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WOODWARD, Okla. - Word spreads from country where quail is king. Get a banner bobwhite year, and hunters hauling pointing dogs pour in from points as far as Georgia and farther.

Some of the most visible motel patrons are bird dogs - English pointers, Brittanys, German shorthairs and setters of sundry lineage. The official color is blaze orange, distributed in patches on shooting vests, hats and on dog whistles swinging from lanyards worn around hunters' necks.

The better the forecast, the more intense the hunting pressure. And the forecast this year was exquisite.

The data are there to prove it, compliments of a state that tracks quail trends as assiduously as Colorado counts elk. While bobwhite numbers were 8 percent below the long-term average statewide, they were 26 percent higher than average in northwestern Oklahoma.

"Everything was just perfect for a good year," said Eddie Wilson, biologist for two huge and hugely popular public wildlife management

areas the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation owns just west of Woodward.

Last summer was wet and cool. Quail food and cover thrived, and so did the coveys. The quail-hunting network was abuzz.

Which brings us to the first reason quail hunting wasn't so hot for a ragtag band of late-season hunters who hailed from Colorado's bobwhite-deprived Front Range. The second reason was the ice storm.

The leader of this expedition was Rick Kursevich's dog, Nika, a Gordon setter. Kursevich sat behind the wheel for the nine-hour drive from his home in Bailey and through the Panhandle to Oklahoma proper, but there was no question who was driving.

Pointing dog owners always are driven to extremes by their dogs. On this, his second trip here, Kursevich met two groups of men and seven dogs from Georgia, a state once purported to be quail nirvana.

"Driving out here is what you have to do," one of the men told him. "There's nary a wild quail left in Georgia."

Not so in these parts. "The birds out there are all native birds. We don't stock anything," Wilson said with pride.

Overall, hunters bag nearly 2 million birds in Oklahoma, putting the state in the top three nationally for harvest. It's no secret why. Take care of habitat, and the bobwhites will take care of themselves.

Sandhills and swampy bottom dominate the two state wildlife management areas Wilson manages - Fort Supply and Cooper. Dotted with cottonwoods and cedars, the land is covered with native prairie grasses, sagebrush and sand plum thickets.

The wildlife department sweetens the pot with share-cropped plots leased to farmers who agree to leave a 1 percent buffer around their harvested fields. Wildlife managers also plant winter wheat, sorghum and cow peas to fatten quail and other wildlife.

Nature takes care of the rest, and hunters flood in when the areas are at the top of their game. During opening week in November, 5,400-acre Fort Supply Wildlife Management Area accommodated 70 quail hunters per day and 16,000-acre Cooper WMA saw 85 hunters.

"Some of them said they were moving up to 15 coveys per day," Wilson said. "The average number of coveys moved was six, and hunters averaged five birds each."

Needless to say, the status quo declines after such an early-season hammering. Wilson said coveys that averaged 12 to 20 birds each had been "shot down" to 10 quail since Jan. 1.

Nor were the remaining birds dumb as shuttlecocks. After the two-day ice storm started melting and coveys started moving around, our band of five hunters and two dogs found itself almost always two steps behind the quail.

Local wisdom has it that quail on public lands near Woodward are some of the smartest quail in the world. They run ahead of hunters and dogs, circle behind them or stampede for the nearest impenetrable swamp - anything but flush.

Evidence of their skill at eluding hunters was sharp in the running-quail footprints stamped in ice and snow before the melt. But the most humiliating experience was a covey of more than 20 birds that ran ahead for a half-mile, crossed a road and flushed behind the sign that said "Leased Land."

To make things worse, the runaway quail hunkered in safety and whistled their two-note, come-back call at the hunters.

We will come back, we decided. Maybe earlier some season, but maybe not in mid-November, when Wilson says the weather can be too hot for dogs. Oklahoma's quail season opened Nov. 13 and closes Feb. 15. Its five-day nonresident hunting license is a bargain at $42.50, although it is not valid for pheasant, deer or turkey. A season license costs $137.

Despite the slow pace of late-season hunting, our group found a few birds, enjoyed some stylish points and bagged, well, our share. The stroll through trees and shrubs frozen in crystal was magical. (The good news from Wilson is that the ice storm didn't hurt the coveys terribly).

More, there was the gratification that comes from tromping around in native brush, hailing other hunters who are driven by the age-old quail culture and by their love of pointing dogs at work. or 303-892-5481

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