Gentlemen bobs & fine guns at SouthWind Plantation
By Robert Parvin Williams
The bobwhite quail, as Robert Ruark’s Old Man famously observed, is a gentleman, a late-rising reader of the morning paper, a second-cup-of-coffee sort, a brunch-eater; and for that my wife, Daphne, loves him as a kindred spirit.
I’m not sure Daphne has ever quite forgiven me for proposing marriage to her at dawn in a wood duck swamp, although I’m uncertain whether it was the time or the location that was less forgivable. There we were, just the two of us, with my Lab, Janie, and a fine just-retrieved woodie with a diamond ring threaded precariously on his bill. What could be more romantic? Many things, I was given to understand once we’d gotten the essential “Yes” out of the way and I’d been hauled upright from the ooze.
No, Daphne takes little joy in a newborn dawn, however rosy-fingered it may be, so I watch this particular dawn alone as the sun emerges vaguely through mist over the cypress pond behind the lodge at SouthWind Plantation. As the steam from my coffee rises gently in time with the sun, I think about coveys of quail snuggled tail-to-tail in the piney thickets somewhere not far away.
Yesterday we drove down from Atlanta and spent a nice evening meeting SouthWind’s owners, Tim and Carla Smith, touring the main lodge and sharing some excellent prime rib, grilled vegetables and apple cobbler. After dinner we read by the fire in our cabin until bedtime, snug as a covey ourselves. Now, though, it’s morning, and I’m itching to go do something.
It takes the winter sun until nearly 8 o’clock to cut through the pond mist and melt the frost. By then Her Ladyship is up, and the quail will soon follow suit. Daphne and I walk down to breakfast along the frost-bejeweled deck that joins all of the main lodge facilities, which include our cabin, a big kitchen building now redolent with breakfast smells, and an assortment of gazebos and outdoor fire pits replete with rocking chairs for evening cigars and sundowners.
Breakfast is a cheerful bustle of eggs, coffee, homemade game sausages, cheese grits and talk of the morning hunt. Three or four other groups, totaling 20-plus other hunters, fill most of the dining area, confirmation that, despite the difficult economy, SouthWind has done well. Before we know it, it’s 9 o’clock and time to find some quail.
SouthWind’s main lodge overlooks a 10-acre lake and is joined by decks to various outbuildings and fire pits; in addition to being a guide, Dargan Long is a dog trainer and an artist specializing in oil portraits of hunting dogs; there’s nothing like an English cocker to encourage quail to beat a hasty retreat.
Tyler Poole, SouthWind’s personable assistant manager, shepherds Daphne and me into a van for the short drive to the tract we’ll be hunting this morning. As we drive, Tyler gives a quick overview of the plantation. SouthWind encompasses, at the moment, roughly 3,500 contiguous acres in Decatur County, Georgia, just east of the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers and just north of the Florida line. This is the heartland of Southern hunting plantations, and for miles in all directions much of the land has been intensively managed year-round as prime quail, duck, deer and turkey habitat. It is gently rolling country, with open pine and wiregrass uplands nestled among live-oak and cypress bottomlands. SouthWind uses prescribed burning and wildlife plantings to manage more than 2,000 acres, divided into a dozen separate “courses,” for quail.
Our hunting guide, Dargan Long, is waiting for us with a jeep-drawn wagon full of excited dogs. SouthWind also offers mule-drawn wagons and horseback hunts, but with just the two of us hunting and only one of us shooting, we’ve opted to keep things simple. Horseback hunts are fun, though, particularly because they offer a great view of the dogs and provide a way for those who aren’t shooting to see the action from a reasonable distance.
It was characteristically thoughtful of our SouthWind hosts to pair us with Dargan on this hunt. In addition to his vocations as a hunting guide and dog trainer, Dargan is a well-regarded local artist who specializes in oil portraits of hunting dogs. His fine eye and skill with a camera produced many photographs documenting our hunt.
Daphne and I load our gear into the wagon and enjoy the brisk February sunshine as Dargan drives. We stop on a low hill from which the land recedes on three sides in undulating waves of open pines, wiregrass and small openings planted in strips of grain sorghum. Dargan releases three dogs—two German shorthaired pointers and an English cocker spaniel. After the customary lap or two around the wagon, the shorthairs race off down a row of pines, quartering across the light morning breeze. I grab my gun, a lovely little Holland & Holland 28-gauge Royal on loan from H&H’s New York store, and the three of us start after the shorthairs with the cocker trotting cheerfully at heel.
It takes the dogs only a few minutes to find the first covey. We spot the backing dog first, his nose directing us toward a briar patch. As we walk past him, we see the lead dog frozen a few yards ahead at the base of a big pine. I move up beside him, and Dargan sends the cocker to flush with an encouraging, “Back!” The little spaniel flies past, and the brush erupts like a quail volcano, brown-feathered blurs whizzing everywhere at once. I pick one out, and as the Holland hits my shoulder I slap the trigger and see a satisfying puff of feathers; as that bird falls I find another angling away and slap again, er, again. Oh, yeah. Double triggers. I laugh and tell Daphne about my fumble as the cocker makes the retrieve on the solo downed bird. Serves me right for not practicing with the new gun before we came out into the field.
We wander the hills until noon, shooting over point after point. One of the things I like about the hunting is that we use the wagon only to water the dogs and once to move to a different piece of ground a half-mile away. By the end of the morning we’ve walked several miles and worn out two pairs of pointing dogs and two cockers.
The dogs and the birds all have performed well. The two German shorthairs are solid, close-ranging dogs with a good bit of style. The other pair—a Brittany and an English setter—is longer-ranging and competitive enough with each other that Dargan has to reel them in from time to time. The two cockers, which Dargan uses exclusively as flushers and retrievers, are quite good, especially Dargan’s favorite, Jack, who displays all the sweet eagerness of the breed.
SouthWind’s extensive kennels, which can accommodate up to 80 dogs, are a point of particular pride for the plantation’s owners and staff. There are usually about 75 dogs on the premises in various stages of training, including English pointers, English setters, Llewellin setters, German shorthairs, English cockers, Brittanys and Labs.
The birds are a combination of early released and supplemented quail. They fly well, and none need more encouragement than a leaping spaniel to burst skyward with that wonderful clatter of wings. The tendency, always, is to compare released to wild birds. These birds are not the spookily quick aerobats you’d find in a wild covey, but they are genuinely challenging and fun and eminently missable, as I prove repeatedly.
Carrying a shotgun like the Holland adds a great deal to an already pleasant morning. I’m fortunate not only to have the use of it but also that it happens to fit fairly well. Quail, of course, are a split-second thing, and even the finest gun is useless if it doesn’t come up to your eye just so. I can generally adjust to a gun on skeet, doves or even ducks, but quail are too quick at putting cover and distance behind them. This particular gun was built in 1998 and recently came back to Holland & Holland for resale. I do notice that I have a tendency to shoot over some birds, probably indicating a stock that is a tad short for me, or at least that’s the story I tell Daphne and Dargan.
At the end of the morning’s hunt, we load the last tired dogs into the wagon and head to the main lodge for lunch. We stop along the way to meet Tyler, who shows us some of the guest accommodations that are located in other areas of the plantation, separate from the main lodge. Each is a complete lodge in itself, with a private kitchen and dining room, multiple bedrooms and a sizeable common area. They are designed for families or groups that want more privacy than the main lodge permits. Their furnishings, like those in the main lodge, are traditional “plantation elegant”—neither fussy nor rustic, but interesting, refined and evocative of the leisured traditions of a Southern quail hunt.
Back at the main lodge, lunch is grilled quail and fried chicken, vegetables, salad and blackberry cobbler. We finish quickly, because Daphne wants to take a shooting lesson on a clays tower overlooking the 10-acre lake behind the lodge, one of SouthWind’s several clays facilities.
Daphne has accompanied me on bird and big-game hunts for years, but only recently did she decide to take up shooting. Her lesson is provided by SouthWind’s General Manager, G.J. Kimbrel, who works with her on the fundamentals of gun mount, swing and lead. After a few tries, Daphne is starting to break some clays. The gun, a Franchi Instinct 20-gauge, seems to fit well, and she says she likes the light weight: a little more than five pounds. I had worried about the recoil from such a light gun, but the good stock design and fit seem to manage recoil nicely. After a few more hits, G.J. asks Daphne whether she plans to try the gun on some quail, but she declines. She says, rightly enough, that it’s one thing to hit predictable clay targets and another thing altogether to shoot safely on live birds. She wants to get more comfortable with the gun before she tackles the frantic chaos of a covey rise.
I’m up next with a Franchi Aspire 28-gauge. The gun feels very much like a slender version of the Instinct 20, which in turn has always reminded me of one of my favorite shotguns ever: the Winchester 101. It balances effortlessly, and it fits exactly right. As long as I do my part, clay after clay disappears in a soul-satisfying puff of smoke. The 28-inch barrels point and swing handily, just like the 28-gauge 101 I used in the 1980s. I decide to try it on quail in the afternoon.
We leave for the field at about 2 o’clock. I like afternoon hunts, with the shadows growing longer, the chill creeping into the shadows, and the shots getting tougher and tougher as the quail perversely find new ways to fly into the setting sun. The Franchi shoots very well, and the inevitable comparison with the Holland makes for an interesting discussion as we walk behind the dogs. As with the morning hunt, we enjoy good shooting and dogwork, and we end up with plenty of quail for the grill.
At 5 o’clock we stop hunting, to give the birds time to find each other and tuck themselves in before dark. The temperature is dropping fast, bringing shivers and goose bumps as we ride in the open air back to the lodge. A good fire, a glass of wine, and then a shower before dinner seem to be in order, followed by a book before bed. Next year perhaps we’ll visit a few weeks earlier to allow a dawn wood duck shoot before the quail hunt, but unless I can convince Daphne all ducks bear diamonds, I suspect I’ll be shooting the woodies alone.
For more information on Georgia quail hunting, contact SouthWind Plantation, 800-456-5208.