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I remember the scene as if it happened yesterday.

Near the end of the 1996-97 quail season, I accompanied some friends that worked for the U.S. Forest Service on a quail hunt in the Ouachita National Forest near Mena. The hunting party included Warren Montague of Waldron, the U.S. Forest Service's wildlife biologist for the Poteau District; Larry Hedrick of Hot Springs, a USFS regional supervisor; Ray Yelverton, a USFS technician; and others.

The area we hunted was part of the 160,000-acre Pine-Bluestem Restoration Area that was developed to create habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, whose northernmost range included that part of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. The project included selective, uneven-age timber harvest and prescribed burning. An unexpected result was a rapid and astonishing profusion of wild bobwhite quail.

Hunting had been excellent in the morning, and after lunch we went to an area called Blue Moon. I vividly recall its fabulous views of the hazy blue citadel of the surrounding mountains, but I remember it mostly for this one moment.

As we approached the old Denton homeplace, the dogs went on point near the brushy remains of an old stone fence. A covey of about 40 quail erupted from the briars like fireballs from Roman candles. The first 15-20 blew out of the brush at once with a roar. The rest flushed in staggered bursts of three to five birds.

All of our shotguns roared except mine. I was so thunderstruck that I didn't pull the trigger. I didn't regret it. To have leveled my attention on just one or two birds would have cost me the thrill and enjoyment of the entire scene.

I was new to quail hunting then, and that moment hooked me for life.

Montague shared an email he sent to Hedrick after their final hunt of the season. I've been there, so I felt there, so let's go there together for a second.

"I saw a covey ... on my way to Bee Tree Pond," Montague wrote. "They flushed wild and headed upslope into an impenetrable thicket toward the top of Chalybeate Mountain. I decided not to attempt to find any singles since I was at a dogless disadvantage. After a fruitless search for a covey between Bee Tree Pond and the old Denton Family home site, I decided to make one last attempt to kick up a covey in the vicinity of the old home site garden spot just off the highway. As I swung north of the woodland pond west of the garden spot I flushed a covey of birds and was able to get a quick shot off with my Red Label 20 [gauge] just before the last bird cleared the tops of the trees to safety. I was rewarded with a beautiful bob[white]. Thanks again for a great day in the pineywoods of the Ouachitas with you and your crew."

Quail are abundant in the western portion of the Ouachita National Forest because of progressive forest management, and the hunting is good if you know where and when to go.

The rough, rugged country is not for the timid and frail. I have sustained some deep gashes after tripping over roots and vines and plunging my knees or shins into sharp rocks.

I've learned not to take a nice shotgun hunting in those woods because it won't stay nice for long. That's part of my problem. I'll take a beating before I'll let my gun take one, and I've taken a few in their stead.

However, it's all worth it for the experience of having taken a few quail in this remarkable area with some remarkable people. It is the fruited labor of visionary, highly motivated people that truly have a heart for the natural resources in their care. These people, Montague and Hedrick, were my mentors in my early years, both in teaching me about the nuts, bolts and bookkeeping of conservation, and also from welcoming me into their hunting circles and closing the loop from a consumption perspective. From them I learned that tangible public benefits derive from conservation work directed primarily for the benefit of non-game species.

As I write this, I'm looking at photos from 1997 in which Montague poses with a brace of quail and that vintage Ruger Red Label. It's an oldie, back when Ruger still made the Red Label with a blued receiver. I'm glad it and Montague are still in the game.

It's all so classic, then as now.

Sports on 02/07/2019

Print Headline: Fond memories of '97 quail hunt

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Comments

  • RobertBolt
    February 7, 2019 at 9:42 a.m.

    I treasure my long-ago memories of frosty mornings quail hunting in southern Missouri with my father and cousin, and I mourn the loss of habitat that has essentially rendered the sport a thing of the past.

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