They Shoot Quail, Don't They?
Sunday, February 26, 2006
On a foggy morning last week in the piney woods of south Georgia, a small group of men and dogs is gathered in a tableau of tense anticipation. After walking quietly through the mist for several minutes, they have suddenly assembled themselves into a living arrowhead pointed at a small tuft of wiregrass. At the tip, a skinny white pointer named Jake crouches with his forefoot up and his tail straight back, every sinew of his wiry body focused on a tiny rustle of the undergrowth. Two yards behind the dog is Ruel Cleveland, a guide employed by Quail Country Lodge, the destination hunting outfit that owns this forest. And a half-step behind him on either side, two hunters with skyward-pointing 20-gauge shotguns stand with legs apart and safeties off.
Whiskers quiver, fingers twitch along trigger guards and the moment swells with pregnant waiting. Finally, a flash of gray erupts from under Jake's snout as a bobwhite quail takes wing and all the readiness becomes action.
Cleveland instantly shuts it down.
"No shot," he shouts, throwing up his hands and freezing the shooters just as they have shouldered their guns. "Low bird."
The quail's rocketing line of flight is only about three feet off the ground, one of several off-limits trajectories that will cause Cleveland to still the hunters under his control. This particular forbidden zone is meant mostly to protect the bounding dogs. Others -- such as a bird darting directly through the group or swinging 180 degrees behind it -- are meant to shield the Jeep, the guide and the other hunters from the pell-mell sprays of birdshot that have been so much in the news lately.
"As a guide, you have to be in control," says Cleveland, 58. He's a retired technician from a Procter & Gamble plant in nearby Albany, Ga., where he helped make Pampers, Bounty and Charmin. Now, between October and late March, he shepherds gun-wielding tourists through the lodge's more than 8,500 acres of pines and brambles. "You have to tell people where to go and what to shoot. We are serious about safety here."
That was true long before Vice President Cheney shoved quail hunting onto the world stage two weeks ago with his stunningly powerful object lesson in shotgun safety. Thousands of people a year pay $500 a day or more for bird-hunting holidays at lodges surrounding Albany in southwest Georgia, the nation's epicenter of commercial quail hunting. Cheney has hunted in this area several times, as well as on quail plantations in Texas and other states.
"It used to be we went hunting in order to get enough quail for dinner that night," says Quail Country owner Paschal Brooks, 62, a practicing dentist who happens to bear a passing resemblance to the vice president. "Now people come for the camaraderie and to be outside and to watch the dogs work. We're in the entertainment business; hunting really has very little to do with it."
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A visit to Quail Country, or any of the other nearby lodges, typically begins in the late afternoon after a three-hour drive south of the Atlanta airport. Each year, visitors from Chicago to Jakarta burrow deep into rural Georgia, stepping down from interstates to country roads to the red-clay farm lane that ends at a neat and modern low-rise house in a grove of moss-draped oaks. Inside, between wings that can sleep 30 people in austere double rooms, a wood-paneled great room is lined with a dozen mighty buck heads, stuffed pheasants, turkey and quail; two stone fireplaces; and two wide-screen televisions. One of them is where a quail-hunting safety video is mandatory viewing for all new guests. The other one, jarringly, is showing Olympic ice dancing.
Most of the guests are men, although family groups are common and Brooks says more and more women are joining the shoots. With rates of $495 for a day of guided hunting with dogs, plus $115 a night for a room and three meals, customers tend to be either affluent or on an expense account, although hunt coordinator Rohn Bayman, 49, says quite a few sub-wealthy locals book a day or two a year. "It's really cheaper for them than keeping and training their own dogs," he says. A trained pointer costs an average of $2,500.
The quail-hunting routine follows a kind of industry standard from lodge to lodge, Bayman says: grits and bacon at 8 a.m., hunting from 9 until noon, followed by lunch and a couple of hours of down time. That's when diehards will go out back and shoot skeet over the pond, or when corporate groups will gather in the conference room and do enough business to justify writing off a few days of quail hunting.