South Texas' Overlooked Quail Hunts
Overlooked quail hunting in South Texas? It's possible, as the author has found out, and you can get in on the action he's uncovered.
By Jim Foster
Considering the location, the breeze blowing over the South Texas Brush Country was chilly. The temperature had dropped overnight, and a slightly overcast sky blocking the sun added virtual coolness to the actual weather.
The small group of hunters had parked their trucks and dog trailers on a small rise. As the dogs were unloaded and snapped to the leads, they seemed glad to be free of their boxes. The hunt would soon commence.
It has been a long-running question of mine: After years of breeding, do bird dogs have a real desire to find birds for the sake of finding birds, or has the hunt become just another command to be obeyed? Some dogs have made me think the latter is true, while others seem to delight in the hunt; finding birds takes possession of their whole being. I'm sure there are other hunters who have wondered the same thing.
Standing around drinking a last cup of coffee was great, but the dogs barking and pulling at their tethers told us it was time to start the hunt. My big setter was the first released and he quartered out before the short line of hunters.
Our starting direction took us into the wind. The dogs were in shape and ready. It wasn't long before a dog slowed, changed direction, and froze on point. This might have been a classic quail situation if one of the younger dogs hadn't cut across in front of the dog on point and busted a 20-bird covey into flight. Most of the hunters were "almost" in place; only a single quail tumbled to the grass.
The dog's owner called him in and went over the "whoa" command a few times before casting him again. This time the pup ran only about 25 yards and went on point, finding two of the singles that had run ahead of the covey. With hunters moving up, the two birds flushed at the same time and a brace of side-by-side shotguns brought them to earth.
The morning continued with seven coveys flushed before the group made the big circle back to the vehicles and dog trailers. It had been a good first walk. After some water and coffee and shedding some clothing (remember, we were in South Texas), it was back to hunting.
After several dry years, Texas quail have made a solid comeback in many parts of the state. The numbers of coveys found last year were enough to boost the spirits of even the most jaded upland hunter and to cause a dedicated quail hunter to buy a case of 20-gauge shells instead of a couple of boxes. Even hunters in places not normally known for having quail were relating tales of good times in the field last fall and winter.
"If this continues, then my two young dogs will be polished veterans after this season," commented a happy quail hunter after a morning hunt that produced eight large coveys. "It's birds that make a bird dog, and today those young dogs saw birds. I just wish we had shot as well as they worked."
For years South Texas has been known for its excellent quail hunting on the large ranches stretching across the best bobwhite counties in the region. But the hunting discussed here will not be what's found on expensive leases or large private ranches. Our quail hunting for most of the 2002-03 season was on public lands open to us via the Public Lands Hunting Permit - what I often call "the $48 lease."
For this writer it has become a habit that, along with my regular "super combo" hunting and fishing license, I'll spend another $40 ($48 as of this year) to buy the public lands hunting permit. The permit has enabled me to wander many acres of land and experience some outstanding - and surprisingly uncrowded - hunting.
For the cost of the Annual Public Hunting Permit, hunters can access more than a million acres of public hunting lands, including 158 units covering more than 61,000 acres leased primarily for hunting doves and other small game.
"Nearly one-third of the 44,779 hunters who purchased the Annual Public Hunting Permit last year said they did so primarily to hunt doves," said Herb Kothmann, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department public hunting program director. "The dove lease program has been extremely popular. Even though our dove leases comprised just 4 percent of the public hunting lands last year, they were used for 18 percent of all public hunting activity. Considering many of these properties are only accessible for two months out of the year, that's a fairly significant impact to our public hunting program.
"We reached out this year and added opportunity for other small game, including 11 new units in Floyd County for hunting pheasant. Unfortunately, we lost a couple of prime spots near Austin due to change in ownership or conversion to other land use not attractive to doves."
Kothmann added that it is important that hunters consider themselves guests on the property and treat the land with respect by not littering. "Future access for hunting will be better assured," he observed, "if everyone makes a special effort to pick up trash such as spent shot shells, empty shell boxes, paper and plastic sacks and other debris."
Annual Public Hunting Permits can be purchased wherever hunting licenses are sold. A map booklet showing the locations of public tracts will be mailed within 10 days of purchase of the permit at retail outlets; however, the map booklet can be obtained immediately by purchasing the permit at a TPWD law enforcement office.
A safety note: Hunter-orange clothing is not required for quail hunters on public lands. In spite of that, it would be a good idea to wear it, so as to help other hunters know where you are. This is important because birds can fly anywhere, and will go in almost any direction. Picking up your hunting buddy's hunter-orange vest or hat out of the corner of your eye could prevent a disaster.
Here's a tip that can save you some time planning which public area you will be hunting. The invention of the Internet has provided a way for hunters and fishermen to check on conditions far away from home. Keeping an eye on the weather at your favorite hunting places is now as easy as clicking your mouse. You can be getting answers to your questions as to rainfall amounts and range conditions in minutes. If an area is suffering from a year or so of drought, then the chances are good that the bird populations and hunting prospects may not be worth the trip. However, another area may have received rain at all the proper times and have an excellent bird population. Be flexible.
One interesting thing about many of the public hunting areas is that they receive heavy hunting pressure on opening weekend and then, even in the case of the most popular sites, see very few hunters for the remainder of the season. This has been proved true year after year. On more than half my public-lands quail hunts last year, my hunting partner and I were the only ones on the property.
Another indisputable truth concerning hunting public lands is that a pointing dog will greatly improve your results - so much so that, many times, quail hunters without dogs become discouraged and leave early. Here, for example, is an account of one of our trips last season.
The large expanses of the James E. Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area in South Texas have always held an attraction for me. With quail hunting in mind, two other hunters and I loaded dogs and gear into our trucks and trailers and headed for the town of Three Rivers. After checking into our motel, we drove out to the area with plans to do a bit of scouting before our hunt the next morning.
As we drove around, we passed several vehicles that looked like they might belong to upland bird hunters. At our second stop we met a group of four hunters just finishing their day of thrashing the brush in search of birds. These people were hunting without dogs. Questioning them about the area and the bird situation left us a bit disappointed, as it seemed that they'd been hunting most of the day and had not found a single covey.
"We must have walked 20 miles today," one of the men said as he cased his shotgun. "I think we will be driving home tonight - maybe go fishing."
On our way back to the motel, the conversation shifted to the possibility of changing our hunting area. And then we wondered what those guys might have missed. Were we on a wild goose chase (so to speak)? Did the area have huntable numbers of quail or not?
The sound of our dogs in the trailer and truck kennels was a reassuring sound. After feeding, watering and walking all the canines, we felt better about what the new day would bring. I knew that if quail were on that WMA, the dogs would do their best to find them. The general opinion was to follow our original hunt plan.
There was still a bit of negative discussion over coffee the next morning, but by full light we were uncasing our scatterguns and letting the dogs out of their boxes. The hunt was on.
We started at the same place where we had visited with the disgruntled hunters the previous afternoon. With three dogs leading the way and our shotguns ready, we began our hunt. The dogs had covered several hundred yards when my English pointer, Girl, crossed to our left and went on point.
"OK, guys - here we go!" someone called.
The covey did as only quail do and ran several yards ahead before flushing to all points of the compass. I followed several birds that flew over my head and selected one. I took the shot just as several more birds flushed next to my leg. I knocked the selected bird down but failed to pick up on the others quickly enough. My two companions each dropped a bird; one fellow crippled a second that drifted in a short distance away. One of the other dogs had marked the cripple and was soon pointing the downed bird. Making the retrieve was simple and our group was off in search of the next covey.
The morning and afternoon slipped away quickly as we hunted a large area away from and then back to the vehicles. We opted for a rest to take care of the dogs. As the day ended, we had found 12 coveys in the same area that the dogless hunters said held no quail. And we hadn't seen another hunting group all day!
James E. Daughtrey WMA consists of 4,400 acres of low-fenced multiple-use recreational area surrounding the Choke Canyon Reservoir located in Live Oak and McMullen counties. The town of Three Rivers gets its name because the Frio, Atascosa, and Nueces rivers join nearby. The WMA occupies five noncontiguous parcels adjacent to the lake. It's significant that the WMA begins at the water's edge, for as Choke Canyon Reservoir's level fluctuates, the acreage in the WMA shrinks and expands; when the lake is low, the WMA contains closer to 9,000 acres than the 4,400 it covers when the lake is at conservation pool level.
A lesson learned quickly is that just because a tract of public hunting land is small doesn't mean it can't provide some exciting hunting. The Las Palomas WMA located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is a shining example.
The combined units boast over 3,311 acres of land purchased to preserve native-brush nesting habitat, some farmland, and wetlands for white-winged doves. The Las Palomas WMA is comprised of 18 units in Cameron, Hidalgo and Presidio counties. The tracts range in size from a mere 2 acres up to 604 acres. Most hold populations of bobwhite quail. The Las Palomas WMA locations are close to a number of South Texas cities and are, again, lightly hunted after the opening days of dove and quail seasons.
For a single hunter, or for two hunters out for a morning hunt, many of these units fit the bill nicely. I've enjoyed hunting for four or five hours on an area close to my home and found several coveys of birds. And then I've gone home for lunch and been back in my office for the afternoon. Several of the 200- to 300-acre areas are ideal for this type of hunt.
These public areas are a real bonus for both the hunter and his dogs, because they can spend more days in the field. It's almost like living on a quail lease - and the cost is only $48!
ANNUAL PUBLIC HUNTING PERMIT AT A GLANCE
- Annual Public Hunting Permit for the 2003-04 season - $48. Valid for a 12-month period from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31 the following year.
- Provides access to more than 1 million acres of land for hunting, fishing, camping and other uses.
- Offers access to more than 200 different areas, many open year 'round, for authorized activities by permit holders.
- Allows hunting of squirrels turkey, doves, waterfowl, quail, and other legal game.
- Supersedes any applicable daily hunting permit fees on the listed areas.
- Allows youth under age 17 may hunt free with a permitted adult.
- Provides entry to TPWD WMAs at times when they are open for general visitation.
Only permit holders receive a map booklet listing available areas, facilities, rules, and schedules.
APH Permits are available at TPWD offices and at all state license vendors. Or call 1-800-TX-LIC-4U; have a credit card handy.
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