Quail Magic

The bobwhite quail may be diminished among upland birds, but its spell on hunters is as strong as ever.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Hudson Reese isn't sure how long his people have been living in Halifax County, Virginia. The record suggests they'd already been there awhile in 1752, when an ancestor with a 5,000-acre land grant from the king of England recorded the first will in the new county. Reese's own father, born in 1880, was 59 years old when his fourth son came into the world.

"Mama and Daddy'd be talking about the war, and you could never be sure if they meant the Civil War or World War I," he says. He's a tall, clear-eyed man in brown overalls and a hunter-orange shirt who, along with his two sons, farms 100 acres of tobacco and another 100 of cantaloupes, sweet corn, pumpkins, and tomatoes in the rich Piedmont soil along the Staunton River. He speaks in that slow Tidewater-Piedmont drawl, which turns believe into one syllable and quail into two and suggests that everything on earth worth the having is right here within a man's grasp.

For as long as Reese can remember, the men in his family have hunted birds, which is to say quail. He caught the bug early from his older half brother, who went every Saturday during the season, always with his collar buttoned up to the neck and usually wearing a tie. A love for the land and the birds binds the generations together here. Reese believes that hunting quail -- and the pride and humility it brings -- is his grandsons' birthright.

He remembers the fat days of the 1950s and '60s, when people from the Northeast came to Virginia to find quail and could often get their eight-bird limit before lunch.

"That was when the rich hunters paid farmers to train their dogs," he says. "You'd make $50, and you'd get to hunt that dog all season, too."

Then the birds, which had once ranged as far north as Ohio and Illinois, started getting scarce. Hunters had to go down into Georgia and South Carolina, then Texas, to find them. Now the fellows who can afford it head to Mexico.

Quail hunting, one of the oldest traditions in this oldest part of the country, is dying. It's being killed by winter grasses like fescue, which creates a thick mat that quail chicks can neither move through nor penetrate to get at the bugs in the soil. It's being killed by huge monocultural cropfields, the decline of prescribed burning, and the mania for "clean farming," all of which insulate the land from the periodic housecleaning that nature intended and quail need to survive. And it's being killed by simple ignorance, by well-meaning people who buy a weekend place and a tractor and can think of nothing better to do on Sunday afternoon than to go out and tidy up their new land, clearing the old fencerows, weeds, and broom-sedge meadows so precious to bobwhites.

"We'll always have a few birds around," says Reese. "They're not an endangered species." The real danger is that they'll quietly dwindle to where they're so scarce as to be unhuntable. Then nobody will bother to train dogs. Pretty soon there'll be no one who remembers how to train dogs. And then quail hunting will pass into folklore. The closest you'll get to the old, heart-lifting magic -- a dog locked up on point and trembling, the covey exploding with the snap of small wings against round bodies as you try to pick a single target out -- will be in the county library.

Like a number of his fellow hunters, Hudson Reese is putting his money where his mouth is. He doesn't hunt as hard as he used to, preferring the company of friends and the pleasures of working Sugar, a pointer-setter mix, to shooting a limit of bobwhites. He won't shoot at a covey of fewer than eight birds. A group needs at least that many to survive on a winter's night, when the birds snuggle together, forming an outward-facing circle for warmth and protection. He leaves his own field borders uncut, plants lespedeza, clover, and rye on the fields he has taken out of rotation for a season, and has represented Virginia on the National Association of Conservation Districts Council for the past 25 years. His work has led to a close friendship with Steve Capel, a hunter and farm wildlife biologist for the state who is at the center of Virginia's ambitious new program to educate farmers about leaving some cover and planting quail-friendly crops.

The work is not all drudgery. Today the three of us are going out to see if we can't work a little quail magic. Reese opens a cabinet stocked exclusively with scatterguns and selects a sleek Ruger over/under. He lost the use of his right hand in a hunting accident 30 years ago, but by that time he was already so accustomed to aiming with his right eye that he couldn't change. Now he shoots left-handed off his right shoulder. It sounds wrong, but after you watch him mount the gun several times by his fireplace, it's clear he can make birds fall when he wants to.

We pile into Capel's pickup with two dogs in the back and head out into a bright, cool December day. During the next six hours we shred our skin and clothing on some very healthy dewberry and blackberry thorns and listen as Capel names the quail-friendly native plants underfoot: big bluestem, eastern gama grass, and Indian grass. Suddenly Capel's English setter, Punch, gets birdy. A covey of five flares 15 yards ahead of us, curving out low and left over the briers toward the safety of some pine woods.

"Don't shoot!" calls Reese. A covey this small needs all the help it can get, which does not include a dose of 71¿¿2 shot. Half an hour later, Sugar gets on a group of nine. But they flush wild and out of range. Topping a hill, we startle a roosting turkey that glides off a pine tree. A little later, a big doe bolts from a small island of cover in the middle of a field of sorghum, doing some impressive broken-field running on her way to the safety of the woods.

"There's more game around now than at any other time in my life," Reese says. "Except for quail. Twenty years ago when I hunted this land, we'd have seen seven or eight coveys by this time." We stop for ham biscuits and apples that his wife, Pat, has packed for us and drink from a pump near some tobacco barns, then make one more stop by a recently cut loblolly pine plantation now sprouting broom sedge and dewberry. A hundred yards into the place, Sugar locks up, but Punch fails to honor the point, rushing right past and scattering more than a dozen birds. Capel is embarrassed. He jams his battered cowboy hat down tighter on his head and takes the dog aside for a little chat. Ten minutes later Punch redeems himself, pointing a bird in the thick stuff. It takes wing right in front of me and I miss two quick shots at a chunky little shape dancing into the sun. The bird flies by Capel, who drops it with a boom from his 16-gauge. Soon he has a warm hen in his hand and is praising Punch to the skies, which sends the dog into shivers of delight. The bird goes in Capel's vest as we trudge back up to the truck.

"I'm sorry we didn't get more shooting in. But there are a lot of people that'll never get a shot at a quail at all unless we do something," Reese says. "I'm an optimist by nature. Nobody can wave a magic wand and bring them back the way we had them in the '40s and '50s. But we can at least have enough to keep them huntable. It'll take a lot of work, but I think we can do it."

I hope so. Magic, after all, is nothing but the masking of hard work so that it appears effortless. And it's always worth the trouble.