There’s a generation of older Southern sportsmen that came of age shooting limits of quail on just about any stroll through the hedgerows and clear-cuts. Heck, these old-timers make it sound like quail were so plentiful back then they were almost a nuisance to deal with.
Those days have become part of the region’s romanticized history. There are no more 15-covey hunts and no more leisurely walks. Quail hunting on public land today is an adventurous pursuit. Only 40 years ago, taking a whitetail buck would make a small town’s newspaper. Now, a limit of quail is more newsworthy. The roles have reversed, sure, but that doesn’t mean the hunt is over, especially down in Georgia. Your shoulders won’t hurt from a game vest loaded with birds as it would have in the past, but your legs should ache from walking across the expansive Wildlife Management Areas that Georgia has been aggressively managing for quail over the last five years.
If golf is, as Mark Twain described, “a good walk spoiled,” then a successful quail hunt is the opposite. A long trek across lands once tilled by farmers and pummeled by artillery can still produce coveys worthy of the effort from an old Southern hunter.
SLEEP IN, HUNT LATE
In the field, the dog points, paralyzed by a smell. The scent means birds could be nearby. Hunters quickly move in, not worried about making too much noise as they shuffle through the brush. Unlike skittish deer and small game, a covey is not likely to be lost because of commotion.
Bursting from a stand of weeds, the covey explodes like a land mine. It’s always surprising to hear the sudden whir of wings, a sound almost as loud as the drum of a distant copter. Hunters empty their guns with a couple of staggered shots. If birds don’t fall, excuses take flight. Someone shot just in front, just behind, just below…
“This ain’t deer hunting,” as one official at the Georgia DNR said. True. It’s a gentleman’s sport, and that means doing it on a humane schedule. There’s no need to rise at the crack of dawn or sit with your teeth chattering atop a wobbly stand. Still, with bobwhite numbers so low, scouting is necessary. If you find an area dense with coveys, you’re in luck. Often, quail will hold in the same covey–as long as it remains undisturbed–for extended periods of time. This is why deer hunting is a great way to scout for good habitat. If you happen across thick weeds, brush, hedges or overgrown ditches on your way to the deer stand on a Georgia WMA, make a mental note. It’s likely to hold a bird or two.
A good quail hunt is as simple as it gets. With deer and duck hunting becoming more and more technical, hunters find themselves drawn to the history and culture of chasing bobwhites. Maybe that’s because the tradition of quail hunting doesn’t center on the shooting but on the wilderness experience and camaraderie. Folks gather in the early afternoon, dressed in sturdy upland boots and brush pants, often seeming content to swap stories instead of hunt. After the jokes are told and business closed, they’ll take a long, sometimes arduous walk intending to kick up a few birds.
HABITAT ON THE REBOUND
A fall from grace is the simplest way to describe the decline in quail habitat in Georgia from the 1960s to the late ’90s, a period in which the state lost 70 percent of its quail population. As a result, the Georgia DNR implemented the Bobwhite Quail Initiative in 1999.
Under the program, 15 counties south of Macon were selected to participate, with the intention of building better nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Private landowners within these counties whose property meets certain criteria can apply for funds to help them make these improvements. Meanwhile, on public lands the DNR continues to manage habitat and monitor the nesting of quail. In the last five years wildlife managers have seen a marked increase in population. More important, quail numbers are stabilizing.
A NEW SPORT
Quail hunting in its modern form has picked up what it once lacked: a challenge. Hunters must now combine woodsmanship and scouting with patience and endurance. In the glory days all you needed was a dog, a gun and a clear-cut. The equipment list hasn’t changed, but it takes more cunning on the part of a hunter to find areas that are potential quail havens. And these days, quail hunters have taken a page from the playbook of still-hunters. The game is more about pursuit–working trails and groves for miles in search of elusive coveys, instead of relying on the dogs to do all the work.
If you don’t jump a covey or two by the end of the hunt, all is not lost. A walk in the countryside is also a chance to reconnect with what are becoming scarce slivers of nature, protected from suburban growth, where both the hunter and the bobwhite are at home.
The best hunting is on private land or commercial plantations. Still, public hunts are plentiful in Georgia. Some are quota hunts and require an application, such as the ones hosted at Di-Lane WMA. Lake Seminole and Mayhaw WMAs, on the other hand, don’t have quotas and are open to hunt on select days of the week. The season runs November 13 through February 28, with a limit of 12 birds.
Contact: Georgia’s DNR (770-918-6400; www.georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us).