At the end of the day, quail hunting is about much more than a dead bird. You’ll find that here in the plantation belt—a wide strip of gentility and loblolly pine that arcs its way through the South—quail hunting is not so much about the end result as it is about the joy of getting there, and you’ll find that sentiment reflected in every aspect of the hunt. A last vestige of Southern gentlemanhood, it’s built of equal parts science, art, and superstition.
As with many a Southern tradition, it’s nearly impossible to understand the present state without first taking a dip into its past. Though the quail (and the pursuit of it) is by no means a recent introduction to the area, the particular genteel brand of its hunt can be traced back to the years following the Civil War, when the plantation economy upon which much of the South was built collapsed. With no one to tend them, hundreds of square miles were left fallow, and once grand homes began to wither beneath the weight of the Southern sun. Though their fate seemed sealed, the plantations that stretched across the South were to find an unlikely savior: wealthy Northern industrialists.
Tired of the cold and clamor of the city, they sought respite in the gentle climate and quiet of the area and began to set roots, first in opulent hotels in the cities, but before long, in the abandoned sprawl of the countryside. Mannered, moneyed, and having thousands of acres at their disposal, these expatriates helped the quail hunt, with its elite pedigree and peculiar rituals, take shape.
Very little has changed since then; were you to pursue the sport today, you’d find it looks strikingly similar to the sport one-hundred years ago. In the era of four-wheelers and infrared trail cameras, the quail hunt has remained remarkably simple. A horse, a dog, a wagon, and a mule are the basic components, though you’ll find that more often than not, these ingredients are assembled with a healthy dose of Southern panache. A regular gentlemen’s club on wheels, most wagons are outfitted with matched mules, plush seats, blankets to stave off the chilly hush of the early morning, and a cooler packed to the brim with a luxurious picnic lunch, complete with tablecloth, linens, and cutlery. The meals, it’s said, are just as important as the mules.
Table manners aside, the etiquette of the hunt is a language unto itself: the steady clop and jangle of the mules and wagon, the breathless pause of a dog on point, the confetti flush of birds taking flight, and the polite cycle of hunters as they draw, aim, and wait for the dogs to return with their quarry. Nothing is rushed; the focus is on the experience itself, an appreciation of friends, scenery, artful dog work, and that particular circuitous brand of Southern philosophy.
Though the plantation belt may have earned a reputation as a human resort long ago (Harper’s Magazine famously called Thomasville, Georgia, the “best winter resort on three continents” in 1897), it deserves more than a little credit for the accommodations it offers its feathered inhabitants. Aside from the natural cover of longleaf and loblolly pines, the quail benefit from a constant, careful stewardship of the land. The underbrush is regularly burned away to encourage the growth of seed-bearing grasses, food is broadcast to supplement the natural diet, and water stations are dispersed where natural sources are scarce. Add to this the fact that many natural populations are bolstered with a new pool of eligible ladies and gentlemen from which to choose each year, and one might imagine that the birds are getting the better end of the deal.
“Southern Gentleman” is a moniker that’s thrown around a lot these days. We use it to describe anyone who opens a door, says ma’am, tucks in his shirt tails, or wipes his feet at the door, but finding the genuine article seems a trickier task, unless, of course, you take to trail. A true Southern Gentleman is defined by patience, quiet, strength, and sure aim, and odds are that you’ll find him here in the stillness of the woods, hunting quail.
SEE MORE “A GENTLEMAN’S GAME: THE ART OF QUAIL” PHOTOS HERE