by Roy Hawkins
Three quail erupted one after another other in front of the motionless Pointers. Just as quickly feathers exploded from each of them as my thirteen year old grandson, Hayes Wood, dropped all three in a fine demonstration of his shooting ability. Our party was hunting at the Hatcher Ridge quail operation near Maben, Mississippi. The group included our host, and my boyhood friend, Walker Wood; his son and my son in law, Jim Wood; Hayes Wood, our grandson; Nick Cadle, Walker’s Son in law; Yours Truly; and Nick’s six year old son, Jake, who came along to observe. The presence of five shooters on this hunt highlights one of the distinguishing characteristics of present day quail shooting. In the old days, wild quail were usually hunted by parties of no more than three, and even more frequently by only two. Some of my best days, in fact, came when my dogs and I took the field alone. Today the size of the party matters little since the shooters can take turns stepping up to the dogs, while the other members of the group stand back to give them a clear field of fire. It goes without saying, of course, that gun safety is a part of quail hunting that must never change.
Superior dog work is considered by many to be the most appealing feature in the pursuit of quail. I tend to agree. Certainly the Pointers and Setters at Hatcher Ridge always turn in a performance worthy of the great quail hunting traditions of the past. Yet, herein lies one of the differences between past and present day quail shooting. In the old days, a quail hunter’s dogs were practically members of his family, and there was a bond between dog and hunter that does not exit in preserve hunting. You do not get to know a dog you hunt with only a few times each season. Only those who choose today, even in the absence of wild quail, to own their own dogs, understand what it means to know a Setter (or Pointer) so well he becomes a pal and a team mate, and only THESE (man and dog) know what the other member of the team is going to do before he does it. I truly miss this aspect of quail hunting. At Hatcher Ridge, care of the dogs is of paramount concern, and tubs of water are places at intervals around the hunting area for the benefit of the hard working Pointers and Setters.
Preserve shooting also, has for all practical purposes, taken the element of uncertainty from quail hunting, and this is probably the most significance difference between the past and the present in this grand pursuit. Wild birds were and are (where they still exist) unpredictable. In the past, there was no absolute guarantee quail would be found on a given day. Not so in the present, for with pen raised birds, a hunting party can count on a quail dinner from the moment they book their hunt. They can that is, UNLESS, they can’t hit a barn door, or the weather turns sour and the hunt has to be canceled. This brings to mind another consideration in quail hunting today. If possible, I schedule my hunts in the afternoon so the flight of the birds is not slowed by their being wet from heavy dew. However, let me hasten to say, the birds at Hatcher Ridge can always be counted on to fly exceedingly well under less than ideal weather conditions. Hunters will appreciate the fact too that at this operation, old time quail hunting is closely approximated by the necessity of shooting in all types of cover from open sage fields to dense thickets of young pines.
Another distinguishing feature of present day bird hunting, that to me is very appealing, is the opportunity to shoot more than one species of quail. At Hatcher Ridge a flushing bird may turn out to be a Chukar rather than Old “Colinus Virginnus” (The scientific name for the Bob White). Visiting hunters, in fact, may request that a specific number of each species of quail be released for the hunt. Also, there is some pheasant shooting available at this fine preserve. Even if only Bob White Quail have been planted for your hunt, you never know when a hold over pheasant or Chukar may burst from the grass when you walk up to the dogs. That makes a hunt exciting!
The guides at Hatcher Ridge take care of their hunters as well as their dogs. Before a party enters the field, they check to determine the gauge (Our party used only twelves and twenties) of the guns being used, and bring extra shells along so no hunter finds himself without ammunition during the hunt. ON longer excursions, a member of the staff brings water and a snack to the shooters at about the midway point of the hunt. Old time quail hunting was certainly never that good! On the afternoon of our hunt, every member of our group scored. Naturally, some bagged more quail than others! Some of us shot our first Chukars ever. In all our group took a total of 46 birds, twenty-one of which were shot by Hayes Wood. Walker and I were proud of our grandsons! Little Jake Cadle kept up with the action all afternoon without a whimper, and several weeks later we learned the guides had picked Hayes as best shooter of the year.
Regretfully, my children and grandchildren may never know the thrill of hunting wild quail over a well trained Pointer or Setter. Yet along with this note of sadness, there comes also a deep sense of gratitude in knowing they can do the next best thing. They CAN enjoy Bob White Quail at quality operations like Hatcher Ridge.