Middle Georgia's Traditional Quail Hunting

Middle Georgia's Traditional Quail Hunting

The sport of bobwhite hunting is still alive in the mid-state area. Here's a look at how Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell are keeping the tradition going on Charlane Plantation.

The author and Chuck Leavell discuss the hunt in front of the 1835 vintage Bullard House at Charlane Plantation.
Photo by Polly Dean

The grass was wet with morning dew, the sun shining brightly off the pine needles, the dogs were chomping at the bit to flush quail. The possibilities of the day in the bobwhite woods were unfolding for our group. There are not many things that beat a day in the field on Charlane Plantation.

Quail hunting on Charlane Plantation takes a page right out of the history books. A Jeep rather than mules may draw the wagon, but as you roll through the acres and acres of beautiful longleaf forest, it hearkens back to a bygone era when much of Georgia's landscape was blanketed in this productive habitat. Deer, quail, wild turkeys and other wildlife are plentiful here compliments of knowledgeable forestry and wildlife management employed by owners Rose Lane and Chuck Leavell.

Excuse me -- did I forget to mention this is the Chuck Leavell who is keyboardist for the legendary rock band the Rolling Stones? The same guy who played with the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton? That guy who was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2004? Yep, one and the same!

For a Southerner who grew up listening to the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, it was a bit of a shock to discover that this talented keyboardist has an additional passion -- forest and wildlife stewardship. To say that everything this man touches turns to gold is, in this case, an understatement. The walls of the plantation lodge and Bullard House are covered with the gold and platinum albums from musical pursuits, but he and wife, Rose Lane, have managed to turn the 2,200 acres of Charlane into a gold nugget, as well.

Located in Twiggs County in the community of Dry Branch, Charlane sits mostly on property that has been in Rose Lane's family for generations. The Leavells inherited the property from grandmother, Miss Julia, in 1982. It was a huge learning curve for both of them.

"Once we got there we said, 'Wow, what do we do now,' " Chuck Leavell explained. "I was pursuing my musical career and I couldn't just stop, though, I did consider it."

Rather than quitting music, he decided it was time to learn about and branch out into land management. While he focused his efforts on learning about forest and wildlife management, Rose Lane began restoring her grandparent's 1820s farmhouse.

CHARLANE TODAY

Our hunting party was composed of Polly and Ed Dean, Georgia Sportsman editor Jimmy Jacobs and myself. We arrived the night before the hunt to be greeted by Chuck and several border collies and Jack Russell terriers. With the dogs leading the way, he took us over to the 1835 Bullard House, where we spent the night. Completely refurbished with rustic furniture and comfortable, quilted beds, the Bullard House sets the standard for accommodations on the plantation. We were also treated to a tour of the new lodge, built completely with lumber harvested on Charlane. The building features a huge stone fireplace, pool table and can accommodate up to 18 guests for a hunting trip. Later, the Leavells joined us for a plantation dinner of quail and homegrown vegetables.

The next morning, after we finally broke away from a huge breakfast spread of eggs, bacon, grits, homemade biscuits and jams, we eventually made our way up on the hunt wagon and headed off. The bird dogs made short work of locating the first covey of quail and we quickly downed a few birds.

The Leavells maintain a kennel, affectionately called "Chateau des Chiens," with about 20 dogs, including American pointers, Brittanys, English setters and a rare French breed called a Braque. A friend who is a Pittsburg developer gave the dog to Chuck. After some contemplation they named the dog Bonaparte, but call him "Bones" for short.

"The kennel is about 200 yards from our house and he is the most vocal dog in our kennel," Chuck noted.

Rose Lane, who minces few words, admitted he is a great dog, but added, "I could shoot him sometimes!"

As the morning progresses, the dogs show their stuff with the quail providing many chances for shots at the birds. The canines also reinforced Rose Lane's earlier observation.

"Our dogs enjoy showing you how they can flush 'em," she noted.

Midway through our hunt, Chuck arrived in the field on horseback to check our progress. While Polly and Ed were on foot with the guide, following the dogs, Leavell and I walked through a field of longleaf pine still in the "grass stage." Along the way he treated me to a lesson on forestry and wildlife management.

According to Leavell, Charlane is still a work in progress. When they moved there in 1982, the property was a diversified farm with some open fields for row crops and a fair amount of pastureland. There were also some trees planted in the 1950s.

OVERNIGHT AT CHARLANE
Hunters staying overnight at Charlane Plantation have a range of lodgings from which to choose. The 1830's-era Bullard House is on the National Historic Registry and accommodates up to six. The Cottage is a secluded three-bedroom facility on its own eight-acre tract, while the Loft is a 1,200-square-foot upper-floor setting that can house four. Newest of the accommodations is the Lodge, which features four bedrooms and baths, a spacious common room with a floor-to-ceiling fireplace and a pool table. All told, the plantation can hold 18 guests.

When Rose Lane's grandfather died in the mid-1950s, Miss Julia had to carry on and she used the trees whenever she needed some funds.

"It was a common mentality," Leavell said. "If you needed a car, you cut some trees."

Over time, this practice had degraded the forest. The Leavells recognized this and sought to turn things around.

"When we first started, the emphasis was definitely on forestry, and it's still there in a big way," Leavell explained, "but over the years our emphasis has gravitated towards wildlife.

"If I was growing timber just for money, the management would be entirely different," he continued. "There wouldn't

be as much open land because that doesn't bring in as much money for forestry. Certainly I have the interest in forestry, but I'm also interested in the wildlife and that is a totally different management philosophy."

Four species of pine are common to Middle Georgia -- longleaf, shortleaf, slash and loblolly. While much of Georgia's longleaf forest habitat has been replaced by the faster growing, higher yielding loblolly pine, there is a growing movement among landowners to restore the Southern landscape to a more traditional longleaf forest. On the forefront of this movement lies Charlane Plantation owner Chuck Leavell.

"Tree farmers have been planting loblolly for years," he noted, "but a lot of them are starting to go back to long leaf. Longleaf grows straighter and truer and you can get more high-grade products like telephone poles, plywood and logs from it.

"The disadvantage of growing longleaf is that it is slower to get going. It stays in what's called the 'grass stage' for a while. If there is a lot of competition around it from grasses or other grown, it will lay dormant whereas loblolly takes off right away. In five years, you can have a loblolly pine up to ceiling height, he says. But once the longleaf gets going, it will really take off and catch up to it."

And, of course, it does not hurt that longleaf pines and wiregrass form the basis of some of the best bobwhite quail habitat possible.

The Leavells have been planting longleaf on the property for about nine years now and the effort is starting to pay off.

"I'm not an expert on it, but it's a passion," Chuck admitted. "And the more passionate I am, the more I like to learn and the more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn."

Honored as the National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 1999 by the American Tree Farm System and the American Forest Foundation, Leavell is nationally recognized as an advocate for good land management.

When he's not on tour with the Stones, he is much in demand as a speaker on forestry and wildlife management. In addition to serving on the Board of the Georgia Conservancy, Leavell has published two books, Forever Green and Between a Rock and a Home Place that detail his passion for conservation.

"For a long time, we've been putting the cart in front of the horse in terms of forest and wildlife management," he said. "Now it appears to be turning around. I was very encouraged by the passage in 2002 of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. This was probably the largest piece of bi-partisan legislation ever passed. It had nothing to do with politicians and everything to do with understanding the care of the land."

Leavell's longleaf restoration efforts on Charlane have yielded big benefits for wildlife and especially quail. Keeping the stands open allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. This not only encourages the longleaf pine to grow, but also allows grasses and legumes to sprout. These plants, in turn, provide quality food and hiding places for quail and other species.

Each year, Leavell burns up to 50 percent of the property to keep the forest open, discourage unwanted growth and encourage the natural grasses and legumes to sprout. They also plant lespedeza and partridge pea, both native wildlife foods that come back well after a burn.

"It's amazing what kind of seeds will lie dormant for long periods of time and then open up and germinate after a fire," he explained.

Hunters who visit Charlane experience firsthand how smart forest management has translated into good wildlife populations. It is an operation that strives to "sell memories." The idea is to provide outstanding habitat, great hunting conditions and excellent food and accommodations.

BETWEEN ROCK AND A HOME PLACE
For more in-depth details of the multiple careers of Georgia's own rock-and-roll conservationist, check out Chuck Leavell's new autobiography, Between Rock And A Home Place. Signed copies are available for $24.95 from the on-line store at

www.charlane.com.

Most of the quail on the property are pen-raised birds, though hunters do encounter a wild covey now and again.

"Even when you're providing great habitat, like we're doing, and spending lots of time and lots of money, the results are disappointing," Leavell laments of their efforts to increase populations of wild birds. "I'm beginning to think that unless you have 5,000 to 10,000 acres of land, it's difficult to do much.

"Still, if you put in the habitat, the quail will come. Maybe not in the numbers we wish they would, but they will come," he added on a more upbeat note.

Another inconvenience that Chuck Leavell has to face in working on wildlife habitat and his woodlands are the interruptions of his other life. Last summer he had to head for Toronto, Canada to begin rehearsals with the Rolling Stones before embarking on yet another world tour. Rose Lane travels with him on portions of such tours, which slows their efforts at Charlane.

"I absolutely look forward to getting back," Chuck said. "But what I've learned is that you get the essential things done before the tour starts, so that when I go away for a year, I can do so with a good conscience."

Leavell added that he has always loved the outdoors, though not necessarily because he got to spend a lot of time there.

"As a musician, I was always following that," he pointed out.

When at home on Charlane Plantation, however, Leavell has all the things he loves around him. With his family, an on-site recording studio, the bird dogs, longleaf forest and the quail, Chuck Leavell wants for nothing. He is a man who is comfortable in his own skin, whether on stage with the Rolling Stones or on horseback at Charlane.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

For complete details and rates at Charlane Plantation, visit their Web site at

www.charlane.com.

Any specific questions about quail, deer or turkey hunts should be sent via e-mail to plantation manager Mike Hattaway at charlanemanager@mindspring.com.

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