ON THE RISE: The quail hunting forecast for western Oklahoma is even better than last year
Alan Peoples likes to tell the story of Oklahoma's greatest quail season. It was 1958 and the state had previously experienced years of drought.
“What most people remember about Oklahoma is the drought of the ‘30s, the Dust Bowl days” said Peoples, chief of the wildlife division for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “It was terrible, but actually it was drier in the ‘50s than it was the '30s.
“1954, '55, '56 were just terrible. It started raining in 1957, and we had the best quail year we ever had in 1958. That's what the old quail hunters say.”
History has repeated itself. After years of drought in western Oklahoma, bobwhite quail have returned in a big way, and, in places, the hunting may be as good as it was almost 60 years ago.
“I think it will be a better year than last year, which is hard to believe,” said Sue Selman, who books bird hunters from California to the Carolinas on her ranch near Buffalo in northwest Oklahoma.
Hunters enjoyed the best quail season in recent memory last year. Selman said hunters on her ranch last season averaged seeing 15 to 20 coveys a day, while one hunting group reported flushing 32 coveys in a single day.
James Dietsch of Oklahoma City, founding chairman of Central Oklahoma Chapter of Quail Forever, has been quail hunting in Oklahoma since 1972. He called last season one of his top five seasons of all-time.
“It was just so much fun,” Dietsch said. “Lots of birds, lots of opportunities and most of those were on WMAs (wildlife management areas) … (It) was the way I remembered it. The way it should be.”
This year might even be better than he remembers. Quail season opens Nov. 12 and roadside surveys by the Wildlife Department show the bobwhite population is up 38 percent statewide over last year and even higher in western Oklahoma where the population is booming.
The quail population will never return to the kind of numbers statewide like it was a half-century ago, but in western Oklahoma where there are large chunks of quail habitat, the bobwhite population might approach numbers like 1958.
The weather cycle this decade is very similar to what happened in the 1950s, Peoples said.
“The drought started in 2010 and ‘10, ‘11 and ‘12 were absolutely just brutal,” he said. “Then ‘13 was a little better. It started raining in 2014, and last year we had a pretty good quail year. This year is going to be better. Everybody I have talked to is very optimistic.
“East of I-35 is hit and miss. There is just no available habitat (for quail). Now, west of I-35 is going to be good.”
During the lean years of very few birds, both Peoples and Dietsch doubted if the bobwhite population would ever rebound. The prairies of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are considered the last region where there is suitable hunting for wild quail.
When the ground was too hot for nesting during scorching summer days for several years, the quail population dwindled to an all-time low.
Biologists for the Wildlife Department, however, continued during those years to make the public hunting areas quail-friendly through burning, discing and cutting down Eastern Red Cedar trees.
Quail Forever chapters kept raising money and getting federal matching funds as a result that provided the Wildlife Department with needed equipment for the habitat work.
Now that rain and cooler summer temperatures in recent years have expedited the bobwhites' return, the state's wildlife management areas should provide some of the state's best bird hunting.
“You look at some of our (wildlife management) areas starting at Beaver, going to Cooper, Fort Supply, Packsaddle, Sandy Sanders, those guys worked hard at quail management,” Peoples said. “It's years like this it really pays off. They are going to have more quail than their neighbors, chances are.”
When Peoples became the upland bird biologist in 1990 for the Wildlife Department, there were at least 120,000 quail hunters in the state. Today, there are around 25,000.
Poor hunting caused many to quit boarding bird dogs and give up on the sport. Die-hard bird hunters who kept dogs will be rewarded this year, and hopefully, for more years to come.
“How long are we going to experience this?” Dietsch asked. “I wish I had the crystal ball.”
Bird hunters should enjoy it while it lasts.
Dates: Nov. 12 – Feb. 15, statewide
Daily Limit: 10 with 20 in possession after first day
Note: Quail season will vary from statewide hunting season dates on some public hunting areas. Be sure to check specific regulations for the wildlife management area before hunting.