Lynn Burkhead — Mediocre season appears to be on tap for Texas quail

Herald Democrat

It’s not a surprise to anyone who has been hunting locally for any length of time, but quail hunting is only a shadow of what it once was in Texas. And nowhere is that more true than here in the Red River Valley.

Nearly 30 years ago when I first started writing in this space for the Sherman Democrat, I knew several Grayson County wingshooters who ran bird dogs and chased bobwhite quail around every fall and winter.

In fact, I actually hunted with a couple of them on occasion, wrote a story or two about pursuing Gentleman Bob in the local uplands, and even bagged a few birds if memory serves correct. I even knew of a wild bobwhite quail covey a couple of miles from where this is being written right now, right in the heart of Denison.

But that was then, and this is now, a time when quail are few and far between in Grayson County. For those who want to find some good quail hunting over a bird dog, you’ll need to fill the pick-up truck with some high dollar fuel and head to the south, west, or north if your desire is to put a few bobwhites on the table.

While there’s still some good wild quail shooting at times in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, the best remaining spots for chasing Mr. Bob remain in Texas and Oklahoma. But even then, and especially this year, you’ll have to pick and choose your spots.

So says the recent quail surveys from both states. While there will be more on Oklahoma’s quail hunting prospects in a week or two (the Sooner State quail season runs from Nov. 13-Feb. 15), we’ll focus on what the quail outlook is here in Texas since the 2021-22 season starts tomorrow for an Oct. 30-Feb. 27 run here to the south of the Red River.

What’s the 30,000-foot season forecast view in Texas this fall? Well, in general, biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department indicate that bobwhite and scaled quail populations continue towards a long, slow road to recovery following several years of drought.

But that’s the good news, because off-and-on drought this year, diminishing habitat, and last February’s severe winter weather siege muddy up the picture a good bit.

In other words, when it comes to quail hunting prospects in Texas for the 2021-22 season, adjust your expectations because this won’t be the hallowed upland bird hunting of the past, but instead a so-so, mediocre season at best in most cases.

Such a ho-hum season prognosis comes after TPWD biologists conducted their annual Quail Roadside Survey period back in August, an annual effort that consists of biologists traveling more than 3,300 miles to see how many male bobwhite quail they can hear calling.

Add in adult and brood sightings on the early morning drives, and the final survey numbers a few weeks ago left “…much to be desired given how great habitat looked across much of the state” according to a TPWD news release.

“Apart from the winter storm in February, mild winter conditions statewide were a welcome reprieve for the bobwhite populations coming off a third year of below average abundance,” said John McLaughlin, upland game bird program leader for TPWD, in the news release.

“However, a relatively dry start to the year likely put a damper on early nesting activity. In the Rolling Plains and South Texas, survey numbers were surprisingly the lowest they have been since the survey’s inception in 1978.”

In other words, there doesn’t appear to be much stellar news anywhere when it comes to Texas quail hunting prospects.

Part of that could easily be the aftereffects of last February’s siege of winter storms and even sub-zero cold, a historic cold snap that brought about a heavy toll on songbirds. I know that I personally saw several songbirds here in Grayson County that succumbed to the cold and froze to death, so it’s little wonder if that also happened to bobwhite quail.

After all, quail aren’t the hardiest of wild creatures on the landscape, and when modern agricultural practices and the desire from landowners to eliminate brush and cover from their properties coincide, there’s very little shelter for a bird that is born with almost everything wanting to eat it. And that’s when it’s warm, not historically cold.

To what extent the winter storms  impacted quail is tough to assess according to McLaughlin. He also notes that it would be mostly speculative in nature.

But from my untrained vantage point, the winter weather certainly presented yet another hurdle to survival for quail. How much it hurt, who knows, but it’s doubtful that it helped much as quail continue on their long-term road to recovery.

If that’s the case for bobwhites, which are found in South Texas, the Hill Country, the Rolling Plains, West Texas, and Panhandle, then what about scaled quail, or blue quail as many wingshooters call them in the Rio Grande Valley, West Texas, the Panhandle, and the Trans-Pecos region?

Fortunately, McLaughlin says that scaled quail are better evolved to withstand drought conditions than bobwhites are. But since scaled quail also rely on timely rainfall in the spring and late summer to grow populations, they aren’t unaffected by dry weather either.

And in fact, TPWD biologist note that late rains may have actually hurt scaled quail numbers this year by delaying spring nesting activity. If that’s the case, then that likely put most counties behind the eight ball this year in terms of scaled quail numbers.

“Although scaled quail in the Trans-Pecos fared better than their counterparts in the Rolling Plains and South Texas, and have for some time, populations were below average in 2020,” said McLaughlin in the TPWD news release.

“Broadly, we expect hunting conditions will be below average to fair for most counties, especially those along or close to the New Mexico border.”

McLaughlin added that farther east in Terrell County and across the Pecos River in Crockett County in the Edwards Plateau, scaled quail seemed to have benefitted from additional May rainfall. And true to form, such areas were where TPWD biologists observed the majority of their scaled quail covey sightings.

“The most encouraging reports for scaled quail outside the Trans-Pecos have come from the Panhandle and southern Rolling Plains regions, where birds appeared to have caught enough spring rainfall to make a modest push this year,” said McLaughlin.

“However, we expect that hunting conditions will be below average to fair, which should hold true for scaled quail across most other parts of the state as well.”

And thanks to drought, severe winter weather, and diminishing habitat each year, that seems par for the course for quail all across Texas in most years, at least in recent times.

What’s the bottom line this year? There are quail out there and there are likely to be more than enough coveys for you and your bird dog to find a few in an effort to put a few of these delicious game birds on the table. But this won’t be a year that you’ll likely remember fondly in the years to come, either.

Get out for quail season, enjoy the work of your favorite bird dog, and hope and pray that things are better next year. We can only hope so, right?