Georgia is the undisputed home of the sport of quail hunting. Although the bobwhite quail has a huge range, covering much of the continent, the state of Georgia is the capital, the epicentre. Part of this is that the landscape, climate and environment are particularly well suited to the birds. An element that was perhaps more important was the role of fashion.
In the mid 19th century wealthy industrialists from the north of the USA, who had visited England and fallen in love with the growing sport of driven pheasant shooting, were looking for a way to pursue their new-found interest in their homeland. It was common for such captains of industry to head south for the winter, and they began to buy up old cotton plantations in Georgia and build winter homes.
Quail hunting had been part of Georgia life before the fat cats arrived, providing sport for, and no doubt supplementing the larders of, the local farmers. The new arrivals were quick to adopt the practice, and it took on a whole new aspect. The traditions and customs that these wealthy sportsmen instituted are still practiced today in Georgia. For a taste of what it is all about, watch the latest video from Eagle Review.
Doug Coe, the owner of Pine Hill Plantation, the estate featured in the video, explained to me that a traditional Georgia quail hunt is lead by a huntmaster, and his assistant huntmaster, who both travel on horseback. A mule-drawn wagon, carries dog boxes in which English pointers await their work. The hunters themselves, up to four of them, travel on the wagon too or on horseback themselves.
“The huntmasters put down two English pointers,” continued Doug. “And they range and cast in front of the huntmaster’s horse, to his voice commands. When the dogs come up on point the huntmaster calls ‘point’ and pulls the horses around. Two shooters dismount and walk in.”
Bobwhite quail live their lives largely on the ground, in coveys of around 20, feeding on seeds and small insects. They stick together for safety in a landscape full of predators, and the face of danger they have a two main instincts: freeze or run away. If freezing doesn’t work, they take to the air, in an explosive blur and whirr of wings, and when one goes, all 20 in the covey are likely to make a break for it. But what makes quail so exciting is that they don’t make a break until the very last second, sitting incredibly tight.
The quintessential bobwhite quail hunting moment is the split-second of surprise, and the spurt of adrenaline that comes with it, of a proper covey rise, seemingly from under your very boot. It takes a skilled shooter with their wits about them to take even one bird out of a covey, let alone the dream ‘double’.
Like all traditions, the use of horses and wagons stems from solid practicality. A covey of 20 quail requires a 5-10 acre area to sustain it, and with the hunting forest often some distance from the lodges. “Horses and wagons were the primary modes of transport of the time,” says Doug. “Going on horseback and wagons allowed hunting parties to reach hunting areas that were often some distance from the house, and to cover more ground once they got there.”
Then there’s the fact that the extra height afforded by being on horseback gives the huntmaster and his assistant a great vantage point from which to work their dogs. The dogs themselves, English pointers, are chosen for their incredible stamina (Doug: “They’re built like marathon runners.”) and will to work and for their short coats, which helps them to cope with the warm climate.
The wagons not only transported the dogs to the farther reaches of the plantations. Doug put it like this: “They would take a lunch with them, so that when they got into the far reaches they could take a break, have a lunch, and then go back to hunting. That field lunch evolved into something quite fancy, and quite proper, with white linen on the table and very nice field spreads.”
I know for sure that this tradition is alive and well, since Doug was enjoying just such a lunch when we spoke for this article! “Quail hunting is a very social activity,” he says.
It is not just important to preserve these traditions for tradition’s sake. Bobwhite quail, like so many game bird species around the world, have struggled, with a general decline in wild populations, especially in areas where modern farming practices have taken hold, reducing habitat and food supplies.
Doug explained that the key to halting the decline is preserving native habitat, such as that which can be found at Pine Hill Plantation, where they manage 6000 acres of longleaf pine forest. The wirebrush understory of this is heaven if you’re a bobwhite, offering shelter, cover, and food.
“The key to quail surviving in this native habitat is large contiguous tracts of land. If we were not hunting, we wouldn’t be managing to help that habitat improve, so hunting has a very important role to play in protecting quail.”
So if you want to follow in the footsteps of the Rockefellers and Fords of this world, experience a sport that’s simultaneously exhilarating and sociable, yet carried out at a gentle pace and accompanied by plenty of Southern hospitality, and do your bit to help protect a species native to the USA at the same time, make Georgia top of your list.