Virginia Wild Quail
We live in Virginia, an area like much of the eastern region of the country, where wild bird hunting opportunities were at one time abundant. The landscape was made up of small family farms and rural communities, each with a church and a country store. It was normal to be in the out of doors and hear the unmistakable call of a bob-white quail or the rapid drumming of a ruffed grouse. Fields with natural grasses were plentiful and forests were managed and logged with new growth providing homes for wild things. In much of the state the familiar sounds of wildlife have been replaced by the zip of passing cars or the banging and beeping of construction equipment. Modern farming practices have eliminated the early successional habitat that so many creatures depend on. There are few places that supply the habitat needed to have sustainable wild populations and those places are rapidly diminishing. Organizations like Quail Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and Ducks Unlimited partner with state and federal agencies to create and conserve habitat in an attempt to reduce the rapid decline of wild game bird populations. These organizations along with agencies such as the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have made progress over the years, but a lot more work must be done if we want to preserve wildlife for the enjoyment of future generations.
These days it is a rare occurrence to see a wild quail. Most bird dog owners in the state rely on pen raised birds to train and exercise their pups. The state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries still advertises a quail season in which a prospective hunter can shoot six birds per day. They, like many other game and fish agencies have recently moved to an online system for the purchase of licenses. Last year while obtaining my hunting license, I noticed an area on the website entitled quota hunts. These hunts are awarded on a lottery basis and range from archery hunting Whitetail Deer to accessing small ponds to shoot ducks. One particular lottery was to gain access to Virginia Forestry Department land to have a days hunt on a managed wild quail population. This particular hunt was of interest to me, as I have heard the old-timers tell stories of the glory days hunting quail when they were in their younger years. Such stories always seemed to end with "Well I will probably never hunt a wild quail again in Virginia" and then move to tales of traveling to Kansas or Texas in search of the elusive covey rise. I paid the entry fee, thinking I probably didn't stand much of a chance and went back to planning out the rest of my hunting season.
In early December, Christmas came early and I was notified that I was awarded the lottery quail hunt at the New Kent Forestry Center. The notification came via email and I was one of four other recipients. My hunt was scheduled for a Saturday in January and I was allowed to bring two guests with me. The best part of the email was one of the last lines; "Dogs are encouraged". Up until this point, I had only hunted Jackson on pen raised birds. He was still a puppy at only 8 months of age and very early on in his hunting career. We were both still figuring each other out and I was continuing to learn a lot about his hunting style. I knew right away that my brother had to come with me and had decided that one of our best friends and my mentor in all things bird dogs, Billy, would be the third. Billy had plenty of dogs in his kennel to choose from so I was confident that we could put enough good bird dogs on the ground to have a great hunt. The three of us did research and made our plans. We were more excited than schoolkids on the eve of winter break for January 14th to arrive.
Long before daylight on the morning of the 14th, Tracy and I awoke and she began to prepare the breakfast casserole she made the night before with sausage from a deer I harvested during bow season and eggs from our chickens. I gathered up the supplies I would need for the days hunt and exercised Jackson so he would be ready for the two hour ride down to the hunting area. It was a brisk, wet morning. There was a very light rain that floated to the ground more than it fell. The forecast was bleak, showing it might rain most of the day. The plan was for the three of us to meet at my house and drive down together. Billy arrived first with two dogs in tow. He had brought his newest pup Paint, a German Shorthair, and Drake, a Drahthaar. Tracy gave him a heaping portion of casserole and the three of us ate and awaited the arrival of my always timely brother. Sean showed up a few minutes later, grabbed a bite to eat and we loaded up the truck and headed out. We got down to the hunting area a little after sunrise. It rained the entire way down, but right as we pulled up the rain stopped and the sky began to clear. It was going to be a good day.
Before the trip, we looked at countless overhead maps and studied the area to determine where we thought might be the best place to hunt. One of the lessons I have learned about hunting is you don't really know much about an area until you get your boots on the ground and scout it out. That lesson was reinforced the morning of January 14th 2017. We spent hours walking through various types of cover, grasses, bramble, briers, and swamp. The dogs were routinely getting stuck or slowing as they tried to push themselves through tight unforgiving cover. It was miserable and we were feeling it. All of us, including the dogs were wet, scratched, scraped, and bleeding. We had put on seven miles in about five hours and the only thing we had seen were a few bucks we had jumped up out of the swamp. We decided it was a good time to stop for lunch and regroup. We selected a spot underneath some old pine trees to sit down and eat. It appeared the area had previously been used as a gathering place where the Virginia Department of Forestry could hold educational sessions for youth groups. Just like a lot of the other areas on the property it was in shambles. It was obvious there had not been much upkeep to the entire property in recent years. This is likely due to the lack of funding the agency receives from the state; a common theme for agencies that are tasked with conserving nature and wildlife.
After lunch, we made the decision to hunt an area near where we parked. The area is used as a dove field in early September. The decision paid off. Within an hour one of the dogs bumped a quail. It took flight, and none of us got a shot off. I think the surprise of the situation caught us off guard. I followed the bird until it landed and Jackson and I started our pursuit. As we neared the area, Jackson abruptly stopped and came to a point. His nerves couldn't handle it and the puppy in him took over. He lunged forward and the bird took flight. There was the familiar flapping of wings and the picturesque outline of a bobwhite quail. I kept focus on the bird and brought my 20 gauge double gun to shoulder, swinging the shotgun through the bird and gauging my lead. I squeezed the trigger and the bird tumbled out of the sky. Jackson took off after it as feathers floated down out of the air and found it in the brush. He happily brought it back to me tail wagging as he trotted. It was perfect. The first wild quail that I had ever taken and the first wild bird Jackson had ever hunted. We took a few minutes to enjoy the moment, snapped a few photos and carried on with the hunt.
After that moment we started to have more success. We continued to find a few singles of quail and I ended up knocking down another bird. As I was looking to recover it with Jackson, we laid witness to the sight that every quail hunter dreams of and all of the old timers tell tales of, the covey rise. We had finally found them. About a dozen or more birds all took flight at once. The sound of wings flapping seemed deafening. A once serene moment was now chaos. In an instant my Adrenalin meter went from zero to a thousand. There were flashes of brown and buff everywhere and they were right in front of us. I raised my gun and made the mistake of pointing it at a group of birds rather than honing in on one. I squeezed the trigger, BOOM, nothing, squeezed again, BOOM, and watched all of the birds fly away unscathed. None of us hit a single bird and it didn't matter. We were all smiling from ear to ear. In that moment I understood the motivation of the quail hunter and why the old timers reminisce about stories of the good old days. I was hooked, and the rise will be something I chase for the rest of my life.
We spent the remaining hours of daylight chasing after those birds as singles and doubles and were given the thrill of one more rise just before the end of shooting light. I knocked down one more bird and Billy picked up two. We ended the hunt with a little light left to snap a photo (first picture) to capture the memory of the days work. We had put on fourteen miles that day. All of us were hurting and the dogs were moving a whole lot slower. It was an awesome hunt. One that each of us will remember for the rest of our lives. I am elated to be able to say that I successfully hunted wild quail in Virginia. We divided up the birds and made the long drive back home.
When I got back, I cleaned the two birds I kept and put them in a simple brine. The next evening I pulled them out of the brine and wrapped them in bacon. I gave them a quick bath in barbecue sauce and put them on the grill. Tracy and I decided to made a big deal out of the meal. She made some nice veggies and rice and poured a couple glasses of wine while I ran the grill. Jackson looked on at us from the couch worn out from the previous days activities. We sat down together and had a great meal, both commenting how it was some of the best bird meat we had ever eaten. It was a perfectly memorable meal to go along with a memorable hunt. After we had finished eating and were cleaning up from dinner, I sneaked over to Jackson and gave him a piece of quail I had saved for him. He earned it. He was happy to get the treat and I patted him on the head and he went back to snoozing.
As I'm writing this, its early December again and I put in for the same quota hunt this year. It is doubtful that I will get it, but I will be ever thankful that I had my opportunity. Habitat restoration efforts continue in the state and with a lot of work and a little luck maybe we can hear the call of the bobwhite again. Until then, I will do my part supporting conservation efforts and sharing my experiences with others in hopes of inspiring them to action. Most of all, I will continue to forever be in search of the next covey rise.
Check out the video below and click on the link to learn more about Virginia's quail recovery initiative and what you can do to help recovery efforts.