The goal of the breeding program that Betsy and I began 19 years ago has always been to produce the best grouse dogs anywhere. To make our string, a dog—whether English setter or pointer—had to prove that it could find, point and handle ruffed grouse. Further, it had to point not just one bird or two, but grouse after grouse after grouse.
Since our focus was ruffed grouse of the north woods, we didn’t consider southern birds. For the past two winters, though, Betsy and I have lived in southwestern Georgia and have trained on bobwhite quail. During recent hunts on several beautiful quail plantations, we had the opportunity to directly compare our setters and pointers to those used by professional guides. It’s clear (and gratifying) that our dogs do extremely well here on these wild birds.
We think several similarities exist between grouse and quail dogs.
Wild birds in the woods.
Habitat for bobwhite quail in southwest Georgia consists of tall, longleaf and loblolly pines with low-growing shrubby and herbaceous plants. In other words, it’s similar to woods where ruffed grouse live.
A covey of 12 or more quail can be as difficult to find as a single grouse and a dog needs a discerning nose to consistently find them. While bobwhites do allow a dog to get closer, they can be touchy, especially in January and February, about the approach of the dog. A good dog points from a distance.
Desire to find birds under tough conditions.
Grouse dogs are constantly getting hit by sticks, grasses and briars and their feet take a beating from all kinds of debris on the forest floor. Too, early in the season, weather conditions are often warm and dry. Circumstances are similar for quail dogs. A good quail dog must have tenacity and desire to keep hunting when cover and conditions are tough.
Hunting range and pattern.
The wooded habitat for both ruffed grouse and quail is quite uniform and birds can be found anywhere. The key for finding both is coverage, not range. Plantations mow the underbrush in a grid pattern and a dog should hunt these strips in a forward, crisscrossing pattern at an ideal range of 50 – 100 yards.
Early in the season, both ruffed grouse and quail are easier for a dog to handle. By late season, both birds are wily and wary and use every tactic possible to avoid detection—from sitting tight to running away to flushing wild at the approach of the hunting party.
One advantage, though…
Quail do one have one distinct advantage over ruffed grouse when it comes to survival. A ruffed grouse is a loner and relies on its own individual instincts and experience. Since quail are covey birds, they are dependent on each other and usually react as a single unit. Further, the wariest bird enhances the survival of the entire covey.
For bird hunters who live in the northern half of the country, winter can be bleak. Winds howl, snow piles up and grouse, woodcock, quail and pheasant seasons (except on certain reservation lands in South Dakota) have closed. Hunting clubs, preserves and game farms are open but are still somewhat weather-dependent.
Some friends of ours leave their bird dogs at home and turn to ice fishing. Others hunker down and do their best to survive with mental capacity intact. There is another option, though.
Go south. Bird hunting seasons are still open in many southern states. Here’s just a sample.
• Arizona: Gambel’s, Mearn’s and scaled quail seasons open until February 9.
• Georgia: ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail seasons open until February 28.
• Kansas: bobwhite quail, pheasant & prairie chicken open until January 31.
• Louisiana: woodcock season open until January 31; bobwhite quail season open until February 28.
• North Carolina: woodcock season open until January 25.
• Oklahoma: bobwhite quail season open until February 15.
• Texas: bobwhite quail season open until February 23.
Jerry and I can vouch for hunting in most of these states but we retain a special feeling for quail hunting in the deserts of southern Arizona. The warm, sunny days are ideal for outdoor activities. Terrain can be a little tough, though, as cacti abound and the hillsides can be steep and filled with sharp rocks. But three native quail species, Mearn’s, Gambel’s and scaled, are striking to see, generally abundant enough and fun to hunt.
Too, evenings bring stunning sunsets behind the Tuscon Mountain range when all one has to do is decide what’s for dinner—big steaks and beer or authentic Mexican and margaritas.
Thanks to our friend and neighbor Jeff Hintz who shares beautiful photographs from southern Arizona.
Georgia is bird dog country and home to some of the finest quail dogs in the nation. A recent amateur shooting dog stake, the Henry Banks Memorial, reflected that high standard. Champions, both open and amateur, and the RU-CH in the National Amateur Shooting Dog Invitational (Heard Hill’s Queen Mary owned by Buck and Lynn Heard), were entered.
It was a privilege and an honor to be invited to judge the stake. The other judge was fellow Minnesotan Jim Tande. Jim is a friend and a former rival from our days on the grouse dog field trial circuit.
This trial was held on Burnt Branch Plantation in Ochlocknee, Georgia, which is owned and generously shared by Eddie and Carole Sholar. There were three beautifully groomed, one-hour courses through classic, piney woods country. The headquarters consisted of roofed eating area, huge fire pit (which was continually tended), bathrooms and plenty of room for trucks, trailers, horses and dogs. Coffee was available all day long and gracious breaks were taken for breakfasts of warm biscuits and hearty lunches.
It was gratifying to see a non-championship event so well attended. At times, 15 rigs were parked and up to 20 people riding in the gallery. Many didn’t have a dog in the stake—they were just out to enjoy the scenery and see good dog work. Something I’ve never seen in the north, a short prayer was said every morning before the first brace.
Pointer male Sedge Surfer (owned by Bill Perry and handled by Tim Moore) won first place. In his hour he pointed six quail coveys and ran a great shooting dog race. Second place was awarded to female pointer Miller’s Calamity Jane (owned by Mike Moses) with five finds on a difficult course. Surfer’s younger brother, Elhew G Force (owned and handled by Tim Moore), placed third with a powerful race and two impressive finds.
On a personal note, it was really fun to judge with Jim and nice for Betsy and me to see again Elhew G Force, sire of our 2013 litter by Northwoods Vixen, and the big, handsome setter male, CH Houston’s Blue Diamond (Houston x Forest Ridge Jewel), owned by Ross Leonard.
Not unlike bobwhite quail hunts, duck hunting on a southwest Georgia plantation is a complicated, carefully orchestrated, social event. In addition, preparation for the actual hunt begins months prior to the season.
Most duck hunting is done in ponds specially created by digging or damming. In spring, those ponds are drained so corn or millet can be planted in the dry beds. The ponds are re-filled in fall so ducks can easily feed on the heads of the crops.
Various camouflaged blinds are installed. Some are half-submerged, wooden structures with a below-water platform (hunters wear chest waders) and an above-water, dry ledge for shells and gear. Other blinds are built on stilts above the water, complete with walkways from land.
In this far southwest corner of Georgia, ducks could have arrived via either the Atlantic or Mississippi Flyways and include wood ducks, mallards, redheads, pintails and ring-necked ducks.
Betsy and I are renting a small cottage and kennels which is part of plantation. One evening, Langdon, the plantation’s owner, called and invited me on Saturday morning duck hunt. I eagerly agreed and Langdon then asked, “Does your Lab retrieve? Bring her.”
This would be May’s debut as a duck retriever. She is a great upland flushing dog and has been on countless hunts and training sessions with pointers and setters. And she’s always loved to retrieve. Betsy began throwing dummies for May when she was a puppy and has continuously played fetch in many lakes and ponds. We bought her from Dennis and Janice Anderson, who specialize in Labradors out of British stock.
So early the next morning, I gathered my clothes, shotgun and loaded May into the truck. Langdon, a group of friends and family members and I gathered at 6:00 a.m. at the plantation’s lodge for coffee and planning. Licenses and duck stamps were verified; steel shot inspected; and, most importantly, hunters were assigned partners and blinds in one of three ponds. By 6:30, we were heading to our blinds.
Just as it was getting light, about 7 a.m., the wood ducks started to come in from a large body of water to the east. The ducks were easy to spot but not so easy to shoot because they were backlit by the sun. The action was hot and heavy for brief time, though, and several woodies hit the water after good shots. Later ring-necked ducks, mallards and a few redheads trickled into our pond, along with some coots and mergansers. By 9:30, the sun was up, the sky had turned blue and the hunt was over.
Ducks aren’t retrieved during the hunt. Instead, they’re marked and picked up afterwards using hunters in waders and boats or dogs. So it was time for May and an English cocker spaniel owned by Langdon’s son to get to work.
With just a little encouragement, May took to it, well, like a duck to water! She first retrieved six, clearly visible, floating ducks. Several others were marked down in the corn stubble and I sent her out. May searched, using her nose, and swam back and forth several times with successful retrieves. She is now a great duck retriever!
Like many events at a plantation, hospitality plays a big part. After all retrieving was complete, hunters again gathered in the lodge to feast on a big Southern breakfast of eggs, sausages, bacon, grits, biscuits, fruit and more coffee.