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ON POINT IN THE PALMETTOS: The tradition of Florida quail hunting shines on, thanks to a combination of private and public management initiatives.

The English pointer zigzagged through the scrub, sprinting through grassy open areas and slowing to push through clumps of palmetto as he searched for scent. The dog was clearly relishing his time afield, eagerly performing the task for which he had been bred and born and for which he'd trained all his life. As he ran past an unremarkable-looking clump of palmetto his snout jerked sideways as if he'd hit the end of a lead rope and he skidded to a quivering point: That particular clump of palmetto was sheltering a covey of quail. The dog's handler and the two hunters moved up to flank the now statue-still dog, then the hunters readied their guns and the guide released an English cocker spaniel to race in and flush the birds.

The guide, the hunters and the dogs knew what to expect next but it still startled all of them when the covey exploded skyward in a whirring maelstrom of beating wings. The dogs and the guide had done their jobs; now it was time for the hunters to do theirs. As the birds curled away the pair of 20 gauges spat four shots and two of the bobwhites thudded to the ground. The remaining half-dozen birds flew away untouched and they scattered as singles into the scrub where the pointer would soon search them out.

As the dogs retrieved the downed birds the guide rationalized the lukewarm shooting by pointing out to his hunters that a baseball player who batted .500 would make a big pile of money. His well-intentioned comments might have helped sooth my bruised ego had it not been my partner who dropped a double while I managed two clean misses.

We were hunting at Silver Lake Preserve, an FWC-licensed hunting preserve located near Labelle in Southwest Florida and owned by Lykes Brothers of Florida. For many years Silver Lake Preserve was a private hunting facility enjoyed by the Lykes and a select group of others, but it has recently been opened to the public. Silver Lake Preserve is primarily a quail hunting operation but there are also limited options for trophy deer hunts, hog hunts, turkey hunts and alligator hunts.

Preserve manager Phil O'Bannon says that Silver Lake Preserve's 1,800 acres seems like a large chunk of land, but that it's a relatively small part of Lykes Brothers Ranch which is comprised of an almost unfathomable 338,000 acres of Florida property. And by the way, if the name Phil O'Bannon seems familiar it's probably because he's graced these pages many times over the years via his "other" gig. Phil is a well-respected fishing guide who has fished for many years out of Boca Grande. Not a bad arrangement; hunt during the winter, fish during the summer. Quail hunting runs in Phil's blood; years ago his father was manager of a quail hunting ranch called Matlacha Plantation which sprawled over much of what is now Cape Coral, Florida.

I received my own introduction to southwest Florida quail hunting in the 1970s when I met a group of avid road hunters. Their technique was simple: Jump in a truck or car and cruise slowly along the little-used roadways which ran for miles through the pines and palmettos of then-rural Charlotte County. Lonely street signs marked intersections with countless other similar thoroughfares, all of which were created by developers anticipating the coming population boom. Development of the area was still years away and we could cruise for hours and never see another vehicle. This then-popular technique was low-tech; just motor slowly on those back roads while watching for quail heads to pop up in the swales. In those days there were so many quail in southwest Florida that we'd seldom cruise for more than 15 or 20 minutes between coveys. When we saw birds we'd stop the truck (no need to pull off the unused road), grab guns and walk into the palmettos until we put the covey up. We used no dogs and seldom bothered trying to find the scattered singles after that first covey rise because there was simply no need to work that hard. Our time was better spent by clambering back into the truck and searching for a fresh covey.

Things have changed substantially during the succeeding 40 years. Those huge tracts of once-vacant land have now blossomed into residential neighborhoods where hunting is taboo. Not that it would matter that we wouldn't be allowed to hunt, because those coveys no longer forage on almost every block. Sadly, the number of quail living in southwest Florida has plummeted during the past half-century. Sadder still, a similar drop has occurred over much of the southeastern United States. How significant is the dwindling of the quail population? According to myfwc.com, Florida's quail harvest in the 1960s stood at around 2.5 million birds per year. Today's annual harvest numbers of around 250,000 birds reflect a 90 percent decline.

The decline in wild quail coupled with the ever-increasing difficulty in finding places to hunt has made operations such as Silver Lake Preserve a popular and convenient alternative to hunting wild birds. Yes, Silver Lake and almost all the other quail hunting services in the country are put-and-take operations that release birds onto managed lands, then allow their clients to hunt for them. This ensures that guests will find birds and will get shots, something that's never guaranteed in the wild. The grounds at Silver Lake Preserve are well-groomed and easy to walk. Their kennel includes more than a dozen well-mannered and carefully trained pointing dogs including English pointers, German shorthairs and Brittanys. Silver Lake Preserve also employs flushing dogs such as English cocker spaniels to put the birds up and to help retrieve those that are downed.

Here's a little-known option that should be hugely popular with even the most avid do-it-yourself quail hunters: The staff at Silver Lake will allow you to bring your own dog. Since quail hunts are available at Silver Lake Preserve starting around the first of October, this is a wonderful opportunity to give your dog some bird work a full month before Florida's fall quail season begins. A trip or two with your dogs to Silver Lake in October is a great way to have the animals tuned up and ready to go on opening day in November.

Public Hunting Options

There are opportunities to hunt wild quail on public land in most regions of Florida, but the success rates and the hunting regulations on various properties vary greatly. The huge Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area near Punta Gorda produces more quail than any other WMA in the state, but access is controlled through a complex daily quota system that assigns limited numbers of hunters to specific hunting blocks within the WMA each day. The system is first-come, first-served at the gate each morning, and it shuts down for the season when the annual quota is reached. In 2015 the result was that quail hunting was open for only four days, though nearly 1,600 birds were harvested during that brief season. One reason that there are so many birds harvested at the Webb is that it's a huge piece that sprawls over more than 65,000 acres. Another reason is that the quail population there is actively managed via habitat management (controlled burns and roller chopping) and food plot plantings. The quota system does a good job of protecting the quail population but the uncertainty about whether a daily permit will be obtained for any given day means that hunters are unable to plan their hunts in advance.

There is another option for gung-ho hunters frustrated by the scarcity of quality quail hunts: Create your own. Robb Wells, owner of the Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island and of nearby Cabbage Key, has created a private hunting preserve on 321 acres near Muse, Florida. He estimates that it requires four or five days of labor working the land, training dogs and maintaining bird pens for each actual hunting day, but the payoff is that he can hunt essentially any time he wants during quail season. Why bother? Wells says the answer is simple: He has a passion for hunting over English pointers and Brittanys. His advice to anyone who wants to do the same thing: Be patient. He's been working this piece for eight years, clearing brush, planting food plots, and releasing twice as many birds as are harvested each year and he says that he's now seeing a real payoff. The highest praise that he's received comes from his neighbors who tell him that they now find coveys of quail on their adjacent properties where none had been seen for decades. Wells points out that the FWC has well-considered regulations in place for permitting this type of operation.

Quail For The Future

Hunting is under many of the same pressures that beset fishing and other outdoor activities. There is never enough money in the budget for resource managers to collect the best possible science or to do all of the habitat enhancement work that's indicated by the science. A potentially more ominous issue is the growing trend among today's youth to find their entertainment electronically rather than in the outdoors. Fortunately for the future of the sport there is a non-profit organization called Quail Forever that is working on these issues. Nigel Morris, board member of Southwest Florida's very active Flatwood Chapter of Quail Forever, says that their members volunteer to assist the FWC with research projects such as quail covey counts and habitat mapping. Fundraising efforts provide money which goes directly to habitat enhancement and among things they've paid for are roller chopping and seed for food plots that the FWC would not otherwise have been able to afford. They provide sweat equity, too, and have used equipment loaned by chapter members (under FWC supervision) to do land clearing and other habitat enhancement. Perhaps most importantly, they hold youth events that are designed to get young people into the woods. If kids don't hunt then eventually the sport will die and everyone loses. These are good folks; check out www.quailforever.org.

QUAIL SEASON 2017-18

PRIVATE LANDS

* General gun season open November 11 through March 4. Bag limit 12, possession limit 24.

* Off-season bird dog training: For purposes of bird dog training, private land-owners may allow the taking of pen-raised quail by shotgun only; birds must be banded with the land-owners' name prior to release.

PUBLIC LANDS

(WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREAS)

* Quail season dates differ on WMAs, but generally fall within the Nov. 11-Mar. 4 range. Quota permits may be required, though many WMAs offer open quail hunts during specified Small Game seasons; see WMA brochure.

PRESERVES

* Hunting preserves offering fee hunts for pen-raised birds generally open October 1 and close April 1.

About Silver Lake Preserve

Located in southwest Florida's rural Glades County, Silver Lake Preserve's facilities are top-notch and their offerings can be tailored to suit the needs of potential customers. You can arrive for a hunt and leave that same day, or you can stay overnight in the renovated and very comfortable Lykes Lodge and enjoy dinner the night before and breakfast the day of your hunt. No gun? No problem. Silver Lake rents 20 gauge over/unders and sells ammo to folks traveling light. A really nice amenity is the "Wobble Deck," an elevated trap-shooting platform with multiple stations from which hunters can target fast-flying clay pigeons to tune up their shooting before going afield. Practice is always a good idea, but it's especially important if you're using a borrowed or rented gun that you haven't shot much.

Transportation to and from the quail courses and from spot to spot while hunting is via customized, comfortable, quiet and smooth-riding buggies which also transport the dogs, carry coolers for beverages and for downed birds, and carry everybody's guns and gear. At the end of each hunt the birds are cleaned, packaged and given to the guests ready to go. During the mid-season months Silver Lake can be booked heavily, especially on weekends, so it will pay you to book well in advance unless you plan to visit either early or late in the season. For more information phone 863-273-7712 or visit www.silverlakepreserve.com.

Caption: Breaking clays at Silver Lake Preserve's wobble deck.

Caption: Checkers at work. The Brittany is owned by Rob Wells, one of many Florida landowners managing for quail. Right: covey rise at Wells' property.

Caption: Well-trained dogs are part of the package at Silver Lake Preserve, or you can arrange to bring your own.
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Title Annotation:Quail Hunting
Author:Allen, Ralph
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Nov 1, 2017
Words:2108
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