by Terry Wieland
Just back from a few days on a plantation outside Thomasville, Georgia, spiritual and actual home of the modern-day wild bobwhite quail. Would that I could report great success on my part, shooting at the little devils, but in the absence of that, I’ll try a general description, with a few little-known facts.
First, why Thomasville? The answer lies in the intricate relationship of bird, forest, and environment. Georgia is renowned, in song and story, for its pine trees, and especially the long-leaf pine. Two hundred years ago, much of Georgia was covered in long-leaf, but it was relentlessly timbered. The Thomasville area was spared because there was no major river nearby to float the long, straight logs to the mills.
To a great extent, the surviving long-leaf forests provided the necessary habitat to encourage wild quail. Can long-leaf be reestablished? Yes, but not easily, and alternatives like short-leaf pine are easier for reforestation. When you consider that a long-leaf matures at about 150 years, and may live to be 500 (the oldest known tree, in South Carolina, is 470 years old) one can see why timber men are not anxious to plant them.
Tall long-leafs, devoid of branches for the first 40 or 50 feet, resist fire easily, and fire is the single most desirable ingredient for healthy bobwhite populations. Controlled burns remove unwanted brush, promote new growth, and generally create desirable habitat with cover, food sources, and dusting areas.
Natural small fires are common in nature, mainly from lightning strikes. Eliminate such fires, as foresters were intent on doing—with the dubious assistance, for decades, of Smokey the Bear—and you not only eliminate the beneficial effects, you create a tinderbox of dead grass and brush just waiting to erupt into an uncontrollable and intensely destructive conflagration of the type we are seeing more often out west.
An organization called Tall Timbers is working with landowners, from Thomasville north to Albany, to promote the preservation of existing stands of long-leaf pine, and promote the creation of new ones.
At this point, the average person, who has never encountered a wild bobwhite quail, may wonder, why all the fuss? Good question.
From a strictly hunting and wing-shooting point of view, everyone owes to his or her self, someday, somehow, to dig up the cash to have at least one day in the field with good dogs and wild quail. A strong-flying, predator-wary, bred-in-the-wild bobwhite is to a pen-raised bird what a Supermarine Spitfire is to a Cessna float plane. They have been likened by those more experienced than me to “tiny flying buzz-saws,” and that is not an inapt analogy.
I am told that with enough experience, you get used to a bobwhite covey flush—a dozen or more birds, all launching at once, in several directions, some high, some low, some diving left, others arcing to the right, as hard to see in the dappled sunlight as the blades of a spinning fan.
Having not hunted wild quail in ten years—I last visited Sinkola in 2013—I was simply unprepared, psychologically, for the encounter, as I was, physically, for the horses we rode, following the dogs through the tall pines, waiting for a point.
This, by the way, was a fairly typical gathering of industry people introducing their wares to some shooting writers. The other writers were John Geiger, from SCI, and Kali Parmley, Editor-in-Chief of Gun Dog, with Christian Hogg from Baschieri & Pellagri, and Tim Joseph from Chapuis. Tim provided the shotguns (both over/under and side-by-side, in 20 and 28 gauge) while Christian provided ammunition.
Without getting too deeply into numbers, let’s just say that the total bag, for half a dozen guns, on either day one or day two, barely reached double digits.
By the way, if you want details on the plantation and what it offers, log into https://sinkola.com for the complete story. Chapuis shotguns can be found at www.chapuis-usa.com, and Baschieri & Pellagri at https://baschieri-pellagriusa.com. Both are well worth looking at.
Meanwhile, here’s how a typical hunting day works.
The hunt consists of hunters, horses, dogs, mules, and a wagon. It is run by a hunt master on horseback, who directs the whole operation, assisted by a scout, also on horseback. A pair of dogs range far afield, while the hunters, also on horseback, follow along behind. The mule-drawn wagon, holding reserve pointers, a retriever (typically a spaniel) and hunters who don’t wish to ride horses, follows along.
When the dogs go on point, the hunt master raises his hat to signal, two hunters dismount, and together with the hunt master, walk in on the point. The hunt master wields his flushing whip and, if everything goes according plan, all hell breaks loose—or so it seems to me.
There is a state bag limit of 12 quail per day per gun, but Sinkola imposes its own limit: for the entire party, whether one gun or several, 12 birds in the morning and 12 in the afternoon. And it doesn’t matter who shoots what. (If there is only one gun, of course, the state limit of 12/day would apply.) If one gun manages to down all 12 birds, leaving half a dozen companions empty-handed, that’s life. On Sinkola, as on every serious wild-quail plantation, the bird populations are closely monitored and tightly managed. They know how many birds they want taken, and that’s it.
My recollection is that when I first visited Sinkola in 2011, the fee for an entire party—horses, dogs, wagon, the works—was $10,000 per day, or $5,000 for a half-day. Right now, it’s $7,500 per day. Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s one hunter or half a dozen.
Over the course of two days, we may have downed 20 birds, but no more than that. I wasn’t counting, but if I had to guess, I would say that Kali Parmley got the most, but no one was blanked. To me, at least, on wild bobwhite quail, that’s a good performance.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, sticks to his belief that on wild quail, just as on ruffed grouse, chukars, wild pheasants, and any other bird you could name, a 12 gauge side-by-side with one ounce of 7½s or 8s, is the ticket. Not that he’s making excuses, you understand.