The holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s finds families gathering and celebrating their blessings around tables loaded with food — often gathered by family members.
From gardens come sweet potatoes, butter beans and collards, while wing-shooters provide quail, doves, ducks and marsh hens, and the still-hunters add turkey and saddles of venison and hogs. And that’s not even mentioning the abundant shrimp, oysters, crab and fish fetched from the sea. South Carolina truly is natures horn of plenty.
Family traditions often involve holiday hunting outings to the fields, woods and waters. Those who chase deer have the season open through the end of the year, and duck hunters have plenty of public water with birds coming through from the north. Dove season opens the week of Thanksgiving and again around Christmas with shoots being popular family reunions. But options are slim for upland bird hunters. While wild woodcock sporadically fill lowland coverts, our preferred target, the bobwhite quail has almost disappeared from our landscape, with only a limited presence on land that’s accessable to the public.
Old-timers speak longingly of seasons past when coveys abounded on Lowcountry farm and in piney woods. Ask a seasoned hunter raised in the 1950s, and he’ll wax eloquently about grabbing a shotgun and a handful of shells and wandering through neighborhood fields with the family bird dog. Those fields are mostly gone now or grown over, the birds are gone, and unfortunately, most of the bird dogs are gone, too.
That’s not to say they’re all gone, or that private plantation owners and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources aren’t trying to reestablish wild birds, because they are — and with some success.
“Quail hunting on public land in South Carolina is a ‘hit-or-miss’ proposition at best, but there are a number of areas that offer a reasonable opportunity for finding some birds,” said Billy Dukes, small-game project supervisor for SCDNR, who said some of the public areas that are best-managed for for quail include the Draper WMA in York County, Crackerneck WMA in Aiken County, Canal WMA in Berkeley County, Manchester State Forest in Sumter and Clarendon counties, Long Creek WMA in Oconee County; Webb, Palachucola and Hamilton Ridge WMAs in Hampton County. Some are open only on specified days, while others are open throughout the quail season.
Although chasing wild quail is not very productive, plenty of shooting preserves dot the landscape, including public shooting venues, semi-private shooting clubs and private plantations. Preserve hunts, though not real wild-bird hunting, do guarantee more bird contacts, which is important for introducing young dogs to live birds, finishing started dogs, introducing youngsters to wing-shooting, and providing a quick getaway for dog-owning city dwellers between their real hunting trips.
Many families with strong hunting heritages would love to have a holiday bird hunt, and that can be done in South Carolina. Can you think of a better gift for a family with a hunting tradition than an outing at a preserve.
“Put-and-take,” “early release” and early release with supplemental stocking are ways it is done, and the price of admission ranges from pretty reasonable to outrageously expensive. All three provide more gamebird contacts for hunters and dogs. The cost differences relate to how similar the hunt is to real wild-bird hunting, the cover and surroundings, the wildness and flying strength of the birds and the incidental luxuries provided.
A typical “put-and-take” quail hunt will be much like those offered at Dan Henderson’s Tall Pines Quail Hunting preserve in Varnville. Joe Mixon runs this low-overhead venue just south of Hampton. Tall Pines caters especially to bird dog owners, giving them the freedom to hunt unguided, but it also has a kennel of pointing dogs and a qualified guide for those needing fully guided hunts.
“Put-and-take” is the name of the game, so just before a hunt, Joe “plants” coveys of birds for hunters and dogs to discover. The birds are dizzied and strategically dispersed into hastily prepared “nests.” The cover is widely spaced piney woods with broomsedge and forbs typical of places native wild quail flourished in those glory years past.
A second and third option for planting the quail make hunts progressively more challenging for dogs and hunters. Dizzying the birds and releasing them directly into cover or allowing birds to walk out of transporting boxes directly into cover without any dizzying makes hunts more challenging for experienced hunters with proficient dogs.
Once ready to hunt, the dogs are released, often two at a time, to do their thing: find and point birds. Probably the most-impressive aspect of any upland hunt is good dog work, as hard-charging pointers range at a gallop through the coverts only to freeze almost in mid-air when they cross scent of a live covey. Predictably, the second running mate shortly freezes in a “backing “ position, honoring the find, and they both suspend, frozen in time, until the hunters and guide come into position.
The flush, unlike wild-bird hunting, erupts when the guide scatters the nest with a kick. With good-flying birds, the covey rise is still an impressive sight and rarely results in more than a couple kills in the air.
Some outfitters hunt in very easy cover — pretty much open fields — while other venues offers much more challenging cover or a choice between easy and harder. A two gun, 30-bird hunt takes two or three hours, depending on the cover, the shooters’ acumen and number of dogs used. Depending on their shooting skills, hunters can expect to kill over half to most of their released birds in “put and take” outings.
Private plantations and exclusive corporate plantations are at the other extreme, and in fact, some of the finest ones have well-established populations of wild birds to boot. Most use early release stocking, where thousands of quail are released in the late summer and early fall to become fully naturalized to the wild. Some plantations use supplemental stockings throughout the season to rebuild coveys, and all of them feed their birds throughout the season; there are just too many birds on the land to survive on natural food sources alone.
The corporate retreats are invitation-only events, but there are many private clubs like Turkey Hill, Buchanan Shoals and others with memberships available. They may have sporting clays for warming up, make you a lunch, dinner or both, carry you from covert to covert in a wagon and sometimes even give you a room for the night with your dog.
Early release and supplemental-stocking plantations are much more costly to operate, and thus, hunts cost much more. Normally, hunters harvest slightly less than 25 percent of the stocked birds, while ultra high-end private plantations that exclusively use early release systems often harvest less than 10 percent of their released birds. What happens to the rest is a mystery, but the lost birds add to the cost of the operation.
Mike Johnson of the Clinton House in Clinton occupies the middle ground between private clubs and low-overhead places. They cater to larger groups and corporate outings with a full range of activities and also handle the basic 2-gun hunts. On the 2,000 acre preserve, a 5-stand course, four sporting clays courses, pheasant tower shoots and deer and turkey hunts re offered as well as the standard quail-hunting packages and packages of quail with chukars and pheasants added. Quail hunts can be guided or unguided, half or full day, with or without meals and lodging. They also have duck hunts on wooded ponds.
“We have something for everyone from the novice to the experience wing shooter,” Johnson said. “Field hunts are the most-popular in a field that has been stripped with good cover for the birds and cut grass to allow easy walking for the hunter. We also offer woodland hunts, which have tougher shots, and walking is just like being in south Georgia.”
You’ll be exposed to some find dog work at the Clinton House. Each guide has his own way of hunting and dog use; Johnson hunts with English pointers to point the birds and Boykin Spaniels to flush and retrieve them.
Even though most of the preserves will wow you with strong flying birds, scenic cover and exceptional dog work, we know it’s not real hunting. The more challenging venues can approach the real thing but none the less it really is a lot of fun in the outdoors. Plus you’ll get to take home some tender quail for dinner. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
WHEN TO GO — The preserve hunting season starts on Oct. 1 and ends on March 31, but action is limited in early October and the end of March by warm weather.
WHERE TO GO
• Tall Pines Quail Hunting, Varnville, J.E. Mixon, 803-943-4617. Very good piney woods quail cover. Unguided hunting with your own dog a specialty. Guided hunts available.
• Springrove Shooting Preserve, St. Stephens, David Shealy, 843-567-3830. Guided hunts in good cover. Hunters’ dogs are welcome, but a guide will go along. Personable owners.
• Gruber’s Hunting Preserve, St. George, Stanley Gruber, 843-563-1159. Guided hunts with English pointers in piney woods and fields. Tower shoots available.
• Black’s Camp/Black Briar Preserve, Cross, Allan Weiss or Kevin Davis, 843-753-2231. Strong-flying birds and broomstraw cover.
• Back Woods Quail Club, Georgetown, Rick Hemmingway, 843-546-1466. A full-service hunt club open to the public. Full day or half day hunts available.
• Edisto Pines, Leesville, Todd Edwards, 803-894-7752. A full- service public preserve with sorghum and milo fields and piney woods. German shorthair breeder. Hunter’s dogs welcome.
• Clinton House Plantation, Clinton, Mike Johnson, 864-833-5477. Full-service, public hunting resort with many upland hunting and shooting options. Memberships available.
• River Bend, Inman, Ralph Brendle, 864-592-1348. A full-service, semi-private resort with memberships and a variety of non-member hunt packages available. Hunter’s dogs welcome.
• Buchanan Shoals, Jason Kiker, 704-695-2810, Morven, NC. An private, upscale sporting preserve just across the NC line with non-member quail hunting packages available. Some land in Chesterfield County also.
• Turkey Hill Plantation, Ridgeland, Canada Smith, 843-726-8646. Upscale private hunting and shooting club. Early release wagon hunts for quail.
• Moree’s Sportsman’s Preserve, Society Hill, Mike Johnson, 843-378-4831. Full-service public hunting resort with plenty of hunting options, plus lodging.
HUNTING HINTS — Wherever you go, don’t forget to tip the guide. Twenty dollars per person is considered standard for a half-day hunt, although some hunters are more generous when they receive excellent service.
REGULATIONS — SCDNR regulations apply to preserves except that there are no bag limits on pen raised quail. A statewide hunting license ($12) or a special hunting preserve license for residents or non-residents($8.50) is required.