Rex Nelson: Arkansas Quail Hunts Missed

February ends this week, meaning I’ll conclude another winter without a bobwhite quail hunt in Arkansas.

I miss it.

For all practical purposes, quail hunting is a thing of the past in our state. Or should I say “bird hunting,” as most Arkansans knew it? You didn’t have to ask what the bird was. It was the bobwhite quail.

My favorite meal as a child was fried quail with rice and gravy. Having fried quail and grits for breakfast on Christmas morning was another special treat. We occasionally would kill a woodcock along the way (a good bird dog also will point a woodcock), and I would get the fried woodcock along with my quail.

In 1967, when I was 8 years old and just starting to hunt with my father, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission conducted an annual breeding survey in which it recorded almost 30 bobwhites per mile. By 1982, the last year I seriously hunted quail, the number was down to seven birds. Now, it’s one or less.

In his 2004 book “A Quail Hunter’s Odyssey,” Joseph Greenfield Jr. wrote: “The true bird hunters consider this addicting avocation to be nothing less than the key to the enjoyment of life. From late November until early March, the everyday problems of life become unimportant. Quail season is open. Each component of bird hunting – birds, dogs, shotguns – combines in changing proportions to paint a beautiful canvas. Dyed-in-the-wool bird hunters frequently choose to hunt by themselves. My primary reason for hunting with others is that they own the land and have invited me to participate. Without them there would be no hunt.”

I loved hunting with my dad. But I knew I was becoming a man when he would let me take our truck and our bird dogs out alone. I would head out after school for a quick hour or two of hunting before dark – just our Brittany spaniel, our English setter and me.

I’ve never much enjoyed hunting pen-raised birds. Greenfield concurred, writing: “Unless physically unable, the true bird hunter will choose to hunt wild quail. This endeavor will entail either many hours of fruitless searching or else taking part in an extraordinarily expensive endeavor. Certainly there are many shooting preserves which make a considerable effort to simulate wild bird hunting. Undoubtedly, for some, released birds may serve as a reasonable substitute for wild birds. But, and it is a very big but, not for me or for other dyed-in-the-wool bird hunters. Wild quail in their natural habitat are the necessary game.”

Several years ago, I had to be in my hometown of Arkadelphia on a Friday afternoon in late February. I had time to kill and decided to cross the Ouachita River and drive east toward some of our old quail hunting haunts. There was a bit of snow mixed in with the rain as I drove down Arkansas Highways 7 and 8, anxious to again see the places where I hunted with my father.

I crossed Tupelo Creek and L’eau Frais Creek, and the familiar pine forest enveloped the highway. On the left was the McCaskill place. Built in 1842 by a pioneer family, the house was near a spring and became the heart of a prosperous plantation. It has been beautifully maintained through the years. In front of the family cemetery adjacent to the house, the jonquils were blooming.

I turned right off the highway onto a county road, and the memories were thick. The Pennington farm was down this road, and it was our favorite spot to hunt. As I neared the entrance, I noticed that the small fields that once were used to grow soybeans and cotton were no longer being farmed. Where there once were fields, there now were thick stands of pine.

“Habitat has greatly changed, and not for the better where quail are concerned,” Greenfield wrote. “Clean farming has all but eliminated the small fields and edges.”

My dad considered quail hunting a regal sport. We always had at least two bird dogs at our house. There were pointers, English setters and Brittany spaniels. They had names like Susie, Mitzi, Bo, Boy, Little Boy and Ready. Rip, a hard-headed setter, was named after Rip Powell, then the head football coach at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia. When the dogs were good, they were a joy to watch. Having one dog point a covey of quail with the partner backing on a crisp day afield is almost a religious experience. When the dogs weren’t so good, they taught us patience and humility.

In a 1998 essay titled “Why We Hunt,” Arkansas writer Jim Spencer said: “Maybe, like me, you hunt the old-fashioned way, with a gun and a raggedy set of camo. I don’t need Freudian substitutions; I’m just a hunter, in the old, original, outdated, politically incorrect way.”

Dad and I were hunters in that old-fashioned way. Our hunting pants often were torn from crossing too many barbwire fences, but quail hunting made us feel like rich Southern gentlemen. The Pennington farm along the Ouachita River had it all. There were fields of cotton and soybeans. There were cattle grazing and a trap to catch wild hogs. There was a creek to cross and tall stands of bottomland hardwoods. We would pick black walnuts and even take a few turnip greens from the riverside patch. It was a magical place for a boy to spend time with his father.

There was a slough near the river filled with tupelo gum trees. We would put the bird dogs back in the truck at the end of a long day of quail hunting and spend the final hour hunting ducks there. It also was a place to catch crappie and the occasional chain pickerel in the spring and gig frogs in the summer. Alligators were imported from Louisiana in the 1970s in an attempt to control the beaver population. After the quail were gone, we would take my now 20-year-old son there when he was 4 or 5 to feed marshmallows to those gators. I suspect he was the only boy in his kindergarten class who fed alligators in the wild.

As I drove by the farm that day, I tuned into KWKH-AM in Shreveport, the home of “The Louisiana Hayride,” to set the mood for a country drive. KWKH is one of the country’s famous old AM stations. It seemed fitting to listen to country music on a legendary station while driving by the fields where I had so often hunted quail in the 1970s. It was, in so many ways, a sentimental journey.

In his 2002 book “Hunting Arkansas,” Keith Sutton wrote: “We may never see the glory days of bobwhite quail hunting our fathers and grandfathers experienced earlier. Habitat loss has taken a heavy toll, and days when you could park on a hilltop and find eight or nine coveys within sight of the vehicle are long since past.”

Sutton went on to write about the glorious tradition of quail hunting and how it clashed with the reality of hunting in Arkansas: “Though bobwhites range throughout the eastern and central United States, bobwhite hunting belongs to the South with all its color and boundless hospitality. Quail are simply ‘birds’ to Southern shooters, and the mention of ‘bird hunting’ conjures up visions of plantation houses, sprawling sedge fields and a brace of slat-ribbed pointers sailing across the countryside. Some even hear strains of gospel music filtering up from the fields beyond the barn. Though we wish it were otherwise, for most of us, quail hunting bears little resemblance to this idyllic setting. Old Shep replaces the pedigree pointers, and we’re much more likely to hunt on Uncle Jack’s back-forty than some high-dollar shooting resort or fancy plantation.”

So it was with my dad and me. We bounced in a dirty pickup truck from small farm to small farm in parts of Clark County and Dallas County. As Sutton wrote, “Quail hunting can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want – or can afford – to make it. Expensive dogs, riding horses and English doubles aren’t required to savor its many pleasures.”

Dad and I would spend entire winter Saturdays bird hunting. We would start early in the morning while the frost was still heavy and go until dark. We often would stop for lunch in one of the two stores at Dalark. They were classic old country stories with wooden floors and iron stoves to keep customers warm. One catered primarily to whites. The other served mainly a black clientele. I loved going to the “black store” to listen to my dad visit with the owner, Mr. “Sugar” Jones. Mr. Jones would be dressed in overhauls with patches all over them. His son, Danny, later ran the store.

“In spite of the long odds, hunters must continue to fight the good fight to preserve the sport,” Greenfield wrote. “… Perhaps we live at the tail end of a tradition stretching back to the time when our forefathers first crawled out of the primordial slime. If sport hunting disappears, God forbid, man and beast alike will be by far the poorer.”

Why hunt birds?

Joseph Greenfield answered: “The simple answer: Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats watching a pair of pointers cover a picturesque piece of ground in a workmanlike manner and slamming on brakes to a stylish point. Or even better, admiring them precisely handling a running covey. This tableau, immediately followed by the feel of a fine double shotgun brought into play and accompanied by the thunderous sound of the covey flushing, is an experience without equal. There may be a few things I haven’t tried, but nothing I have attempted, seen or read about even comes close.”

I didn’t pull into the Pennington farm when I passed it on that rainy Friday afternoon. I wanted it to be as I remembered it. I continued toward the Dallas County line, through the “palmetto woods” where saw palmetto plants blanket the forest floor, making one feel more like he’s in Florida than Arkansas.

The rain began to come down harder.

I thought about our old bird dogs as the country music played on the radio. I thought about all the fun times outdoors with my dad. I thought about him teaching me to clean quail as we would stand outside under a large light on winter Saturday nights. I thought about those fried quail dinners and breakfasts my mother would prepare.

I thought about how lucky I was to grow up roaming the south Arkansas countryside.

Our bird dogs are long gone. Dad has been gone for two years now. The fields where we hunted are now pine thickets.

Time marches on. The memories endure.

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