It’s early evening, January 12, 2010. With three days of quail season remaining, I read through my hunting and fishing journal. The journal records a good season. Quail numbers on most of my hunting spots are up. (I hunt mostly private ground in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Perry and Scott counties.) I’ve hunted 58 times, and on 90 percent of my hunts this year my two pointers have found quail. Covey sizes have averaged between 10 and 20 quail—plenty big enough to bag a few.
The past five seasons, on most of the farms I hunt, quail numbers had been down. The 2004–2005 season offered so few quail that halfway through the season, though I continued to hunt, I quit taking a shotgun. I was finding few coveys, and those often held fewer than eight birds—just enough to provide breeding stock for the next year. My dogs got used to my not shooting when they pointed. The no-shoot hunts kept my dogs in shape and sharp on finding quail. But that did little for their skill at finding and handling downed birds. I also missed having family and friends over for quail dinners.
What made for more quail on my hunting spots for the 2009–2010 season? I don’t know. Habitat—the essential key to healthy populations of all wildlife— had not changed much. Maybe the mild spring and summer made for better nesting and chick survival. Quail populations can rebound with one good nesting season.
I close my journal and my thoughts turn to tomorrow’s quail hunt. I plan to hunt a private farm not four miles from my house. The farm, of several hundred acres, is managed mostly for cattle. Where there are cattle, the fields and fences are kept clean, and there are few quail. But on the east side of the farm, the landowner grows grain crops on about 60 acres, and this spot offers classic quail habitat: hilly, no-till grain fields under 20 acres, flanked by small woodlots and surrounded by fencerows so overgrown with brush that they stand as 30-foot-wide hedgerows. One of the grain fields holds two strips of wet ground that extend for almost the length of the field. The farmer lets these strips grow up in weeds and sprays or brush hogs them every other year or so to control woody sprouts. Quail have everything they need in this small area: food, water, nesting habitat, bare ground for quail chicks to get around in, and escape cover for the quail to avoid predators.
This year I have found two coveys living in this spot, one of 12 birds on the north side, and one of about 20 birds on the south side. I’ve hunted the area seven times and taken a grand total of three quail. My dogs have pointed at least one of the coveys every time I hunted the place, but usually on the edge of the escape cover—the overgrown fencerows and the woodlots—and these spots were so thick that I had no way to raise my gun to shoot.
My strategy for hunt number eight is to bring a friend of mine, Mark Haas. Mark is a retired MDC fisheries biologist for our region and a longtime hunting and fishing buddy. At least if we get a point along the overgrown fence rows, one of us can be in good position to shoot when the other fights his way into the brush to flush the birds.
The weather for tomorrow is forecast to be clear with a low temperature in the 20s and highs in the mid-30s. About an inch of snow remains on the ground from a moderate snow a few days earlier. I tell Mark to meet me at my house at 8:30 a.m. and that we will hunt all morning and then have lunch at my house. Starting a little later in the morning should allow the snow and ground to thaw, which will be easier on my dogs’ feet.
The Buddy System
As always, Mark arrives right on time.
“How you doing, Mark!” he booms, over a big smile and a handshake. “Long time no see!”
That, of course, is a joke. Like Mark, I’m retired, and we hunt and fish together—lots. Our last quail hunt was a couple of days ago.
At our hunting spot, with guns uncased and loaded, I put my dogs at heel and begin the 200-yard walk to the area that holds quail. When we get there I release the dogs, and then watch them carefully. My dogs are pointers. As with most, they run hard and range out, often a couple hundred yards or more, particularly at the beginning of a hunt when they are brimming with energy. The east side of this cornfield, a little more than 200 yards away, is bordered by a state highway. It doesn’t see a lot of traffic, but the traffic it does see is moving 60 miles an hour— a deadly hazard for dogs. I’ve trained my dogs to come to my whistle, but I still want them in sight. In a matter of minutes, the dogs run all the way down the north woods’ edge, all the way to the road and along its edge, and all the way up the closest swath of grass.
“Good dogs!” I praise as the dogs run to me and then turn and start down the overgrown fencerow to the west. Fifty yards ahead, Wendy, my oldest dog, out of a dead run, spins to a stop and points at the base of a modest-sized Osage orange growing out of the fencerow. Belle, seeing Wendy point, also locks on point—what quail hunters call “honoring.” I tell both dogs “whoa,” a command that gives me control over their pointing instinct.
“Okay, Mark,” I tell my hunting buddy. “Cross through the fence here below the dogs and position yourself on the other side directly across from the dogs. That way, if the birds fly through, you’ll be in position to shoot if birds fly either left or right.”
I hold Mark’s gun then hand it to him after he fights his way through the thick cover and crosses the fence. With Mark in position, I walk in front of the dogs. Nothing flushes. I walk further and stomp in the brush. In the light snow that still covers the ground I see no quail tracks. I give the dogs their release command and, with tails wagging a fast beat, they nose their way into the cover.
Sometimes my dogs point animals other than quail, such as squirrels or rabbits or mice. I call these false points. Some hunters reprimand their dogs for these points, but I don’t. I just never shoot any game over my dogs other than birds.
The dogs have slowed and are now carefully hunting the fencerow cover, which extends close to 300 yards. Mark stays on one side, me on the other. As we walk, we check each other’s pace so we’re not ahead or behind one another. Hunter orange hats and vests help us keep track.
Mark and I and the dogs work up and down the fencerow— twice—and find no quail. So we walk to the south cornfield— the spot the 20-bird covey calls home. This area has a 15-acre woods that borders to the west, which was logged heavily three or four years ago. The woods floor is a tangle of downed and decaying treetops, overgrown with weeds— a perfect place for quail to hide and find food. It’s so thick I’ve found no way to walk through it.
A draw, more than 40 yards wide and grown up in trees and thick brush, splits the cornfield on the east side and offers another place for quail to find refuge. An overgrown fencerow forms the border of the property to the south. Though my dogs have pointed the big covey in this area several times, I’ve only managed to take two quail out of it. We cover the ground carefully but find no quail—not even tracks. I do find one fresh roost—a circular pile of quail droppings at the edge of the draw. My guess is the covey is in the woodlot that’s too thick to walk through.
I put the dogs at heel, and Mark and I cross the statehighway to hunt another promising section of the farm. As we walk, we comment how people who know little about hunting often assume that it is easy. Hunters know better. The quail we are hunting today are masters of survival. They face the threat of predation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they are highly skilled at avoiding being killed and eaten.
So far today, Mark and I have walked for more than two hours, with mature dogs that have been specifically trained to find quail, over ground that I know holds quail, and we’ve seen not one. Even if we find quail at this last spot, bagging a few is anything but guaranteed. Quail flush with tremendous speed and often quickly get brush between them and hunters. Cooper’s hawks—masters at hunting birds—don’t kill every quail they chase. And we don’t hit every quail we shoot at.
This last spot offers two cut soybean fields with several thickets and a railroad track on the east side flanked by trees and thick brush. At the north edge of one of the bean fields, I finally find fresh quail tracks in the snow. The tracks wander here and there, not far from the thicket, and I can see where, in search of beans, the quail picked at stubble. I whistle the dogs in and tell them “birds!” They put their noses to the ground, then head to the thicket and hunt thoroughly—with no luck. Where did these birds go? I look at my watch. It’s closing in on noon and time to head home.
Again, I walk the dogs at heel as we cross the highway on the way back to my truck. As a last effort, I let the dogs run through the north woods patch that they just edged at the beginning of the hunt. They find no quail.
Back home I kennel and feed my dogs, then warm up leftover lasagna and rolls. I mix up a little coleslaw, and Mark and I enjoy these along with strawberry-rhubarb pie for dessert. As we eat and chat we review the hunt.
What a morning! It would have been nice to bring home a few quail. But, hey, we were outdoors on a crisp winter day, and it’s not over. Tomorrow, Mark and I will hunt ducks at Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area. The next day, the last day of quail season, we plan to quail hunt in Scott County with another good friend—making the most of every moment as we live and enjoy the challenge of the hunt.