February 14, 2011
Hunting bobs at Mississippi's Circle M is a unique combination of fine dogs, people, birds and tradition.
The air-tired wagon provides a leisurely, smooth ride around Circle M's hunting area and adds another touch of class to an already first-class outfit.
When Ben Tubb turned Jack out of his box on the side of the mule-drawn wagon, it took the big, slab-headed pointer longer to pee, roll in the grass and do a few laps around the wagon to limber up than it did for him to wind the first covey of birds once he got down to the business of hunting. By the time Ben was back astride his horse, Jack was acting birdy.
It was pretty to watch, from my perch high on the wagon. Ben sat the horse and waited, chewing on a grass stem. Jack blew effortlessly through the broom in the yellow winter light, head high, tail high, a black-and-white blur feasting on the breeze as he trolled the downwind side of a briar patch. I remember thinking, he's moving too fast to find birds without bumping them. Fat lot I knew.
I had my mouth open to ask Bit Poe, the wagonmaster, if maybe the dog wasn't working a little too fast when the white blur that was Jack jolted to a stop in the sparse, waist-high grass. He couldn't have stopped any more suddenly if he'd run into the side of the wagon. When his forward motion ceased, he was locked on point: legs akimbo, body twisted into an awkward but somehow beautiful comma of quivering dog flesh, head aimed more or less back down his own right flank. It was a posture that said in no uncertain terms: "Birds right here, boss! " Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sally, the other pointer, creep toward the action, trying to steal a little of the glory. She abandoned her creep and solidly honored Jack's point when Ben softly whoa-ed her.
We gunners, riding atop the comfortable wagon, were five. Bill McGinnis and John Weathersby were showing friends Aaron Pass, Bill Bynum and me some of Mississippi's finest hunting opportunities. Since five guns is too many for a covey rise, we'd paired off to divvy up the shooting. The two Bills and I drew the short straws, so the first covey belonged to Aaron and John. They dismounted from the elevated rear seat of the wagon, grabbed their shotguns from the padded gun carrier, and advanced on Jack's still rock-steady point, while Ben alternated between speaking soothingly to the dogs and urging his hunters to shake a leg.
The black-and-white blur--Jack on solid point. Not all of Jack's points were in awkward positions.
Aaron, a well-known upland writer and gunner quickly proved he's as good with a shotgun as with a word processor. He dropped two shells into the chambers of his double and came in from Jack's left. John stood off the dog's right flank, waiting for Aaron to push the birds out of the cover and into the breeze.
When the covey went up, it did so in two clusters of six or seven birds each, with a few shrapnel birds outside the two main bunches. The first group played into Aaron's hand, and half a heartbeat later the other bunch flared out in front of John. Aaron's 28 and John's 20 barked twice apiece, in rapid, alternating cadence--bam-boom-bam-boom--and three Mississippi bobwhites dropped back into the broom. It was a well-executed vignette, with admirable performances by all participants, and those of us in the gallery voiced our approval from our catbird seat aboard the wagon. "I thought I saw that second bird drop a leg," Aaron said as he walked back to the wagon. "I watched him into that little clump of cedars right over there."Ben dropped the reins of his horse, whistled up the backstanding Sandy and investigated. Sure enough, she snuffled around for a few seconds and came up with a freshly-expired quail. The "A" Team was four for four. Bill McGinnis and I had something to strive for.
We didn't make it. But it was close. When the dogs pinned the next covey a few minutes later, they were at the edge of a pine thicket, and we had no choice but to flush the birds in the direction of the greenery. It was tough shooting, but McGinnis held up his end with what could only be called a snappy double. However, I blew the perfect string by stopping my swing on my second bird and shooting a pine sapling instead of a quail. I knew it the instant I did it, the way you usually know, but of course by then it's always too late. I can't give you a blow-by-blow of the rest of the morning's hunt, because it all runs together in my head and it's impossible to sort it out. But we had plenty of action for the rest of the morning, and the general consensus as we dismounted the bird wagon and climbed into the Suburban at noon was that it couldn't have been much better. Ditto that afternoon. Ditto again the next morning. We were hunting Circle M Plantation near Macon, Mississippi, just a few miles from the Alabama state line. This part of the world is prime bobwhite country, with gently rolling terrain, mixed pine and hardwood timber, and an abundance of old fields, mid-range successional stuff and wheat, soybean and hay fields galore. Circle M Plantation began as a working cotton plantation in the mid- 1800s, and it's still a working plantation at the beginning of the new millennium. However, today's plantings are mostly in the form of food plots and good wildlife cover, and the crops are bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.
Wagonmaster Bit Poe with an example of the bird responsible for all this fuss.
Managing the plantation for wildlife instead of cash crops is a long-standing thing here, extending back more than three-quarters of a century. Owner John E. Moll continues the tradition.
"Mr. Moll bought this property because he wanted to preserve the excellent hunting here and so he'd have a valuable property to leave to his kids and grandkids," says Circle M manager Lanier Long. "We're managing it as a high-end, high-quality quail, deer and turkey hunting operation, complete with fine surroundings, good service and good food."
Take it from me, Circle M is succeeding in its mission. The appointments and trappings of Circle M's main lodge and guest houses are first-class, and the food is the stuff waistlines are ruined on. But five-star lodging and excellent cooking are relatively easy to come by for those willing to pay the tariff. But to find those things coupled with this old-style, high-quality hunting is becoming more and more rare. What Circle M offers, in addition to its indoor facilities, is quai
l hunting in the finest Old South tradition.
After a noon meal (this is called dinner here in the South; the meal you eat at night is supper) of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, lima beans, corn bread and peach cobbler that would have gentled the hunger of a grizzly bear, we gravitated toward the game room or toward our individual bedrooms, depending on our individual temperaments and moods. I flopped down on my bed for a minute, though I knew I was too wired from the morning's hunt to take a nap.
That's why it came as a complete surprise to me when I swam groggily back to the surface of consciousness to the sound of Pass's Georgia Cracker voice asking: "Whatcha gonna do, Spencer? Sleep your life away?" I looked at my watch through bleary eyes: two o'clock, time for the afternoon hunt.
More than two hours later, as sundown approached and the afternoon wound itself down, Bill Bynum and I found ourselves walking in on either side of another bony pointer's nailed-down body, to flush what we all knew was the last covey of the day. I'd had a fairly embarrassing afternoon, in front of witnesses whose opinions I cared about, and I was anxious to redeem myself. In situations like that, things rarely work out the way you hope. Bill walked past the dog and the birds went up. He missed his first shot but cleanly dropped a bird with his second, and then my little Charles Daly 20 was in front of my face and tracking a crossing bird and somebody was pulling the trigger. The bobwhite went down at my first shot, and a straightaway bird folded neatly with my second. I broke the gun, dropped in two more shells, and just as I snapped the breech closed another pair of birds got up.
These were maybe the easiest two quail I have ever shot at in my life--wide open, going straight away, not in any particular hurry, and at a perfect pattern-forming range of about 25 yards. It will not surprise you when I tell you I failed to cut a feather.
"You should have quit when you were ahead," John Weathersby hooted from the leather seat of the wagon. Pass also said something derogatory, and McGinnis, Bynum and everybody else joined in the laughter.
I ignored them all. Instead, I watched the dogs retrieve our birds, inhaling the exquisite smell of fresh-burned cordite from one of the freshly-emptied 20-gauge hulls the way a wine snob sniffs a glass of chardonnay. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Bynum doing the same thing. The western horizon was rapidly going from yellow to orange to red, and the broomsedge was a smoky, smoldering color as the February sun touched the horizon. I squinted at Pass and Weathersby and McGinnis and Bit Poe and the wagon and the mules, all silhouetted against the flaming sky. Then I pocketed the pungent yellow hull and moseyed toward the wagon, trying to fix it all in my mind against those times when I'll need to remember it. "Near as I can tell, gentlemen," I said, "I'm still ahead."