On The Rebound

Intensive quail management is bringing the upland birds back to huntable levels at one North Louisiana WMA.

Clever soldiers who want to avoid work details keep their distance from superiors. “Out of sight, out of mind,” is the order for the troops who like their free time to remain free. “Out of sight, out of mind,” can also be used to describe the state of quail in Louisiana. Nobody sees quail much anymore, so nobody thinks too much about them.

We’ve all heard stories about how the occasional covey causes palpitated heartbeats in deer hunters approaching their stand in the pre-dawn darkness, but that’s about the extent of our quail stories anymore.

I can remember seeing quail hopping and skittering around the many fields that surrounded my house as I was growing up near Enon in Washington Parish in the late 1970s and ’80s. Their singsong “bobwhite” call often ushered me into the woods as I made my way from the edges of the fields into the timber looking for squirrels.

I don’t hear that call anymore, and I don’t think much about quail anymore either.

Thankfully, there are a few folks in Louisiana who still think about quail. The black of their double-barreled shotguns draped over their shoulders stand in stark contrast to their graying hair.

“Quail hunters are about as scarce as hens’ teeth,” said Hershel Langley, a determined quail hunter from Luling who is willing to drive anywhere for the opportunity to hunt quail. “Our numbers have declined as rapidly as the quail have.

“It’s safe to say that a quail hunter who has just put in five miles of walking through the brush isn’t likely to come back for another round if he doesn’t even get to hear a flush in front of him, especially if he can ride his ATV to his deer stand the next morning and ride back when he’s done.”

Fortunately, for hunters like Langley, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has been working to improve quail hunting opportunities at some of the wildlife management areas (WMA) throughout the state.

The best and most heavily managed WMA for quail is Jackson-Bienville in North Louisiana. This piece of public land is more noted for its excellent deer and turkey hunting, but LDWF Region 1 biologist Steve Hebert says that quail hunting is on the rise.

As Region 1 manager, Hebert is responsible for managing Jackson-Bienville and has been involved in quail management on a statewide and regional basis for more than 25 years. He moved to Minden in 1980 as a biologist for the Acres for Wildlife Program that was designed to provide landowner assistance to encourage the management and conservation of wildlife habitat on private lands, which also included a fair amount of quail management.

“When I became the Region 1 Wildlife Division Supervisor, then on to Biologist Manager, I brought my interest and experience in upland management with me and applied it to Jackson-Bienville WMA,” said Hebert.

At this time, Willamette was the primary owner of Jackson-Bienville. Willamette’s wildlife biologist, Luke Lewis, also had an interest in upland management. Hebert and Lewis combined their interests with the support of sportsmen’s groups and private individuals to develop a management plan that benefited upland species at the WMA, including quail. The plan was designed to fit into Willamette’s timber-management plans.

“Those efforts are now being incorporated into Weyerhaeuser’s plans,” said Hebert. “Weyerhaeuser is now the primary owner of Jackson-Bienville.”

Jackson-Bienville was chosen for this management strategy because Hebert and Lewis saw a chance to incorporate quail habitat development into the ongoing timber management. Jackson-Bienville is the only upland WMA in North Louisiana with acreage sufficient for developing quail habitat and providing reasonable quail-hunting opportunities. The added support of the landowners, LDWF and supporters of the Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Habitat Program provided a unique opportunity.

The Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Habitat Program is a non-profit organization that was formed to support wildlife management and education projects on Jackson-Bienville.

Langley recently spent two days hunting Jackson-Bienville, and came away impressed with what the management efforts have been able to accomplish.

“In my opinion, this WMA has the right environment, right temperature and right habitat,” he said. “I like what I see here, but it doesn’t really matter if I like what I see. What’s important is do the quail like what they see?”

According to Hebert, there’s a lot for quail to like about Jackson-Bienville. The habitat improvement has included thinning timber, herbicide applications to remove woody understory, prescribed burning, understory removal by mowing and supplemental food strips and plots.

“We have seen a substantial increase in quail on Jackson-Bienville since our management efforts began,” said Hebert. “Fall call routes inside the WMA average twice as many coveys as routes run through pine and hardwood areas outside Jackson-Bienville.”

To understand why the quail have made a comeback at Jackson-Bienville, it is important to understand why the quail population has declined in recent years. According to Hebert, quail numbers have gone down due to two main reasons — a decline in suitable habitat, and weather trends.

“Habitat decline followed the abandonment of small farms and rural homesteads,” said Hebert. “Changes in timber management and reduction, or elimination of prescribed burning in the pinelands, have had a profound impact on quail habitat. Couple that with the severe droughts during the early 1980s and 1990s, and you can see why we’ve been losing our quail.”

Langley has his own explanations of why the quail have been disappearing.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, farmers used to plant crops. They cleared land and left hedgerows and had controlled burns. These hedgerows and burns produced briars that provided protection for the quail,” said Langley. “They could feed on milo and other mass-produced crops, and they didn’t really put a hole in the pocketbook of the farmer as far as them destroying things.

“The problem is this farmer isn’t there anymore. Big industry moved in looking to make a dollar, whether it was cotton, sugar cane or timber. They started buying up land, and they aren’t into quail, they’re into making money. This new move to make a dollar depleted the habitat, and the predators have had the advantage ever since.”

If the loss of quail habitat is the explanation for why the quail have disappeared, then the solution to bring the quail back is pretty easy to figure out — bring the habitat back.

“Where the habitat has been actively maintained and developed,” said Hebert, “the quail have returned.”

Hebert said that hunters interested in hunting Jackson-Bienville should first look along the North Road. This area provides hunters with an ideal example of what the better quail habitat looks like at the WMA.

“They can branch out from there,” he said. “Weyerhaeuser is doing a lot of timber management for the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the timber stands are thinned, the understory is open. If you’ll look at the habitat along the North Road, and try to find other areas that look the same, you’ll be well on your way.”

Langley started along the North Road at his recent trip to Jackson-Bienville, and what he saw impressed him.

“This is a great place for the way I like to hunt,” he said. “I’ll drive along the roads and get out every 200 yards or so, get out and make a few comeback calls, and listen. I like to walk into the wind while calling so I can hear the return calls.”

At each stop, Langley makes a mark on the edge of the road by making a slash with the toe of his boot. If he hears a return call, he makes another slash across the first to make an x.

“I’ll keep doing this until I reach the end of the road,” he said, “and then turn around and drive back over the area I just traveled. I’ll stop at every x I made on the road, let the dogs out and let them start working.”

Langley believes that if quail hear his call on his initial stop, they will answer.

“The lead male is going to lose some of his harem,” he said. “He’ll be doing everything he can to locate any lost hens. That’s the reason for the call. You’re playing on that factor of Mother Nature.”

Learning the daily routine of quail has helped Langley become a better hunter. Through research and experience, he has learned that quail come off their roosts about 30 minutes before sunrise.

“They roost on the ground and form a perfect circle with all their fannies pointing to the center,” he said. “That’s why I always get excited when I find a big pile of quail excrement. That’s a dead giveaway that birds are in the area.”

About the time quail begin leaving their roosts, Langley believes the dominant male begins trying to get his harem back together again so they can go off and eat.

“That’s why 30 minutes before sunrise is such a great time for calling,” he said. “Once he gets them all together, they will be on their way to feed.”

After eating, the birds will be off to find something to drink.

“Little pockets of water are essential for quail,” said Langley. “But in Louisiana, it’s not very hard for them to find water. When they get done with their drink, they’ll roost in a new spot. Quail roost in a different spot every time, though I’d say they are likely to be found no more than 1/3 of a mile, as the crow flies, from their previous roosting spot.”

While quail season generally opens in mid-November, most quail hunters at Jackson-Bienville wait until after the gun season for deer is over before going out, according to Hebert.

“Depending on the actual season dates for the deer, quail hunters can sometimes get a week in before deer season begins,” Hebert added.

Langley says that his favorite time to hunt quail is during the coldest part of the year, typically from December through February.

“The colder the better, in my opinion,” he said. “The cold air helps the dogs find the smell better. The scent gets easier for the dogs to find each day after the rainy weather associated with an approaching cold front. Bad weather and moisture in the air depresses the molecules. Dry air allows the scent to spread better. I’d say that 45 to 50 percent humidity would be optimum.”

When hunting quail, Langley ties a bell on his dog’s collar. As his dog works through the brush, the jangling of the bell is non-stop. When the noise stops, Langley knows the dog is on point. From that point, Langley tries to locate the dog at the last point where he heard the bell ringing by looking for the blaze-orange collar he keeps tied around its neck.

“If you’ve got an experienced dog,” Langley said, “he going to stay on point and not flush them. If they move, he’ll move right along with them.”

Once the dog has been located, Langley approaches from behind and throws his hat out in front of the dog to try to flush the birds with his gun at the ready. “I’ll sometimes walk in on them to get them to flush,” he added. “Every now and then, maybe two out of 10 points, I’ll actually see the quail on the ground before they flush.”

Langley shoots a side-by-side double-barrel 16-gauge with a cylinder bore on the right and an improved on the left. “I’ll generally shoot No. 8 or 9 shot in the right tube and No. 7 in the left,” he said. “The reason is 72 percent of the shot from the cylinder bore will fall within a 30-inch circle at 19 yards. And, 72 percent of the shot form the improved bore will fall within that 30-inch circle at 29 yards. This works out great for getting doubles because the second shot is usually farther than the first shot as the quail get farther away from you.”

What will it take to get the Louisiana quail population back to what it once was? There may be no perfect answer. The work of Hebert and others with the LDWF at WMAs across the state is a great start. Langley believes the answer may be a Louisiana Quail Stamp with funds dedicated to setting aside blocks of land within the WMAs strictly for quail management.

“Whatever the answer is,” said Langley, “I hope Louisiana gets more serious about quail management. Jackson-Bienville is a great start, and the possibilities I see there are tremendous. The simple fact is, there are other hunters out there just like me, and they are ready to call it quits unless something more is done.”

About Chris Ginn 778 Articles
Chris Ginn has been covering hunting and fishing in Louisiana since 1998. He lives with his wife Jennifer and children Matthew and Rebecca along the Bogue Chitto River in rural Washington Parish. His blog can be found at chrisginn.com.

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