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The Cult of Quail

How can a bird that’s six inches tall and weighs barely a third of a pound inspire such devoted passion?

By Russell A. Graves

It starts with a keen nose, a steely point, a frenzied flush and a bevy of action. It happens so fast, the event borders on sensory overload. To hear someone describe a covey rise is as close as you’ll get to hearing a bona fide, shotgun totin’ Texan spout a haiku.

How can it be, though? How can a bird that’s six inches tall and weighs barely a third of a pound incite such devoted passion by its followers? It’s easy to understand if you’ve ever experienced the heart-pounding exhilaration of a covey rise on a crisp bobwhite quail-country morning or spent time following good dogs.

As a kid, I roamed the blackland hills of North Texas with my buddy Garry in search of the few coveys around my home. The dogs would zigzag in and out of the wild rose thickets until they settled on a point. Even when I knew it was coming, my heart would still skip a beat with the flurry of buff and brown colors scrambling in front of me. I’d try to gain my composure and make a clean shot, but mostly I missed — drinking in the glorious moment of the most exciting two seconds in the Texas outdoors.

Early on, I became a member of the cult of quail. Although there weren’t a lot of birds where I lived, Garry and I would still slip afield and chase them two or three times a season. Growing up, we were the only two quail hunters I knew. In 1993, that changed when I moved to wild quail country in the Texas Rolling Plains.

In Childress, I met hunters from all over the nation, and soon I realized that the cult of quail is a substantial one. I use the word “cult” not in a religious sense, although some may claim that devotion to the bird nears religious zealotry. Instead, I find the alternative dictionary definition to be most appropriate: “an exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric, usually artistic or intellectual interest.”

Every season finds people descending on my town, as well as other area burgs, to chase the winged rocket. Way out in northwestern Texas, you won’t find theme parks, grand museums or monuments to Texas liberty. What you will find, in varying abundance according to the prior year’s rainfall and local land management practices, is bobwhite quail. Arguably, the bobwhite quail is one of the hottest tourist attractions in the great swath of the Texas Midwest that spreads in a triangle roughly from the Wichita Falls area to Big Spring, then north along the Caprock to Clarendon and back.

Opening weekend of quail season finds hotels at capacity and local restaurants full of blaze orange and oilcloth-clad hunters. What brings the hunters in droves is simple. Save for the south Texas brush country, on a nationwide basis, bobwhites cannot be found anywhere else in as significant numbers as they are in the red dirt mesquite and prickly pear flats of the Texas Rolling Plains.

Being a cult of quail member isn’t necessarily cheap. In 1999, Quail Unlimited reported that, on average, their Texas members spent $10,354 annually in pursuit of bobwhites, and 65 percent of that money was spent in the small towns near where they hunted quail. Simply put, bobwhite quail are an important tourist attraction for a bevy of small communities whose economies are often marginal at best.

Each year, I run across hunters from states with traditionally strong quail hunting heritages, but for a variety of reasons, wild quail numbers aren’t what they once were. Thus the great migration from southeastern and midwestern states to hunt in Texas. Some even live the entire quail season in our midst.

Speaking with four cult members, I was delighted to hear their varied answers as to why they love to hunt quail. For the group, one reason can’t sum up their passion for the sport. Instead, a tapestry of rationales justifies their devotion to the cause. But one thing was constant with each one of them: Once you join the cult, you don’t ever want out.

For love of companionship

“I’m a product of my environment, I reckon,” says Dale Rollins of San Angelo. Rollins is a wildlife specialist for Texas Cooperative Extension. Rollins is intelligent, motivating and positively infectious as he discusses Texas quail with a mix of humor, scientific intuition and plain old common sense. Rollins’ legacy of Texas conservation is storied — he is especially proud of his brainchild, the Bobwhite Brigade. Started 13 years ago, the Bobwhite Brigade trains high school students in leadership, critical thinking and public speaking skills by using bobwhite quail as a vehicle.

“When I was a youngster, if you went hunting, it was implied that you were going quail hunting,” explains Rollins, who grew up in the southwestern Oklahoma town of Hollis. “We were fortunate — there were no deer and hardly any turkeys, so no competing interests during my formative years.”

Rollins loves quail hunting, in large part, for the social aspects involved. He says that unlike other types of hunting, such as deer or turkey, quail hunting is big-group friendly. The chance to hunt with friends in a laid-back atmosphere, Rollins explains, is one of the key reasons he has held onto his quail hunting heritage for so many years.

“Over the last 15 years, I’ve been blessed to hunt with ‘good dogs,’ both hominid and canine.”

For love of dogs and gear

My friend Silas Ragsdale of Childress is an international traveler. Although he has hunted three continents, he makes time to hunt quail more than any other species of game. “For me, quail hunting isn’t about the birds, dogs, shotguns or landscape. … It’s about all those things combined.”

”I love the dogs and their innate ability to find that little 5- or 6-ounce bird in the proverbial haystack,” waxes Ragsdale. He loves his pointer’s laidback attitude when in the kennel, and how he is happy just to be alive and awaiting his turn to go afield. Once his turn comes, Ragsdale says, his dog is always ready.

Ragsdale also appreciates a dog’s redemptive qualities. “It amazes me that an animal can completely frustrate you one day and be a hero the next. The same dog that couldn’t find anything the day before because he was uncontrollable or I spent most of the day pulling porcupine quills out of his face turns out to really be able to hunt.” Ragsdale says that even after taking it easy during the off-season with little training, when quail season begins, his pointer Pete adopts a “Put me in, Coach!” attitude.

Ragsdale says that great guns complement good dogs. “To me a fine shotgun is like art. With a great gun, though, you become part of the art itself. There are some days I’m not worthy to be part of the art. On those days when everything comes together perfectly, I truly feel like I’m a function of the gun.”

For love of country(side)

Author, transplanted Texan and confessed quail junkie Henry Chappell is a firm member of the cult of quail. Although he lives in the Dallas suburb of Plano, his thoughts often drift westward. “I can’t think of West Texas without thinking of quail.”

In his book, At Home on the Range with a Texas Hunter, Chappell conveys his love of place. “Brad [Chappell’s hunting partner Brad Carter] and I have since hunted together all over creation, but given a choice we’ll hunt bobwhite quail in a certain piece of river breaks country in the southeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle. Somewhere along the line it became our country. … I may vacation in the Rockies, but I’ll do my most serious hunting at home in the country I know best and love the most: rough, dry, windy, brushy, rocky, thorny country with lots of quail …”

I’ve hunted with Henry and Brad, and their love of the land is evident. On an afternoon hunt we worked ridgelines and draws in search of quail only to find a few stragglers. Neophytes would have been disheartened by this apparent lack of success. Henry, however, put the day in perspective when he noted how beautiful the country was on that foggy day. He was correct. Quail country is beautiful. Rugged landscapes that feature hills with scuffed, red edges grow the perfect blend of brush for cover, bunch grasses for nesting, and seed-producing plants for feeding bobwhites.

“In Texas,” Chappell concludes, “you find the best quail hunting in rough, wide-open range country where big-going dogs have room to run. And if I had to choose a last meal, I’d pick fried quail, gravy and biscuits.”

For love — period

I first had a chance to hunt with Chuck Ribelin of Dallas a couple of years ago. We had e-mailed a couple of times and chatted on the phone but met in person when I traveled to Paducah to have supper with him at a restaurant full of blaze orange-clad patrons. Chuck is the epitome of a gentleman quail hunter. He’s gracious, affable, generous, and if the cult of quail needs a patriarch, I nominate him. As we ate, Chuck opined about the condition of Texas bobwhites and how all of the involved parties — state governmental agencies, conservation organizations and private individuals — must fight to keep quail numbers from slipping below the point of no return. His words were inspiring.

On the hunt, Chuck didn’t shoot much. In fact, I’m not sure he shot at all. He was happy watching the dogs work and spent an exorbitant amount of time petting one of his female pointers. Chuck’s from the old school; I could tell that bag limits mean nothing to him. It’s all about the love.

“For me quail hunting is about the peace and quiet of the country; the friendship of the dogs; watching nature at work; the beauty of sunrises and sunsets in the big country of West Texas; the smell of clean air; coyotes yelping just before sunset; a zillion stars in the sky; a proud dog retrieving a downed bird; watching a brace of dogs find a covey of bobs. This is my West Texas symphony. Finally, the flush of the birds brings a rush of adrenalin that no other sound in the world can emulate. This is why I hunt quail.”

Quail in Crisis

By Steve Lightfoot

How important are quail? Consider: The president recently created policy specifically for them. The Texas Legislature created an upland game bird stamp to help conserve them. They’ve received support from people across the spectrum because everyone agrees quail are in trouble.

About two-thirds of the bobwhite quail populations nationwide have vanished in less than 20 years; from 59 million birds in 1980 to about 20 million in 1999. They have disappeared from the landscape in southeastern states, where quail have been an integral part of the regional culture. Changes to the landscape during the last two decades — primarily urban growth, conversion of native grasslands to exotic grasses like coastal Bermuda and monoculture pine plantations — have robbed quail and other species of usable space, according to wildlife biologists.

“Quail are considered by wildlife officials to be a keystone indicator species of the health of grassland ecosystems,” says Steve DeMaso, upland game bird program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “When their numbers fall, other species that inhabit those ecosystems follow in a domino effect.”

DeMaso and TPWD quail program leader Robert Perez have helped guide state quail conservation efforts, including the creation of a diverse cooperative of landowners and state, federal and private entities working under the umbrella of the Texas Quail Conservation Initiative.

“By bringing all stakeholders to the table, the initiative can focus on landscape-level conservation that minimizes duplicative effort and maximizes resources,” says Perez.

Many stakeholders serve on the Texas Quail Council, an official advisory group to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and have interacted with national conservation policy makers on behalf of quail and grassland birds. This unifies quail recovery efforts by resource managers in Texas.

Whether you’re a landowner, sportsman, birder or just curious about quail, additional information about efforts to conserve this important bird is available on the TPWD Web site and in the Texas Quail Council’s publication, Where Have all the Quail Gone? A companion publication, Scaled Quail in Texas, details the biology and management strategies for this western cousin of the bobwhite. Both are accessible online.

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