As sportsmen, we rightly herald the grand comeback stories associated with South Carolina's two most popular game species: the whitetail deer and the wild turkey.

Both have been going like gangbusters for several decades, and where they are concerned, the "good old days" are the present.

Sadly, such is not the case with the noble little gamebird, the bobwhite quail, which once was such a prominent part of the Palmetto State sporting scene.

The days of gentlemen taking to broomsedge fields sparkling with a million diamonds of frost in the bright sun of a chilly winter morning, with double-barreled Parkers or Foxes cradled in their arms and with rangy, stylish pointers eating up the ground in front of them, largely belong to a world we have lost.

If you want a sure-enough anomaly, look at the daily limit on quail in the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' regulations guide. The likelihood of killing three or four wild birds, much less the dozen that make up a limit, ranks right up there with being given a free pass to Fort Knox, finding extensive acreage where there are no posted signs and hunters are welcome, or taking two Boone & Crockett bucks on consecutive days.

It ain't gonna happen.

There are still wild quail in scattered areas across the state, primarily where there is suitable habitat. When you happen to locate a covey, however, chances are pretty good that the birds will flush wild and out of gun range, and even if you get some shooting on the covey rise, forget following up on singles. They will head unerringly to the nearest hell hole, pretty much impenetrable to man and dog alike.

That's a stark and striking change from days of yesteryear, particularly the period from the 1930s to the late 1960s, when you could pretty much count of finding a covey in the Back 40, and when a full day's hunt carried reasonable expectations of dealing with a dozen or more bevies of birds. Then, the quail hunter's world fell apart.

There is a whole host of explanations, from a change in habitat to protecting raptors to fire ants to a dropoff in trapping of predators, to altered farming practice - the whole lot. Put the blame where you will, though, the end result is undeniable. Hunting for wild quail is largely an exercise in futility. You'll get exercise all right, but there won't be much need to worry about a weighty game bag.

This left a yawning gap in the Southern tradition of quail hunting, one which those addicted to stylish points, whirring wings, and challenging shots at five ounces of feathered dynamite sorely missed. The solution has been the emergence of hunting preserves, where it is possible to call back yesteryear through the use of pen-raised birds.

Today, such preserves - often associated with sporting clays ranges - are widespread in South Carolina. A glimpse at the Internet listing of Palmetto preserves in Black's Wing and Clay (www.blackswingandclay.com) reveals a score of destinations open to the public, and many more are doubtlessly not listed.

Make no mistake about it; preserve hunting is not a precise duplicate of the old-time, quail-hunting experience. The birds are invariably found in places where you have an open shot, they fly slower, hold better, and in general are an easier quarry than their wild brethren.

For the purist, that scenario may be reason to pause and ponder, but look at the bright side of things. If you can shoot even reasonably well, preserve hunts promise quail on the table. Action is certain, the pace leisurely, and you can likely do a bit of "warming up" on a sporting clays range or 5-stand set-up. You will be able to hunt with your own dogs or opt for those owned by the preserve; there's likely a hearty meal at mid-day, and things can be tailored to your tastes or physical abilities.

In short, there's a lot to be said for preserve hunts. That's the perspective of Randy Jordan, a taxidermist who lives in Fort Lawn.

"I was born after the great days of wild quail hunting," he said, "although I remember hearing family members talk about it. Preserve hunting is about as close as I'm going to come to the 'good old days' unless I hit the lottery jackpot or something and can afford those out-of-state destinations where wild birds are still found."

Jordan is a good example of those who cling staunchly to the grand traditions associated with the perky little prince of gamebirds, and as he recognizes, it's pretty much the only game in town - or in the state. Old-timers who once knew the glory of days with a dozen covey finds and the timeless scenario of a pointer holding staunch on a twilight "find" also frequent preserves. For them, as for Jordan, it's a way of calling back yesteryear.

Maybe Rick Snipes, a South Carolina native who has hunted quail all over the country and who moved to Texas several years ago specifically for exposure to wild birds, put it best:

"A preserve hunt will never match the wild-bird experience, but an operation which is properly managed can provide plenty of fun," he said. "It's an excellent place to train young dogs and young hunters; you can extend the season at both ends, and the predictable action is sure to appeal to many."

Bruce Hensley, an avid wingshooter who handled public relations for River Bend Sportsman's Resort, agreed with Snipes that young or novice hunters would particularly enjoy a preserve hunt.

"A preserve hunt is a grand experience for a youngster or a novice," he said. "They can watch the wizardry of bird dogs at work, have plenty of opportunities for action, and enjoy every expectation of going home at day's end with some birds for the table."

A good preserve hunt for two will likely be priced at a few hundred dollars, but when done properly, such an outing takes you joyfully down darkening roads into a sporting world we have largely lost. You'll know the enduring delight of a lanky pointer, skin stretched over prominent ribs, its body quivering from the heady aroma of quail, locked tight against a winter horizon. You'll sample and savor snappy shots, maybe even a nifty left and right, as birds take flight with the flurry of sight and sound that sends an adrenal rush through even the most jaded of hunters. Most of all, there will be satisfying hours that take you directly into the South's sporting soul. Come day's end, deliciously tired, you will have a genuine appreciation for our forebears who once thought earthly heaven involved walking through peafield corners and along briar-laced fencerows clad in Duxbak and partnered with canine companions. 

 

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Editor's note: Sufficiently long of tooth to have sampled the latter part of quail hunting's golden age, Jim Casada is a widely published freelance writer. To learn about his many books or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com