Watching a good quail dog in action is an important part of the hunt. Photo by Ashley Kemp

My first encounter with the bobwhite quail certainly left a lasting impression on a pre-teen youngster.

My uncle asked if I wanted to join him looking for quail at my grandfather's eastern North Carolina farm that was inhabited by a few coveys. There was no dog to point the way and I wasn't prepared for the sudden thundering of wings when that first covey burst into the air and scattered. It's an experience no hunter forgets, whether you are hunting wild quail or pen-raised birds at a shooting preserve.

"It's a lot of fun just seeing that covey rise. It's something to behold," said Michael Hooks, who heads the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' small game program.

We are in the final few weeks of the regular quail season in South Carolina, which ends March 1. You can continue hunting until March 31 on South Carolina's 123 public and private shooting preserves that are scattered across the state.

When you talk about quail hunting, the term "good ol' days" quickly comes to mind. Quail populations have been in decline for nearly half a century, a by-product of the way land is used today.

"Back in the 1930s and '40s, the way we farmed, the way we produced timber, was conducive to producing quail habitat," Hooks said. "Those habitats were created incidentally. Landowners weren't striving to create good quail habitat. It was just a by-product of the way they operated."

Hooks said the number of farms has gone down dramatically while the acreage of farms has increased. The little farms were ideal for quail, broken up by hedge rows. Farmers didn't have a bush hog to clear out the weedy areas and let them grow for a few years before they were cut. In doing so, they were creating quail habitat.

A lot of people who farm timber are on the same cycle as a result of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and it takes time for that cycle to deviate and create more of the patchwork appearance that would provide better quail habitat.

Hooks said the quail decline has been "3 to 5 percent each year for 40 to 50 years but within the last three years it has plateaued."

"About three years ago I started hearing reports from folks saying they were hearing and seeing more birds," Hooks said. "The following year, which would have been two years ago, we saw a little bit of a bump in our spring count. But that was the year of the flood and that really affected the quail. It was such a promising season."

The flood couldn't have come at a worse time, but Hooks said the next year there was another good spring survey. And last fall, he said, they had good fall covey counts. At McBee Wildlife Management Area, which is managed for quail, they had their highest count in many years. The Webb Center Wildlife Manage Area in Hampton County also had good quail numbers.

Hooks said South Carolina is a member of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a 25-state group all facing the same challenges in trying to revive quail populations

"Our goal was to get back to the 1980s population. Once we get there, we could start looking at the '60s," Hooks said. "To do that we're only talking about affecting 6 percent of our agriculture areas, adding a little field border here and there, letting your ditch banks go. You can get to that 6 percent prety quickly. It's small changes but they will make big impacts. It's the same thing in forestry, a little big here and there goes a long way."

Hunting wild birds hasn't totally disappeared, Hooks said.

"Our public lands where we manage for bobwhites are responding," Hooks said. "Folks can still get out and find coveys. It's not going to be thrill-a-minute hunting, but you can get out and enjoy a couple of hours and find a covey or two."