My introduction to quail hunting came nearly two decades ago on an old family plantation in the piney woods of South Georgia. A mule wagon built in the 1930s and pulled by a perfectly matched pair of draft mules was waiting for us as Kevin Kelly and I came out of the big house. We loaded our Beretta Jubilees into the gun boxes and settled in front of six pointers and two English cockers. As we rode along with outriders on either side, Kevin gave me a few pointers about the game.
It didn’t take long before one of the outriders stopped and began waving his orange hat. We scrambled off the wagon, grabbed our guns and moved up on the dogs, now steady as statues. Our guide sent in a bouncy little cocker for the flush and suddenly the autumn air was filled with a dozen birds rocketing off in a dozen directions.
I heard Kevin yell, “Pick one,” which I did. Since that unforgettable moment in that picturesque woodland, I’ve been hooked on quail hunting.
With that cherished memory still in mind, it didn’t take me long to say yes when my friend Chip Brian invited me on another South Georgia hunt, this time at Shadow Oak Plantation. I was well aware of the plantation because it’s home to Shadow Oak Bo, the back-to-back national field trial champion. Bo is the only English setter to win consecutive championships in more than a hundred years.
Plantation manager Bo Houston was quite receptive to my idea of writing an article about hunting over Shadow Oak Bo’s offspring and using Beretta premium shotguns. Our battery would consist of two 20-gauge Jubilees, a .410 Jubilee, and a 20-gauge SO10 EELL. Years ago company President Ugo Gussalli Beretta and I teamed up to create the Jubilee as an entry-level gun in the firm’s premium line of over-and-unders. The SO10 EELL is arguably the best example of Italian gun-making.
Things had changed quite a bit since my first Georgia hunt some 18 years ago. On this hunt, instead of a mule-drawn wagon, we rode in a custom-made utility vehicle with 300 horses over a Ford Chassis. In back, six setters, an English cocker, and a golden lab whined anxiously in their boxes.
The temperature that October day was unusually cool — just 34 degrees with a stiff wind — which seemed more appropriate for a New England pheasant hunt. But then, who would ever let bad weather stand in the way of a good hunt?
Beneath a canopy of towering pines interlaced with numerous sand roads, our guide and dog handler Caleb Hardeman stopped and released the first brace of setters (Doc and Hank) with a cocker named Callie close behind. It was immediately evident the trio knew their business.
The setters sallied back and forth, covering every inch of ground, while Callie stayed at heel with Caleb. Soon Doc locked up and Hank honored from 20 yards away. As we moved into position, we made our battle plan — who would shoot in what safe direction, while taking into consideration the direction of the wind, and most importantly, the location of the dogs in relation to the hunters.
Caleb sent the cocker into a brushy thicket where a covey of five quail broke out into the wind. We took three and the hunt was on.
Back in the vehicle, as we drove slowly along the dirt highways to heaven, I found myself thinking once again just how lucky I was to be on this hunt. The roads and pines and the fields were straight out of a Lassell Ripley painting. The dogs were all sired by champions, and I was hunting with old and new friends. Just spending time with brothers of the hunt is enough for a perfect day.
After another storybook point, this time by Hank with Doc honoring, we were off the wagon in a flash with our Jubilee over-and-unders. Callie swept in and four quail exploded, all at once. Four up and four down.
Just then I looked at Hank, who was locked up again. I yelled to Caleb, “There may be more birds still in the brush,” as he sent in the little cocker. A single rose up, catching the stiff wind, and I swung way out in front, dropping him into the golden broomsedge.
Man, oh man … this is how quail hunting is supposed to be.
Now I was thinking: Chip shoots this well all the time, and Bo now thinks I shoot like Chip. How long can I keep up this charade? Well, of course, a sportsman never quits while he’s ahead. Like all hunters I hit some and I missed some on that glorious day, but it was the magic of the dogs that I most remembered.
Back at the lodge, a light lunch of quail in buttermilk, buttered beans with ham, creamed corn, and biscuits was our reward for the morning’s hunt. After that I relaxed by the fire, wondering when I could get back down here with my wife, Debbie, the real bird hunter in the family. As I sipped my sweet tea, I was thinking this is where I truly am the happiest.
That afternoon we headed out to a plantation owned by Butch Houston to try our luck at wild birds. The place was straight out of an old quail-hunting book; a bit more rustic than Shadow Oak, but right up my alley. A wildlife painter could have a field day here. Our artist, however, carried a camera.
Wildlife photographer Kathryn Taylor loves dogs and just being out among nature’s wonders. I knew immediately by the way she immersed herself in the hunt that hers was a passion more than a job. I have always felt that with passion comes greatness, whether you’re a photographer, hunter, or writer.
The wind was now in fourth gear and the sun was high, producing temperatures in the 50s. The air felt more like the South Georgia I had come to know and love.
The dogs found and flushed a single, then three, and then a covey of seven, all riding the wind at speeds one can only imagine. The dogs continued to work their magic, and we enjoyed fast shooting on several more coveys of various sizes.
A good ole country dinner awaited us back at the lodge. My appetite is always in high gear on a hunting trip. It must be the air, and the sense of well-being I find on the hunt.
Butch Houston came by and we talked of dogs, guns, and hunting. After our chat, Bo arrived and together we continued to get on our old friend Chip, for that’s what good buddies do.
Sleep comes easy when you know you have to get out and try to match the previous day’s near-perfect sport.
Next morning, as the sun hit my sheets, I was thinking just how fast I could get ready and out the door. When it comes to the morning of a hunt, I’m always one of the first ready to rumble. I believe the more time you put in the field, the better your chances for good results.
Chip was feeling ill, but refused to let it stop him from hunting. The bright sun had brought morning temperatures in the 40s and the mid-60s by afternoon.
We had different dogs on board, but the game was the same. We now were carrying a Beretta Jubilee and an SO10EELL, both in 20 bore.
As Bo explained the pedigrees of the dogs working in front of us, Buck locked up on a patch of tall grass. By now Chip and I knew our strong sides and fell quickly into place. I really don’t know if it was the hour or just how the wind took the birds, but we hit just two out of ten in the covey. Just when you think you know how to shoot, reality sets in.
As the day progressed our shooting improved, and as we headed back to the lodge, l felt of wonderful sense of satisfaction just knowing that I was able to enjoy one of America’s most treasured sporting traditions.