A Bounty of Bobs
The Cross Timbers and Rolling Plains areas west of Fort Worth have seen solid quail production in the past couple of seasons — and in this one, too! Exciting action awaits you at these prime locations.
By Lee Leschper
The dawn air was clear and crisp as we hunted across the ridges bordering a deep canyon in the sandy red hills, now painted golden in new sunlight.
Ahead of us, Ken Mayer's shorthair Ruby began stalking, head low toward an unseen source of sweet smell flowing over the golden grass on the frigid breeze.
"She's getting birdy," Ken Mayer cautioned us.
The seasoned pointer seemed to lose the scent and started to circle back to find it again. I circled downwind to the left as Jim Niemiec and my son Will eased to the right.
Suddenly the brilliant blue sky was alive with whirring, dodging bobwhites! I shot too fast, missing the closest rooster clean but folding two hens on the next two shots. Behind me, 20 gauges barked, and I saw other quail fall. Quail continued to pour out of the sagebrush in an endless stream.
"Shoot! Shoot!" Ken Mayer hollered.
"Out of bullets!" I responded, laughed, as I tried to shove more No. 8 hulls into my old Winchester.
Jim, who's been one of my favorite quail-hunting buddies for a decade, hollered our customary jibe: "I got a double! Did you shoot?"
Thus began another day in Quail Heaven: Donley County, on the western edge of some of the best wild bobwhite quail terrain remaining in the United States. This choice territory begins west of Fort Worth and stretches to the tip-top of the Texas Panhandle, spanning two of Texas' most intriguing geographic regions - the Rolling Plains and the Cross Timbers.
The author (l.) and hunting buddy Jim Niemiec teamed up to take these Donley County bobs last fall. Having the help of a good dog like the author’s Sadie tends to be extremely useful for finding and retrieving birds in this open territory. Photo courtesy of Lee Leschper
The Rolling Plains cover the eastern half of the Panhandle and stretch south to Brownwood and east to Wichita Falls. The region holds, among other things, some of the highest populations of wild bobwhite quail left in the country. Find appropriate habitat anywhere within 100 miles east of a line stretching south from Amarillo through Lubbock to Big Spring, and you'll likely find quail - and great hunting!
The Cross Timbers, stretching east from Brownwood to the city limits of Fort Worth and north to the Red River, will offer satisfying quail hunting practically anywhere that ranches haven't been cut into tiny segments and grazed and overgrazed into quail oblivion. A huge swath of country, taking a half-day to drive across end to end, it remains the source of the best wild quail hunting accessible to hunters in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and North-Central Texas.
December is prime time to hunt the region, as cool weather improves the scenting conditions for pointers. The cooler weather also sends any remaining rattlesnakes to ground, making hunting safer for both dogs and hunters. The birds gather into larger coveys, concentrating on remaining forage, and for mutual protection from predators and cold weather.
Steve DeMaso, quail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, unabashedly opines that the southern segment of the Rolling Plains is the best wild quail territory in the state.
"South Texas can be good in a good wet year, but it can also be bad in a drought," he acknowledged. "Year in and year out, if I was buying property to hunt quail, this is where I'd be buying.
"Largely, it doesn't have as many human intrusions. It's one of the less-populated areas when you look at the U.S. as a whole. There's still a fair amount of native vegetation and native prairie, other than some overgrazing by cattle in dry years.
"There's also still a fair amount of burning. Down into the Cross Timbers, lots of those areas could use some fire and destocking to open up that oak canopy. Once those trees close up the canopy, you lose ground and nesting cover."
Texas and Oklahoma vie for top honors among bobwhite states, with the Okies claiming 1.2 million bobs harvested a year. But DeMaso, who used to run the Oklahoma quail program, is skeptical. "I'm not sure I put much stock in the numbers coming out of Oklahoma," he said. "Texas is two or three times the size of Oklahoma, and we have a longer season by 30 days. But regardless, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are the three top wild quail states."
TPWD regional biologist Danny Swepston, who supervises 43 Texas counties including most of the Rolling Plains and the prime bobwhite habitat there, reports that quail are now turning into a major economic force in this region. "Particularly in the southeast counties, people are coming in and buying up property just for quail hunting," he observed.
A study of the economic impact of quail hunting that was conducted several years ago found that many Texas quail hunters spend $10,000 or more per year on their sport.
For a variety of reasons, including the larger sizes of the ranches there and the predominance of native grasses, the Rolling Plains are regarded as the best quail habitat in Texas. "This is the last bastion statewide for wild bobwhites," Swepston said.
The Cross Timbers, closer to the D/FW Metroplex, faces the same challenge confronting most of Texas, albeit at an accelerated rate of fragmentation, said Mineral Wells biologist Jim Dillard. "Fragmentation is definitely a factor as the larger tracts are divided and subdivided," he noted. "There are a lot more little islands of habitat.
"That's especially true in the tier of counties west of Fort Worth. As you get out to Palo Pinto and Stephens counties, it's not as big an issue. There's still lots of ranchland."
Thus, landowners who take care of that land by not overgrazing it and by retaining cover for wildlife (including quail) should have solidly huntable numbers of bobwhites this fall.
Also, when cattlemen discouraged by the depressed cattle prices seen for several years in the early part of this decade sold off their herds, thus reducing the amount of grazing was reduced, which had the effect of producing more cover for quail and wildlife in general.