Lynn Burkhead — Hope remains for Texas quail hunting as season opens

Herald Democrat
Bobwhite quail were once fairly common in Grayson County and the remainder of the Red River Valley. But these days, a local upland bird hunting enthusiast will have to travel many miles south and west to find good quail hunting prospects as the Oct. 31-Feb. 28 season prepares to begin.

When I was a teenager going to Denison High School, there was a day back in the 1980s when I pulled into the parking area of the old Katy Golf Course, ready to play a round not far from the nearby MKT train tracks that the northern Grayson County community is famous for.

While memories can get fuzzy over time, I distinctly remember that when I parked near the nine-hole Crawford Street course, a few quail flushed from the nearby brush, Gentleman Bob’s living right in the middle of D-Town. While I never had that experience again, I would occasionally hear the melodic whistle of bobwhites signaling their midtown presence barely two miles from Munson Stadium.

A few years later in the early 1990s, around the time I started writing in this spot for the Sherman Democrat, I had another experience or two with Grayson County quail, going on several hunts near Whitesboro with Travis Maynard, Bob Drews and Doug Rodgers.

In fact, out in the garage, I think I still have one of the articles I wrote in the aftermath of one of those long ago hunts, one that has a photo of Travis, his trademark overalls and bird vest in place, bending low to take a bobwhite quail from the mouth of his late Brittany Spaniel named Bo.

It’s a wonderful memory, a story about a hunting era now long gone here in Grayson County, a time when upland bird hunters walked up behind the quivering points of bird dogs locked down on a covey of wild Texomaland quail. In fact, while a few scattered coveys might exist here and there locally, I don’t know of anyone who still hunts bobwhites in the local countryside.

Put simply, if you want to chase quail this fall, you can theoretically still do that locally thanks to the Oct. 31-Feb. 28 season that will open up this weekend across Texas. But if you want to have any real chance of taking a daily limit of 15 birds, odds are, you’ll have to load up the pickup, the dog box and the shotgun and travel many miles to the west or south to find any real quail hunting possibilities.

But even then, don’t expect too much for a 2020-21 quail season that, while not being a complete bust, will hardly be a boom year either across most of the Lone Star State. Overall, the upcoming quail season looks spotty at best, with some pockets being better than others according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department upland game bird program leader Robert Perez.

“Texas quail live on the edge of feast or famine,” said Perez in a TPWD news release previewing the upcoming season. “Because Texas is such a large state, quail in one area of the state can be plentiful while quail in an area nearby may be difficult to locate. The population density of quail in February, along with the amount and timing of rainfall received throughout the year, and the amount of suitable habitat for the birds through time and space are the three key factors driving quail populations.”

What does that mean for hunters loading up double-guns with #8’s and turning bird dogs lose this fall and winter? If hunters are going afield in South Texas, then there’s hope for a few covey points and some good shooting.

On the surface, that might not appear to be the case at first glance since the overall 2020 roadside count survey numbers don’t look all that good, showing 3.77 bobwhites observed per 20-mile survey route. And indeed, that number is down sharply from last year’s 13.77 survey figure as well as being down from the 9.13 figure that makes up the 15-year mean.

But some South Texas land managers indicate in anecdotal reports on the Internet that there may be more quail than the survey shows, birds that have taken advantage of hiding out in the better habitat conditions spurred on by the summer’s beneficial rains from scattered thunderstorms and Hurricane Hannah in July. And Perez also admits in his remarks to Quail Forever’s annual season forecast story for Texas (www.quailforever.org) that there could even be some late hatches this year that could boost overall South Texas quail hunting prospects.

The TPWD forecast shows hope for hunters in the Coastal Sand Plains country — think King Ranch territory here — for Kleberg, Kennedy and Brooks counties according to the agency's news release. Hope for good hunting also exists in other parts of the Brush Country region, thanks to habitat conditions last spring and early summer, quail activity seen on the ground by ranchers and land managers, and what is believed to be a fair year of chick production.

While hunting in that part of South Texas is a pretty exclusive club to gain entry into, there are a few options for the common man with a bird dog and a shotgun. TPWD says those options exist at the Chaparral and Daughtrey Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), which provide public quail hunting opportunities for those who make a few homework phone calls, put some scouting boot leather down on the ground, and unload the bird dogs to see what might happen in a given day.

If your quail hunting hopes lie on lands in the Rolling Plains and the Texas Panhandle, a similar story is being told, one where numbers are down but a few scattered pockets of good bird hunting might still be found by enterprising hunters.

Perez notes as much in his remarks to Quail Forever, stating: “Don’t be afraid to call a local chamber of commerce in areas you have an interest in going to. They may have some information or be able to introduce you to some people that you might not find online.”

According to TPWD, the Rolling Plains near Abilene and beyond experienced favorable weather conditions from late winter through early spring. Interestingly enough, agency biologists reported hearing frequent bobwhite calling activity but saw relatively few broods produced.

Whatever nesting activity occurred was likely earlier in the year since consistent hot and dry weather from mid-summer on likely curtailed most nesting activity and success. Because of that, the roadside survey numbers in the Rolling Plains were 3.25 this year, down from the 5.34 figure observed last year.

That’s also down considerably from the 15-year mean figure of 14.27 quail observed in the Rolling Plains, and way down from the ecoregion’s benchmark years of 2015-17 when roadside survey numbers topped out at staggering figures of 38.84, 52.52, and 23.15 quail observed respectively on the 20-mile survey routes taken during those epic habitat years.

In the Panhandle’s High Plains region, where precipitation was quite scarce this year, only 2.56 bobwhites were seen per survey route in 2020 as compared to 4.11 last year, 9.22 in both 2018 and 2017, and the recent highwater mark of 33.22 bobwhites back in 2016. Overall, the Panhandle roadside quail count this year is down from the 15-year mean of 6.75 for the region.

One of the better hopes to be found for Texas quail hunters this year might be out in the Trans Pecos region where scaled quail, or blues as many upland wingshooters call them, are the primary species to chase.

While blues run as much as they fly and often prove troublesome for bird dogs, there were 14.13 blues observed per route this year as compared to 25.47 last year. While down from 2019 and far below the benchmark years of 53.79 (2015) and 46.80 (2016), scaled quail bring some optimism for upland hunters this fall since the 2020 numbers aren’t that far under the 15-year mean of 18.23 typically found in southwestern Texas.

Elsewhere, scaled quail numbers are up a slight bit in the South Texas Plains, down a good bit in the High Plains, and almost non-existent in the Rolling Plains, so don’t pin your blue quail hunting hopes there.

What does all of this quail hunting number speak mean? Well, the guess here is that the hunting will be challenging this year statewide and that a Grayson County hunter will certainly have to burn up some highway miles to get in their upland bird hunting fix for the year.

But while nowhere near the glory days seen when the stars and weather maps all align, there is still some hope that a pointer can find a snoot full of quail scent on the winter breeze, lock up tight on point, and let a hunter see what can happen when a covey explodes in front of the scattergun.

With any luck, it’ll be a great meal and a soul stirring scene remembered for years to come, even if a newspaper story never gets written about it.