Arkansas’ 2017-18 bobwhite quail season opened Nov. 1 and will run through Feb. 4, with a daily limit of six and a possession limit of 12. Because bobwhite numbers have steadily declined in recent decades, it’s more difficult than ever to find huntable populations of these sporty, delicious game birds. But nimrods who are adaptable and willing to adjust their hunting tactics can still enjoy good bird hunting in parts of the state.
When I started hunting quail 50 years ago, large unbroken tracts of prime quail habitat were found throughout Arkansas. It was possible then to drive to the country, release a bird dog or two and find several coveys of bobwhites while still within sight of the truck. I often walked out the back door of our family home in Cherry Valley in Cross County and bagged a limit of birds every week in the overgrown fields on a neighbor’s farm.
Unfortunately, hunting like this is nothing more than a dream in most of The Natural State today. Modern land-use practices have ravaged many good quail areas, and those remaining are often smaller and more remote, and harbor fewer birds. This means today’s quail hunter must be precisely what the word “hunter” implies. He must be willing to ferret out small “pockets” of quail cover that have potential for good shooting, then spend the day moving from one pocket to another to find birds.
The productive quail pocket may be nothing more than a patch of broomsedge edging a pine thicket, the overgrown banks of a farm irrigation ditch or a forest margin where beggar’s-lice fight sweetgums for living space. Many hunters bypass these spots because they look too small or unlikely. But the good “pocket” hunter takes nothing for granted. He frequently travels rural byways, investigating every tidbit of cover that might hide a covey of birds and marking its location on a map for later reference.
He marks the weedy fence corner where cocks were heard calling, the old homestead where he flushed two coveys, and all the little strips and patches of cover that show promise as quail hot spots. Then he visits with each landowner and requests permission to hunt those spots. Not all will grant access, but many will, and with written permission in his pocket, the hunter is ready for action.
When the magic day rolls around, the wrinkled map is pulled from the glove box, and the sportsman chooses a half-dozen or so spots he can hunt by leap-frogging from one to another and another and another. At some sites, he will come up birdless. But other locales will harbor a covey or two, and the pocket hunter is sure of getting a little shooting at several stops. He takes one or two birds, or maybe none, then moves on to the next spot, taking care not to overshoot the coveys.
The edges of small forest clearcuts are worth working, especially during the first few years of succession. Forgotten orchards and abandoned homesteads should always be investigated. Power-line rights of way are promising, and on small hillsides where pockets of blackberry brambles are murderous, bobwhites take up residence.
Other excellent but often overlooked quail pockets include islands of woods between big fields, wildlife management area food plots, plum and dogwood thickets, brush-choked fencerows, grassy terraces, property lines of multiflora rose or autumn olive, and field corners out of reach of the combine.
Some pockets are in suburbs in vacant fields, undeveloped subdivisions and around abandoned buildings. Of course, safety is paramount when hunting these areas, and discharging firearms may even be illegal. Check state game laws and local ordinances first, and always secure landowner permission before hunting any private lands.
Quick shooting at short ranges is typical, so most hunters opt for a light, fast-handling shotgun using a reasonable charge of fine shot. The 20 and 12 are the most popular gauges because of ammunition availability. And because most quail are hit within 20 or 30 yards, an improved cylinder or modified choke is usually selected for sufficient shot dispersal. Number 7 1/2 or 8 shotshells provide the dense shot pattern needed to affect a clean kill on these small birds.
As for other equipment, keep it light for the most enjoyment from the sport. Many upland hunters wear “brush-buster” pants to turn briers and a game vest to carry birds. Wearing bright colors allows your partner to spot you easily. Quail calls help pinpoint birds from a broken covey. Other extras are nice, but they’re far less important than knowing your game and how to hunt it.
If you like, you can hunt small pockets of quail without using dogs. Lacking a canine companion, you visit a spot, tramp around and hope to flush and shoot a few birds. The problem is, when the birds fly, it seems you’re always off balance, the sun is in your eyes, and there’s too much cover to get off a good shot. Worse yet, the jump shooter probably walks by 10 birds for every one a good dog would locate.
Ideally, you should have a close-working pointing dog that works at a slow to moderate pace. Because there’s not usually much acreage to cover, a fast, wide-ranging dog isn’t needed. In fact, he’s a problem because he’ll soon be on other property.
In small pockets, it’s best to release only one dog. The other dogs stay in the truck and get their chances farther down the line. If you hit a sizable area, 20 acres or more, you may want to turn out two dogs.
The flanker strategy is good for working borders of pocket cover. One man follows the dog, if it’s a pointing breed, and the other walks along the edge, waiting for a clean shot at any bobwhites bursting out of the low canopy. If a flushing dog is used, it’s best to send the dog in and remain outside. Some quail may zigzag away at low altitude in the brush, but a fair percentage will present a good target.
Despite how you hunt — with a dog or walking ’em up — picking pockets is a topnotch way to bag modern-day quail. There are multitudes of overlooked pockets that harbor one, two or three coveys at a time, and the birds will be there if they don’t get too much pressure. You take one today, and another will be there tomorrow, and still another the day after tomorrow.
Bet the bundle on a single locale, and you may go home empty-handed.