By Wayne Van Zwoll
Bust ’em, Deek!” The spaniel launched into the weeds, and the bobwhite grenade sent bird-shards like missiles through the long-leaf pines. Pop! Pop! Pop! Hulls smoked in the grass. Feathers floated close. A winged bird fluttered into a thicket. The setter statues had come to life at the first report, but Deek beat them to the cripple.
I had traded my 20-bore Benelli Ethos for my Nikon. Foolish boy. Getting images of a quail rise or a charge of No. 8s tumbling a bird is about as easy as catching an arrow in flight. “Don’t you want the shotgun, Son?” The fellow on the wagon had read my mind. Sure.
An amateur in the company of veteran wingshooters, I had progressed quickly through the stages of embarrassment and humiliation . . . one shotshell at a time. Ego now in tatters, I was free to enjoy the walk through the pines and revel in the occasional hit and the unfailingly brilliant dogwork. Soft footfalls of mules and horses and a creaking of wagon springs carried the woodland silence from covey to covey, with scents of harness leather, damp earth and gunpowder.
November around my home, in the Okanogan country of the Pacific Northwest, brings winter’s first blast. Storms from British Columbia bury peaks in snow that’s measured with yardsticks. South Georgia, I found, was still summering.
A short drive from Tallahassee’s airport brought me through the gates of SouthWind Plantation. “Welcome! You need lunch!” The kitchen crew grinned as if they’d been waiting to treat me—though noon was a distant memory and the dishes were in drying racks. “Sit!” I obeyed. In short order the table overlooking the lake was set with silver and a glass of sweet tea tall enough to hide a bottle of bourbon. Breezes redolent of softball fields in June wafted by.
SouthWind’s culinary reputation is never imperiled by late arrivals. I had barely taken a sip of tea when a mountain of food appeared between the silver. Roasted quail and squash, a stack of cornbread wafers, fried potatoes and dressing sat beside a bowl of French onion soup and a pile of greens. “Now, y’all let us know if you need anything else!” The young lady capped off the tea and whisked off to the kitchen. Dinner, I reckoned, was only four hours off. Pace yourself . . . .
I had arrived before the rest of my party: Tom Kaleta and George Thompson, with Benelli; Rick Van Etten, the Editor of Gun Dog Magazine; and Eric Conn, the Editor in Chief of Gun Digest. But by the time I had finished lunch and stashed my duffel, the group had pulled up in a van. Three joined me in the Bub Smith Lodge, which shadows the 20-acre lake. In fact, you can fish from the deck for largemouth bass. George later would hook a seven-pounder. (Tackle, including “hot” lures, is provided.)
SouthWind Plantation was established decades ago by Tim Smith, and it is still run under his watchful eye. Tim grew up “shucking oysters, then took to selling insurance. I made a few good land investments.” SouthWind has grown to 5,000 acres and is the jewel of his empire. It boasts four lodges that comfortably accommodate large groups, with the main lodge alone sleeping 18. But crowding is not on SouthWind’s agenda. Meals served buffet-style bring hunters together over massive tables that seem long enough for a first down.
The Plantation also has an Orvis-endorsed wingshooting program. “We manage our properties to keep game on every acre,” Tim said. “Pines and brush hold food plots, so birds needn’t move to big fields of milo, corn, soybeans and peanuts.” Some of those fields—which include leased tracts that push SouthWind’s hunting acreage to more than 10,000—are flooded in the fall. “You don’t even need decoys to bag limits of wood ducks,” according to Tim. SouthWind hosts deer and turkey hunters too.
But both of my visits here have featured quail: covey after covey of fast-flying, early release birds.
SouthWind’s kennels hold between 70 and 80 pointers, setters and flushing dogs, with puppy-pampering facilities to start them and able trainers to bring them along.
You can borrow a shotgun at SouthWind, but the two Benelli men in our party made that unnecessary. The first evening they uncased five Benelli Ethos autoloaders. “You probably expected over/unders,” Tom said, “but these repeaters aren’t the heavy, ill-balanced shotguns that purists dislike. The Ethos is one of our lightest shotguns, the new 20-bore just 5.6 pounds with a 26-inch barrel.” The 12-bore Ethos, introduced in 2014, weighs 6.4 pounds. Both have Benelli’s Inertia Drive System, which has few parts and runs cleaner than gas mechanisms and keeps weight between the hands. These walnut-stocked 12s and 20s point as fast as hinged-breech guns, and their lively feel has as much to do with fit and balance as with weight.
After giving the guns a thorough workout on some claybirds, it was time to put them to the test in the field.
“Jeep or mules?” Gator insists he’s gone by that name for longer than he’s worked at SouthWind. “And I go back to the Pleistocene.” He loads the lot of us into a van, and we’re off to fresh blocks of cover. All the shooting at SouthWind is on foot, but winding two-tracks bring Jeeps and wagons through forest and thicket, so tired hunters can catch a ride, replenish shell supplies or grab a cold drink from a cooler. Most important: The vehicles carry an eager cadre of setters, pointers and spaniels in individual boxes. Those dogs are changed religiously and more frequently than I had imagined—even under the gray skies that kept a lid on temperatures for most of our hunt. “We change ’em to protect ’em,” Gator said, “also to give other dogs field time and to ensure that our hunters see the best pointing, flushing and retrieving.” Dogwork is a point of pride at SouthWind.
I opted for the mules and, bowing to local custom, a horse. “Might as well ride until the dogs lock up,” shrugged Cody, a young man who guides saltwater anglers when not tending to SouthWind hunters during the quail season. I adjusted the stirrups and swung onto a headstrong black gelding with a choppy walk. I would have tolerated this steed in the mountains packing elk, but I noticed that Cody was riding a gaited horse with better manners. So, too, our other guide, Reed. He kindly offered me a turn on his Tennessee Walker and “cavalry saddle,” which turned out to be very comfortable. The long stride of that tall Walker approached a glide.
When the pair of coursing setters locked up on a covey, Eric and I dismounted and slipped the 20-bores from their scabbards. We were slow to the first prospect, but the dogs held. So did Cody’s Boykin spaniel, Deek. Reed would spell Deek with his young English cocker. Flanking the dogs, we awaited the flush command, which propelled the quivering spaniel into the grass. Some quail sat tight until literally touched by a nose, but the spaniel rooted out every one. With smoke curling from the half-dozen yellow hulls at our feet, we pocketed two birds. A humble start.
We followed up the easy singles but didn’t hound the others. “No need to get every one,” smiled Cody. “Or push them far. We have lots.” Indeed. The next days would deliver nearly constant action.
I found the Benelli a delight in hand: slim and wand-like on the carry, quick as a spark to point. At first it was almost too quick. Used to muscling heavier guns, I found the Ethos jumping well ahead. Decelerating a swing so the target can catch up sometimes works on wide-open pheasants, but it doesn’t with buzzing bobwhites in slash and long-leaf pines. Hesitate, and the bird is gone. My deliberate shooting style, honed by years of rifle competition and big-game hunting, handicaps me in upland coverts. Three days at SouthWind would put the Benelli on pace with the birds and speed my trigger pull from glacial to merely tardy, with luckless laggards dropping just often enough to keep Cody from confiscating my ammo.
On the final afternoon, with my companions riding ahead back to the lodge, we passed an electronic device strapped to a tree. “It coaxes scattered birds together,” Reed said. “So they covey up where they’re more secure—and where we can find them.” He paused. “The hunt’s over, but we could put a dog down for you.”
Minutes later the setter had stiffened atop a clump of wiregrass at the two-track’s edge. “Careful, Gal,” Cody crooned. “Careful . . . .” As the mules stopped, I heard him release Deek. The spaniel jetted up beside me, and then braked, vibrating with anticipation. I put my finger on the safety and nodded.
“Bust ’em, Deek!” The explosion of wings sent a blur of birds toward the black timber in a classic, full covey rise. I felt the trigger—then paused for an instant, completing the pull as two quail converged. Both tumbled to the shot. A late flush offered a chance for a triple, but I didn’t fire. Two was enough. The hunt had ended well, proving that with a quick self-loader, charitable guides and patient dogs, even a rifleman can shine in South Georgia. At least once every three days.