Old World elegance at Georgia's Pine Hill Plantation
By Tred SloughPoets, songwriters and scribes of all sorts have long composed tributes to the sounds of the South. In their odes pine-scented breezes sigh softly, marshes and magnolias rustle, whippoorwills call, doves mourn and Old Man River just keeps rolling along.
There is another sound that for some of us is even more sentimental, more moving. It takes us back to a simpler time and seems even sweeter when we remember that it was once folk music and played throughout the countryside. But performers who sing it truly and well have now become hard to find.
It had been awhile since I’d heard it, but I had no problem recognizing the tune when, on a December morning at Pine Hill Plantation, in South Georgia, the opening chorus of the day’s performance was introduced by a conductor on horseback lifting his cap and calling, “Point!”
Wild bobwhite quail, strong quail, flush with a melody their imitators cannot produce. Biologists say this sound is of natural design, created by ages of genetic selection as a defense against predators that become confused when a covey of birds strikes up the band without warning. Distracted by the pounding percussion of wings, bobcats and foxes often find themselves snatching at air. And even veteran two-legged hunters can find themselves searching for excuses as frequently as they look for downed birds.
The first rise of my visit was a staggered flush that came from the tangle of honeysuckle vines I was standing in. Although my shooting partner, Pine Hill owner Doug Coe, and huntmaster Fred Richmond had put me in good position, I didn’t pick my target until the instant it disappeared into the cover of some scrub oaks 25 yards away.
My shot, followed quickly by two more from Doug, spurred another gang of at least a dozen birds into the air. One of them almost made a mistake, swinging for a split second into a clear lane. My eye found it, and my finger found the back trigger at the same time the bird realized its error. The seven-eighths-ounce swarm of shot went straight. The five ounces of survivalist turned hard right and back into the scrub.
When the smoke cleared, metaphorically at the time, I found myself laughing with excitement. The dogs and the guide found one downed bird.
The guide awarded the single prize to me, saying he’d seen out of the comer of his eye a hen drop to my first barrel. That may have been true, for although I’d felt that I was behind, I'd lost sight of the bird just as I’d shot, so it’s possible that part of the pattern had found its mark. Of course it’s also possible that it was Doug’s bird and that it was bestowed upon me because I was a guest and as such was to be given all consideration possible.
Either way it was a telling start, for more coveys lay ahead, our shooting improved and graciousness and gentlemanly behavior were the continued order of the day.
Courtesy and sporting etiquette are certainly not exclusive to quail hunting or even to the South. But they are surely traditional and proved to be as much a part of the Pine Hill experience as the horses, the dogs, the mule-drawn wagon and the birds that flew before the guns.
The traditions began more than a hundred years ago when bob white quail were found in tremendous numbers from Virginia and the Carolinas down to the Gulf Coast. Quail were an everyman’s bird for a long time, but as land-use practices changed and backyard coveys became harder to find, it was often “gentlemen of some means” who kept the sport alive, and the formalities observed by many became rituals for a few.
Rich gentleman or poor, there is a proper way to approach a pointed covey of quail, especially if there is a guide or dog handler involved—as is always the case on a traditional plantation hunt.
Two guns and two guns only are on the ground. The man on the left is to cover a space from 9 o’clock to noon, with noon being straight ahead and 9 o’clock being 90 degrees to the left. The man on the right is responsible for the birds that fly between noon and 3 o’clock on his side.
The shooters’ guns are always forward, never turned back toward the huntmaster, and are never shot low enough to endanger a dog. The shooters should choose quarry only on their side of the imaginary line laid between them. This is gentlemanly behavior. This is traditional.
The picking of shots is made a lot easier when the birds are as numerous as they are at Pine Hill. The biggest problem I had during my hunt was that the acute attack of philosophy and sentiment the circumstances induced was so often interrupted. The sounds and surroundings I enjoyed as I rode on the wagon seat had me thinking of classic tales told by Southern gents like Havilah Babcock and Robert Ruark. But too frequently, just as their eloquent words were coalescing in my thoughts, I would see the guide or the huntmaster raise his cap, calling the shooters once more. My mission for the day was to help answer that call. And I did—time and time again.
As the morning sun gained strength and the dawn’s dew retreated, the guns warmed to their task. Birds began to fall regularly, and still there were more. On a pair of occasions I remember well, the pursuit of a marked single was forsaken when one of the pointers spun mid-step, his body suddenly frozen in a curve like a strung longbow, as he locked on yet another covey
The birds were usually in food plots of milo, millet and Egyptian wheat that had been sown in openings among the native longleaf pines. With perfectly trained dogs that knew how to hold when the birds held and move just enough to maintain contact when the quail chose to run, the setup was perfect for plantation-style hunting. The huntmaster and the guide did the flushing, and when the cover was too thick for a man, one of the Labs, Lena or Camilla, was called from the wagon to roust the birds from the brambles.Quail may be able to predict the times of sunrise and sunset well enough, bobwhites are definitely prone to midday breaks from work, but that doesn't mean they always relate to the clock’s face the way their pursuers might wish. Unpredictability is one of their wiles and, as I was reminded often at Pine Hill, one of their charms as well.
Although some coveys seemed to have a predetermined destination and to follow described coordinates in tight formation, others busted out with an “every man for himself and we’ll meet back at the ranch” attitude. Sometimes they exhibited a combination of both. I remember one flush where the birds spread out enough to offer both guns an opportunity, and after I made an easy shot with the right barrel, a late-riser took off and headed for the sky. The quail was at treetop height when it changed its mind and executed a sharp, horizontal left. This was more like grouse hunting than quail shooting, but I was swinging hard and high when I pulled the second trigger. I don’t always make that shot. But sometimes I do. And it was that bob’s bad luck to run across a grouse hunter way down in South Georgia.
My favorite birds, as often is the case, were the ones that got away. We found a few coveys that would not hold. It wasn’t the dogs’ fault. The four braces selected for the day from the plantation’s string of 30 included six English pointers, one setter and one shorthair. All were excellent. A few of the birds were even better. The sound of a covey flushing wild and heading for the thickest briers it can find is a thrilling tune, even when the birds are out of range. And the song of wings performed a cappella without the accompaniment of gunfire was a testament to the quality of the hunting Pine Hill Plantation has to offer.
Sometime during the course of my visit, and I can’t remember now if it was during a break in the action or over a drink in the cigar room of the elegant lodge, Doug Coe told me about his quail management plan.
The Plantation’s 6,000 acres are predominately native, longleaf pine, with wiregrass being the prevailing ground cover. The timber and the understory both benefit from controlled burning, which also encourages the growth of natural quail foods like ragweed and a flowering form of desmodium known colloquially as beggar’s lice, or hitchhikers. Plots of small grains are planted to produce additional food and are grown dense enough to provide protection from hawks as well. The raptors are off-limits to management, of course, but mammalian predators such as raccoons, bobcats and foxes are legally and aggressively trapped.
Wild birds are the goal of these efforts, but Pine Hill is also a preserve and quail are stocked as well. Five-to-six-week-old fledglings are released in June in numbers that effectively double the wild population. By November, when the season opens, these birds either have learned to survive as well as their native cousins or have become sustenance for some local creature armed with teeth or talons rather than a nice 28-gauge double gun.
The weak point for any preserve that provides good shooting is that birds taken from November through a season that closes at the end of March have to be replaced to keep the population high. Releases of adult birds are the only answer, but with 6,000 acres Pine Hill is able to stagger those releases and entertain guests in areas that still contain wild birds and early released birds—and where the latest replacements have been given time to acclimate. There are no day releases of dizzied birds at Pine Hill, and there are plenty of birds that are as wild as a hunter could want.
The adult birds released to replenish the population certainly can provide sport for some clients and may even be preferred by guests unused to wild quail. My answer to the few birds that hadn’t completely acclimated was to ignore them. If a bird didn’t exhibit the right power at takeoff—and it was pretty easy to tell— I let it go. Another hunter might take the bird later, I figured, or a hawk might catch it lounging too far from cover, or, given such an ideal place to live, the bird might—to use an old phrase—go native. Two things were certain: I found all of the challenging shooting I could ask for, and more ammunition than I care to mention was used in bringing to hand the bobwhites I added to the day’s bag.
In addition to a lot of shooting and a fair amount of philosophizing, I also ran a little experiment by checking the crops of several of the birds taken. Every one contained wild seeds along with the grain provided by the food plots. None contained a pasty mash that had been served behind chicken wire the day before. I saw good birds at Pine Hill, both wild and released, and enough cover to be assured that guests could hunt for weeks without ever covering the same ground twice.After a fine lunch, served in the field beneath live oaks and presented on thick white tablecloths, it was back to the wagon, where my philosophical bent and ear for the sounds of the hunt both returned.
It was an atypically warm afternoon, and my host seemed to share my thoughtful mood. If it weren’t for the continued frequent stops to reward the dogs’ work with gunfire and cut feathers, we probably would have solved most of the world’s problems with our insights.
As it was, with two guides, a fine matched pair of mules, a colorful driver and only two shooters on a wagon that easily could have accommodated four, the world beyond our immediate surroundings seemed far away.Over the course of the afternoon I learned that before Doug Coe bought Pine Hill and built the elegant lodges, he had been a client, using the plantation to entertain customers and associates of an enterprise he was devoted to at the time. The particular business is unimportant, but I will note that Doug not only built the modern-day equivalent of a better mousetrap, but he also had the savvy to blaze a clear trail for those who beat a path to his door.
That path was paved with gold quick enough, but Doug made it clear that his success derived as much from understanding people as it did from mastering the marketing and technological complexities of the device he’d created.
I doubt I would have understood the business challenge or the technology, even if my host had attempted to explain them, but I do remember Doug saying, “You can learn a lot about a man by sharing a wagon seat with him for a day or so.”
Now that’s an insightful comment, one that can be applied to hunting and fishing in a variety of circumstances. And it got me to thinking about traditions once more.
I thought a lot about Ruark’s classic collection of stories, The Old Man and the Boy. That book, as I’m sure you recall, is more about life lessons learned afield than about techniques involved in the taking of game or fish. The first chapter is about quail hunting, and it’s titled “It Takes a Gentleman to Approach Another Gentleman.”
Ruark’s Old Man provides two pertinent pearls of wisdom to the Boy in that introductory tale. The first is: “One of the troubles of the world is that everybody is crowding and pushing and shoving.” The second states: “I never knew a man who hunted quail that didn’t come out a little politer by comparison.”
Ruark published most of his work in the 1950s, when he was a young man. The lessons he received from his grandfather were given when he was only a boy, so the Old Man’s wisdom has been around for awhile. I sometimes wonder what this country would be like if more folks listened to Ruark’s Old Man.
It might be more like the world I found myself in that afternoon in Georgia when I listened to the sounds of the hunt and looked out at a scene that came from another era.
As the wagon tires crunched the sandy trail, I heard the creak of thick harness leather. The clip-clop rhythm of hooves kept time as I observed my surroundings over a pair of mules' behinds and the brass knobs of the yokes the animals wore across their shoulders. I saw excellent dogs coursing ahead, living out their desire. I heard the wagon’s driver talking to his mules and to the dogs that remained in the wagon. “Hush up back there, Duke. Git up now, mule.” The timbre in Hilton Glover’s voice was fine and soft as ginned cotton, his cadence as easy and slow as a lazy river. The sound came from a time out of mind. At Pine Hill Plantation you still can hear one of the best songs the South has ever played.
The music showed no sign of stopping. Again and again the dogs’ work was rewarded with the call of “Point!” and saluted with more gunfire. It occurred to me that the symphony lacked only a crescendo and a finale worthy of the concert. With my host’s permission, I sought to provide it by bringing out another gun and switching from modem ammunition to some blackpowder-type loads I had brought to use in the event the hunt proved as traditional as I’d hoped. It certainly had.
The last stretch of the afternoon was as exciting as the first of the morning. The dogs remained flawless. The birds flew hard and used the cover of the briers, the scrub oak and the blackened tranks of the longleaf pines just as their ancestors might have done a hundred years before.
The gun I used in that last hour spoke with a ka-whumpff rather than a ka-boom. To my ears, the sound fit the stage well, although it took a couple of shots to adjust to peering beneath the smoke to see if my swing had been true and to acclimate myself to a gun that was heavier than the one I had been using earlier. Which is to say, I didn’t hit anything with those old-fashioned loads on my first few attempts.
When on the last covey of the day I connected twice, the guides laughed with pleasure and cheered the gun’s work. Turning back to the wagon, it seemed that even the mules, unflappable animals that must have thought they’d heard it all before, appeared to have pricked up their impossibly long ears. Perhaps they appreciated the day’s music. I know I did. I’d like to hear it again.
On the return trip to the lodge, after the hunt was over, I found myself remembering some of the things Doug Coe had told me when I’d first made arrangements to visit. He had described the Plantation Manor House, the Quail Covey Lodge and the hunt itself with the repeated use of the phrase “Old-World elegance.”
I hate to disagree with a man I now consider a friend, but Doug doesn't do the experience justice. I think there’s more to his operation than his words suggest. Oh, the facilities are surely elegant enough. Luxurious and tasteful are also nice words and well justified, but I found more to Pine Hill Plantation than the sum of its many amenities.
I might place the adjective “easy” before the word elegance. The accommodations, the setting, the meals and the hunt itself are welcoming. All are presented with a formality that is properly refined yet falls short of becoming stilted.
Pine Hill is also an Orvis-endorsed facility, and there is a nice pro-shop in the Manor House. Quality clothing, excellent firearms and professional gunfitting are available. The lodge grounds include a certified skeet range, a wobble trap and an excellent setup for patterning your gun. A clean, well-kept kennel is available for guests who wish to expose their personal gundogs to the Plantation’s game-rich grounds.
The lodge buildings are also very exclusive. Guests book as a group of up to 12, and they have either the Plantation Manor House or the Quail Covey Lodge, both of which include a chef and a housekeeper, to themselves.
That these are elegant touches I have no doubt. But my experience was enhanced many times over because the people responsible for the hunt, the dogs, the meals and the hospitality openly enjoyed their roles and stood ready to truly welcome gentlemen and gentle ladies who come to visit.
Maybe that is an Old World atmosphere. I don’t know. It seems mighty Southern to me, as does the sound of a covey of bobwhite quail breaking for cover.
It’s a fine song they sing way down there in Georgia. The only thing I can tell you that might make it better is to add your gun to the chorus.
Author’s Note: For more information, contact Pine Hill Plantation, 229-758- 2464.