to keep the costs down. I treat my trips more like backcountry hunting excursions than the hotel-and-diner experience that a lot of upland hunters prefer. 

Regardless of accommodations, this type of road trip bird hunting really defines the modern era of upland hunting for most of us Easterners as we have to travel farther and search harder for birds.
It’s challenging, but this style of hunting suits me. While I don’t think I’d ever get bored walking the same fields every season if I lived in western Oklahoma or some place like it, I’d certainly always wonder what else was out there. I’d miss the run-and-gun nature of a public land road trip, the gravel road grind, the excitement of casting a pointer into the wind in foreign fields. 

To me, those are the rewards of being a quail hunter, no matter how high the barriers that stand in the way.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to see more, join Quail Forever today