By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
* * *
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.
"A whole lot of business is done around this table right here," says Brooks, sipping sweet tea in the dining room. "A hunting preserve is kind of like a golf course. It gives fellows a chance to get to know each other before they make a deal."
A second hunt follows from 2 o'clock to about 5, after which it's time for a shower, drinks on the porch and dinner.
Just before 9 the next morning, guide Cleveland pulls up to the lodge with a Jeep-pulled "hunting buggy," an open wagon equipped with two bench seats over three dog pens. Cleveland, Bayman and two clients load up for a short dirt-road drive to a vast open stand of loblolly pine, one of seven separate hunting courses.
Beneath the widely spaced trees is a patchy undergrowth of grasses, grains and brambles that the birds need for cover and food. It's the kind of perfect quail habitat that used to be common along the fence rows that separated small pastures. But now that huge irrigated fields are the norm, it takes careful planting, cutting and burning to create these conditions.
The need for quail-ready conditions was one impetus for the rise of commercial quail preserves. When quail hunting on farms began to disappear with irrigation, commercial preserves cropped up to offer paid hunting to those who might not ever be invited to the elite private plantations.
"Now we're providing the habitat," says Brooks.
They also provide the quail. Commercial operations shoot far too many birds to rely on wild quail populations, and they commonly stock their lands each year with pen-raised birds. Wild quail are known to be much faster on the wing -- and harder to shoot -- than pen-raised quail, which soar out of the brush at about the speed of clay skeet. But Bayman says the best preserves will seek out the best fliers, and he points with pride at a flushed bird that flashes over the treetops in seconds.
"We want it to be as natural as it can possibly be," he says. "You don't want to provide a canned hunt."
Cleveland releases two hyperactive pointers, Jake and Dee, from the buggy pens and they instantly range out in widening circles, sniffing and snuffling through the grass. Cleveland assigns the two shooters to either side of him and they begin a slow walk behind the dogs with their two shotguns held with stocks open and unfireable. Only when one of the dogs goes on point do they snap the guns closed and slip off the safeties.
"For me, most of the appeal is just being out here," says one of the party, Charles Sykes, an RV park owner from Leslie, Ga. "Shooting at the birds is secondary."
Folks talk about the weather (which is getting wetter), the Olympics and, inevitably, about the vice president's epic mishap the week before. The consensus among those who do this for a living seems to be that the Cheney shooting was an accident, but that accidents can be avoided. Quail Country Lodge, founded in 1968, lays claims to being the second-oldest bird-hunting preserve in the area. Bayman says there has been just one shooting accident in those 38 years, a hunter who caught a blast of pellets in his leg.
"Dick Cheney made a mistake and the other guy made a mistake," he says. "Unfortunately, they made them at the same time."
Suddenly Jake goes rigid and Dee, circling behind, assumes a sort of modified point behind him. He's "honoring" Jake's point, backing him up without interfering.
The Quail Country kennel includes 26 pointers. Many guests, according to Brooks, come out without guns simply to watch them work.
"Ease up, Jake," Cleveland calls, motioning with his hands for the hunters to come even with him. Each has a clear pie-wedge field of fire away from Cleveland of 50 or 60 degrees. "The jeep is almost directly behind us," he reminds them.
Jake eases up on the clump, with Cleveland following. Suddenly the bird bursts free and wheels hard to the left, climbing quickly.
"Your bird, Rohn," Cleveland calls, and Bayman, who's taking a turn as a shooter, lifts his gun, tracks for a beat or two and fires. The bird doesn't waver. Bayman fires the remaining shell and the quail spins, tumbles a few turns and lands on the soft forest loam about 40 yards away.
Jake had started running the instant the bird flew. Now he skids to a halt and gently scoops the still ball of feathers into his mouth and trots back. Cleveland gives the bird's neck a quick twist to make sure it's dead and slips it into a pouch on the back of his orange vest. Back at the lodge, a staffer will pluck and clean the birds, freeze them and give them to the hunters to take home in insulated bags.
And with a whistle to the dogs, the hunting minuet begins again: walk forward, come together, shoot -- or not -- and repeat. Often the men can't fire at all, when the bird is low or out of their allowed ranges. Sometime they "bust a covey," a heart-stopping moment when several birds fly out of the bush, leaving novices with their heads spinning and giving experts a chance to bag two targets in a row.
After almost three hours, dozens of shots and more than 30 downed birds, they return to the buggy, load the reluctant dogs into their pens and drive slowly over the pine needles toward lunch, and a little lodge time.
Quail Country Lodge and Conference Center (1134 Quail Country Rd., Arlington, Ga., 229-725-4645, http://www.quailcountry.com) is about 35 miles southwest of Albany. A full day of quail hunting is $495 and includes guide, dogs, permit and a limit of 15 quail ($335 for a half-day). Lodging is $115 double per night or $145 for a private room, plus three meals. For a list of quail preserves: Quail Unlimited, 803-637-5731,href='http://www.qu.org'>http://www.qu.org.
Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.