Quail Make A Return to Southern Iowa

By Troy Hoepker

Red disappeared over the embankment and into the small creek below crossing the rugged ditch and bounding up the other side effortlessly in seconds. Even though I would have preferred to hunt out the very small patch of horseweeds left on my side of the creek before crossing, Red had the look of a bird dog getting a little birdy and so I decided to trust in his instincts and follow, especially since he was headed with his nose into the wind toward good cover. For me however, crossing the ditch wasn’t quite as graceful as my four-legged friend. After a couple moments of tribulation mixed in with a few colorful words I scratched and clawed my way up the embankment on the other side to catch up to Red. I could hear him but couldn’t see him working his nose through the tall cover of water hemp and foxtail on the edge of the cut cornfield and the creek ditch. I entered the tangled mess behind him thinking to myself that this dog had better be on to something for all the work I was going to entrusting his tail wagging behind!

Unseen most of the time, Red continued to work the unfarmed field edge weeds thoroughly by the creek as I followed the sound of his movements through the cover to no avail. We swept into a waterway separating cornfields that lead away from the ditch and I was relieved to transition into the shorter smooth brome grasses and rye grasses the waterway afforded with sight of the dog once again.

The pace quickened as Red zigzagged across the waterway. He still seemed birdy, sticking his nose into grass clumps and bulldozing that European blockhead of his through and under the various rolls of grasses that leave hidden little travel paths for escaping upland game underneath along the way. As the drainage narrowed a tad, Red worked up to a small, lone, renegade tree growing unabashed in the waterway and I determined it was better to let Red work the area out before getting stuck too close to a tree that might obstruct my shot should a bird get up. It turned out a wise decision, as moments later off to my right I heard the light buzz of wings taking flight! Red had bypassed the bird but possibly the noise from Red nearing past him made him nervous enough to open his wings but that was secondary to the importance of the shot at hand! Even though I knew the sound I was hearing wasn’t a pheasant it was still a pleasant surprise to see the little bobwhite gaining 15 feet and then leveling off quickly to make a low level escape above the landscape. Time slowed down a bit as I shouldered the gun with the turn and set my feet, as the clear sight of the airborne quail became central focus beyond the bead of the barrel. In disbelief, after the shot the single bird folded under the bluebird sky and crashed on his way to escape back to the area we had previously walked!

I never could get that darned lab to ever bring me a bird! He hunted okay, but he never liked feathers in his mouth so sometimes finding downed birds in heavy cover could be a bit of a challenge. Finally, after a bit of looking I found that little bob hidden in the grass. I had seen a nice sized covey on that place before the hunt and decided that if given the chance, I’d go ahead and take a bird or two out of the covey. I never did run into the rest of the covey that day and wondered if perhaps there had been a covey rise when the dog had been in the tall grass moments earlier when I couldn’t see well or see the dog’s location well? But I’ll never know. I did know that I was glad to be seeing quail again and furthermore, a huntable population of them!

If it’s been a while since you’ve went bird hunting or you remember the good ole days of hunting quail along with your pheasant hunts in Iowa, then it’s certainly time to relive those memories in Southern Iowa in respect to the northern bobwhite quail again. From the Missouri River to the mighty Mississippi, once you get to about I-80 and continue traveling south to the Missouri border your chances of finding quail increase exponentially. The familiar whistle of bobwhite across this southern Iowa region could be heard frequently once again this summer and coveys can be seen this fall with regularity.

Numbers from the annual 2018 August Roadside Survey conducted by the Iowa DNR were favorable for quail indicating that over the last 4 years, Iowa’s quail index has been the highest it’s been in the last 20 years! This year saw significant gains in numbers of birds witnessed by roadside counters in many areas across Southern Iowa from even last year’s survey totals. The Southeast region of the state in particular saw a drastic jump in numbers during the survey from last year going from 1.80 birds per route in 2017 to 3.05 birds per route in 2018. Still, Southwest and South Central Iowa quail numbers appear to remain higher than that of the Southeastern part of the state as they mostly always have but the increase in this region may indicate a more uniform population all along the southern part of the state east to west this year. The South Central region went from 5.41 to 3.86 birds per route and the Southwestern region went from 4.50 in 2017 to 4.06 in 2018 respectively. Good numbers across the board from the survey standpoint, and boots on the ground confirm good numbers. Landowners, famers and ranchers and outdoorsman in the southern part of the state have all noticed the increase in quail in recent years and are glad to see it!

Bobwhite populations really suffered during hard winters and wet springs for years but recent population improvement shows that the habitat is still there for them in southern counties if they can endure nasty weather. The farther southern counties still hold more of the type of habitat quail prefer. Farming practices of clearing land for more row crop, eliminating fencerows, mowing waterways and leaving no cover behind have decreased the habitat for quail to gain a foothold in many areas of the state but in the south, you’ll find enough cover to give quail a good home. In the last several years, winter snowfall has been relatively light in Southern Iowa and springs fairly mild giving them good nesting seasons resulting in their ability to reproduce rapidly. Quail have a reproduction rate that is faster than pheasants. Close to a quarter of males on average will actually incubate a nest while the female seeks out a new nest for a new brood. If a female has up to 2 or 3 nests a season, (which does happen) you can see why quail numbers can improve so rapidly if nesting season weather cooperates. They are a resilient little bird.

Brushy fencerows, hedgerows, weedy shelterbelts, and stiff grasses alongside crop food sources are good places to spend your time looking for quail. Quail are an “edge cover” kind of bird and can usually be found in places where row crop borders a brushy habitat. Anything that gives quail good overhead cover from predators while allowing travel under the canopy by sparsely populated growth is a great sanctuary. In winter months quail need shelter structure from heavy snows in an environment that can give them high-energy food sources nearby without extensive travel. CRP fields of large clumped high stemmed native switch grasses give stability to their surroundings in winter while also providing good hidden nesting cover in the spring so predators have a harder time locating them. Quail can be found during the fall hunting season in the same places you’ll find pheasants as well but in general, these brushy areas are preferred.

Getting a shot on a quail can be quite different than that of a pheasant. Quail often take flight in bunches and they do it fast and sweeping. Often times they’ll behave differently in flight as well, staying close to the ground or scattering in all directions. A covey rise in front of a first time quail hunter can usually result in escaped birds. It can be an overwhelming flurry that makes the heart beat fast! To help with this, quickly pick out and focus on a single bird, not the flock. Flock shooting results in missing, so single in on one bird and begin tracking it and following through that one bird as you pull the trigger. Worry about downing a second bird after feathers fly out of the first one if there’s still time.

I’ve always felt pointing dogs are best suited for quail hunting. They give you that extra little bit of time to prepare for the shot over flushing dogs at least in some cases when birds are willing to sit a little tight. Quail flush fast and when doing so in front of the nose of a flushing dog, they’ll sometimes catch you unprepared for the shot more often. Once you’ve gotten quail up they can be down right hard to get up again. For one, they run very fast with those short little legs and secondly they can get hunt shy very quickly, holding even tighter as you approach time after time. Added to that, consider the fact that each time they fly, the covey gets more and more dispersed most of the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched quail land somewhere and still fail to find them once I got to the spot.

Keep in mind that quail can present some unsafe hunt situations for your party and your dogs. Always knowing where each member of your hunting party is has never been so important as when a covey rises. When they scatter this way and that, guns are swinging every direction and birds can pass right between hunters head high. It’s a good idea to remain in line with each other as you move across the fields or ditches behind quail. Quail also have a reputation for staying low after they’re in flight, which can put your loyal hunting dog in jeopardy. So stay safe out there and know you’re background before pulling the trigger.

Pheasant numbers in the south may not be quite as great as the central and northern regions of the state but when you consider the opportunity of a mixed bag hunt in the south to take both pheasant and quail on the same hunt, the southern region gains appeal to the upland bird hunter. If you’ve never hunted quail before you may even find yourself more excited about a covey rise than a pheasant flush. Not to mention the delicious table fair of a quail breast wrapped in bacon after the hunt! The quail season here in Iowa also stays open longer than the pheasant season, a fact that I think some hunters overlook. You can hunt quail in Iowa until January 31, 2019. When your pheasant hunting season is over, if you’re still not ready to be done hunting upland birds, head to Southern Iowa for some quail opportunities.