''Quail hunting in south Georgia is a very social sport -- it's not just about shooting birds," said Doug Coe, owner of Pine Hill Plantation. "It's so much more -- it's about being among friends, enjoying the scenery, the dog work and so on...businesses bring clients out here as a great way to get to know each other, and at least a third of our private groups are families."
Located near the town of Donalsonville in southwest Georgia, Pine Hill Plantation offers 6,300 acres of long-leaf pine and wiregrass habitat. Opened for hunting in 1991, the plantation is managed for quail and is the only Orvis-endorsed Wingshooting Lodge that hunts exclusively from mule-drawn wagon and horseback in the classic Southern tradition.
Anyone familiar with the works of Nash Buckingham, Havilah Babcock or Ray Holland has read about this type of quail hunting, and it's a safe bet that most wingshooters would like to experience it firsthand at least once. I definitely fell into that category, and I traveled to Pine Hill in mid-February of this year eager to give it a try.
We were rolling along in the wagon during our morning quail hunt when Doug made the above observation. Doug had offered me the chance to ride horseback (and later that day I took him up on the offer) but with a camera and a notebook in addition to a shotgun and other bird-hunting paraphernalia, I'd opted to start the day on the wagon.
This gave me a chance to make some notes, learn something about the habitat and the history of the plantation, plus get a first-rate view of the overall operation. And what an impressive operation it is...the word that kept coming to mind all morning was "authentic."
CELEBRATING THE TRADITION & MANAGING THE RESOURCE
As noted, clients at Pine Hill have the option of riding on a very comfortable mule-drawn wagon or on horseback while following the pointers. "There is no 'mechanized' hunting at Pine Hill," Doug explained. "We don't hunt from jeeps; we do everything in the old Southern gentlemanly way -- it's intended to be a relaxing, enjoyable experience."
Hunt groups of four to six -- with up to four customer horses, a mule-drawn wagon and driver, a huntmaster who rides horseback and an assistant huntmaster/dog handler who also rides horseback -- are called a "hunt party." The wagon carries those hunters who don't ride or prefer a more comfortable seat, plus the pointers in dog boxes on the back, the retrieving Labradors on the front, and of course, a cooler of soft drinks and water for quail hunter refreshment.
Shooting is limited to two gunners per covey rise. Shooters take turns walking in on points, and shotguns are carried either in saddle scabbards or in a rack on the wagon.
In addition to Doug and myself, our quail hunt party consisted of two long-time friends of Doug's, Joel Joyce and Hal Ayer; Hal's son-in-law, Jeremy Bill; and photographer Mark Atwater. The hunt crew consisted of Todd Howard, head huntmaster; Steven Coe, assistant huntmaster and dog handler; and Hilton Glover, wagon driver and resident philosopher.
The weather was ideal that morning, with a slightly overcast sky, a light breeze and temperatures in the low 60s. In addition to the wiregrass, long-leaf and slash pine, the cover also included red oaks, live oaks and post oaks, interspersed with stands of grain sorghum, nicknamed "Egyptian wheat."
"We work hard at managing our habitat," Doug commented. "It's a combination of science and art...and superstition! We participated in the Auburn University study of quail mortality, which included radio-tagging quail, tracking covey movements, and so on.
"Fifty percent of adult quail are killed by mammalian predators -- bobcats, raccoons, armadillos, and other pests -- and another 40 percent are killed by airborne predators.
Because they're protected, there's nothing we can do about the latter except provide lots of cover for the quail. That's key, especially during January and February.
"All of our habitat management, including our efforts to minimize predator kill, gives our hunters more shooting opportunities and ensures we will have a natural distribution of wild birds remaining at season's end for healthy population reproduction."
The plantation actively traps for mammalian predators about nine months of the year, starting at the center of the property and working outward to the perimeter. Six of those months are focused on the perimeter to maintain a barrier to predators entering the property.
Other practices include prescribed burning to thin the understory and encourage the growth of seed-bearing grasses. Grain is also broadcast throughout the cover to provide additional feed. The plantation's wild quail population is supplemented in July and August with released eight-week-old quail.
"Our season runs from November 1 through March 31," Doug Coe said. "The released birds are 18 or 20 weeks old by the beginning of the season, and biologists consider quail to be adults at 16 weeks. By the time we get to hunting season, those released quail have learned to fly and survive like wild birds."
THE CANINE COMPONENT
Two black Labradors, Flint and Camilla, rode the wagon to handle most of the retr
ieving duties during our hunt, but the plantation's pointing dogs also retrieve. "We have 34 dogs, the majority of which are pointers," Doug said. Two or three Llewellin setters, a German shorthair and two more Labs round out the kennel roster.
The dogs were worked on a rotational basis that morning, with new braces put down every so often to avoid overheating. Initially I attempted to keep track of their names by brace but eventually settled for just watching them work... after all, it's far more fun to observe pointers hunting quail in the pine woods than it is to take notes, and I couldn't help succumbing to the "relaxing, enjoyable" aspect of the experience Doug had mentioned earlier.
Still, I did get some of their names down on paper -- for example, a handsome Llewellin setter named Duke, nicknamed "Entertainer II" for his similarity to the first "Entertainer," another Llewellin named Stalker with an incredible nose and the habit of lifting his paws high and carefully as he moved in on birds.
Other dogs we hunted over included a brace of lemon pointers named Cody and Connie, a liver-and-white brace named Doc and Chrissy, and another lemon pointer named Cannon braced with Dixie the shorthair.
All of them put on an impressive performance, sweeping through the pine woods ahead of the horses and locking up on a regular basis. When this occurred, Todd or Steven would call, "Point!" and the shooters whose turn it was would dismount, tie off their horses, load their guns and move in for the flush.
Watching it first from the wagon and then getting down to take my turn at shooting, I again couldn't help recalling Doug's comment about this being a relaxing experience.
The leisurely pace helped put shooters at ease... an unhurried sense that was a pleasant contrast to some of the more rigorous group bird hunts I've participated in over the years.
The camaraderie among the shooters was also clearly evident, and there was a good bit of self-deprecating humor and good-natured joshing, as well. "I'm just out here to use up my shells before their expiration date," Jeremy Bill commented with a laugh, following a miss.
"Yep, there's an awful lot of air around those birds!" Mark Atwater observed.
AN ELEGANT LUNCH & AN AFTERNOON RIDE
We broke for lunch at a clearing in the pine woods complete with hammocks, horseshoe pits and a tablecloth-covered picnic table set with fine dinnerware and cloth napkins. On hand were Sharlene Eubanks, hospitality manager, and Marcelene Jones, hospitality associate.
Lunch was tossed salad, grilled shish kabobs and macadamia nut cookies. No one left the table hungry, and afterwards the hammocks looked awfully inviting. But several of us opted for a quick game of horseshoes instead, then it was back onto the wagon or into the saddle.
The sky had darkened steadily over the course of the morning, and thunderstorms were predicted for later in the afternoon. We decided to hunt until rain forced us to quit, and we were soon moving through the pine woods again.
I'd spent the morning on the wagon, so at one of our first breaks after lunch I borrowed Jeremy's horse, Dusty, to take a turn in the saddle. I'm glad I did -- there's no question that watching the pointers from horseback was even more of a thrill, given the fact that the riders could stay closer to the dogs and see them more easily.
This was, after all, the experience I had come for, and Dusty proved to be an easy-to-handle horse with a comfortable gait -- a couple of big pluses in my book. I could readily understand why hunting from horseback in the pine woods could become addictive, and why so many Pine Hill clients return regularly.
The predicted rain held off until after we'd concluded our hunt at about 4:30, and we returned to the lodge in time for a shower and a nap before dinner at seven. We were staying in the elegant Pine Hill Manor, a 6,500-square-foot facility boasting two private formal dining rooms, a "great room" with a massive stone fireplace and an adjoining lounge and gun room with an impressive mount of a bobcat (trapped on the property) leaping at a flying quail.
In keeping with the plantation's unhurried pace, there was plenty of time to visit and socialize. Joining us for dinner was Fred Richmond, Pine Hill's general manager, every bit as genial as Doug Coe and the rest of the staff.
"If you have an invitation to hunt on a private plantation, by all means go," Fred commented. "But if you don't have such an invitation, come to Pine Hill. We'll do everything possible to make it a personal, private experience for you and your party -- it's a private plantation concept that is commercially available."
I already had seen this firsthand, an example of Southern hospitality at its finest. And have I mentioned the meals? Sharlene and Marcelene outdid themselves in the lodge's big kitchen -- dinner the first evening was Southern fried chicken with all the trimmings; dinner the second evening was stuffed, bacon-wrapped quail grilled over mesquite.
Breakfasts were equally sumptuous, with everything from chocolate chip pancakes to eggs, bacon, sausage, grits and biscuits and gravy. (A special recommendation: If you go, be sure to try some of the lodge's homemade mayhaw jelly on the biscuits.) Needless to say, hunters always left the table feeling well fortified for the day's activities.
The usual itinerary for a hunt at Pine Hill Plantation begins with a late afternoon arrival, social time and dinner, and hunting the following day or days. As described above, my stay was typical of this schedule, but more specific needs can be accommodated, and the plantation also offers a variety of additional activities.
I had flown to Atlanta, rented a car and driven down to the plantation (about a 31â„2-hour drive through country that was definitely a sight for the sore eyes of someone who'd come from a Midwest winter), and I left right after breakfast the morning following the day of our hunt, as I had a flight home that afternoon.
Other guests had arrived the previous evening, and I found myself wishing I could stick around and join them for their hunt. If I had been able to do so, I know one thing for certain: I'd have spent more time on horseback watching the dogs -- and dismounting to shoot -- and a lot less time on the wagon taking notes.
IF YOU WANT TO GO...
Pine Hill Plantation is located in Seminole County in the southwest corner of Georgia, near the Alabama and Florida borders. It's about 60 minutes from the Tallahassee airport (for commercial flights) or 15 minutes from the Bainbridge, Georgia airport (for corporate and general aviation). Commuter flights from Atlanta are available to Tallahassee and the airport at Albany, Georgia, also nearby.
Two lodging facilities are available at the plantation. Pine Hill Manor, (shown in the opening photo) where I stayed, is the larger of these, with two formal dining rooms, a master bedroom suite downstairs plus five large bedrooms and four private baths upstairs.
The Manor can accommodate up to 12 guests comfortably.
Quail Covey Lodge is a 3,800-square-foot facility with a formal dining room, master bedroom suite and four bedrooms with two private baths; it will accommodate nine guests. Both lodges have a "great room," a breakfast room overlooking a 90-acre lake -- filled with trophy bass, by the way -- and a gentleman's lounge and gun room. In addition, the Manor has an Orvis pro shop well stocked with clothing and shooting accessories. Loaner guns are also available.
Besides quail, Pine Hill also offers hunts for dove, duck and turkey. Other activities include skeet shooting, bass fishing, canoeing, horseback riding and mule-drawn wagon rides.
For more information, see the plantation's website at: www.pinehillplantation.com, or call 229-758-2464.