Outdoors

A season to remember

Michael Pearce

Outdoors

Tom Turner watches his dogs look for quail Wednesday afternoon.
Tom Turner watches his dogs look for quail Wednesday afternoon. The Wichita Eagle

Old Kansas bird hunters like Tom Turner and me like talking walks down memory lane, sharing stories of years ago when quail were as thick as sparrows or when brilliant rooster pheasants rose from fields like the glowing embers from a stirred campfire.

Wednesday afternoon, my friend took a walk right into such times again as he ambled past two stoic bird dogs and right into a rising cloud of bobwhite quail.

“They found another covey of quail already,” Turner said as he called his dogs to where I’d downed a bird. “My word. That’s five coveys, five big coveys, in barely a quarter-mile.” I couldn’t confirm the distance but my watch proved we’d hit the five coveys in a little less than two hours. We later found three more in another area, within about another hour.

Eight coveys in three hours is good hunting, no matter the year. There’s no shortage of good reports from the upland bird seasons that end Jan. 31.

Better bird populations

Phil Taunton, a friend and longtime quail hunter from Emporia, recently told of a 90-minute hunt on public land where he moved four nice coveys. Others in his area have done well.

“Most of the old time quail hunters I’ve talked to in the Flint Hills say they’ve been finding the most birds in quite a few years,” Taunton said. “We’re back to finding quail in the traditional old areas were we used to. People are going out and expecting to find several coveys.”

Thanks to decent summer weather, early fall reports from Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism biologists said the statewide pheasant populations had increased 70 percent from 2013 numbers, but that populations were well below long-term averages over much of Kansas. Still, there have been bright spots.

About a week before our quail hunt, Turner sent a photo of 20 rooster pheasants atop a dog trailer, proving his group of five had killed limits of four per person in the cold temperatures and fresh snow of northern Edwards County. There have been similar reports from other central Kansas pheasant hunters.

Last weekend, a friend walked the weedy corners of irrigated croplands with another hunter and got six roosters in two hours. Closer to Christmas, a friend with four others shot 13 pheasants in one quarter-section of Conservation Reserve Program grass in Reno County, and they were hunting without a dog.

No question pheasant populations have been spotty, with plenty of tales of disappointment from lands not far from areas with good reports. Great habitat has been a common denominator for success. Even last year, when the state’s pheasant population was at historic lows, Turner found nice numbers in some CRP fields that had been previously burned, where pheasant chicks could move with ease, and find insects on the forbs that flourish with regular burnings.

Some recent cold and snow also helped concentrate the birds in the finest winter habitat around, especially if there’s plenty of food. That can provide good hunting in an area with an otherwise fair population.

Turner and I tried pheasants for a hour Wednesday morning where they’d shot limits the week before, but without the cold, snow or wind to mask our footsteps. We got a rooster, missed a rooster and couldn’t get a shot at another that flushed nearby. Then we headed for quail country.

Covey after covey

Turner let Aero, a Gordon setter, and Gilley, a German shorthair, roam. It took a half-hour before I looked up and saw Gilley, nose into the breeze, slammed into a point atop a ridge. Aero honored from below the thicket of wild plum into which the shorthair was pointing.

The birds had moved a bit, and the dogs did a little creeping before the covey erupted all around Tom, who shot a bird with his 28 gauge while I shot photos. I can’t tell you how many birds were in the covey because quail hunters are as prone to exaggeration of bird numbers as crappie fishermen are the size of their fish. But it was big, especially for the middle of the winter and after a sizable snow.

The birds flew east across a property line, so we headed west. We went less than 150 yards when Aero made the finding point while Gilley stood to the side proudly honoring. It was my turn to walk in and two birds dropped at the rise. A little further along, at the peak of a sandhills ridge, the dogs stuck another covey and Tom dropped a quail with each barrel of his over-under shotgun.

Pheasant tracks pocked the open spots of sand and snow, and the dogs continually tried to work into a solid point on the running birds. Twice, the dogs followed the scent of the running pheasants right to large coveys that held much better.

We switched areas for the last hour we could hunt, finding three more coveys though two flushed ahead of the dogs, hesitant to hold on the thin cover of the ragweed flats where they were feeding. We headed home with lots of daylight left, having killed 10 but knowing we’d probably left 100-plus amid the knee-high little bluestem, lush ragweed and jungle-like plum thickets.

“It’s good to know we have so many birds out there this late in the season,” Turner said as we headed for his truck. “That sure gives a guy some hope for next year, too.”

Indeed it does, and with a little help from Mother Nature, maybe things will be good next season for pheasant and quail across even more parts of Kansas. Life’s a lot more fun when your really great hunts aren’t just down memory lane.

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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