When it comes to quail hunting, it's all about the dogs for Jimmy Weathers of Bluewater Bay.
Weathers, now in his mid-60s, has been hunting quail for the past six decades.
Quail season in Northwest Florida runs from Nov. 10 to March 3 with a daily bag limit of 12.
"My dad was a bird dog man," Weathers said. "And I'd go with dad before I could ever carry a gun."
Weathers has two eight-year-old Pointers named Sam and Abby by his granddaughter.
"You don't train a bird dog," Weathers said. "You give them the opportunity to hunt. Their whole being is to find birds. You don't have to beat 'em and stomp ... they are born to hunt. They want to please you."
Weathers grew up hunting in south Alabama.
"There were birds everywhere and people back then didn't mind if you hunted on their property. I didn't see a posted sign until I was 30."
Weathers moved to Okaloosa County in 1970 and about 25 years ago you could still find a lot of wild quail in the woods locally, he said.
"But the habitat has changed," he said. "There's no farming like it used to be, and toxic pesticides" have hurt the wild quail.
Also fire ants will kill baby birds while raccoons and opossums eat the eggs.
"There's no predator control," he says.
Weathers hunts almost every day of the season even if it is just for a few hours.
"And I haven't seen another hunter in the woods in about four years," he said.
Weathers hunts in the Blackwater River State Forest, Conecuh National Forest, Eglin Reservation and some private land.
In recent years, Weathers said, quail hunting has transitioned from wild bird hunting to hunting pen-raised birds.
Quail are penned and then released on the day of a hunt.
"They charge big money to do that. I refuse to do it. I'm heartbroken and I regret that there are not as many birds for him to hunt today," he said referring to his dog Sam.
"But I'm not out there to kill a bunch of birds. I'm just out there for those dog to hunt. They whine until they get to go.
"He's like a child," Weathers continued of Sam. "When I tell 'em I can't go, it just crushes him."
As for when to go quail hunting, Weathers said, "the best time to go is when you can go."
Quail will feed on wild seed and acorns, he said.
"Look for oak ridges, because an acorn is a staple," he said.
He also suggested hunting around clear cut timber areas where wild seed comes up.
"Ragweed is best," Weathers said, adding beggar lice and partridge pea are also good for quail.
"There are still some birds around, but they are hard to find," he said.
Last year, Weathers turned 65 wild covey of quail.
"Used to if we didn't kill 1,000 quail a year, we didn't have a good season," Weathers said. Now he's more in it for sport.
"I'm not meat hunting, I'm hunting for the sport," he said noting he may take home between 30 and 50 birds a season.
Weathers uses a 20-gauge shotgun with No. 8 or 9 bird shot, no high brass.
"Be aware of where you are, don't shoot low or near the dogs," he said.
Quail move around on the ground, and the dogs track them down.
"He'll trail them until he gets about six feet from the birds," Weathers said. "Then he gets about as rigid as this counter top. His tail is so straight. He won’t even blink his eyes, he's so steady.”
When Sam gets on the point standing solid as a rock, "I'd bet my wife, life, dog and gun that Sam's got 'em," Weathers said. “I know to knock the safety off ... the birds are there."
If one dog is on the point, the other will back him. "He'll honor his point. They know what to do," he said.
At that point, Weathers moves in and kicks up the covey and takes out a bird or two.
When a covey gets down to eight or 10 birds, "I leave it alone," Weathers said, "And I pray they are there next year."
Although he doesn't kill many birds, Weathers says "I'm going to get him (Sam) a bird."
The dogs are a big part of the reason for his trekking off to the woods each day.
"I go because of that dog. I love that dog. I owe it to him. That's what he was bred to do. That's all that he lives for, is to find birds for me," Weathers said.
"I thank God that he gave me the health to love those dogs and to bird hunt.”
THE QUAIL CONUNDRUM
A lack of habitat is a big factor in the falling numbers of wild quail in the area, according to Fred Robinette, District Wildlife Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"About 20 years ago there were more around," Robinette said. But a "lack of habitat" has played a major factor in the decline.
Quail used to flourish around small farming areas as well as around forestry areas that are subject to prescribed burns.
"They like fire," Robinette said. "They like the woods to be burned off every two or three years."
Although that doesn't happen as often as the quail would like, "There are still places where you can kick up a wild covey," Robinette said.
He noted such areas as Blackwater, Econfina, and Apalachee near Sneads.
"They are not extinct, but they are few and far between," Robinette said. "We've been trying to restore them around the area.”
"But if you can't see the ground, they're not there. They need bare ground to raise chicks," he said.
For more information about quail hunting, visit myfwc.com.
— Tina Harbuck