A couples hunt for quail at Pine Hill Plantation
Photographs by Terry Allen
It’s gonna be a hard run, but you can make it,” Hilton says to Ida and Ada as we sputter up a hill in the forest. Hilton is the driver of a black glossy wagon, and Ida and Ada are his well-dressed mules, sporting metal-studded bridles and red velvet ornaments. I’m just another one of Hilton’s daily passengers in the Southeast Georgia woods at Pine Hill Plantation. Hilton, now in his 70s, has been talking to his mules since he was a child. He has been carrying passengers with his mules for almost as long.
We are driving through 6,000 acres of natural quail habitat: elegant longleaf pines nestled into wiregrass understory. Hilton, Ida and Ada are carrying a group of quail hunters, while other hunters are ahead on horseback. This is the way quail hunting has always been done on grand plantations, and it is even more popular today on plantations that were abandoned as cotton-growing land and converted into quail habitat. Pine Hill Plantation, founded in 1991, offers this classic Southern quail hunting experience for those seeking a chance to relive what is one of the most romantic hunting traditions on private plantations in the South.
I’m a more inquisitive passenger than most and a Northerner to boot, but Hilton doesn’t seem to mind. As I sit in the front seat next to him, he tells me that “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa” and “Get up here” are some of the commands he uses to direct his mules. It appears to work. And it also appears telepathic. He has full conversations with Ada and Ida, and there seems to be a true symbiosis, a journey through the woods together that is so familiar by now that they almost share a pulse.
I wonder how, in a time when the “Southern” experience is now so carefully constructed for tourists, someone so authentic, so utterly a product of the South, has ended up right next to me, philosophizing on life in a black-lacquered wagon with two mules. For me, though not for the others in the back seat, hunting is almost an afterthought. There will always be quail hunting, but there will never be another Hilton. Hilton is a Southeast Georgia philosopher, the kind who has stories that will make you forget your destination and savor the journey. I soon realize that even though this land has been transferred from one owner to the next, Hilton has always stayed with it. He is more a product of the South and of this very place than of any of the tradition he reenacts on a daily basis.
As we climb the hill, two hunting guides ride on horseback, as they have all afternoon, leading the way from covey to covey. Their bird dogs are ecstatic with the scent of quail in the air. Soon, almost instinctively, Ida and Ada come to a halt, as if they have been here before. They lower their heads and begin to snack on the brush. The passengers in the back of the wagon file out, decide who will shoot first this time, and follow the guides toward a covey. Hilton and I sit and watch while Ida and Ada chew at the wiregrass, lifting their upper lips to display their pink, glistening gums.
“That’d make a good utility pole, get good money for that, don’t be biting on it,” Hilton says, scolding them for gnawing on one of the big longleaf pines.
We hear shots in the distance. One of the retrieving dogs that has been held back with us on the wagon tears loose and runs for the flushing covey. “Uh, oh. You in trouble dog,” Hilton says, shaking his head and watching him dart off toward the shots. “He ain’t but ten months old . . . . He need a attitude adjustment.” Then we hear commotion between the hunters and dogs as they search for the fallen bird. “I saw one dead bird,” Hilton says as a matter of fact.
We hear shots again. Then the other dogs left in the pen hooked to the back of the wagon burst into wails of excitement. More shots are heard, and more feathers flicker in the light, falling to the pine-needled forest floor.
“They bringing back some bird stew. With that shot there ain’t nothin’ but ash,” Hilton says, meaning the bird has been decimated. I get the impression that he has seen it all before.
The shooters and guides walk back now along with the dogs, panting lightly, sporting their red and blue electronic collars. And we all pile on and continue to the next covey, to flush some of the wildest quail I’ve seen at a commercial hunting preserve.
As we drive the wooded paths, there is just the percussion of horses’ hooves and the thumping of the mules plodding, exhaling and sputtering. Someone asks if they can take our picture. Hilton and I lean in. “I’m grinning like a mule eatin’ briers,” he says, his eyes shining and squinting from years of driving in the Georgia sun.
Time passes in the woods like a well-choreographed dance. There is more sputtering, flushing, shots and floating feathers. And as the sun sets, it casts the most elegant light between the pine trees, a mystical light that settles over the woods like a blanket and changes, moves and flickers as we all leave slowly, while the night fog rolls in. I step down from my perch beside Hilton and leave with the others for the next phase of the Pine Hill Plantation experience.
It is a February night, the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, and six couples sit together in the warmly lit dining room of a red brick house over plates piled high. Wine glasses reflect the lamplight, and the room tinkles with laughter. The group of hunters is comprised of bankers, fashion executives, housewives and retirees. This particular hunt was put together for couples, a way for husbands to include wives in the experience. They have traveled from as far as New Hampshire and Texas to be here. Most of the couples have never met before this night, yet all of them have come to the same conclusion that this is where they want to celebrate romance, walking through the Southeast Georgia woods—quail hunting.
What is most significant about this group, though, is that many of the women have never hunted before. They have only supported their husbands’ pastime from a distance, perhaps mildly curious, perhaps not, raising their children and occasionally sending them off to hunt with their fathers until the children eventually lost interest and moved on to college and then careers. Or at least that’s what they tell me—that many of their children are too busy with their lives to find time for hunting anymore.
Somehow, though, the wives have decided that it is their turn, and they have chosen to spend Valentine’s Day not at a spa or a high-end restaurant but at this well-heeled hunting destination with those extra bits of charm that only the South can deliver. They dine and laugh well into the night, and in the morning they don their khaki and bits of hunter orange and pile into SUVs with their favorite dogs to join their husbands for the very first time.
After a short journey in Hilton’s wagon once more, we reach a clearing in the woods and the women climb out with their gleeful husbands in tow. We move together out into the high grass in the late-morning light, the men soon fading into the background. After only a few yards the dogs freeze into points, and we slow, walking in pairs, approaching the covey from two sides. We clutch our shotguns, some timidly at first, with a sense of excitement that only comes with a first hunt.
We wait with the trembling dogs until out of the silence a large covey of quail rises sharply at an angle, faster than I have ever seen quail fly. The women bring their elegant shotguns to their cheeks and fire. A few of us connect, and the quail fall more slowly than they rose into the wiregrass. The eager dogs spring off to retrieve them, as the husbands look on, realizing perhaps that they may have just found a new hunting partner. Watching the women’s enthusiasm unfold as the dogs drop the quail in their hands, it is clear that not only are they new hunting partners but they also are the new face of hunting.
They are confirming a trend—that even as the total number of hunters in the US has been declining in the recent past, there has been an increase in the number of women hunters across the country. But in the process they are changing the world of hunting as we know it, not just because they are women, but because they are different kinds of women than we have seen hunting in the past. These aren’t women who have been regularly getting their hands dirty and are just interested in becoming one of the guys. These are denizens of the well-heeled suburbs and the city—high-heel-sporting, lipstick-wearing women who now are picking up their shotguns with red nail polish on their trigger fingers. Ten years ago they may have been content with going to the farmer’s market or grocery store and being the home cooks. But somehow a Saturday trip to the farmer’s market for a pint of strawberries with an eco-friendly reusable shopping bag doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.
It is a good time for hunting, a period of rediscovery, where quail harvested with their own manicured hands brings them the same satisfaction that it does for men. Today’s hunting women are seeking to experience things more viscerally, the way their grandmothers did, often outdoors, often hunched over, weeding, curing, burning or digging. By picking up a shotgun, no matter how strapped to city life they are, they are demonstrating that there is a need in all of us for something more real than designer food at designer restaurants.
It becomes ever more obvious to me over the course of the weekend that the power to help young people enjoy the outdoors, the future of hunting, lies with mothers and wives. There will be different ways that these new hunters ease themselves into the experience. For some it will be a romantic Valentine’s getaway with fine wine and bird shooting at a Southern plantation. For some it will be simply following behind others in the woods in order to experience nature. Or maybe it will be simply talking with a wagon driver and his mules who are the embodiment of the traditions that surround an honored sport. However it manifests itself, it becomes clear that our ideas about hunting and food and lifestyle are reforming in a way that they haven’t since our ancestors worked every day to simply survive.
In the end I say goodbye to Hilton with the deep sense of nostalgia that Pine Hill Plantation instills. I hope that there always will be opportunities to walk the woods, but I know that there will never be another Hilton—a genuine product of a bygone era. “Back when I was seven years old, I started hooking up mules. This was all farmland. I plowed these tracks,” Hilton says, looking calmly past the pointed ears of Ida and Ada and into the surrounding woods.
The land isn’t farmland anymore, but it is more magical than ever. It has been transformed to ideal quail habitat lined with longleaf pines, the kind of pencil pine trees that are tall and elegant and seem to stand like columns, reaching up so high they pierce the periwinkle sky.