When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Such is the mantra of eternal optimists everywhere—and that includes the folks at Rio Piedra Plantation, a quail hunting mecca in the heart of South Georgia’s plantation belt.
It was early fall 2018, and Rio Piedra was looking forward to one of its best seasons ever. Excellent weather that year had allowed the region’s bobwhites to nest up to four times, and the young birds in combination with strong holdover populations were adding up to phenomenal quail numbers.
Then Mother Nature decided to serve a full helping of lemons. It came in the form of Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the Lower 48 in more than 25 years. On October 10 Michael made landfall in Florida and proceeded to rip through the Southeastern US, loosing its destructive winds and rain on the region. Rio Piedra was directly in the storm’s path—in fact, Michael’s eye passed right over the plantation—and the grounds sustained serious damage.
Miraculously, the plantation lost only about 15 percent of the beautiful longleaf pines across its well-managed habitat, whereas surrounding plantations lost roughly 30 percent. Still, with hunting season about to get underway and a full slate of bookings, tough choices had to be made. Ultimately it was decided to clear the property’s jeep trails but forego bringing in timber-harvesting equipment and let the trees lie.
The “lemonade” that resulted was sweet, for although there were deadfalls on the ground that made walking more difficult, the downed trees offered quail more cover and protection from predators. In addition, because surrounding plantations were cleaning up downed timber and not hunting (read: not reducing quail numbers), more bobwhites began migrating into Rio Piedra. Guides started noticing increased covey sizes from an average of about a dozen birds to about 30. And hunters’ stories around the fire at night often focused on these huge numbers. Ironically, because there were so many quail getting up with each flush, it was difficult for hunters to pick single birds—and they were hitting fewer.
At first Rio Piedra’s managers, Sam and Beth Atchison, had a hard time believing the stories. They thought the hunters simply were trying to outdo each other with their tales. But then they went out with the guides and witnessed things for themselves. The bird numbers were, indeed, jaw-dropping.
The elevated numbers were enjoyed throughout the season and, thanks to favorable breeding conditions in 2019 and 2020, have carried over through successive years. This past January Sam Atchison reported that hunters were routinely flushing coveys of 30 to 40 birds. Mind-boggling!
Of course, another factor contributing to this success is the habitat work that Rio Piedra has been doing for decades. Each year prescribed burning on 30 to 50 percent of the property promotes the growth of ground cover like wiregrass and broomsedge, providing quail with food and protection. Also, since the hurricane, almost all of the downed trees have been removed and there has been an effort to replant longleaf pines, especially in hard-hit areas. According to Atchison: “We have been trying to balance how we reforest while maintaining that edge cover that bobwhites look for.”
Speaking of edge cover, Rio Piedra has implemented a quail-feeding program along trails cut specifically for this purpose. The program is based on findings at the Tall Timbers research station, in Florida, and hinges on consistency in terms of feeding times, locations and amounts. The trails enable birds to come out, feed and return to cover with minimal exposure to predators.
Put all of these practices together, and it goes to show that a lot of science-based work goes into providing the world-class experiences enjoyed at Rio Piedra Plantation—and that it’s going to take more than a little hurricane to put a damper on such great hunting . . . .
Photos courtesy of Rio Piedra Plantation and Brian Grossenbacher.