February 18, 2019
We trudged fields each weekend always looking for the next point from our English pointer, Mike. The fine bird dog passed away many years ago. My father followed him last year, but I think I may have channeled them recently. I watched a different English shorthair pointer bound through field grasses and lock up on birds. I walked up, readied my Fox A-Grade (by Savage), lent to me by a friend, and the birds flushed and filled the air with small, fast targets.
Memories flooded back to me in that instant. This dog had a GPS collar, but I could swear I heard the brass bell that hung from Mike’s collar. I shouldered the Fox, almost identical to the gun my father and his father shot birds with. I was where my father and I had loved to be, doing what we had loved to do.
When the covey rose, I picked out a cock bird, pulled the first of the double triggers, swung through and saw him drop into the grass. The moment was complete when I ejected the shell and sniffed in the burnt powder: my dad and I always agreed that the smell was one of the best in the world.
Quail hunting to me is much more than shooting a bird. It’s about tradition, remembering past hunts, sharing new experiences with others who appreciate it, watching well-trained dogs work and taking in a unique ecosystem.
So, I was very concerned when a devastating storm pummeled parts of Florida and Georgia last year. This Albany-Thomasville area, considered the Quail Hunting Capital of the World, was ground zero. I traveled to Albany, Ga., to be a part of the third annual Georgia Quail Invitational, participate in the annual banquet of the local Quail Forever chapter, and to see if quail country is yet ready for hunters like me.
Unfortunately, the historic plantations that have hosted quail hunts for many years now look different. Hurricane Michael, as well as straight-line winds and tornadoes, had knocked down an astounding number of pines, live oaks and pecan trees. It’s still a mess. Former majestic groves look gap-toothed. Huge root balls mar once pristine wiregrass meadows.
But, fortunately, little else has changed. Certainly, the region is open for business, and the quail-hunting tradition here is unscathed. You’ll still find well-trained dogs, skilled guides, chatter about fine over-unders and side-by-sides, and debate about pen-raised versus wild birds.
And, gratefully, you’ll meet people whose passion is bird-hunting, or, more accurately. making sure there is wild-bird habitat now and in the future. Wild birds are the holy grail of bird hunters in this area, and across the nation wherever bobwhites, Gambel’s, California or any other species, are hunted. It’s one thing to put pen-raised birds into a field for dogs to find and hunters to shoot, but something altogether different when you have the habitat to support coveys of strong, wily, wild quail. That’s where Quail Forever comes in.
In 2005, this group grew from Pheasants Forever, which came about in 1982 when hunters made the connections between habitat loss and declining pheasant numbers. The groups now exist to conserve wild game birds through habitat improvements, public awareness, education and better land management policies and programs.
Quail Forever has 149,000 members in over 700 local chapters spread over 40 states. Since their start, both Pheasant Forever and Quail Forever have created or improved more than 15 million acres.
“Hunting is our passion, and habitat is our mission,” said Chris Kalis of Quail Forever. “Hunters who care about wild-bird habitat should activate and help us by getting involved in their local chapter. We are all about preserving our hunting heritage.”
In addition to memberships, a primary source of fundraising is annual banquets, like the Southwest Georgia Chapter held during the Invitational. It’s a club, but an open club, if you, too, respect the wild land, birds and a good dog.
“We appreciate visitors and hunters,” said Tommy Gregors, one of the organizers of the Albany hunts, auctions and social events in the small city on the Flint River. “It was tough here after the storm, but we’re back to normal. The plantations never really missed a beat.”
About 10 plantations opened their doors and fields to hunters. These businesses and clubs often boast fine oak-paneled great rooms with whitetail, quail and game-fish mounts, a pro shop for gear and a dining hall where Southern food is served to hungry hunters for lunch between hunts. Anywhere else in the country, operations like these would be called game-bird preserves. But here, the land was often a former plantation, since converted from raising cotton, beans or peanuts to raising birds and hosting hunters.
Often guides cart hunters in horse-drawn wagons or Jeeps converted to carry two hunters on a bench seat that juts from the front of the vehicle and two more on a bench over the bed. Depending on the tradition of each particular plantation, hunters might be expected to stay seated while pointers work the grasses. When there’s a point, hunters load their guns, snap their breeches shut and walk up behind the dogs. The guide asks if all are in position, and then releases a flushing dog, such as a springer spaniel or a Lab, to get into the air the hunkered birds from briars, thick brush or deadfall. Birds explode into the air in the classic chaotic flush. Hunters mount guns and fire. A good shot is often rewarded with a downed bird and a Georgia snowfall, that is, a waft of feathers gently falling with the breeze like a willow losing its leaves with a gust of wind.
Guns here are sub-gauge only. I am not sure what a plantation owner would do if I toted a 12-gauge, like my dad had. The tradition in this part of the world is that a 12-gauge is too much gun. Twenties, 28s and .410s are proper and fitting. And leave your semi-auto home. Mostly for safety reasons, a side-by-side like the Fox I shot, or an over-under, are preferred because you can open the breech, and everyone can be assured that you’re not about to fire the gun.
During the Invitational, hunters were put into groups of four. We were arranged to foster new friendships. Often you hunted with strangers, but everyone, whether new or veteran, got a safety lesson before hitting the fields.
Respect for other hunters, guides and the dogs, was present in abundance. Many times, birds flew away with no lead shot in them because a hunter decided not to pull the trigger when dogs were nearby, or he may not have been absolutely sure of the target and beyond. Deferring to other hunters when a bird rose was also evident: When there was a question about whose bird it was, that is, who was the closest hunter, shooters often waited for the next covey rather than assuming it was their own opportunity to shoot.
The manner of hunting displayed at these shoots was much less about birds in the freezer and much more about staying safe, allowing the dogs to work and making sure all in the group had their chances to swing their guns on birds.
“This is a great scene,” said Jared Hinton of Federal Premium ammunition, one of the sponsors of the event. “This is a unique tradition that brings together what we all love: hunting dogs, fine guns and great people.”
It all came together again despite the hurricanes, tornados and modern changes in society and environment that threaten any tradition.
Shotguns. Dogs. Rolling hills. New friends. Quail country. This year, I join Quail Forever to preserve habitat. And next year, I bring my family to the Invitational to keep our family tradition alive.
This group grew from Pheasants Forever, which came about in 1982 when hunters made the connections between habitat loss and declining bird numbers. Quail Forever, now in its 14th year, has 149,000 members in 700 local chapters in 40 states. Since their start, Pheasant Forever and Quail Forever have created or improved more than 15 million acres.
“Hunting is our passion and habitat is our mission,” said Chris Kalis of Quail Forever. “Hunters should activate by getting involved in their local chapter to help out the cause and help preserve our hunting heritage.”
In addition to memberships, a primary source of fundraising is annual banquets, like the Southwest Georgia Chapter held during the Invitational. The national group exists to conserve gam birds through habitat improvements, public awareness, education and better land management policies and programs.
For information about Quail Forever and the Albany event, go to swgaquailforever.com.
THE FINEST GUN IN THE WORLD?
This brand has risen from ashes. Founded by Ansley Herman Fox in the late 1800s, the company made custom side-by-sides touted as “The Finest Guns in the World,” at least according to Mr. Fox. Savage Arms bought the rights to the company in the early 1930s and made the boxlock in several grades up until the 1940s. Then, not much was heard from the company that had been so popular in the first half of the 20th century.
Fast-forward to 2017, Savage Arms brought back to the masses a Grade A gun in 12 and 20 gauges, with 26- and 28-inch barrels. They are actually made by Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing for Savage. CSM normally makes extremely high-end Foxes in the five-figure ranges. The ones Savage is bringing to market will cost about $5,000.
And they are fine, if not the finest.
On day 1 in the field with a 20-gauge Fox, I had trouble getting used to double triggers as well as the cluttered sight picture of a side-by-side. I wondered if it had been too long since I had shouldered a side-by-side, and I switched back to an over-under for the afternoon. The next day I couldn’t help but take the beautiful Fox out of the box again. (You’ll see the words “The Finest Shotguns in the World” written inside the case.) For some reason, I began shooting lights out. At that point, I was falling in love again.
Part of the attraction was the way it pointed. I also enjoyed the throw-back double triggers. But the subtle engraving, marbled stock and fine fit pulled me in. It’s a gorgeous gun that you’ll want to protect if you carry it in the briars and brushes of a quail field.
Couple all that with the fact that this brand was the choice of my father and grandfather for their upland bird and waterfowl hunting, and I may be saving up for my own Fox to give to my boys someday.