Bobs in the Black Belt

Bobs in the Black Belt
Thanks to habitat restoration and quality management practices, wild quail are again flushing at Prairie Wildlife.

A wingshooting weekend at Prairie Wildlife

by Robert Parvin Williams
Photographs courtesy of Prairie Wildlife

Because this is my land. I can feel it, tremendous, still primeval, looking, musing downward upon this whole puny evanescent clutter of human sojourn. — William Faulkner, Big Woods

A soil map framed in the great room at Prairie Wildlife’s lodge depicts the “black belt” region of Mississippi and Alabama, a crescent of fertile black soil that wanders in tendrils like an ancient vine from northeast Mississippi deep into the heartland of the American South. The black belt today has been farmed hard for generations—and not always wisely or well. In its original form, as settlers found it when they came to the area in the 1830s, the black belt rolled to the horizon in mile after mile of open prairies with scarcely a tree in sight, and the prairies were full of bobwhite quail. Farming has changed the look of the land, and wild quail have been hard to find for a long time, but given a chance the black dirt is still kind to the native grasses on which the quail once flourished. Now, nearly two centuries after the first plows cut their furrows, Jimmy Bryan is working hard to push his own corner of the black belt—5,000 acres near West Point, Mississippi, that make up the Prairie Wildlife hunting grounds—back to its original prairie state. His goal is huntable numbers of wild quail, and he’s making real headway.

My introduction to Jimmy and Prairie Wildlife came in January 2019 as the result of a geographic compromise. A group of friends from Little Rock and Atlanta wanted to share a couples’ wingshooting weekend, and West Point, Mississippi, appeared to be about a half-day’s drive from each city. (We also could have flown into nearby Columbus, but between the dogs and the guns we were bringing it was easier to drive.) Since not all of us were experienced hunters, we were looking for a nice lodge that could provide some fun target shooting and lessons in addition to good food and good hunting. Prairie Wildlife offered all of this. We were particularly intrigued by the Helice shooting—something we had never tried—and the opportunity to check out the lodge’s progress with wild coveys. We booked a half-day wild-bird hunt, a half-day released-bird hunt, a round of 5 Stand and a round of Helice.

The drive from Atlanta was all interstate until Tuscaloosa, then state highways that grew progressively smaller until the last five or six miles of country road led us to the Prairie Wildlife gate. Our first impression was of sure-enough prairie—a mile or so of undulating grasses in which the main lodge was situated on a low rise overlooking a pond. The lodge and other buildings were the silver-gray of weathered cypress, and they were neat and new and designed to complement, not dominate, the setting.

It was cool, clear and breezy that afternoon so, after dropping our bags in our rooms (our very nice, new and comfortable rooms), we grabbed our guns and trundled out to the lodge’s back veranda for a windy round of 5 Stand with chief shooting instructor Xavier Fairley. We shot for an hour or two and were impressed with the variety and originality of the target presentations. Xavier’s informal coaching soon had even the novices breaking clays, and the relaxed atmosphere and changing colors reflected in the water as the sun set made for a nice end of the day.

Weather is changeable in January, and the next morning dawned gray, cold and very windy, with a hint of snow in the air. Wild quail were on the agenda, and at Prairie Wildlife that means a hunt by horseback or mule-drawn wagon. The ground was still soaked from previous rains, so we opted to leave the wagon in the barn. I was a little sorry not to bring the wagon, because it is usually such a fun part of the traditional quail hunting pageant, especially as a way for non-hunters to follow the hunt; but unsticking a wagon from black-belt gumbo mud is no fun at all, and this just wasn’t the morning for that.

Bobs in the Black Belt
Guests at Prairie Wildlife enjoy not only excellent upland hunting but also fun clay-shooting activities like Helice, 5 Stand and a tower shoot. First-class accommodations are offered in three lodges.

We drove the lodge’s Land Rovers a half-mile to the hunting area, where we found our horses saddled and waiting. I drew a young Rocky Mountain gelding named Black that turned out to be my favorite kind of hunting horse: cheerful, engaged, quick to take a hint and just the right height for getting up and down quickly. The rest of our party seemed happy with their mounts, as well, and even our less-experienced riders were able to handle their horses without trouble.

The area we hunted that morning consisted of native grasses planted in strips around croplands as well as sidehill woodlands planted by a prior generation in bois d’arc, red cedar and various species of oak. With the wind strongly out of the east, we maneuvered as much as we could to let the dogs approach the cover from downwind, but it was tough going. I was impressed with the dogwork and especially the quiet confidence displayed by our guide, Cedric Smith, as he directed his pairs of English pointers with a minimum of commands. I may be overly sensitive about this, but it always has seemed that a noisy guide, whether he is finding birds or not, detracts from the pleasure of a hunt.

In terms of birds found, we did OK: two coveys located that flushed wild and perhaps two others detected but not seen. I know Jimmy was disappointed that we didn’t find several of the coveys he knew were in the area, but that’s kind of the point of hunting wild quail: They’re supposed to be wild and therefore unpredictable. In a strong east wind fish don’t bite and wild quail are spooky, and that’s just the way it is. In fact, I’m convinced that one of the reasons many of us enjoy the effort of restoring wild quail is that we actually like the prospect of working harder for each bird and sometimes coming back empty-handed. To state the obvious, it’s the difference between shooting and hunting. Anyway, it was a fine hard morning’s hunt with great horses and dogs, and it left us with a well-earned appetite for lunch.

As you would expect with an Orvis Endorsed lodge, we enjoyed all of our meals at Prairie Wildlife, especially the excellent steak dinner our first night, the blackened redfish with crawfish cream sauce the second, and some delicious seafood hors d’oeuvres served with sundowners in a pretty hilltop pavilion under an unbelievable sunset and rising full moon.

Jimmy and I spent several of our meals discussing the ins and outs of habitat restoration and the latest science relating to bobwhite quail. Jimmy’s own efforts began nearly 20 years ago when, after decades of watching quail numbers dwindle while waterfowl and whitetail populations increased, he started looking for ways to restore bobwhites on his family farm. Years of farming practices designed to enhance agricultural production had eliminated habitat and the farm’s ability to sustain wildlife. Working with Mississippi State University wildlife ecology experts, Jimmy began implementing conservation practices that since have been incorporated into federal conservation programs.

Prairie Wildlife’s consulting biologist and noted authority on wild-quail management, Mark McConnell, joined us for some of these discussions and patiently answered my questions about quail-restoration strategies not only at Prairie Wildlife but also throughout the South. His work at Prairie Wildlife is closely connected to the quail research he and his graduate students conduct at Mississippi State, including initiatives funded by the Bryan Endowment for Bobwhite Habitat Restoration created by Jimmy himself.

Excellent performances by Prairie Wildlife’s horses (like Black, opposite) and the author’s friend’s Boykin, River, made several days in Mississippi’s “black belt” mememorable.

The management techniques that have worked at Prairie Wildlife include all the usual practices—prescribed burning, predator control, sensible hunting restrictions such as limiting the shooting to covey rises—but of course the primary focus has been on restoring habitat, especially native prairie grasses. The land is still farmed, but the key is that now farming and habitat conservation work hand in hand. Most interesting to me was Mark’s use of radio telemetry to track individual birds as they range throughout the seasons, furnishing important information about how coveys interact and use habitat.

One point Mark emphasized is the importance of critical mass when it comes to habitat and the importance of an “anchor” landowner like Jimmy when it comes to creating critical mass. A single covey doesn’t need a lot of acreage, but for a single covey to survive year after year it needs to be part of a much larger network of coveys on contiguous acreage. In most places that makes quail restoration a neighborhood endeavor—one farm connected to another farm connected to another farm and so on—and the key to making that work is for someone in the neighborhood to take the lead and show that it can be done. In the case of Prairie Wildlife, the goal is to show not only that it can be done but also that it can be done profitably.

For now, however, while Prairie Wildlife’s passion is to develop a commercially huntable wild-quail population, the operation’s profitability turns on released-bird hunts, including some innovative tower shoots, and various types of clay target shooting. The afternoon following our wild-quail hunt my friend Daniel Heard and I took his Boykin spaniel, River, for a mixed-bag walk-up hunt guided by Bailey Newell and his pair of pointers. We hunted a course covering approximately 40 acres of restored native grasses and enjoyed some very sporty shooting for chukars, Hungarian partridge, pheasants and quail. River, of course, was the star of the day, doing Daniel proud and covering a dozen miles to each of ours as she flushed and retrieved bird after bird.

A highlight of our visit was our introduction to Prairie Wildlife’s Helice course. A Helice course is set up similar to a trap range, with five traps out front that throw randomly directed, going-away targets made of plastic that look like small clay pigeons with wings. If you hit a target hard enough and quickly enough, the wings come off before the target goes over a low wall, which counts as a hit. As in traditional live-pigeon shooting, anything else is a miss. I discovered many ways to miss. Particularly distressing were the performances by my friend Keith Harvey, who doesn’t shoot much but beat me with a 28-gauge, and by another friend, Brian Watt, who claimed to be a complete novice but beat everyone with a borrowed 20-gauge. I’m going to rethink my friend group and obtain an 8-gauge fowler before my next round.

Bobs in the Black Belt
Photograph by Jody Davis

One of Prairie Wildlife’s other interesting shooting activities is its clays tower shoot. This 20-person event simulates a driven pheasant shoot, with each participant shooting from 10 different stands. A total of 2,500 clays are presented, and each shooter gets 100 shells.

Prairie Wildlife hosts a number of well-attended shooting events each year, including Helice tournaments and live-bird and clays tower shoots. And in addition to upland birds, whitetail deer, rabbits and doves also are offered in season. Fishing is available in ponds located on the property.
The main lodge, where we stayed, is known as Bryan Lodge, and it can accommodate up to 12 guests. It has a large gathering room with dining facilities, a board room and other business amenities for corporate events, a well-stocked pro shop and a mud room with ample gun storage, gun cleaning and shower facilities.

Prairie Wildlife also has two smaller, more private lodges: Magnolia House, with four private bedrooms, and historic Pleasant Home, built circa 1845, with two bedrooms, two fireplaces and a modern kitchen.

Reflecting afterward on our visit, I came away with some good ideas for our own farm and a strong desire to return soon to Prairie Wildlife. Jimmy Bryan is a wonderful model of energy, initiative and perseverance, and it was heartening to see how much he has been able to achieve in just 20 years. We may not all have 5,000 acres to work with but, as Jimmy has shown, it takes only one leader in a neighborhood to get a successful quail movement started. Whether you’re a wild-quail-conservation junkie or just someone who likes great shooting in a pleasant atmosphere, a pilgrimage to Prairie Wildlife is going to be fun.

For more information, contact Prairie Wildlife.


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