In Pursuit of Gentleman Bob

When a covey flushes, it is important to pick out one bird, mount the shotgun smoothly while pushing off the safety, and give the bird both barrels. Photograph by Terry Allen

I started my first Clays and Quail School more than 17 years ago, in 2005. I was working for E.J. Churchill, in London, when I was invited to shoot quail at Dorchester Shooting Preserve—more than 5,000 acres of property on the southeast coast of Georgia.

Through the years, the Gaskin family has painstakingly developed Dorchester into a classic Southern hunting experience, with a large quail population and habitat to rival any in the South. Passionate hunters themselves, Chuck and Charlie Gaskin have established a clientele and membership who are as passionate about the authentic quail hunting experience as they are.

In the off-season many of their members and a good number of both local and visiting hunters come to shoot the sporting clays course, which has targets set to represent pheasants, partridge and, of course, quail—and even includes covey rises of multiple targets.

On several occasions I was asked to escort novice hunters in the field. It was then that I recognized how valuable it would be to start a shooting school designed specifically for the upland hunter who wants an introduction to quail shooting, to improve his or her bird-to-cartridge ratio, or to learn the proper etiquette and shooting techniques for hunting quail. This was how the Clays and Quail School was conceived. These days the one-day schools are limited to four participants, to maximize the personalized instruction. They take place at Dorchester Shooting Preserve during the quail season, which runs from October through March.

Each participant initially is informed of the specialized equipment needed for the school. The list is not long, but it is specific.

  • Shooting glasses—preferably with interchangeable lenses, to adjust for the varying light conditions from the clays course to the field.
  • Ear protection—preferably electronic, so both instructions and covey rises can be heard.
  • Shooting vest for the clays course.
  • Orange hat and shooting vest with orange sections on the back and front for the field.
  • Appropriate shotgun.

I often am asked about the proper choice of shotgun for upland hunting. I always have preferred a break-action gun for two reasons. First, when the gun is open, it is easy to see that it is safe; and second, even when cartridges are in the chambers, an open gun is safe.

Though any shotgun, regardless of type and gauge, can be used for upland hunting, I am an advocate of using a shotgun gauge that matches the size and flight characteristics of the bird being hunted. With quail, the smaller gauges—16, 20, 28 and even .410 bore—are my preferred choices, as the birds are smaller and shot at closer distances than, say, driven or even walked-up pheasants. A 12-gauge is perfectly acceptable, but I would advise shooting a light load.

I also suggest that an over/under or side-by-side has multi-chokes, so they can be set to suit the quarry and likely shooting distances. The classic combination for bobwhite quail is Cylinder & Improved Cylinder, but if shooting blue or Gambel’s quail in the West, Improved Cylinder & Modified will handle the longer shots. If a shotgun has fixed chokes, they most likely will be Skeet & Improved Cylinder or Improved Cylinder & Modified.

I have used both semi-automatic and pump shotguns for quail. They are great value for money, and the recoil is softened by the actions; however, the drawback is that you have only one choice of choke, forcing you to compromise between a tighter choke for distance and an open choke for closer shots.

The answer to another frequently asked question is: Yes, the same shotgun can be used for both the clays and quail portions of the school, as the targets on the clays course are designed to replicate quail targets.

As always, any shooting instruction begins with a talk on safety—the most important starting point for learning the fundamentals of upland bird hunting. For this reason the morning classroom session for my school starts with a review of safe gun handling. I ask each participant for a brief résumé of his or her shooting experience. I then proceed with the fundamentals of safe and straight shooting: stance, posture and gun mount. Each student is videotaped shooting a few clays, and then his or her technique is analyzed and individual goals are discussed.

After the classroom session, we head to the clays course for a morning of shooting, with the traps adjusted to throw targets that simulate quail in flight—using several traps to simulate singles, pairs and covey rises, with the emphasis on practicing both “on report” and “true” pairs.

It is important to reload in case there are stragglers.

We also practice shooting with two people—one positioned on either side of the trap in the same format as in the field, where one hunter will be standing on either side of a dog on point. This morning practice and instruction will help to smooth gun mounts and sharpen reactions and hopefully result in improved success in the field.

After lunch, for the quail hunting part of the school the “team” divides into two students per wagon and we head out for an afternoon of hunting quail over dogs. Each wagon has a guide, and I rotate between the wagons offering instruction where needed. Again, safety is always the most important part of hunting. Unless a bird is surrounded by sky, each Gun knows not to take a shot. In the case of thick woods or low-flying birds, especially over dogs, students are told to remember the safety-first adage: There will always be another bird.

When it comes to technique, this quote is from my old “mucker” Michael McIntosh: “The deadliest move an upland hunter can make is with his feet.” Well-practiced footwork is essential in upland hunting, and it requires thought and practice, as quail habitat usually consists of tall cover crops, brambles, bracken and thick grasses. The shotgun is kept pointed at the sky with the safety on at all times while walking until it is time to take a shot. Awareness of terrain, surroundings, guides, other hunters and dogs is vital.

Once we reach the field, the Guns get off the wagon and begin following the pointing dogs in search of quail. When the dogs go on point, the guide confirms each hunter’s position—one Gun to the right and one to the left. Awareness of the “safe arcs of fire” is essential. The Gun on the left shoots only in the arc from straight ahead to 90 degrees to the left and the Gun on the right shoots only in the arc from straight ahead to 90 degrees to the right. Shooting behind is out, as that is usually where the wagon is.

The guide then will ask if the Guns are ready, and on their acknowledgement he will release his flushing dog—usually a cocker spaniel—to flush the quail. Single birds or pairs are fairly straightforward targets, but when a large covey is flushed, the birds may fly in any direction, which can be discombobulating. The best approach is to at first soft-focus in the direction of the point. Then when the quail flush, pick out one bird, mount the shotgun smoothly while pushing off the safety and give the bird both barrels. It’s amazing how many quail are dropped with the second shot. Of course, it is important in the heat of the moment to always maintain awareness of the location of the flushing dogs, the guide and the other hunters.

Keeping the head firmly on the stock and the eyes focused on the bird down the barrel is key. Too many hunters get distracted with the covey flush and lift their heads off the stock, which typically results in a miss over the bird. Once a quail is hit, it is important to mark where it drops. (Note that if the guide considers a particular quail to be an unsafe shot, he will call, “No bird!” and the Guns should hold their fire.) As soon as the shots are taken on the initial rise, it is important to reload in case there are stragglers that get up.

Many Clays and Quail School alumni have shared that the lasting value of the school is that it has given them insight into upland bird shooting through implementing practice on clay targets. They have found that they have acquired the building blocks that have given them the confidence to continue to improve their skills in the field.

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