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The Honey Hole

For probably the last ten years, I've hunted a piece of property south of town more often than any other tract. Convenience is a primary reason - in fifteen minutes I can load the truck at my house and be on the ground hunting - but it's been a fairly productive plot for most of those years. Hard to beat that combination.

It is a case study in the relationship between habitat and quail populations. When the owner purchased the land just over ten years ago, the paper company that owned it had come in and logged all of the accessible pine trees, leaving larger hardwoods scattered about and quite a few pines on steep hillsides and in bottoms, places where their equipment had difficulty operating. That same equipment had a tremendous impact on the remainder of the property, essentially clearing the land of sapling hardwoods and disturbing the soil, releasing dormant seed and stimulating acres of early successional growth.

For the next several years, with no other management effort, the quail flourished. I frequently spotted coveys of fifteen to twenty birds and rarely hunted without at least one productive point. After several years, however, early successional growth became some other kind of successional growth, a kind not quite as friendly to bobwhites. Sapling hardwoods grew to a size that made walking through certain areas of the property nearly impossible without a chainsaw or a machete and left the ground covered mostly in dead leaves, hardly ideal habitat. I grew to appreciate the grouse and woodcock hunters of New England a bit more. Last season we jumped a small covey on opening day and then I went the entire month of December without so much as a false point. We found a few woodcock, which made the outings worthwhile, but no bobs.

On a lark, I decided I'd try another tract of land where I'd seen a few quail and heard a few others whistling. Up until last fall, this land was farmed as a commercial nursery, growing oaks, maples, magnolias and other such trees used in landscaping. After five years, a combination of lethal business factors resulted in an August auction, and all of a sudden 120 acres of land that had been meticulously mowed and weeded almost constantly was released to early succession. Weeds, the sworn enemy of a commercial nursery, now had the run of the place and quickly redecorated to their liking.

The spring of 2003 was particularly wet in the southeast, and for a few months the weeds grew faster than the crew could keep them mowed. I recall seeing a hen and her clutch during that period, the only time I'd ever seen chicks on that piece of land. With the weeds again in control and a whole lot less daily commotion going on, I figured the odds were slightly in the birds' favor once more. Thirty minutes into the hunt, the dog locked up solid, staring left into a crosswind. I shuffled through some broom sedge in front of him, turning up nothing, and gradually moved further to each side. Still nothing, yet every attempt to release him was met with stone cold indifference. Experience being the effective teacher that it is I knew that when he had a snootful of game scent his feet might as well be bolted to the ground, but all of my walking and shuffling still couldn't produce a flush. The wind died and he reluctantly came off point, not convinced that there wasn't a bird in there somewhere. The two of us walked about twenty five yards when a covey of twenty birds exploded from a stand of three year old western red cedar. Not the first place I'd have looked for birds, but apparently there was something in there that appealed to them. I watched as they sailed down the hill, maybe two or three hundred yards, and settled in a low lying wetland area. Safe haven from the hunter.

Over the next two months I found three other coveys, all good sized, spread out on the property. The large covey from the first day took up residence in the wetland, venturing out to eat and returning to the cover during the rest of the day. I timed it right one morning and took one bird on the rise as they darted back to their shelter. Another time I found a pair of stragglers from a different covey on a hilltop. I dropped the first and in a picture perfect swing through a double I fired on the second. And missed. Such is life with a shotgun.

An enormous briar patch on the back corner of the property was home to the most elusive covey. They were masters of escape, artfully moving from one side of the briar canopy to the other, just out of reach of man and dog. Several times we arrived to find the weeds next to the patch full of scent while the sounds of a covey came from deep in the briars.

The third Saturday in February my dog found a woodcock near the north boundary of the property. Woodcock season in South Carolina is open only during January, but dogs are blissfully ignorant of time so I allowed him to relocate and point the bird several times. Approaching the third point I stumbled into a covey of bobwhite. If any of them looked back they saw me staring in wide wonder.

Bad luck for tree farmers is good luck for quail hunters, and this farm turned out to be one sweet little spot during the winter of 2005. Every time we hunted it we found at least one covey. From what I hear, the farm is slated to become a subdivision pretty soon. I took a friend hunting there one weekend, a guy who showed some interest in preserving the land as huntable bird habitat. Between talk about tree farming, coffee growing and bird dogs, we claimed a bird from one covey, but he and the owner never came to terms. I guess the birds will wander to the neighboring properties until they also become subdivisions. My standby tract south of town, another year further away from early succession, has no streets in its future, though, and I during turkey season I saw a dozen quail cross the road in front of me.

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