Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Thrill of the Hunt - Georgia Quail Hunt

In south Georgia's 'Plantation Belt,' chasing quail isn't shooting fish in a barrel

In a late December chill, I went quail hunting amid tall pines and waist-high broomsedge grass. My mission was to shoot 10-inch bobwhite quail, and then to hear a guide shout to the hunting dogs ahead of me: "Dead in here! Dead in here!" That command alerts the hounds to locate a downed bird…only in South Georgia's fabled quail plantation belt the drawled order sounds more like, "Deh-ud-n-heah! Deh-ud-n-heah!"A friend and I heard that command more than 40 times over the course of a two-day hunting trip to Willowin Plantation, located in Lax, Georgia, a rural settlement that's little more than a crossroads, a church and a few houses, three hours south of Atlanta. Willowin itself is 3,000 acres of rolling farmland, pine groves and a river that ultimately flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Hitting a bobwhite quail—males issue a "bob-bob-white" call to woo hens—is a difficult task. A hunter has less than two seconds to gauge when and where to shoot. A preferred shot is a quail flying straight away. If a quail cuts left or right, a hunter must lead the bird by sweeping the gun barrel across the bird and then beyond to space where it might fly. A shot too soon blows the bird to feathers. A shot too late allows the brown-gray blur to fly beyond the 30-yard range that 410 pellets spraying from a shell can hit. Peter Brown, a guide at Willowin, calls the birds "brown rockets."

Long regarded as a gentleman's sport and leisure-class pursuit, quail hunting today is best—that is, most challenging—when the birds are wild. Wild birds get off the ground quickly and fly erratically, often for deep brush and thickets that aren't passable. Urban development, however, has destroyed many wild quail habitats. The challenge then is to find "plantations"—as they are called in this region—that offer a mix of wild quail (or semi-wild quail) with birds that have been raised in pens, then released onto the land.

Private plantations offer the best opportunity to shoot wild quail because most owners limit hunts. Commercially operated plantations—those that charge a fee to hunters—run the gamut. The worst of the lot, on the morning of a hunt, literally set out quail that have been raised in pens. The trick, if you're paying a fee, is to hunt at plantations that raise birds that know how to fly fast, and erratically enough, to avoid gunshots. In Georgia, where the state game bird is the bobwhite quail, there are about 150 commercially run quail-hunting operations.

Just after Christmas, I visited Willowin, which is owned by William O. Wingate IV and his family. Mr. Wingate's great-grandfather started Willowin, an abbreviated version of the family name: Will O. Win. I had heard that its fields provided a hunting challenge and wanted to test it, while gauging if it was worth the $750 rate for two days of shooting fowl.

Rebel, nabbing a quailWillowin raises quail chicks in pens and then releases them to the land at five weeks old. That process effectively creates quasi-wild quail that can adapt to the surroundings and learn to survive. Mr. Wingate limits the hunts on his land, a practice rare in these parts.

During Willowin's peak quail-hunting season—December through early March—only a dozen parties can participate. There's no overlap between groups; when you hunt, you're the only ones out there on roughly 500 acres. Hunters walk most of the designated Willowin land, occasionally using a buggy, a golf cart-sized vehicle, to get to a new spot.

Our hunt began in a pine grove bordering a hay field. Mr. Wingate, 37, provided safety measures. Know at all times where other hunters, as well as the point dogs, are positioned.

We donned blaze orange caps and hunting vests to stand out, and started in a formation that used the dial of a clock as a guide. Guide Peter Brown sent his dogs—Pete, Jessie and Molly—ahead. Mr. Brown walked at the noon position and began whistling commands.

Two whistles turned the dogs to different directions. My friend Tommy Hatcher walked about six yards to Mr. Brown's left, at nine o'clock. I took up the position to Mr. Brown's right, at three.

Read The Rest  Of The WSJ Article and Pictures

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