Local Quail Forever chapter aims to boost bird population

A wild bobwhite quail surveys a field near Jamestown.

Many years ago, when I was first learning to hunt deer in the Francis Marion National Forest, I stumbled into my first experience with a covey of wild bobwhite quail. I was stalking through some piney woods, quiet as can be, looking and listening for any sign of white-tails.

The small, brown-and-white birds held tight in cover until I practically put my foot down on one. About a dozen birds exploded straight up, some practically flying up my pant leg.

I nearly screamed, and had to take a knee to catch my breath.

Those who have been fortunate enough to witness the rise of a covey of quail know the feeling. There’s nothing quite like it, especially if you’re holding a nice 20-gauge over-under with quality bird dogs on point. Unfortunately, few folks get that chance.

Once a beloved pastime throughout the South, quail hunting has faded to the point that many hunters who want to give it a try pay to shoot at birds that are raised in flight pens and released onto private preserves.

Lowcountry Quail Forever, a new Mount Pleasant-based branch of the national conservation organization, aims to change that. They’re starting in my old stomping grounds, the beautiful and still-wild Francis Marion National Forest.

Tim Long of Mount Pleasant, president of Lowcountry Quail Forever, said the local chapter’s efforts in the forest should yield wide-ranging benefits.

“Quail habitat restoration is not just beneficial for quail, but for all upland wildlife including songbirds, turkey, rabbits and the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker,” Long said.

The chapter, which met for the first time last week with about 20 starting members, will focus its efforts on creating brood-rearing habitat on about 80 wildlife openings, each 2-3 acres, throughout the 258,000-acre public forest.

Under a deal struck with the National Forestry Service, they’ll use a disc harrow to turn the soil in those wildlife openings at certain times of the year to promote the growth of ragweed and partridge pea. These native plants provide cover and a home for insects, both critical requirements of tiny quail chicks.

The group also plans to lobby for changes to the way public forest lands are managed with prescribed fire, Long said. Though controlled burns are important and necessary tools for managing forests, quail populations suffer when large contiguous blocks of land are burned at once, Long said. A checkerboard-pattern burn program would be better, he said.

To learn more or join the chapter, contact Long at 843-324-8734 or timlong1 @gmail.com.

Quail season in South Carolina opens on the Monday before Thanksgiving and closes on March 1. The daily bag limit is 12 birds. Quail hunting is allowed on most Wildlife Management Area lands during the statewide season, but certain WMAs may have additional restrictions. For details, check dnr.sc.gov.

Charter captains and anglers have been reporting hot fishing over the past week, with plenty of big red drum and fat seatrout biting inshore and a dolphin bonanza offshore.

Trout are biting live shrimp and bait fish fished under floats in Charleston Harbor and the Wando, Ashley and Cooper rivers. Anglers are also catching massive red drum in Charleston Harbor, at the jetties and along inlets throughout the Lowcountry. Last week, some buddies and I tussled with a couple of 35-plus-pounders.

Menhaden, though small, can be found in good numbers throughout the harbor, including the usual spots near Fort Sumter, Fort Johnson and near Morris Island.

Get out there and take advantage of some great fishing.

Reach Matt Winter, manager of niche content and design and editor of Tideline magazine, at (843) 937-5568 or mwinter @postandcourier.com.