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Bobbing for Bobwhites
A buck with a rack larger than anything I’ve seen in years prances across the ranch driveway. It’s late December and deer season is in full swing in the Texas Panhandle. But my cousin Shannon and I aren’t here to chase whitetails. We are after quail. Joe, the rancher who owns this 9,000-acre corner of Texas heaven, has set aside his work for a few hours to join us. It’s been a good year for bobwhites, says Joe.
We uncase our shotguns, stuff shells into our pockets, and spread out in a loose line as we plow through thick cover behind the ranch house. Just a few minutes into our march, a covey of quail, maybe 20 birds in all, erupts from a head-high plum thicket on the edge of a pasture. In an explosion of wings and feathers, the little brown bombers scatter in all directions. I catch only a glimpse of whirring wings and faint streaks of brown as the quail scatter low across the countryside. Most fly straight away, keeping the plum thicket directly between me and them. Those that veer off to the sides cut in front of my two partners. Shannon shoots twice and knocks down two birds, a rare feat for even the most experienced bird hunter. Joe pops off three quick shots, lowers his gun and looks at me with a sheepish grin.
“Get any?” I ask, knowing full well Joe didn’t connect. He’s rusty, but he shakes it off. Joe doesn’t hunt much, though he’s smack in the middle of some of the best deer, turkey and quail hunting in the country. When friends visit, however, he’ll gladly swap his cowboy hat for an orange cap.
Wild quail hunting has fallen on hard times over the past two or three decades in traditional bobwhite states like Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia. Bobwhite populations have declined by as much as 70 percent in some areas. Biologists lay the blame directly on habitat loss. Brushy fence lines and overgrown fields have been replaced by sterile land with virtually no cover. On a good day, you’re lucky to kick up a covey or two.
Quail in Texas and western Oklahoma, however, are holding their own. While bird numbers do fluctuate in those states, they tend to ride the whims of Mother Nature. Good spring rains can boost bird numbers while drought or a late spring snow can knock them down. This season all the variables have favored quail.
But even with so many birds, we are at a distinct disadvantage without a well-trained bird dog shuffling ahead of us. It’s not that we can’t find quail on our own — the three of us kick up one covey after another throughout the morning. But hunting quail without a dog is like running through a forest with your eyes closed: You’re going to get a big surprise sooner or later; you just don’t know when. That’s exactly why quail hunting is so much fun.
As lunchtime draws near, Joe says something about getting back to work. The three of us circle back and bust one more covey along a creek bottom lined with towering cottonwood trees. I hit one. Shannon scores another double and Joe, well, he’s just happy to be out here with two friends on a ranch full of quail.
6 whole quail
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup olive oil
2 (10-oz) cans chicken with rice soup
1/2 cup sherry
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brown the quail in a mixture of butter and olive oil in a skillet. Arrange the quail in a baking dish. Pour the soup and sherry into the pan drippings left in the skillet. Bring to a boil and pour over the quail. Cover and bake for one hour at 350 degrees. Serve with rice and curried fruit or a fruit salad. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Excerpted from Wild Fare & Wise Words, a cookbook by Jim Casada. It’s available for purchase at jimcasadaoutdoors.com or by mailing a check directly to 1250 Yorkdale Dr., Rock Hill, S.C. 29730. The cost is $20, plus $4 shipping and handling.