South Georgia bobs at Rio Piedra Plantation
By Roger Pinckney
Photographs by Terry Allen
Rio Piedra Plantation, a dozen miles west of Camilla, Georgia. The sun slants through the longleaf pines, cooking off the morning fog, still tangling in the festoons of Spanish moss and laying heavy in the mayhaw bottoms. An ancient, primeval landscape. The pointers fan out through the wiregrass and broomsedge, their bellies damp with dew.
The dogs get birdy, then one locks up. “Whoa, Judy, whoa!” Donald Bishop says. “Come on round now, Ruby. Easy, easy . . . .”
You’ve never seen such dogwork.
Donald Bishop is a Georgia forest ranger come out of retirement to work birds with these dogs. He has trained them all himself. They are seven altogether: three pairs—pointers and setters of various hues—and the true gentleman of the kennel, Raven, a black English cocker heeling at Mister Donald’s knee.
“Easy, easy . . . .”
Mike and I ease up to the point. The dogs quiver; their jowls tremble, noses vibrate, eyes roll. Mike carries a Purdey light 12 and I my Parker 20-bore. Actions open until we get to the dogs; safeties on till we pass them.
Mister Donald looses the cocker. “Get the birds up, Raven. Gettum up!” The cocker plunges between the pointers, and neither of them flinches.
The pulse rises in my ears like hurricane surf. Centuries stand mute in the explosion of the covey rise; empires rise and fall and are suddenly swept away. Even the Sphinx forgets its riddle. Nothing else matters. There is only this perfect instant in this ancient dance of hunters and dogs and guns and birds.Hernando de Soto blundered through this country in 1536 with 600 men on a long looping ramble up from Florida to the Great Blue Ridge and beyond, maybe clean to Arkansas. Rio Piedra, he called it, “the stone river,” as this was the first place where he encountered anything other than sand. De Soto figured he was close to China, and he forded the waters not a mile away looking for silks and spices. But instead of China, de Soto found tribulation, ruination and death.
Native Americans would have transported de Soto to China had they been able. He burned them at the stake for directions to the Great Wall but got none. Happy to see him go, Indians stuck with the name they had always called this stream, and it remains the Flint River to this day. This fine morning in early February, the Flint is swollen with flood, a half-mile wide in places, the water backed way up into the tupelo and cypress bottomland, bubbling like tiny percolators in the woods, gurgling and sucking in the bottoms of limestone sinkholes atop hardwood hills.
There is a lot of Georgia out there, brothers and sisters, I am here to testify. It’s the largest state east of the Mississippi, and when you hit Waycross, you ain’t even way-cross Georgia yet. There are another 200 miles to go, across some 80 counties—the famed “plantation belt,” with some of the best quail, duck, turkey, dove, wild hog and deer hunting on earth. Not surprising, many landowners have abandoned the tyranny of cotton, corn and beans for hopefully more profitable and certainly more gentlemanly pursuits.
And hunting here is big business, especially quail hunting.
Birds and hatcheries, dogs and stud fees, horses and saddles. Matched mules and wagons worth more than the average Toyota—hitched together worth more than a BMW. Land, taxes and machinery; seed, feed and feeders; guns, shotshells and gunsmithing; gasoline; airfare; lunches; liquor; licenses . . . a billion dollars a year in Georgia alone, all for the love of a four-ounce bird. Pound for pound, there is nothing quite so powerful as Georgia quail, lest it be nuclear or female.
Two dozen birds in the rise. Birds in every direction a compass can name. I tag one at 20 yards, miss the second as it careens through the pines. Mike nicks one bird, then folds it cleanly with the second barrel. Feathers float down the breeze. “Georgia snow,” Mister Donald says.
“Does that count as a double?” Mike asks.
Transcendence. Mike and I got that Old Time Religion, and we got it bad. We see the Almighty hard at work near-abouts everywhere in these Georgia woods. OK, God created heaven and earth in six days. I reckon He rested the seventh, then spent the eighth entirely on dogs and dogmen and quail. How else could you explain such perfection?
I want to holler, “When I hear that Purdey shoot three times, I’m gonna nominate you to the ministry.”
But I don’t.
No double gun gonna shoot three times, not even in Georgia.
But that’s one thing a quail hunter learns early: Two shots is always enough, sometimes too many.
“Y’all mark the singles?” Mister Donald wants to know.
“Got two over there in that blackberry tangle,” I say. “How often y’all burn these woods?”
“Right by that big ol’ pine stump?”
“Just a little beyond, on the left.”
“Hunt dead, hunt dead,” Mister Donald says.
Raven brings one bird to hand; one of the pointers brings the other. “Burn the woods every year,” Mr. Donald says. “If the last hunter leaves at noon, we’ll be burning after lunch. We burn in blocks, leave lots of room for the birds. Come spring, these woods will be clean of brush and green as a lawn.”
Mr. Donald hollers up the dogs, and we strike out after the singles along the first of a dozen miles we’ll walk this day.
“Hunt ’em up, Judy. Hunt ’em up! You see the other dog?”
“Think she’s on point already,” Mike says.
And she is.Rio Piedra is a middling-size plantation by Georgia standards—a mere 6,000 acres in a land where a block of longleaf pines might stretch clean to the Alabama sky. But quail hunting is all about quality not quantity, and Rio Piedra, three times honored by Orvis as lodge of the year, stands above the rest.
Back at the stone-and-heart-pine lodge, you quickly see why. The other hunters are in from the field enjoying a snack of fried Gulf shrimp and grilled stuffed jalapenos and sampling the finest refreshments. Some are mouthing cigars as they stand backsides to a roaring outdoor fire. “I got a jug out in the truck,” I say, uneasily eyeing the ranks of pedigreed bottles.
“They would likely be offended if you brought yours inside,” Mike ventures. “Just drink theirs instead.”
Supper this night is grilled Angus rib eye, roasted fingerling potatoes, sautéed fresh haricot vert. Haricot vert? Never heard of it, can’t even say it right, but it’s good anyway.
Chef Dirk Flachsmeier, formerly of the German navy and blown ashore at Rio Piedra after complicated circumstances, eyes the evening bag. Tomorrow it will be quail simmered in mushroom sauce served on stewed tomatoes and surrounded by cheese ravioli—all drizzled over with alfredo sauce.
I bump into Herr Flachsmeier while fetching up further refreshment. He shoots his own deer for venison appetizers, wears an arrowhead around his neck on a silver wire, and might pass for a Cajun if he did not speak. “Chef, it was an excellent supper.”
Dirk smiles broadly. “Tonight I wash dishes, so now I am only a cook.”
And breakfast? Don’t even get me started on the great symphony of grits and biscuits and gravy. But don’t worry: Broomsedge, wiregrass and cat’s-claw briers will wear the shine right off your boots and the pout off your belly.
Rio Piedra owners Bill and Annie Atchison traded the wilds of corporate America for the wilds of South Georgia, and it was a good deal for them . . . and for us. Bill is the idea man and Annie the detail woman, and they both share the energy of ball lightning, be it with shotgun or clipboard. Birds may be missed, but details never are, and it would be best not to put your money against Miss Annie, as fine a wingshot as you’ll likely see.
After dinner Bill and I stand on the stone patio and wax philosophical, thanks to the fire and Penford’s Chardonnay. I puff on my corncob as the Flint River murmurs below, seeking the Gulf of Mexico, still mumbling memories of de Soto while the first of the stars wink tentatively in the velvet sky.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” I tell him, “what you have done here on Rio Piedra.”
Bill looks out over the tops of the pines, out toward Orion, the mighty hunter, rising now over the Southeast. I figure he sees it, too, but we do not talk about it. “You know,” Bill says, “it’s ultimately not about money at all. It’s not even about the shooting lifestyle. It’s about preserving the land. The best management practices for quail—the thinning, the prescribed burning, the planting—are good for wood ducks, for turkeys, for rabbits and deer, too. If we keep it up, not just on Rio Piedra but all over South Georgia, we will replicate the habitat the white man found when he first came here: live oaks amid vast stands of longleaf pine with a wiregrass understory.”I’m fixing to lay a quote on you, and I’ll take credit for making it up myself. History is irrelevant without a present and offensive without a future.
Chew on it a spell.
We don’t have a government program to help out—No Child Left Indoors or some such. We have to do it ourselves. We may spend all the money we have on birds and guns and habitat. We may breed the finest dogs to ever strike scent. We may plant, and we may burn and thin. Try as we may, we never will wear out these fine double guns. But if within 30 years, within 50 years, there is not another eager generation to take everything up, it all will have been for naught.
I meet my own challenge as best as I am able, trying to get a geometric leg up on the cultural opposition: four children brought to the gun and two who stuck with it. But I’m not done yet, and my next hunt at Rio Piedra includes Rhys and Rhett, aged 8 and 9, and Momma, too.
You might think I am way too old to be rambling around South Georgia with a young woman and two small boys, and I might agree with you, but that’s just the way things turn out sometimes. Bill Atchison waves good luck from the lodge porch as all of us pile into the jeep.
“Children today,” I hol-ler, “clients tomorrow.”
Bill nods and grins.
But Mr. Donald uneasily eyes the entourage. “How many of y’all are shooting?”
We explain. The boys are too young to shoot, but Momma isn’t.
He nods tentatively. “When the dogs go on point,” he says, “I want all-y’all within arm’s length of me. You got it?”
And they are all left dumbstruck and slack-jawed by the dogs and the sudden thunder of wings.
Walking away from that hunt’s first rise, I know this: One day these children will carry my guns. They will be keen of eye and quick of hand, and they will shoot tolerably well. They will be the gentlemen that good bird hunters always are. They will love the dogs and love the birds, but even more they will love the land that gives us dogs and birds. And all these things I love shall not easily pass away. Suddenly I know this, surely as I know my own name.
“Can we shoot? Can we shoot?”
“No, boys, not today,” I say, “but your Momma can.”
I pass her the Parker. The pointers lock up, Raven flushes and Momma downs her first quail with her first shot. Yes, the boys someday will take up my guns, but Momma likely will take them up first. I do the math: four hunters, three bird guns. I remember that cute Silver Pigeon 28 that I almost bought a month ago. I remember, but I keep mum. At least for now.
For more information on Georgia quail hunting, contact Rio Piedra Plantation, 229-336-1677.