Wild quail are tough to find these days, but private land and leases can be turned into your own personal ‘plantation’ for working dogs and shooting put-out birds.
Don Baldwin | March 2, 2021
When I grew up in the late 50s and early 60s, my house, in a suburb of Jacksonville, Fla., backed up to a large pine forest with underbrush that was about knee high but not too thick; perfect quail habitat. I can remember waking to the sound of the northern bobwhite quail calling to each other from the brush. And many mornings I would see a covey of 20 or more birds casually grazing in my backyard. Quail were numerous in the rural south in those days, and a quail hen leading her line of chicks across a road to safety was not an uncommon sight.
As a young boy, I had visions of walking a field with a good dog and double barrel shotgun in search of a covey rise. My dad was not a hunter, and I didn’t have the means, dog or gun to go on my own, so those visions never materialized.
Time moved on and I went on to college, the military, a family and a career, and decades later I still hadn’t realized the dream. During those years, the quail population in the South experienced a steady decline until wild birds very nearly ceased to exist. This happened for a number of reasons. Farming practices called for larger open fields and reduced areas of brush that served as protective habitat, chemicals impacted natural food sources, and forestry practices replaced the slow-growing longleaf pine with faster-growing versions, thickening the canopy and reducing the underbrush.
Conservation programs are helping, but the impact on quail recovery has been limited.
By the time my adult self was ready to embark on my long-held dream quail trip, my only real option was at the quail plantations that had become popular. Many of these facilities provide a great venue for the quail hunter with comfortable lodging, chef-prepared meals, and all of the equipment you will need for a great outdoor experience. Some plantations even have conference centers, catering to corporate outings that now represent a substantial portion of some plantation’s target customers. As you can imagine, the price tag for some of these large plantations can be high, as much as $1,000 or more a night for a hunt, lodging and meals with all the fixings. But these plantations offer an experience as close to wild bird hunting as you will find these days.
Of course, some of the smaller plantations are much more affordable, but the price can still add up if you want to hunt often during the season.
So, how does the average person get a chance to do some quail shooting in this environment? While the situation may seem bleak, there are options.
If you have land, you can manage a block of it to support quail hunting. If you don’t, leases of suitable blocks are available for you to do the same. In this article, we’ll look at both. Pen-raised quail can be used on your property or lease, just like they’re used at pay-to-hunt operations.
Mack Boatwright, of Patterson, began quail hunting as a boy, and shortly after that started training quail dogs for himself and his friends. Two years ago, he decided to train dogs for customers and began a commercial operation. I contacted Mack about this article, and he set up a hunt for us with one of his best customers—Dr. Wade Strickland, of Brunswick, who has a large block of land in Brantley County that he manages for deer hunting, along with 40 acres he has set aside for a quail field. Dr. Strickland raises Brittany spaniels, and Mack trains his dogs on a regular basis. My friend, Dr. John Casler and I were invited to join Dr. Strickland and Mack for a morning quail hunt on his property to get insight into how he runs the quail operation.
“I set up this 40-acre plot for quail 17 years ago, and I make it available for my family and close friends to use,” said Dr. Strickland. “During quail season we hunt it every week.”
We were standing in a beautiful pine forest that had been manicured to provide good cover for the quail, as well as easy walking for the hunter. Like virtually all quail hunting facilities, Dr. Strickland uses pen-raised birds to stock his quail field.
“I like the northern bobwhites best,” said Dr. Strickland. “They are big birds, and they tend to fly very well.”
The large operations that order thousands of birds per year often pre-release big groups of birds throughout the season, so they become acclimated and act more like wild birds. Smaller operations release birds into the field a couple of hours before the hunt. This is not as effective at replicating a hunt for wild quail as the pre-release method, but it still works very well for seeing the dogs work and some good wingshooting.
For our trip, the quail had been set out a couple of hours before our arrival, so they had time to disperse or group up as they desired. Once we were loaded and ready, Mack released one of the younger dogs from the dog box on his truck. Within five minutes she was on a solid point, and we advanced and flushed a small covey of about six birds. And so the morning went. Every few minutes the dog would go on point, and we would get a shot at a bird or two and sometimes as many as five or six. Mack switched the dogs out periodically to keep them fresh.
“These dogs will run hard for as long as you let them,” said Mack. “Since it is cool today that’s not much of a problem, but in warm weather they can really get worn out, so we rotate them. That not only gives the dogs a rest but allows the younger ones to get some live experience.”
We had a great hunt and took our share of birds, but we left a few out there for the next guy (not intentionally by the way). These were strong fast birds and could be a challenge to hit. Dr. Strickland’s place has a “Johnny House” in the quail field that collects many of the left-over birds and gives them a home-base that offers some safety from predators (see sidebar).
Dr. Strickland’s operation is quite impressive. The field is well maintained, and he has a great kennel for his dogs, as well as a very nice lodge if guests need to stay overnight. But the experience can be rewarding on a less sophisticated leased plot as well.
The necessary elements of setting up a quail field are the land, the dogs and the birds. We’ll look at each of these elements and give you some insights on how to acquire them for your use.
For a reasonable quail field, Mack tells us that 50 acres is a good start. Dr. Strickland’s plot is a little smaller than that, but he says that four people can hunt at once as long as they stay spread out in a straight line. He said it is probably safer if the hunters rotate in groups of two. If your plan is to hunt more parties simultaneously, you probably should look toward 100 acres or more, so groups can spread out. Mack told us that leases suitable for quail plots in the area near his home are available for prices in the neighborhood of $15 per acre per year. But I’m sure prices vary a good bit, so it would pay to check around. Quail prefer pine forests because they are generally relatively open with enough underbrush to provide cover.
“You’ll want to groom the plot a little, so hunters and dogs can get around easily while leaving good rows of cover for the birds,” said Mack.
Ask the landowner what you are allowed to do before you commit to the lease because landowner restrictions and rules may be very different.
Some of the groups I have talked to who have leased quail plots do everything themselves, from clearing brush to buying their own birds and placing them on the day of the hunt. Another group leased a plot from an owner who virtually runs the operation for them, including field preparation and management to bird acquisition and placement. All the hunters have to do is bring their dogs and enjoy their hunt, all at a very reasonable price. That sounds like a great option if you can find it.
If you already have a trained bird dog, you are ahead of the game but if you don’t, picking the right type of dog and finding a good trainer is an important step. Mack Boatwright has long been training bird dogs, both pointers and retrievers, and he is clearly devoted to his work. He said that in selecting a dog, make sure that it is from a hunting bloodline. Some breeders are focused on breeding show dogs while others specialize in hunting dogs. This is true of most of the hunting breeds (spaniels, pointers, Labradors, etc.). Check with the kennel to be sure which type they are.
“I can start training a dog when it is five to six months old,” said Mack. “And while all dogs respond differently, it generally takes about six months to get a dog ready for the field.”
Dr. Strickland’s dogs are all Brittany spaniels and they both point and retrieve. Some breeds are better suited as pointers and others for flushing and retrieving.
“The selection of the breed mostly boils down to personal choice,” said Mack.
Most trainers will work with a dog either alone or along with the owner. But Mack feels that the owner should become involved at some point in the process.
“After all, it is going to be your dog, so it needs to learn to respond to you,” said Mack. “Once the dog has a good grasp of the basics, you should spend some time with the dog and the trainer to become familiar with what the dog is learning and how to reinforce it.”
Look up dog breeders in your area and get references from hunters who have worked with them. A well-trained dog working a quail field is not only key to a successful hunt, but an absolutely beautiful thing to watch. It is truly one of the most attractive things about being on a quail field.
If you would like to get more information from Mack Boatwright, or talk to him about training one of your dogs, you can contact him on 912.614.0287. He will be glad to talk with you.
While the northern bobwhite is probably the most well-known of the quail varieties, there are a few others that are raised by breeders. The bobwhite is a large, strong, bird and a favorite among many hunters. Another variety that is relatively common is the Tennessee Red. These are smaller birds, and some breeders and hunters feel they act more like wild birds, flying higher and farther than some other species. But whichever breed you choose, it is a good idea to tell your selected breeder about how many birds you expect to need during the season. This gives the breeder better planning information and allows them to prepare better and ensure they will have the birds you need when you need them. If not, that most important hunt could flop at the last minute with no quail to be had.
The earlier before the hunt you can put the birds out in the field the better. This will give them more time to acclimate to the open field and get more comfortable. But, predators can be a problem since the birds are not field savvy and can be easy pickings for hawks, coyotes, etc. Putting birds out a couple of hours before the hunt is usually a good rule of thumb.
One other thing you should know about pen-raised birds; they don’t fly well when wet. Some say they don’t fly at all so don’t plan your hunt on a rainy day or you’ll likely be chasing quail around on the ground instead of seeing a nice covey rise.
So, I hope the information in this article has not only piqued your interest in getting active in the sport, but has also given you the basics on what you will need to start a quail hunting operation of your own. It is a really neat project for a group of hunting friends to get involved in and one that can last for years once you set it up. It is a pretty simple process to browse the internet and find information on available land leases, dog breeders and trainers in your area, and quail breeders that can supply birds for you.
Hopefully, conservation efforts will someday be successful at restoring the southern quail population to at least a smaller but thriving example of its former self. But until that happens, you have other options for hunting quail that can be quite enjoyable. I go as often as I can. It’s hard to beat a trip to the field with a group of friends in pursuit of this classic game bird.
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