By Troy Hoepker
We’d witnessed Casey point plenty of pheasants before but on this point all four of her legs trembled uncontrollably like cold jelly. What lay in the weeds in front of her nose couldn’t be a pheasant? It was something she wasn’t sure of and to tell you the truth, neither were we? Our other hunting dog Patches stood frozen in her tracks more than 20 feet away from Casey honoring her hunting companion’s point like she always did and like no other dog I’ve ever hunted with before, only this time she was probably thankful that it wasn’t her so close to the unknown quarry. As we advanced towards the shaking Brittany, wings exploded from the grass in the form of a hen turkey! Relieved after all the excitement, the dogs advanced down the skinny wooded draw on their way towards another explosion of poultry that would await us a few hundred feet down the tree line.
My father in law Bob Marquart and his lifelong friend Mark Weese and I trailed along behind the dogs as we did almost every weekend during pheasant season, watching them happily work the ground in front of us. Soon the dogs were “birdy” again but this time it wasn’t a turkey and it wasn’t a pheasant. Seconds later the instantaneous unmistakable sound of a covey’s fluttering wings bursting into flight brought shotguns to our shoulders in a rush and we each took quick aim. Picking out a single bird amongst the group, I followed quickly and pulled the trigger as the gun’s barrel swung through the quail’s flight path. The little bird folded and dropped to the ground as my hunting partner’s gunfire continued. The task of finding that little bobwhite seemed daunting as I walked through the grass and around the trees and left me worried as I approached. Lady luck was on my side as I spotted the bird lying quietly on the ground. Getting a quail is always a special treat while on a pheasant hunt and this time was no different. Picking up that quail brought a smile to my face as it also did for my hunting crew.
That was just a little over a decade ago and up until a couple of years ago, it had been the last time I had held a quail in my hand. We had been giving the quail a break that season for the first few weekends until we had seen several coveys in different places and felt comfortable that it would be okay to try and take a few birds from the next covey that gave us the opportunity. We managed to get three or four birds out of that covey that day and they remained the only ones for that season. In the years since, successfully hunting quail in Iowa has been dismal at best. Bobwhite populations really suffered due to some hard winters and wet nesting seasons and they became hard to find. This hunting season however you’ll no longer need to be wary of pulling the trigger when a covey rises in front of you. The bobwhite quail population has exploded in southern Iowa to levels that will rival the 1980’s. Last year’s statistical data from the DNR’s annual 2015 August roadside count survey indicated that the last time the statewide index of birds was that high was 21 years ago in 1994. I’ll be anxious to see this year’s numbers, which should be even better, but as I write this, the survey is still about a month away from completion. I’ll give you a detailed report about that survey in next month’s edition. But if you’ve spent much time in various parts of southern Iowa this summer, then you already know that we don’t need a survey to tell us that bobwhite quail are everywhere again. I see them daily and hear their distinctive whistle often all over the place. So much so that it’s almost unbelievable how quickly they’ve bounced back. Breeding pairs could be witnessed commonly this summer in this part of the state. As I pulled green beans from the garden recently my son heard me occasionally whistling and asked what the heck I was doing. I told him to listen and soon after my whistle was echoed by the familiar “Bob-White” whistle from somewhere along the fence line in our pasture! It brought a smile across my son’s face to hear the mirroring answer from that little unseen quail. It reminded me of my childhood growing up on the farm and answering bobwhite calls with my own whistle, sometimes even being able to catch a glimpse of one of the masked creatures as it approached my position going from tree to tree, convinced that it was hearing another quail. That could be done almost on a daily basis when I grew up in the 80’s but throughout the last decade that familiar whistle has been a severely missed sound of our Iowa landscape. It’s good to hear it again ringing across the fields and reverberating across the valleys!
Why have quail rebounded so well? There are several reasons and the first one is the milder winters and drier nesting seasons that they’ve had the last few years in a row. One thing about quail that is different than pheasants is the fact that they can tolerate a wetter nesting period better than pheasants and hen quail can potentially turn out up to three nests a year. Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR shared a few things with me about quail during a conversation last year. “Quail have a reproduction rate that is higher and 20 to 25% of males will actually incubate a brood while a female seeks out a new nest for another brood. They have the ability to double their numbers in a year,” stated Bogenschutz. They are a resilient native bird and you can see why it appears quail numbers appear to be even better for 2021!
The opportunity to hunt quail in Iowa this fall will be best south of I-80 and in particular in the bottom two tiers of counties of the state. If you live in the northern part of the state you likely won’t find quail but if you’re passionate about upland bird hunting a trip to the south might be in your interest. Pheasant numbers as well have rebounded across the southern part of the state making for a duel opportunity kind of hunt for quail and pheasant. Quail habitat differs some from that of the pheasant although quail can certainly be found in the same areas. Quail feed on seeds, leaves and insects and can be found in brushy areas as well as grassy landscape. They’ll seek out shrubs, bushes, small trees, or vinery plants for shelter or protection making brushy fencerows and timbered draws along grass or crop fields ideal places for finding coveys. Keep your eye out for scattered areas of dense, shrubby thickets that provide protection from predators and serve as a safe zone for coveys with nearby native grasses along field edges or ditch-banks along side row crop production fields. Milo plots, wild blackberries, plum thickets, big blue stem grasses and the like are things to keep your eye out for. Shrubby conditions should have an open understory with low to mid-height vegetative cover overhead providing an area for coveys to loaf and dust while food source needs are met nearby.
Now that you know what to look for to find quail let’s touch on safety. Normally I wouldn’t take time in a magazine article to talk about safety in upland bird hunting but with the increased possibility of seeing quail while afield this fall I feel it’s something that’s important to address. For one, there might be an entire new generation of hunters out there this year that will experience firing on quail for the first time in their lives and it’s important for them to realize that there are new safety dangers that present themselves while hunting quail. Coveys rise fast and can often scatter in every direction. That’s different than what we are used to with pheasants and while most of the same precautions we use for pheasant hunting still apply, that confusion created from quail flying everywhere can cause us to react differently. It’s imperative to always know where each of the other hunters in our party is at before pulling that trigger. Birds can fly between us, away from us, behind us and all around. It’s important to maintain a straight line when walking forward, checking each other’s location frequently. When one hunter gets too far ahead of the other or in front of the group too far they jeopardize their safety and their chance at downing quail. Know where your companions are and never fire at a bird passing between you. At times our hunting dogs can be in harm’s way as well. Pheasants tend to gain altitude when they rise but with quail they’ll often only rise a few feet and then glide along the contour of the landscape only a few feet above the ground. Make sure your dog isn’t in the field of fire before pulling the trigger.
A great example of each of these circumstances happened to me just a couple of years ago while on a hunt with Bob again and a cousin of mine. I was in the center watching my dog Red approach a ditchbank in front of me. As Red went by a rather large cedar tree, he whirled in one motion with a nose full of quail scent. As he came back to the front side of the tree, the fluttering sound of wings exploded from the thick branches and quail boiled out from the front and backside of the tree. Some headed directly away from me on the other side of the tree protected from a shot opportunity by the dense branches. Others came out directly towards me turning abruptly to go around the tree to join their covey. The dog was on them and I had to let them sail off harmlessly as to not risk a shot near my loyal hunting companion. As the covey dispersed, two or three birds shot straight for the safety of cover behind us darting between me and my cousin Mark on one side and between me and my father in-law Bob uphill from me on the other. No shot once again. Quail hunting is like that, fast and instantaneous action with only moments to react. Quail escape like ghosts sometimes and have an uncanny ability to place themselves in the exact spots where a shot isn’t possible or shouldn’t be taken for safety reasons.
To allow you the best opportunities for getting a shot, I’ve found that approaching a dog’s point or likely quail habitat area should be taken seriously and not just rushed into. Approach so that each hunter has a shot angle to prospective flight paths of the covey. Take for example a brushy fencerow. I can’t tell you how many times while hunting by myself that I’ve watched upland game escape out the other side of the fencerow and fly away without a shot because I couldn’t get visibility on the bird. Cover each side of the fence with a partner when permission is accessible and stay in line with each other. Food plots can be handled similarly. For shrubby cover come closer together while having additional party members stay in a straight line to the outside crowding the area ever so slightly in a minimized “C” formation. This way you can all fire the same direction while hopefully preventing birds from passing between you low and fast. Another thing to think about is the dog you’re hunting behind, a flushing dog or a pointer. Take consideration for flushing dogs giving you less time to react when in good quail habitat. You’ll have to approach those more likely areas that might hold quail with a safe game plan for dog and hunters while considering the best approach for successful shooting opportunities at the same time.
Once a covey hits the air it can be a bit paralyzing. First time quail hunters are often too surprised by the speed of flight, multiple numbers of birds and flight path of quail leaving them a bit overwhelmed. The first thing to do is slow yourself down and think. It’s often a young hunter’s instinct to just shoot into the covey in hopes that the shot will spread out enough to down a bird or two. Unfortunately this spray and pray method is less effective. Instead, pick out one bird among the covey and concentrate your shot on that bird just as you would with a pheasant. Swing through the bird’s direction of flight pulling the trigger as the barrel passes through the bird’s body. Your swing will send lead pellets to intercept and when lucky, pellets may also down a nearby bird in flight as well. Covey’s can often times be jumped again as you proceed towards their landing spot giving you the opportunity of another bird. Quail can learn quickly however and sit tight after too many times of trying to jump them. This is where a pointing dog can benefit you because the birds are harder to get up.
I’ve talked to so many upland game hunters here in the state over the last decade and I’ve heard the same thing over and over again. Many have commented on how they have given quail a pass when hunting in hopes that the population would begin to improve once again to huntable numbers. Given the reproductive rate of quail and the favorable weather conditions over the last few years leading to good numbers again I think I can say to all those hunters that shared those thoughts to me over the years that 2016 is the year to get finally serious about hunting quail once again!