Quail hunting has its roots in rural communities, dating back to a time when farmers could "walk-up" a quail or rabbit dinner along a hedgerow.

Much of that landscape has been swept away or "cleaned up" by modern farming practices; well-manicured landscapes are no friend to the bobwhite.

Nowadays, when dedicated sportsman walk public lands with setters and pointers, they honor the tradition of quail hunting and advocate that quail hunting must move forward.

The tail of an English setter can tell its master many things, and to be sure, each one can be different. A gentle wagging can signal that the search for scent is underway, while a slow stalk and rigid tail might mean a bird or covey has been winded. But it's that motionless, locked-up pose with the flag of a tail straight up in the air that hunting success is close at hand.

If you want this scenario to play out for your hunting party, you will need to commit some time to scouting, because S.C. Department of Natural Resources surveys indicate that statewide, hunters find a covey about every two hours, on the average.

If you hunt a few singles after each covey rise, then it's not really a jolt of action every two hours, but a steady course of woodland jaunts that can't help but lead you to good bird habitat.

You can't spell quail without habitat. At least you shouldn't be able to, because as Billy Dukes, SCDNR's small-game project coordinator, said, "If you can't hatch birds, then you can't have birds."

It all comes down to nesting cover and brood habitat - the plants, shrubs and bushes that grow after some type of soil disturbance. Biologists refer to it as "early successional habitat." A 20-year-old stand of pines that has allows no sunlight to make it to the ground is exactly the type of habitat that is a slap to the craw of Mr. Bob.

Where the birds are

The SCDNR's quail survey for the 2007-2008 season clearly reports that hunting is best in northern coastal plane counties such as Georgetown, Horry and Clarendon, where hunter flushed a cover on almost an hourly basis - .87 coveys per hour.

The Midlands area had a .51 covey-per-hour report, so counties such as Calhoun, Lee and Richland present some fine bird hunting.

Hunters found a covey about every four hours in the southern coastal plane, but the poorest hunting was in the Piedmont's mountainous terrain, with only .16 coveys per hour reported.

Predators, drought and high mortality are contributing factors for quail populations, but it always comes back to habitat. Find good habitat, and you will find the birds.

Some of that good habitat will be on public hunting lands.

"Virtually all WMAs in South Carolina offer public quail hunting, and the key is to study the rules and regs booklet about which times are best to visit," said Dukes, who mentioned Crackerneck WMA in Aiken County as a solid quail producer.

This WMA is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and adjoins the sprawling Savannah River Site; legal hunting days are closely monitored as a result.

Draper WMA in York County is known for vast grasslands that harbor many wild quail. The Marsh WMA in Marion County includes lots of hardwood bottomlands and adjacent uplands - the transition zone between the two ecosystems can be a boon for quail.

Don't overlook the state-owned Sandhills Forest WMA in Chesterfield County, with 46,000-acres of longleaf pine habitat. Hunt where natural regeneration of longleaf pines occurs, not where thick mats of pine straw lay on the ground.

Quail do not scratch in the earth (or sand); they need the earth to be uncovered in patches so that they can forage right on top of the soil. Prescribed burning associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem has long been advantageous for quail - it burns off the straw and exposes the soil.

Another state-owned property is Manchester Forest WMA, and Dukes points to the Bland tract in Sumter County as the best landscape to check out for wild quail.

Gear check

Quail hunters need to take certain kinds of gear to the field. Blaze orange caps or shooting vests are required; they are an important safety factor.

Since walking is a large part of quail hunting, comfortable boots are warranted. Shooting gloves, shooting glasses and noise-suppression plugs for your ears are all plusses.

Shotguns are the final piece of the quail hunter's ensemble; which gauge to use is probably the foremost question.

A 12-gauge gun is probably the most popular choice, in part because they are most numerous, being used in dove fields, on rabbit hunts, in waterfowl or turkey blinds. It is a perfectly capable quail gauge, but perhaps a bit much though.

A better selection may be a 20-gauge, which is lighter for the carry and offers plenty of pellets per shell. Experienced sportsman can go a step further and shoot the smaller shells of a 28-gauge for even more of a sporting hunt.

An old saying is that a smart bird dog makes the sportsman look like a good hunter. The No. 1 piece of equipment for quail hunting is the dog's nose; just get behind a good one and watch closely for the "birdy" signs before the explosion of feathers leaves you wondering - How was I supposed to be ready for that covey rise?