REX NELSON: Priority No. 1: Quail

Posted: January 24, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

For the director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, I have just one word--quail.

On Jan. 1, Pat Fitts began his new job. He had served as the commission's assistant deputy director since April, and before that was colonel of the enforcement division. Fitts received a bachelor's degree in fish and wildlife management from Arkansas Tech University at Russellville and began what's now a 29-year career at the commission as a fisheries technician at Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery near Lonoke.

After almost three decades at the commission, Fitts knows its proud history. In the 20th century, the commission brought back deer and wild turkey populations in Arkansas. It successfully introduced elk and significantly increased alligator and black bear numbers. There aren't many states where you can hunt deer, turkey, elk, alligator and bear. Surely Fitts realizes that the great success story of the 21st century would be the restoration of the bobwhite quail, which was once so much a part of our culture.

Steve Cook, the commission chairman, said of Fitts: "His ability to interact with the public and continue to manage this agency made him a natural for this position."

Cook also has said that quail restoration will be a priority during his term as chairman. Fitts knows what the boss wants. Other commissioners, even those who didn't grow up quail hunting as I did, have assured me that they're serious about this effort. It takes more than talk, though. It takes manpower, money, time and the ability to build coalitions. This is the year that we will see if the commission is focused on quail restoration.

Fitts' predecessor, Jeff Crow, said back in the fall: "During 2017, we began our restoration program in earnest, enlisting more than 150 landowners and land managers before April in the Working Lands for Wildlife program, a funding source from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help improve habitat for quail. It's an effort that will take time and focus, but the agency is committed to that. We're fortunate, with cooperation from Quail Forever and through additional grant money from NRCS, to have additional private land biologists to help in the conversion of land tracts to suitable habitat. That allows us to join with most of our neighboring states in efforts to bring back quail."

My thoughts always turn to quail hunting this time of year. In the winter, it was what my father and I did on Saturdays, on Sunday afternoons and maybe even for an hour or two after school. We simply called it bird hunting. In those days, you didn't have to ask what the bird was. It was the bobwhite quail. My favorite winter meal as a child was fried quail with rice and gravy. Having fried quail for breakfast on Christmas morning (substituting grits for the rice) was a special treat.

We usually had two bird dogs and would bounce along gravel roads in a dirty pickup from small farm to small farm in Clark and Dallas counties. We weren't hunting on a Georgia quail plantation, but we felt like aristocrats because of the sport's regal traditions.

"Though bobwhites range through the eastern and central United States, bobwhite hunting belongs to the South with all its color and boundless hospitality," Keith Sutton wrote in his 2002 book Hunting Arkansas. "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 40 than some high-dollar shooting resort or fancy plantation. ... 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."

We would start early in the morning on those winter Saturdays while the frost was still heavy. We often would hunt until dark, stopping only for lunch at one of the two stores that were open back in those days in the community of Dalark. They were 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. We enjoyed the bologna sandwiches at both places.

In 1982, the last year I seriously hunted quail in Arkansas, a whistling survey reported that observers in this state heard almost seven birds per mile. By 2009, it was down to one bird at most per mile. With the loss of quail, of course, came a steady decline in the number of quail hunters. A 1991 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the number of quail hunting trips in the Southeastern United States dropped 65 percent from 1970 to 1991. It has dropped even more in the years since that survey was completed.

Famous Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist Trusten Holder reported that there were large quail populations in all 75 counties in the early 1950s. You can blame the decline on increased numbers of predators such as coyotes. You can blame parasites, disease, fire ants and chemical usage. But the biggest factor has been a loss of habitat. It's past time for the commission to work with private landowners statewide in an effort to restore that habitat.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/24/2018