St. Joseph, Mo. – Josh Carrithers and Adam White began an early morning, December walk among frosted prairie grasses with optimism born of experience. They are young men carrying forward an old Missouri tradition, bobwhite quail and pheasant hunting, primarily in northwest Missouri near their homes in St. Joseph.
They pushed through shoulder high grasses at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Pony Express Conservation Area. Their bird dogs, a Vizsla named Zoey and a German shorthair named Cletus, ambled head in the field. The dogs were hunting hard but no birds were found on the sweep through the restored grassland. But they’ve found pheasants there in past hunts, thus fuels the optimism that keeps bird hunters and their dogs exploring fields and thickets.
“In that thick cover, I thought we’d kick a rooster out,” said White, 34. “We’ll find them.”
They began a sweep back through another part of the field. Quail and pheasant hunting is a sport with plenty of walking. Carrithers, 28, and White are among a circle of youthful friends training dogs, going afield, and having success harvesting birds. Both are hunting behind their first bird dogs they have trained themselves.
“Cletus is 3 years old, and he’s getting old enough to know what he’s doing,” White said. “Up till now, I’ve always hunted behind somebody else’s bird dog, and I never understood how gratifying it is to hunt behind your own dog.”
Interest in upland game bird hunting has dipped in recent decades as quail numbers have dropped due to habitat loss, harsh weather during nesting seasons, and other environmental factors.
Yet, MDC is halfway through a 10-year effort to discover and demonstrate habitat management practices that, in tandem with agriculture, can help quail numbers statewide. Pheasants, found in the state’s northern counties, can also benefit. MDC’s habitat assistance for private landowners and grassland management on conservation areas has proven to boost both gamebird and songbird numbers. The resulting quail population resurgence in some areas is rekindling interest among hunters, including young hunters like Carrithers and White.
When quail are given a good blend of habitat types, coveys thrive. They need cover thick enough to hide nests in early summer, cover thin enough for chicks to move through easily after hatch, plants that host insects for birds to feed on, patches of cover where they can dodge predators, shrubs and plants that provide winter shelter and food. That habitat mix can exist alongside productive crop fields.
Quail hunters will hunt where they find good cover for grassland birds. Carrithers and White like to hunt places that shelter birds at sunup. Then they move to fields with food sources such as weed seed or farm grain.
Watching bird dogs run ahead as they explore grassy edges and investigate thickets for game bird scent is a major part of the hunt. Training and caring for bird dogs is a year-round commitment. The reward for hunter and dog is autumn walks afield, and the tense excitement when a dog smells quail and freezes on point to alert the hunters. Quail hunting is a loving partnership between hunter and dog, a critter that’s a beloved family pet in the off season.
“It’s the time you put into working with a dog that dictates what you get from a dog,” Carrithers said, as they walked another field. “Hunt ‘em up Zoey.”
The hunters moved to a private farm field where they have prior permission from the landowner to hunt. The dogs had just started pushing into the end of a fencerow when a few quail flushed wild. Zoey and Cletus got the nose down, serious eyes look that bird dogs get when they catch the scent of game birds. A point by Cletus was followed by the whirring wings as a covey flushed. The hunters fired, though no birds fell.
“That’s how you miss quail,” White said.
But they followed the birds flight and hunted up the fence row. Cletus went on point, a quail flushed, and this time White’s shot connected. Cletus retrieved the dead bird. A few more points by the dogs on singles led to two more quail bagged. Then the hunters headed in, not wanting to take any more birds from that covey this season.
The hunters say they’ll walk fields just to be out, watch the dogs work, and see what’s in the outdoors as autumn turns to winter. But they’ve also been finding and bagging both quail and pheasants the past few years in northwest Missouri, including at MDC conservation areas.
The birds are out there,” White said. “You’ve just got to put in the time and the miles to find them.”
MDC places a special emphasis on quail habitat management at 21 conservation areas statewide. For a list of those areas, visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/Z5q. The Department in partnership with Missouri landowners offers walk-in hunting opportunities, learn more at https://short.mdc.mo.gov/Zcs.