Quail hunting at the speed of life
By Miles DeMott • photographs by Terry Allen
Maybe it’s the pace, the slowed progression of the wooden wagon pulled through the pines by a brace of fine mules, a pair named Ellen and Kate that have worked as a team for more than six years and move to their own drumbeat, their own cadence, despite the gentlest encouragement from Cookie, our driver and hesitant historian who has followed at least two generations before him into the quail-plantation business. Then again it might be the skill and aesthetic of the dogs, beginning with Hooch and Peach, their long, lean bodies contorted in service to their noses, working under the baton of the quiet maestro sitting astride a tall black horse and flanked by a scout and a dog trainer. Once the dogs have winded a covey of wild or early release birds and hunkered down in rigid point, guides and guns dismount, a flushing cocker named Penny is called in and the guns make an effort to harvest as many as three birds from the covey. No more, usually less, allowing the flushed birds to covey up without the additional pressure of hunting singles. The hunting party then remounts and moves deeper into the piney woods in pursuit of the next covey. It is an authentic upland tableau, and this cast of characters and series of actions is just the tip of the iceberg that differentiates Pine Hill Plantation from other public and commercial hunting destinations.
Pine Hill Plantation offers guests a way to enjoy a slower pace and privacy in pristine surroundings.
In addition to the nostalgic nod to quail hunting with horses and wagons, Pine Hill’s authentic covey-rise hunting experiences meander through some of the most pristine habitat the Red Hills of southwest Georgia have to offer. Tall longleaf pines push skyward from the native wiregrass and broomsedge, with pitcher plants and gopher-tortoise burrows scattered about, evidence of the diversity of this unique ecosystem. Stretching out on roughly 5,000 acres, Pine Hill offers a variety of natural features, including the ideal quail habitat that has been a draw for decades as well as lakes and ponds that hold both fish and fowl. To begin our hunt on the first day, we were treated by a rise of wood ducks from a misty pond just behind our lodge as a cocker puppy discovered a bobwhite hidden in the rosebushes alongside our porch. This place is so great that even the quail love to stay here. It is almost certain that the guests do, too, since the number of hunts has grown steadily during the past 15 years or so. It was the unwanted guest, though, that tested not only the Pine Hill community but the region as well.
Hurricane Michael came ashore on October 10, 2019—a Category 4 terror that cut a visible scar through the landscape, devastating everything in its path. Mature trees were snapped in half, and the two-lane roads through southwest Georgia are punctuated by the remnants of Michael’s wrath even today. Roofs remain covered with blue tarps, new houses stand among the bones of old yards, and everywhere fallen trees have been pushed into piles, ready for the cleansing combination of torch and bulldozer. For much of the region, recovery is way out over the hood. For Pine Hill, though, recovery has been underway from day one.
Doug and Jackie Coe have built homes and businesses together, including Pine Hill Plantation, for most of their marriage. Theirs is a can-do perspective with a quiet call to action and a lot of hustle. So when Michael swept in with all of his baggage and Pine Hill’s first guests of the 2019 season were only three weeks from the door, Doug and Jackie along with a committed staff and lots of friends and neighbors simply made it happen. While local farmers used heavy equipment to clear paved roads to allow residents back into their ravaged homes and businesses, it took the Pine Hill team four days to cut their way down the driveway to the Sunset Manor, the newest and largest of the plantation’s three lodges. There were at least four trees on every building, a testament to the layout of the plantation, where the lodges are nestled among mature trees and offer views of either the piney woods or the lake, depending on which porch you choose. Following Michael, though, all buildings were re-roofed and the interior of each lodge was completely painted. All in three weeks, and all so the first guests would enjoy the Pine Hill experience they’d come to love and expect. That’s hospitality.
The habitat surrounding the built environment will take a little longer to normalize, but even that is being managed with guests in mind. For much of this past season the cleanup efforts remained visible—mostly as debris piles drying for the spring’s prescribed fires—but most of the cleanup work will have been completed by this coming season. As one might expect, however, the recovery and regrowth of mature longleaf pines ultimately will take 30 years or more. The forest knows that, as well, and volunteers are springing up across the landscape to replace their snapped and broken brethren. Natural regeneration is a wonderful part of a healthy ecosystem. Surrounding tracts, though, reflect the economic factors that weigh on a landowner’s investment and management decisions, as many acres are being cleared for a return to row-crop agriculture. For some, Michael’s tab was too large for a return to a slower, habitat-centered revenue model. That reality reflects the diminishing opportunities being felt across the upland and conservation worlds. But it is a reality—and one that Pine Hill offers its guests an opportunity to escape in very palpable ways.
The third ingredient of Doug and Jackie Coe’s secret sauce is the subtlest but perhaps the most flavorful. Pine Hill offers a truly private hunting experience. Short of a steady invitation to one of the large and largely family-owned plantations that give the Red Hills region its mystique, Pine Hill is as close as it gets to perfection. Private groups comprise almost all of the business—though a limited number of mixed-party hunts are available through the season—and the goal is that each guest feels like he or she owns the place. From pre-hunt shooting tips on the 5 Stand course to post-hunt cocktails on the porch or by the fire pit, even the smallest details are handled with the highest and lightest of touches. The hunting day begins with a large, chef-prepared breakfast and ends with a sumptuous dinner and high-thread-count sheets, and everything in between is designed and personalized for each hunting party.
The private-plantation experience begins with the lodging, and Pine Hill has it figured out. With three lodges nestled in the woods—each with a private dock on the lake behind—Pine Hill can accommodate parties as small as four and as large as 16 couples in grand style. A testament to the high-touch mission, each lodge has its own chef and hospitality coordinator, and that’s only part of Pine Hill’s commitment to service. Each hunting party also enjoys days afield with its own huntmaster, assistant and wagon driver, bringing the dedicated staff commitment to five for a party of four. And that staff-to-guest ratio scales with the size of the hunting party. Doug Coe says with conviction that, “It’s personal care that brings folks back—a questioning sense that guests leave with, wondering, Why was it so special?” Some commercial or public hunting experiences excel at certain parts of the equation, Coe believes. They have really great food, or the habitat is truly extraordinary, or the service—from check-in to check-out—is top rate. But few lodges create what he describes as an exceptional overall experience, with fervent and practiced attention to all the constituent parts. “We’re not perfect,” Doug reflects, “but we’ve got something that is fairly unique.”
Pine Hill’s hunters experience authentic covey-rise shooting amongst the longleaf pines, wiregrass and broomsedge of southwest Georgia’s Red Hills.
That’s the private hunting experience that Pine Hill executes so masterfully. The operation takes pride in helping guests get away, relax and have some downtime. Americans in this day and age have lost sight of such a pace—advancing to the hoofbeat and jingle of a brace of mules and the squeak of a comfortable wooden wagon as the canopy of longleaf pines throws dappled shade on wiregrass and sandy loam. It can be a problem for folks to unplug from the hamster wheel. Just like he did in his previous businesses, Doug enjoys solving this client problem most of all, providing a unique experience through which guests can give themselves permission to slow down, if only for a couple of days. That said, even Doug admits that it might not be for everyone: “If you measure your hunt by the number of birds you bag, this is probably not the place for you.” For those skeptics who might read into his words a hint of hedging on the bird prospects, heed the words of a regular guest seated next to me at dinner who passed the gravy and this little tidbit: “I’ve hunted all over the country, and we’ve seen more birds here and shot fewer than anywhere else.”
On our last day of hunting, the dogs from our wagon pointed a number of large coveys—late-season rises before the birds began to pair up for mating. At times we’d be standing in the middle of two dozen birds holding so tightly that we couldn’t see them, though the dogs’ noses had them in plain sight. When they flushed in glorious upland thunder, it was all we could do not to stand back and watch. Shots were fired, sure, but we didn’t hit many. And our hunt was none the lesser for it. That’s part of the authentic hunting that Pine Hill is famous for, and that discipline makes all the difference when you find and flush large coveys throughout your hunting day. It makes for happy dogs and happy guests.
So maybe it’s the pace after all—not a hurricane’s march that leaves a wake of snapped trees and uprooted lives but more like the pace of colleagues and neighbors who fill the void with time, equipment and a mindset of service to bring communities back together. Or maybe it’s the pace of conversation between old friends—men and women who’ve shared lives and hunting trips across decades but return to the front-porch rocking chairs with the thoughts left unspoken at the close of their previous time together. It might also be the promising pace of a sunrise that paints the piney woods in pastel pinks or the languid pace of a sunset grasping at the straws of a distant treeline for one more moment of brilliance.
Pine Hill offers upland hunting at the speed of life, at least the speed to which we should all aspire. The private-lodge experience accentuates your connection to friends and family, because when you are in residence, you own the place. That sense of ownership is reflected in the hunting as well. On each of our hunts, even though ours was not the only group staying at Pine Hill, we never saw another group or even heard another shot. That’s saying something, especially when you’re hunting up to 250 acres a day—as opposed to the normal coverage of less than 50 acres a day for most commercial operations. If that pace and privacy sound as good to you as they do me, climb aboard this old mule-drawn wagon, settle in and take a deep breath. The skies are blue, the dogs are enthusiastic and the forecast calls for quail. Let’s ease through the wiregrass and broomsedge of Pine Hill Plantation and see if we can find some.
For more information on Pine Hill Plantation, visit pinehillplantation.com.