Of Sea Islands Single Birds

And the long, rich life of a quail hunter.

by Hunter Smith

When I first set foot on Johns Island, South Carolina, it was still a bucolic agricultural zone in the hinterlandsof Charleston County. Corn and beans, tomatoes and melons, wagons and tractors. It had a single fully functional traffic light, and another that blinked to remind absentminded residents about a crossroads. Just about any fall or winter day, you could drive the entire island and pass maybe five cars, and know everyone behind the wheel.

It was a typical Southern farming community back then, happily on the sidelines of time’s progression.

The island’s old grocery store gladly delivered goods to the infirm or ill equipped, and the few service stations sold more hot dogs and pickled pigs feet than motor oil. The one hardware store stocked everything from shotgun shells to plumbing supplies: nearly everything you needed.

It was a typical Southern farming community back then, happily on the sidelines of time’s progression. Now, Charleston County, S.C., is one of the fastest-growing regions on the East Coast, filled with vehicles and humans, shopping centers and gated communities, restaurants and Realtors.

It was back in the then times that I met Mr. Mumbles. After our late September deer hunt, my cousin took me to the far end of the island, where a friend of his was in the busy process of turning his family’s old plantation into a pay-to-hunt club.

Our meeting was brief. Mr. Mumbles was covered in mud, sweat, and grease from a tractor he’d bogged to the axle in a drained-down duck pond, and I had just dragged, skinned, and gutted a deer. Some hint of recognition must have passed between us when we shook hands, because not long after we became friends, and as hours became years of working side by side from dark to dusk on that hunting operation, it became much more than that: older brother to younger brother, eccentric uncle to nephew.

Our first tentative outings in the field began at the very end of the era of classic Southern wing shooting. The decades leading into the 1970s saw fluctuations in bird populations, but by the 1980s the numbers of wild bobwhite quail began to plummet almost overnight, and except in isolated and well-managed areas it hasn’t recovered. Those wonderful little birds, symbols of cultures and sportsmanship and enduring legacies of dogs and men, nearly vanished from our sight in less than two decades. 

Flushed, by Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896–1969). courtesy of Peter L. Villa Fine Art, New York, NY.

It was an unimaginable future, back in the then times, as we walked the bird woods on gilded autumn afternoons. 

I was a young man then, and new to those people and to that place, and in our talks about hunting, the older guns had a hard time believing I had anything under my belt but my pants. But I’d had a weapon in my hands since not long after leaving the crib, and I was taught by men and women of long experience in target-rich environs. I shot nearly every day of my life: dove, duck, partridge, rabbit, deer, squirrel; if it flew, ran, or climbed, I’d swung a shotgun at it. Shotgunning, especially for bobwhites, wasn’t simply a sport in my family; it was a way of life that went back hundreds of years. 

By the time I was 10 I’d seen more covey rises and single birds down the tubes of my shotgun than most weekend sportsmen twice my age had seen in their entire lives. I could hold my own with almost any man by my mid teens, and by my 20s I would have slapped down cash on the back of any man’s wagon, had I been challenged to do so. It isn’t that I felt myself divinely endowed with the union of hand and eye. I had just been encouraged to put as many spent shells on the ground as I possibly could. That, and nothing more, is what makes a bird shot.

It was Mr. Mumbles himself who decided to put the older guns’ suspicions to the test. You can tell a lot about a sporting person through his attire and weaponry, and when Mr. Mumbles pulled up his old truck outside the little clubhouse, I think he found some satisfaction in my briar-tattered blue jeans and faded old Duxback coat that my father had worn on the Chesapeake Bay in the late 1930s; and in my old Sauer double with double triggers passed down to me from my grandfather, a well-kept and well-handled weapon long grayed around its temples. 

I was always taught that, when first walking to a dog on point with someone you’d never shot with, the wise and gentlemanly thing to do if you’re hosting is to offer them the lead; that way you’re behind any danger and can observe the actions of either a future partner or a final invitation. You can also tell right off quick whether the man and his gun are an old married couple or on an awkward first date.

Bobwhites in Dixie, by Bob Kuhn (1920–2007). Courtesy of Remington Arms.

On the first point Mumbles did just that, hanging back to my left, since I’m a left-handed shot and my best swing is to the right. He nodded for me to walk up alone. The birds had run out of the corner of a stubble cornfield into fallow ground full of briar and broom straw and young stub pines. It was plenty open enough to shoot, but thick enough to hide both dog and man from your peripheral view. The dogs had trailed the birds beautifully and had locked down and backed around a mass of cat briars and pine stumps. Looking past it, all I saw was a wall of thick myrtle about 40 yards out and to my right, where the birds were likely headed.

I passed the dogs briskly, and a covey of 25 or so blew out of that tangle and swung right as I’d predicted. When I caught and puffed a stray outside the main pack, the rest banked hard left, poured over a short stand of palmetto, and dropped from view. I let them go and concentrated on three still holding their original course, headed for a tiny hole in the brush. At the last second one decided to tower over it; the other two passed through the gate, and a load of #8s was waiting for them when they got there. I breeched my gun and caught the hulls and loaded again. It wasn’t a lucky shot, I’d meant to shoot the crossers, and I heard Mumbles back there mumble something appreciative. All this transpired in mere seconds, but that’s wild bird hunting for you: snap shooting at its frantic best.

The dogs found and fetched the birds quickly, and when I took them and turned to walk back to my host a straggler burst from the tangle and flew directly at him. The gun never moved from the crook of my arm. Mumbles waited for the bird to pass me, then swung around and puffed it on a going-away.

Four birds, three shots. Not a bad start. We chased a few singles, and because it was the honorable thing to do I let my host have at them alone. They didn’t make it far. All this took maybe 20 minutes from dropping the dogs on the ground, but that was time enough for us to size each other up. And for me to understand two important things about Mister Mumbles: his judgment wasn’t clouded by blood lust, and even though he wore glasses there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with his eyes. He was one of the finest all-around wing shots I’ve ever seen, a fluid piece of work.

The first time I laid eyes on that island, its potential for whitetails and waterfowl was immediately apparent. I had visions of snipe bogs and the occasional marsh hens, but bobwhite quail were the furthest things from my mind. It didn’t seem proper habitat to me. I’d come from rangy country, long swales of pine and straw, hedgerows laced through stubble fields of corn and beans that rolled out of eyeshot. The kind of rangy ground that needed a horse and a rangy dog, the type an old field trial man once told me could smell a bird in Kentucky and point him in Ohio. 

The island was cramped country, shy on space for anything more than what was planted. Sea islands being naturally limited for high ground, none is wasted, and you ended up with fingers and tongues of fields licked out into the salt marsh. The fields inland, or as inland as it got, were mostly surrounded by thick maritime forest. Palmetto and oak, cat briar and myrtle far outweighed the longleaf pine habitat you think of when you think quail.

If the fields around the tide lines were burned regularly, they looked almost like the Texas plains, wide open and rolling in broom straw and brush, and beyond this, vast expanses of spartina and needle grass. Unfortunately, you rarely saw that on the island, where fire took a hind seat to cultivation. Still, there was plenty for the taking back then. It may not have fit the classic mold of quail country, but in many ways it was perfectly suited. Because a bobwhite is nothing if not a staunch family man, the ruler of the roost and king of his castle. He doesn’t mind having neighbors, and is happy to host a dinner party now and then, but they better have an invitation when he meets them at the door. Territorial as they are, a country of peninsulas and islands was right up his alley. He could take the family out to a meet and greet anytime he pleased, and then retire to his private retreat and lock the doors.

Mumbles had the first pair of Brittany spaniels I ever saw at work. They came from overseas on French passports, and I have to confess I cut a long and snooty eye at them while they were still in the box, when Mumbles wasn’t looking. But not 10 minutes after their feet hit the dirt, I changed my mind. They were close dogs, well suited for that close country. A cast net couldn’t have covered that ground any better, and they did it with hardly a word or a whistle. They winded, trailed, pointed, held, backed, and retrieved as well as anything I’d ever seen come from across the English Channel—long nosed and long gaited or not. 

After those two French hedgehogs rooted out and retrieved the downed singles, Mumbles turned for the truck. I distinctly remember thinking that it was the shortest bird hunt I’d ever been on, and that we’d shot over probably the only covey of birds on the entire place. But Mumbles had his own way of doing things, and rather than muck across some oyster-shelled mess of pluff mud and marsh wrack, we just loaded up the truck and took a roundabout sand road to another spot. 

When we got out, after a mile or so drive, I realized we were looking across the marsh to where we had just been, less than a hundred yards way. This new piece was a peninsula, about 250 yards long and maybe 100 wide. It had been planted to corn and harvested, and had hardly a tree except a couple of live oaks sprouted in the center like giant mushrooms and some saltcedar on the marsh edge. One side was bordered by a duck pond with a run of sawgrass. Except for the weeds around the field, that was about the only ground cover there was.

With the dogs cut loose, Mumbles reached in the truck for a sack of chewing tobacco and loaded his cheek with a wad the size of a golf ball, then leaned against the hood. Out of habit I was about to climb up into the bed to keep an eye on the hedgehogs, but he called me down and around that wad of tobacco mumbled a confident, “If they find a bird, they’ll let us know.” Which is how I came to call him that. He was an educated man, well read and well spoken, though all his words had to pass half of South Carolina’s annual tobacco harvest to get at your ears. 

I was wondering how the hedgehogs planned to notify us of a find, and had decided that maybe one might bark after a while if no one showed up to their point, when one emerged from the weeds and stood there looking expectant and eagerly wagging its stub. Mumbles said, “Let’s go.”

We found the other hedgehog locked down solid on the edge of an acre of corn left standing after being ruined by a spring tide. Our stub-tailed guide went right over and backed his stubby partner, like he’d picked a good spot before he left. 

The hedgehogs appeared to have interrupted one of those bobwhite dinner parties. There were at least two and more likely three coveys of birds in that waist-high corn. Mumbles and I walked in together this time, and the quail came rolling out like a lazy string of blackbirds lifting off, the last in line waiting for the first to pass over their heads.

After the smoke cleared, we decided against chasing the singles, considering the carnage we had wreaked, but the hedgehogs had other ideas. You hate to reward eagerness with disappointment.

two quail
Two Quail, by Rod Crossman

The birds had gone out to a hummock in some hard marsh like where you’d find a clapper rail come high water, without a doubt the most unique bird cover I’d seen to date. I was crunching bleached oyster shells underfoot and driving a herd of frantic fiddler crabs ahead of me. It was surreal for me, but status quo for Mumbles. 

The hummock wasn’t very big, but it was grassed over heavy and it took some powerful kicking to get them out of there. When they did blow out they were serious about it. There were five birds, and they all passed to my swing on a crossing shot as they headed back inland. They left a couple behind, and the hedgehogs wanted more of that, but it was a bit too much like shooting fish in a barrel for either of us, so we dragged them off their points and carried them in our arms back to the truck.

That whole experience had obviously rattled my nerves, because on the next covey rise I missed clean with both barrels and then shot the bark off an oak tree where I thought a single bird had been. I did manage to fold a high bird trying to tower up over some trees along a ditch not long afterwards, so I felt somewhat vindicated. 

On the way back to the truck for lunch, Mumbles joked about my assaulting his oak tree, and he said not to worry, because he’d planned to thin that timber anyway. I told him I’d been known to ring an entire stand of long leafs, and if he gave me a couple more days in there, he likely wouldn’t need a logger.

Lunch was tomato sandwiches made from white bread and a jar of mayonnaise he’d been carrying around in his game pouch all morning. We washed  these down with lukewarm Pepsis chased with salted peanuts that had been rattling around in a jar in his truck. This spartan fare suited us and the hedgehogs just fine. They sat either side of us on the tailgate like bookends, drooling on our kneecaps.

When we started out again, we drove over a series of dikes separating a collection of duck ponds and ended up on an island a good 300 acres or better, and it didn’t take long to be right back in the birds—two coveys, both fanned out in the same area. It was deadly ground for single birds, with hardly a bush or a tree in the way of a full pattern of shot. 

You can easily shoot down a covey of birds, filling a bag limit but destroying an entire covey in the process. The remainders will eventually fold themselves into other coveys, but they are so territorial that a plot of ground that has held the same family for decades may never be inhabited again. This is one of the bobwhite’s unique characteristics, and why old-fashioned and conscientious bird hunters dependent on wild coveys to sustain their sport are so vehement about not overshooting them. 

As the guest that day, I of course followed Mumbles’s lead, and all that morning and into the afternoon he led me right down the same path any conservation-minded bird hunter would have taken. Without a single word being spoken, I learned all I needed to know about his mind-set—that sense of reverence and affection, that compassionate protectiveness for bobwhites that I have never seen with any other group of hunters and game. Except, perhaps, turkey hunters. Because, if you think on it, bobwhites and wild turkeys are similar—so homebound and set in their ways as to allow the building of legacies and histories around them that can be passed along for generations on the same plot of ground. 

Just as I had once hunted the very coveys of bobwhites my great-grandfathers had flushed before me, those of my family who follow my footsteps into the bottomlands will undoubtedly

know and love the very flocks of turkeys that bring me so much pleasure today. That is, as long as they remain cherished and protected.

When we made for the truck those birds were already starting to whistle each other up, and they were answered by some birds several hundred yards down the way that we had missed on a tentative pass in that direction. In short order, the hedgehogs had them locked down tight, in the weedy remnants of a mixed browntop and sunflower field that Mumbles had planted for the doves. Right next to it, a twisted finger of brackish water pushed inland from a bigger waterfowl impoundment. Across from us was another impoundment with its dikes blown out, all grown up in cattail and myrtle. When the birds flushed they made a beeline for this, straight out over the water. 

Twenty or so left out and three stayed behind, feet up and floating, and hedgehogs morphed into otters and made as fine a water retrieve as anyone could ever hope to see. After that exhibition, I allowed as how the French, at least in this respect, had every right to be arrogant. 

While I stood there wringing out my wet bird, Mumbles elbowed me and said “Look here coming.” It was a light mist wafting our way that soon turned into a double fistful of blue-winged teal. Mumbles was by no means a linear-thinking gunner, something else we shared in common. ‘Twas the season, after all. They passed over low and casual, until the shot started whizzing by their heads. The hedgehogs grew webs on their feet again, and we had four fat teal to show for it. 

Bluewings and bobwhites, what a wonderfully strange bag. We made a pass by a bog on the way out and added a dozen snipes to that concoction as well, the hedgehogs turning immediately into flushing dogs. It was, as they say, a true red-letter day, the type you don’t forget. I don’t know what I’d expected, but I sure hadn’t expected all this. 

Because we were hopscotching from one area to the next and providing the hedgehogs with transportation, they were nearly as fresh in midafternoon as they’d been midmorning. The next place we stopped was obviously familiar ground, because they proceeded to make a cast reminiscent of some of the long-legged pointers I had known. 

There was an old house site grown up in chinaberry trees and dogfennel out in the middle of a soybean field of 20 or so acres, by far the largest field we’d set foot in so far. Such things were typical sights in the South, with the days of cottonfields and tenant houses just past. Like all old tenant ruins it looked gamey. Three overgrown ditch banks spurred from it like wobbly spokes on a wheel, and the hedgehogs quickly worked down one until they winded something good, crossed over to another, and carefully trailed up it to the old house site. Presently the male came out to the edge of the ruins and watched our approach impatiently, heading back in only after he was satisfied we were making appropriate time.

Given the chance, a covey of quail will often run ahead of a dog like a pheasant, especially the educated ones, and though it seems a foolish choice to have isolated themselves in such a place, often this is part of a well-planned escape. Only dogs who really know their business would suspect it could all be a ruse, and the birds might well have circled around behind and gone down another ditch bank or run right out into the field and hotfooted it down a row of beans to the far tree line. 

Which is just what these did, but the dogs didn’t fall for it. When we got there we found the male hedgehog waiting for us, and we followed him to the lady hedgehog keeping a quick but careful pace behind the birds, chattering nervously as they beat feet down the ditch we’d just walked up. We’d passed right by them, or more to the point they’d passed right by us.

Mumbles was a fair bit ahead of me, and he looked back knowingly and pointed up the ditch line. I got the hint. He jogged wide out in the field far enough to cut them off at the pass, and I headed, gun breeched, into the ditch itself, briars and brambles and all, and bore down on those marathoners as fast as I could. 

I heard them go not long after, and then three well-spaced reports right after that. When I broke out of the tangles, Mumbles was already bent and taking a bird from a dog’s mouth, and he bent twice more shortly afterwards. It worked beautifully, which isn’t always the case. And it isn’t something you’d do when you’re nervous about your partner. It’s a one-gun salute meant for stander alone. If the driver doesn’t keep his gun shouldered, you’d best keep a sharp eye on him from then on. I thought it said a lot about how Mumbles viewed me, this being our first armed outing together.

There were so many nuances to that sport—guns and dogs, habitat and horses, preferred methods of hunting and differing thoughts on the rules of engagement and sportsmanship, etiquette and principle: different with every group of hunters. But in the end it was the birds themselves that dictated these things. Because they were individuals, every covey. As a species they shared a similarity of behaviors, but as a family group they were unique, in tune with their own home grounds. The trio I met up with when I crawled out of that ditch had this covey of birds down pat.

Our last covey came as the sun was reddening over a winter-browned expanse of salt marsh.The tide was rising, and the creeks were jeweled in fire. The marsh hens laughed over the events of the day as they settled in for the night, and high above us long strings of pelicans glided silently home on the last of the evening thermals.

The dogs, still quick paced and eager, were dissecting a narrow point, and both suddenly slowed near a stand of salt cedar on the marsh edge of a bean field, noses to the wind. They crept forward, then stopped side by side like opposing statues. When the birds went, they swept in unison out over the marsh like a well-formed squadron, and then banked suddenly and strung out as they made for a thick run of ground along the edge of an oak hummock. 

We were well placed, and both guns had room enough to work unencumbered. When the reports washed away, we were close enough to a double limit for anyone to call it a day. Like any compassionate bird hunter, Mumbles didn’t want to chase the singles so late lest they not have time enough to call up for roost, and I gladly concurred. Come nightfall, a bird alone in this world faces many perils. 

We stood then praising the dogs and making the count as the ruby-red sun faded behind black walls of timber. There was barely a light in sight, except the constellations just beginning to emerge from the blackness of space. 

This, too, was soon to change, with headlights orbiting condominiums and country clubs, and rows and rows of vacation housing lit like runways. But on that long-ago afternoon, these were only nightmares of some dreaded future. We had been about creating our own future, one of birds and dogs and friendship shared on chill fall days. It’s such days that make hunting companions, if they’re to be made at all. 

Two men who had stepped out of the truck as independents now walked back to it as partners, our backs turned to the failing light as we wearily and happily headed for home, the dogs now at our heels plodding along heads down, stopping to look back over their shoulders occasionally as if they were concerned we had forgotten something that shouldn’t be left behind

Hunter Smith has worked as both an outdoors guide and independent outfitter in his home state of South Carolina for the past 33 years. In his spare time he writes about his experiences in the field and on the water.