Remember prairies for late-season quail hunts

KANSAS CITY MO -- Prairies and related grasslands offer a late-season hunting opportunity for bobwhite quail hunters willing to walk further and in different patterns than they did in the old days.

For decades, quail hunting mostly meant following pointing and retrieving dogs down a fence row or a brushy draws among crop fields. That was especially true as farmers finished the corn and soybean harvests, leaving fields mostly bare. Quail loafed under brushy cover between feeding times. Bird dogs and hunters still trace a path along fence rows because of past success, and the approach still works, sometimes.

But those habits are not as effective on Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) wildlife areas with prairies or native grass and wildflower restorations. The upside is management to boost prairie plants also helps birds such as bobwhite quail. They evolved on the state’s grasslands. Prairie management increases the potential for a conservation area to hold good-sized quail coveys. The birds also have the shelter they need from weather and predators. But the challenge for hunters is that rather than the quail-friendly cover being lined out down a fence row, the quail can use entire fields for feeding, resting and hiding, said MDC Wildlife Management Biologist Kyle Hedges.

“There are many places where you can miss birds when you’re hunting,” Hedges said, as he gazed out over the Stony Point Prairie Conservation Area, a 960-acre tract in Dade County that’s mostly native grasses and wildflowers, scattered plum thickets and a few brushy draws. “This is more the grassland model for wildlife rather than the crop field model.”

However, Hedges said, there will often be more quail per acre on a managed grassland system than in crop fields, but they can be harder to find.

“They’re just as likely to be out in the middle of a field or in a plum thicket as they are in a draw,” he said.

Missouri’s quail populations have declined in recent decades, although the MDC wildlife areas with prairie components have remained a stronghold for quail even in years when cold, wet weather has hurt nesting and brood-rearing success. This year, dry conditions during the last nesting season in late spring and early summer helped quail numbers in western Missouri where the majority of the state’s public prairies or native grassland restorations are located.

“Our covey numbers are down but the sizes of our coveys are bigger,” said Frank Loncarich, an MDC wildlife management biologist who manages areas with native grasses such as the Robert E. Talbot Conservation Area in Lawrence County.

Finding those quail is the challenge.

Hedges and Loncarich are also quail hunters. Their tips for hunting success on public wildlife areas managed for grassland plant and wildlife species:

  • Hunt off the beaten path including walks across the interior sections of a grassland field. Early season hunters are drawn to any bordering fencerows or brushy draws, and the pressure prompts quail using that cover to move out into grasses and small plum thickets.
  • Circle back through a good looking area or approach it from a different angle. Quail will hold tight in dense cover and let you walk past, if the dogs miss them. Also, a covey will hear crunching boots and voices and run from the approach. As ground nesting and feeding birds, they’re adept at giving hunters the slip without flushing.

“You walk by a lot of birds you never see,” Loncarich said.

  • Adding a few more hunters and bird dogs to the hunting party, and spreading out during walks, increases the chances for locating quail on large, grassland areas.
  • Don’t bypass prairie areas with shorter grasses. Managers use prescribed fire to control woody plant invasion and boost the native grasses and wildflowers that evolved with wildfire. But they also use cattle to add grazing in a rotational system that leaves tall grasses, mid-level grasses and short grasses. That gives grassland birds the variety of cover they need for nesting, brood rearing and protection from harsh weather or predators. Grazed areas can be preferred hangouts for quail because they can move about easier in the shorter grasses.

Missouri’s quail hunting season is open through Jan. 15. Sometimes winter snows can reduce cover somewhat and make quail easier to find on prairies.

The MDC online Conservation Atlas at http://bit.ly/1h2XwO will let you search for conservation areas and review their wildlife habitat.

Enjoy the walk amid prairie scenery and observe the varying plants in autumn hue or a tiny creek tumbling over stone ledges. Just like a forest, a prairie opens up in winter and reveals interesting details. Only small remnants of Missouri’s once-vast prairies remain. The challenges posed by hunting quail on MDC-managed prairies are equaled by the rewards.