Public-Land Quail Coast to Coast

245eaa2a-1106-4b9f-9edf-b72ace368d53 By David M. Zumbaugh

Quite by accident, we found a healthy bevy of bobwhites. I was returning to the truck after a successful waterfowl shoot, burdened with blind bag, gun, and pulling a bulging sled of decoys and a plump bunch of puddle ducks, when, from my peripheral view, I espied my wirehaired pointer staunch as stone. Thinking it might have been a wayward mallard, I released her to a startling flush of brown bombers that exploded from an unlikely marshy glade. 

The next Saturday found us in the same vicinity with the proper gear and attitudes. I was amazed my little Mota girl found five coveys with twelve points, producing six birds for the table. The good news? This hunt was on the Fort Riley Army installation in central Kansas. The property is managed for wildlife by post biologists, with nearly 60,000 acres open for public recreation. Obviously, restrictions apply, but bonus birds include both greater prairie chickens and pheasants.

This is just one example of expansive hunting opportunities for the six species of quail found in the United States. Some would have you believe that public hunting areas are devoid of game and not worth your time. However, I have found that other than opening weekends and holidays in November and December, there are plenty of vacant public properties one can indeed find sport. Most states have printed on-line guides to direct you to these likely coverts. Overlaying these maps with Google satellite views can dial you in even more. Other mobile apps, such as onX Hunt, are as important as a reliable shotgun these days. Special regulations might apply, such as non-toxic shot requirements, so do your homework and be prepared. 

Literally millions of acres of public land are available to break in a new pair of boots and pursue quail, including those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, national forests, national parks and national grasslands; all federally administered properties. Most states where quail reside have some form of wildlife management areas or leased properties that offer a chance to whiff on a brown-feathered rocket. 

Be advised regulations on these lands can change annually, so keep up on the rules. Obviously, appropriate gear and hunting togs for humans and dogs vary widely by geography from America’s marshes to deserts. From my experience, quality, comfortable footwear, hydration systems and a compass cannot be overlooked, while a roll of Charmin should be first on the checklist.

Quail Forever is dedicated to preserving existing hunting properties, adding new acres, increasing access, and improving habitat on public lands through various programs and partnerships. Here are just a few examples.

Restoring Southeastern Bobwhite Habitat on National Forests

Contrary to popular belief, there are vast swaths of national forest land east of the Mississippi River, and wherever you find southeastern national forests, you can usually find Quail Forever chapters actively involved in turning it into quail habitat.  

The Florida-Georgia Quail Coalition was established in 2015 to improve quail populations in the Apalachicola National Forest. This partnership between Quail Forever, Tall Timbers Research Station, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has robust ambitions. Research has shown burning underbrush in the longleaf pine forest returns nutrients to the sandy soil, enhancing the emergent growth of forbs, thereby increasing insect populations which are choice morsels for fledgling bobwhites. 

“Studies have verified we get optimum success by reducing the scope of prescribed burn acres by switching to smaller, mosaic-patterned burn tactics,” says Kenny Barker, Regional Development Manager for Quail Forever.
This forest is nearly 600,000 acres with public hunting allowed, including the quail focus area (with restrictions). Further research includes radio tracking of adults and chicks to determine preferred gathering places in all seasons. The Red Hills Chapter of QF based in Tallahassee, Florida has donated $45,000 to support these efforts.

In South Carolina, renowned outdoor storyteller and bobwhite quail-hunting disciple Havilah Babcock would be proud of the Lowcountry QF Chapter. Its conservation efforts have been focused on the 258,000-acre Francis Marion National Forest. Specifically, brood-rearing habitat has been created by clearing two-acre wildlife meadow openings in the timber. Chapter members are ardent promoters of public lands and are committed to creating hunting opportunities for youth, novice and experienced hunters.

Eliminating “Quail Islands” Through Public/Private partnerships

Missouri, once considered a quail hunting hotspot, is still a state where great quail hunts can be had and where hunters and conservationists are passionate about increasing quail numbers.  
In recent years, the Missouri Department of Conservation has worked with partners to conduct new research on quail habitat use. This research is shifting the quail habitat management paradigm toward the management of natural communities, like native grasslands and open woodlands. With this new information and input from Quail Forever biologists and chapters they have identified seventeen Quail Restoration Landscapes within the state.

These areas that have the potential for quail restoration, are anchored by an MDC Conservation Area, and are surrounded by private land where interest in quail restoration is high.  Aggressive habitat management will be conducted on these public lands and surrounding private landowners will receive additional incentives, through Quail Forever and MDC cost-share, to help with habitat management.  Much of this habitat management will take place on, and compliment, diverse agricultural operations.  It will include practices such as summer cattle grazing on native forages, increasing disturbance on CRP fields, and converting odd areas that are not profitable to farm to quail habitat.
The resulting, larger, public/private habitat complexes will avoid the “quail island’ situations that commonly result from efforts that focus just on public land. Dave Hoover, Small Game Coordinator for MDC, oversees the program and states, “This is not a sprint, it is a marathon and will take time. If available resources remain in place, success can be achieved.” 

Examples are Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, Robert E. Talbot, Whetstone, and Bunch Hollow Conservation Areas.  Bunch Hollow falls within the 2C Quail Restoration Landscape and thanks to the collaborative efforts of MDC, Quail Forever, and many other partners quail numbers of nearly 1 bird/acre have been documented in a 5,000-acre section of the 2C Quail Restoration Landscape for the past 2 years. 

“These efforts show that we know how to recover bobwhite quail populations.  Our challenge is repeating this success across the landscape,” says Quail Forever’s Missouri State Coordinator, Casey Bergthold.

Improving Habitat and Safeguarding Public Access in the West

The West, with its vast tracts of public land and generally more arid environment, offers some unique opportunities for public-land conservation work in the areas of public access and habitat improvements to increase water retention and riparian habitat.
Chip Whittlock of the Valley of the Sun QF Chapter in Arizona says, “people who like to shoot and those who hunt collide at the intersection of sporting dogs. We have leveraged this unity to fund projects and provide labor to Arizona Game and Fish to open 2,500 acres for hunting on the Robbins Butte Wildlife Area.” This wonderful biome lies within the Gila River Corridor and is the winter home for 140 avian species, including Gambel’s quail.
Another ambitious QF public-land project will help enable access to 32,000 acres in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest after private landowners decided to shut down access through private property. Members of the Southern Arizona QF Chapter rallied to lobby the U.S. Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish to plan, fund and get approvals to build new roads into the area, as well as improve desert quail habitat. 

“We invested sweat equity and $30,000 to construct rock dams for water retention and thinned trees to prevent wildfires,” says Chapter President Zach May. “These massive desert areas are home to Mearns’, Gambel’s and scaled quail and are bucket list destinations. The chapter is also assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-establish masked bobwhite quail on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Arizona.”

Farther west in California, Quail Forever chapters have volunteered for years to maintain and improve “quail Guzzlers” on the national forests located in southern California. 

A “Quail Guzzler” is basically a big apron that collects rainwater in a large water holding tank with a small drinker where quail can come get water in during the dry parts of the month, and most of these guzzlers were built in the 1950s.Over 300 of these guzzlers are maintained by QF chapters and without the dedication of these volunteers these guzzlers would no longer be functional and providing quail with a reliable water source. The Ventura Chapter of Quail Forever is just one QF chapter that has voluntarily taken on the responsible for nearly 70 guzzlers in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.
No matter where you live in quail country, there is probably some type of public land within a short drive of your house, and chances are Quail Forever has had a hand in making it better or more accessible. So there are no excuses. Get on the bicycle, treadmill or jump in the lap pool to up your fitness level and get out there and explore. Consider an outing on National Public Lands Day, September 28. Your anxious canine is just as excited to explore new scents on the wind.
Don’t let anyone fool you, there is opportunity to don hunter orange and encounter wild birds, if you conduct some research and invest in proper gear. After all, most of us bird hunt to primarily enjoy the dog work. A few birds in the bag are a bonus to make any adventure worthwhile.

This story originally appeared in the fall issue of Quail Forever Journal. Become a member today.