IN SEARCH OF BOBWHITE: Quail season opens Saturday but fewer birds around
James Dietsch of Oklahoma City always looks forward to quail season no matter what the forecast.
The founding chairman of the Central Oklahoma 89er Chapter of Quail Forever has hunted quail for 40 years in the state and has seen the population go up and down like a yo-yo.
This appears to be one of those down years. The birds counted in the August roadside quail surveys, which have been done by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for almost 30 years, were the second lowest ever recorded. The October roadside surveys were better but still not great.
The surveys show that quail hunting should be about the same in northwest and northeast Oklahoma as last season, but the bobwhite population in southwest Oklahoma looks to have dropped dramatically from the last two years.
The news was better in south-central Oklahoma which saw more birds than last season during the surveys, but the quail population in north-central and southeast Oklahoma is down significantly.
The survey results match what Danny Pierce of Rush Creek Guide Service, who guides bird hunters in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, has found during the Texas quail season which has already opened.
"I don't think I will have many quail to hunt. I may have some up north, but over here in western Oklahoma and around Wheeler (Texas) there is just not a whole lot of birds," Pierce said.
"I got birds in Dalhart, Texas - pheasant and blue quail and some bobwhites. All reports it's a little better north. The Oklahoma Panhandle might be alright because Dalhart is alright. It's not great, but there are huntable numbers. It falls off fast going south."
That kind of news doesn't deter hunters like Dietsch, who will be chasing quail across western Oklahoma this season with his three Brittanys.
"There is really no way to find out (if there are quail) except to go hunting," Dietsch said. "I will be going."
Quail hunters like Dietsch are a rare breed anymore. He has kept, trained and fed dogs for decades and continued the tradition even when so many others quit bird hunting because the quail population dwindled.
Wade Free, the assistant director for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, is another avid quail hunter. He still keeps 12 bird dogs in a kennel.
"In a lot of years with 12 bird dogs on feed, I am the dumbest guy around," Free said. "But when we have got quail, I am the smartest guy around and I've got lots of friends."
Quail is a fragile bird. Dietsch compares them to shad in a lake.
"Everything eats them," he said.
Occasionally, the diehard quail hunters like Dietsch and Free are rewarded with a great season like in 2016. After years of drought, some timely rains returned and the bird population boomed.
"Things can be like 2016 again," Dietsch said.
When the weather cooperates and habitat conditions are right, just like shad in a lake, quail will go gangbusters laying eggs and reboost the population, he said. But it takes the perfect storm, so to speak.
"That's why we see those (population) fluctuations and probably always will," he said.
Even if there are fewer birds to shoot this season, Dietsch will be be quail hunting at every opportunity.
"That is the hunting I do," he said. "If all I am going to do is take the dogs for a long walk, that's what I am going to do."
In addition to the public wildlife management areas in western Oklahoma, Dietsch suggests bird hunters might check out some of the leased properties available for public hunting through the Wildlife Department's Oklahoma Land Access Program. He found coveys last season on OLAP land.
Alan Peoples, head of the wildlife division for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, put it this way: "The only thing I can guarantee you, you won't find any if you don't go."
Dates: Nov. 10 - Feb. 16