A Good Day Hunting…
It’s often said that a bad day fishing (or in the field), beats a good day at work. I suppose that’s true, but on a recent day off, I was able to experience the best of all possible worlds – a day spent in the field instead of the office AND a fantastic hunting opportunity with good friends and family, hunting quail on a“shooting preserve” in the Midlands of South Carolina.
That wild quail are, and have been for several decades, in decline across much of the Southeast is no secret, which is why efforts such as the SCDNR-backed and organized South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative are of critical importance to the future of wild quail hunting. With the right approach to habitat management on a large enough scale, the biologists and others involved in the SCBI believe that we can make significant gains in our wild quail population. There’s lots of different ways for landowners and others to become involved in, or support, the work of the Initiative, but one of the simplest is simply, as it says on the SCBI website:
“Most importantly, get out and hunt. The more wingshooters there are, the more resources we'll find available through our partners. All it takes is a WMA permit along with your SC hunting license and you can hunt one of SCDNR's Wildlife Management Areas. If you have access to private land, a state hunting license is all you need. Put the dogs in the truck and go find some quail.”
That’s good advice, and in South Carolina, one way that many folks choose to do that is with a hunting excursion on a DNR-licensed “shooting preserve,” where pen-raised quail (and sometimes pheasants or chukkar) are released prior to the hunt, providing participants with a chance to see pure-bred dogs finding and pointing coveys of quail and to get in some quality shooting opportunities as well. Like a lot of folks, I had not hunted quail in many years – not since I was a boy and my uncle “Mac” Coffer would bring his dog out to the farm and we’d spend a Saturday chasing our resident covey around the place.
Lucky for me, a longtime family friend and distant Lucas relation (around home we call them “last” cousins instead of first) is engaged in the business of guiding quail hunts, raising dogs, and raising quail for use on preserves, and he was generous enough to let myself, my Dad and another friend tag along on a “training day” for some of his dogs at his Cedar Creek shooting preserve this past October. (Shooting preserve hunting season lasts from October 1 through March 31. The regular season for wild quail and other small game starts the Monday before Thanksgiving and runs through February, ending on March 1.)
Kenny Lucas is a lifelong quail hunter with a real passion for the sport. Over generous, pre-sunrise plates of side meat, sausage, grits and eggs at “Willie’s” restaurant, a locals-favorite (with goods reason) in Swansea, S.C., he told me that while growing up around this area in the late 60s and early 70s, that “quail hunting was the only thing that kept me out of trouble.”
“It’s a sacred bird, to me,” said Lucas, the same way he says everything – in a low and serious tone of voice that forces you to pay attention, but with a characteristic twinkle in his eye and a good natured grin on his bearded face. “When those other fellows were headed out to get wild on a Saturday night, I’d be headed for bed, knowing I had to be up before sunrise to go hunting.”
Lucas’ father and uncles were all avid hunters, and back then before resurgent populations of deer and turkey became the most popularly pursued game species in the Midlands, that meant quail and other small game, typically hunted with hounds.
“They used to hunt so hard, I can remember my Uncle Lloyd carrying a worn out dog back the truck on his shoulder at the end of a long day in the field,” laughs Lucas. Now that’s hunting.
Lucas followed the family tradition in other ways too, making a living at farming until dwindling commodity prices and high overhead forced him to make a career change. Now he’s what you might call a full-time “quail entrepreneur,” and a fairly successful one at that. He and a partner raise birds to sell to other preserve owners in a converted poultry house -- more than 50,000 per year – and he spends several months out of every year in Texas, arranging and guiding wild bird hunts for a list of regular clients. He doesn’t advertise, he says, it’s strictly word-of-mouth, but right now, he’s booked solid. At home in the Midlands, he can generally be found working with his dogs, overseeing the pen-raised bird part of his business, or sometimes hosting clients on his Cedar Creek preserve property. Lucas is also one of the founders of the Upland Wildlife Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving, and strengthening upland wildlife– quail for sure, but also doves, rabbits, squirrels and songbirds.
On the day we visited with him, Lucas was mainly interested in working with some new dogs he’s training, and he offered us the opportunity to ride along and do some shooting – both of the shotgunning and camera variety. I was excited, first for the opportunity to get some images of working dogs and maybe a story for the SC Natural Resources Blog, but as a close second, for the chance to test out some of the shooting tips imparted to me by SCDNR TOMO program Shooting Sports Coordinator Scott Stephens. I am a terrible wing shot – always have been. Pathetic would be an unfortunate (yet accurate) description. And yet … “hope springs eternal…” as the poet says, and after some time spent with Stephens and a group of aspiring young shooters a few months ago, I’m eager to see if the instruction and tips he gave me that had me plugging clay pigeons with regularity on that outing has “stuck.”
So with the dogs ranging ahead, we mount up on an ATV rigged for carrying hunters and dogs and start the day by driving the edges of some large, somewhat overgrown fields bordered by hedgerows – it looks like good quail territory! This is an early-season outing for these dogs, including a “rescue” named Pete with good bloodlines but minimal previous training that Lucas acquired from a quail hunter who didn’t have the time or patience to work with him anymore. All the dogs are high-energy, but after a bit they settle in and really begin to work, and it’s not long before we spot the telltale sign of a stiff white tail sticking up above the scrubby plant growth – first point! Lucas uses English pointers exclusively, and he says he never docks their tails. The benefit of that non-docking policy becomes evident over the course of the day, as time-after-time, we are able to spot a dog on point in thick cover at mid-field from the top of the ATV by zeroing in on that slim white flag sticking up above the weeds.
After a few singles and doubles, we work our way through some forested edges where larger coveys await, exploding into the air with that characteristic sudden energy that makes a quail hunters heart beat faster.
It is fine day in the field (and thanks to Scott Stephen’s tips, I’m even hitting a bird or two when I can pause long enough from taking pictures to take a few shots). Maybe it isn’t quite like the glory days of wild bird hunting, but it’s FUN, the action is steady, and watching these talented dogs do their thing is an amazing and awe-inspiring thing just by itself as they find birds and lock into a point, holding steadily until Lucas sends his “flushing dog,” a good-natured chocolate lab that rides with us in the ATV, in to make them fly.
There are still opportunities in our state to hunt wild quail, both on private plantations where habitat management is a key focus, and on public lands such as Webb Wildlife Center. And hopefully, as the work of the SCBI progresses, aided by enthusiastic advocates for the sport like Kenny Lucas and many others, wild quail hunting in South Carolina will get better over the coming decades. But in the meantime, shooting preserve hunts provide a real opportunity – particularly for newcomers to the sport– to get a taste of what it’s all about. As Lucas says, with his characteristic grin, “it’s about the most fun you can have without taking your clothes off.”
Hard to disagree.