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The bird hunters

What a difference a week makes.

As I write this on the first Friday morning in March, the sun shines brightly outside. The temperature is expected to near 60 before the day is done. Finally, after what was a long, cold winter (by Arkansas standards), one can sense that spring is near.

A week ago, I was in my hometown of Arkadelphia for the day and the temperature never topped 40. There was some snow mixed in with the rain that afternoon. In other words, it was a perfect day for a late-winter ride through the country.

I had a few hours to spare before having to attend a banquet at Ouachita. Suddenly, the urge hit me to drive past some of the places where my dad and I used to quail hunt.

I chronicled part of that drive in the column I wrote for this Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I first drove east toward Dallas County on Arkansas Highways 7 and 8. I later went west on Arkansas Highway 51 toward Okolona, cutting north on Arkansas Highway 53 to Hollywood and then following Arkansas Highway 26 back east into Arkadelphia.

I tuned into KWKH-AM in Shreveport, the home of “The Louisiana Hayride,” to set the mood for a country drive. KWKH, 1130, is one of America’s famous old AM stations. It seemed fitting to listen to country music on that legendary station while driving by the fields where I had often hunted quail in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was, in so many ways, a sentimental journey.

For all practical purposes, quail hunting is a thing of the past in Arkansas. Or should I say “bird hunting,” as most Arkansans simply knew it? You didn’t have to ask what the bird was. It was the bobwhite quail, of course. One of my favorite meals as a child was fried quail along with rice and gravy. Having fried quail for breakfast on Christmas morning (you substituted grits for the rice when it was breakfast) was a special treat.

We occasionally would kill a woodcock while quail hunting (a good bird dog will also point a woodcock), and I would get the fried woodcock along with my quail at supper. Woodcock is a wonderful dark meat. If you like eating wild game, you’ll like woodcock.

But I digress.

We’re talking about quail hunting today. In his wonderful 2002 book “Hunting Arkansas,” Keith Sutton writes: “We may never see the glory days of  bobwhite quail hunting our fathers and grandfathers experienced earlier this century. 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 goes on to write about the glorious tradition of quail hunting and how it clashes with the reality 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 that some high-dollar shooting resort or fancy plantation.”

So it was with my dad and me. We usually had two bird dogs and bounced in a dirty pickup truck from small farm to small farm in parts of Clark County and Dallas County. But we felt like aristocrats because of the sport’s regal tradition. Quail hunting just always seemed so much classier than deer hunting to me.

“Quail hunting can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want — or can afford — to make it,” Sutton wrote. “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 both classic old country stores 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 in the “black store” to listen to my dad visit with the owner, Mr. “Sugar” Jones. Mr. Jones would always be dressed in overhauls with patches all over them. His son, Danny, later ran the store.

After I had spent a Friday afternoon thinking about quail hunting with my dad, I picked up the Democrat-Gazette on Sunday morning to find Bryan Hendricks’ column about a recent Arkansas Game and Fish Commission meeting. The purpose of the public meeting was to discuss how we can increase the number of quail in Arkansas.

In 1982, about the last year I seriously hunted quail, a quail whistling survey reported that observers in Arkansas heard nearly seven birds per mile. In 2009, it was down to about one bird per mile, according to Hendricks. Let’s hope private landowners across Arkansas will become more serious about restoring quail habitat. I would love to take the sport up again if there were some chance of success.

“Quail densities are still adequate on lands that are managed for quail,” commission quail biologist Stephen Fowler told Hendricks. “There’s still a decent population of birds on Fort Chaffee and in the Ouachita National Forest. When the habitat is improved, quail populations respond accordingly.”

I thought about all of our old bird dogs on that Friday afternoon. I thought about the fun times outdoors with my dad. I thought about him teaching me to clean quail as we stood outside under a large light on winter Saturday nights. I thought about the fried quail dinners and breakfasts my mother would prepare.

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

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