Oklahoma is more than OK

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Opening Day is the one we wait for all year long. It’s the time when we gather our family and friends, our dogs and favorite shotguns, and trade in every day life for the fields. If we’re lucky, the day falls on a weekend and we don’t need to make special arrangements. But if Opening Day lands during the week, well, then many of us mysteriously get sick. If enough of us bird doggers scrap work then the country’s gross national product might suffer. It'll rebound when we return, but if we miss the opener there is a good chance we won't. Belling dogs and following up points isn't all it’s cracked up to be; it’s much, much more.

Traveling hunters are fortunate to relive Opening Day excitement in different areas. Last year, mine began with the New Brunswick woodcock opener. A week later I arrived home in time for the New Hampshire grouse opener followed by the beginning of the woodcock season. But time marched on, and when my local seasons wound down I looked for a way to extend them. In a way, that's how I arrived in Oklahoma.

I had mixed-emotions about this hunt. To the positive, Oklahoma and blue quail had unchecked boxes on my bucket list. Knocking around in new terrain, working dogs other than my own, and connecting with people I knew only as voices over the phone all weighed heavily to the positive. The fact that I'd hunt several Quail Forever habitat projects, ones that had been ongoing for nearly a decade, was icing on the cake.

There was a hitch, and a big one at that. Despite significant research and habitat efforts, quail populations in the Southeast and the Southcentral regions had declined consistently for the past 30 years. It's never fun fishing in a frog pond, and at the end of the day, we bird hunters look to see birds fly. When they don't, well, that sometimes just comes with the turf.

With no clue what to do, I relied on the tell-all quarter in my pocket. The flip came up heads, and off I went to meet a group of hard-hunting conservationists that included John Bellah, James Dietsch and Laura McIver. They and others run the Central Oklahoma 89er Chapter of Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever and had been working on a number of habitat-restoration projects for years. Their pre-game chatter was infectious, so upbeat in fact, that I questioned if it was real.

The talk among their hard-core quail circles ran off-the-hook high. It seemed that over the past several months they saw a ton of birds. During both the Spring and Landowner Field days they heard quail whistling in all parts of every field they worked. Later on and while discing, Blues and bobs ran seemingly everywhere. I took it in with caution, but my jaw dropped when they cited a post-reproduction survey comparison. In September 2012, which was during the worst drought and accompanying heatwave Oklahoma had ever seen, kennels of dogs ran 39, one-square-mile transects across several Western Oklahoma WMAs. Their findings? A measly 8 detections. Last season, a similar survey produced 80 detections in a one-square mile transect. Quail Forever? Perhaps. Still, I chalked it up to Opening Day Hope. I yawned and went to bed.

I got up early and after a few cups of coffee we loaded up to kick off their season. Mister Weather Man promised a hot and windy one, and it was no surprise that clouds of dust kicked up from the wheel wells of the lead vehicle. I stared out the side window and saw a quail terrain unlike the Johnson, switch, and love grasses I was used to seeing near big stands of Southeastern longleaf, slash, and loblolly pines. Instead, there was sage brush, oak flats and tumbleweed which reminded me of past sage grouse hunts on Colorado's Western Slope. I liked what I saw very much.

"To create great quail habitat you've got to have long stretches of contiguous land," said James Dietsch, the Founding Chair of the Central Oklahoma 89's. "There are tens of thousands of acres of little blue stem, big blue stem, ragweed, and Indian and switch grasses, all incredible blue and bobwhite quail habitat. And the exciting part is that in two hours we'll have a good idea of how our season will unfold."

"That's right," said John Bellah, the 89'er Chapter President. "For years, rainfall has been erratic. We've had either minimal water or a deluge with no point in between. Last year was perfect, with rain delivered in small amounts on a regular basis. That said, it's more than just water; it's all weather. For example, intense heat for sustained periods of time reduces quail nesting. We can't change Mother Nature, so we do what we can. Every year we burn, disc, plant and irrigate so when the weather cooperates we're ready. This might be our year, for I can't remember when these fields looked so good."

Laura McIver, the Oklahoma and Texas Regional Representative for PF/QF, unleashed the hounds. I hunted with Laura and with Dwayne Elmore, a Ph.D research and wildlife biologist with Oklahoma State University. We ran shorthairs, Brits, and pointers, but believe this because it's true; our first pointed covey occurred within 15 minutes. By lunch time we had moved 9 coveys. Those numbers were great, but the day got even better, so much so that by the time we cased our shotguns we had moved a whopping 22 coveys.

Tailgate chatter was as high as I've ever heard on an Opening Day anywhere. The quail were back! They were in the draws, in the blue stem, in the sagebrush, and ultimately under the dogs' noses. We found both blues and bobs in large, tight-holding coveys. When pressured, they'd lace up their cleats and get on with the running. Some were harvested, others were missed, but everyone had a good day. After legal shooting hours wound down, phones started ringing off the hook. Text messages poured in, and each communiqué said exactly what these folks hoped for all along; the quail were back.

I was humbled to be included in this group of Opening Day hunters, but truth be told, I didn't deserve such good treatment from either the folks or the birds of Oklahoma. I've logged more than enough time in the grouse and woodcock coverts to have earned a stellar day, but I haven’t put in my time for Oklahoma quail. Thanks to these bird doggers they’ve had enough grit and endurance for keeping Hope alive these past three decades. They've prevailed when others have quit, they plowed far more than they reaped, and this was there day. Sure they deserved it, but there was something far more important at play. Simply put, they earned it.

I drifted off to the sidelines and watched. I couldn't help but smile. I didn't smile because of the flip of the coin that sealed my fate landed right. It had nothing to do with shooting my first blue quail or finally hunting in Oklahoma. It had to do with bearing witness to the results that came from the efforts of hard-working conservationists and dedicated hunters. It was their time to shine, and theirs was a success story of the highest order. While I wanted to stay, it was better for me to leave. They deserved time to enjoy their season to the max. All work and no play makes everyone dull. Now is their time to play.


About the Author

Tom Keer
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Tom Keer owns The Keer Group, an outdoor marketing company which works perfectly with his freelance writing career. He casts his four English setters in Northeast upland coverts and Southern quail fields with fortunate regularity. Hes been lucky to be surrounded by people and dogs that are much smarter than him. Visit him at www.thekeergroup.com or at www.tomkeer.com


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