Jim Casada

Today’s Upland bird hunting alternative

With temperatures dropping, thoughts of those with long memories transcend the world whitetails and look back to the golden age of birds. Incidentally, most anywhere in the South the word “birds’ refers specifically to bobwhite quail, the one-time resident of fence rows and broom sedge fields Havilah Babcock described as “five ounces of feathered dynamite.”

Sadly, the day of plentiful numbers of wild birds belongs to a world we have lost and possibly will never recover (although devoted sporting conservationists and wildlife biologists continue to strive mightily on that front). The reasons for the noble quail’s demise are many and varied — ranging from fire ants to coyotes, from an abundance of nest predators such as ’coons and ‘possums to dramatically changed habitat — but that’s a subject for another day.

We have to be thankful some of the glories of Mr. Bob’s golden era remain available to us. They include the opportunity to enjoy seeing fine working dogs going about the business entrenched deep in their DNA, the enduring thrill of a staunch point, the simple pleasure of a nifty left and right when a brace of birds takes wing, or the indescribable delight of what my Grandpa Joe always called “quail birds” on the table.

The key to sampling and savoring these diverse aspects of the upland bird hunting experience lies in the emergence of shooting preserves scattered across the landscape of South Carolina and beyond. Most preserves offer a variety of experiences—opportunities to shoot sporting clays, five-stand, skeet, or other types of clay target action; tower shoots for pheasants; guided hunts for quail or perhaps a mixture of pen-raised birds including bobwhites, chukkar, and pheasants; do-it- yourself hunts using your own dogs on released birds; and more. Normally lodging and meal options can be included in such packages.

A few weeks back I had an opportunity to enjoy such an outing at one of the best-known and oldest of the Palmetto State’s operations of this type, Moree’s Sportsman’s Preserve in Society Hill (www.moreespreserve.com). A day’s experience at Moree’s soon provides evidence of why it has flourished for well over three decades. Mike Johnson, the general manager of the operation, is one of those genial souls who makes you feel like you’ve know him all your life even though you just met for the first time. In other words, he is the essence of Southern hospitality.

Mike was busy as all get-out with arrangements to handle a sporting clays fundraiser, complete with a meal and assorted ancillary activities, but he still found time to greet me warmly. We had met the previous day when I joined a small cadre of other outdoor writers being hosted by the nearby Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.visitflo.com) for a round of sporting clays. Florence will be hosting a couple hundred communicators from all across the South next year when the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association holds its annual convention in the Palmetto State since a 1991 meeting in York County, and this was sort of a trial run for that event.

Mike introduced me to an old-time bird dog man and guide, Bobby Benson, and since we both had grown up in an era when bird hunting was a sporting way of life, we hit it off immediately. Over a few hours spent following exuberant dogs, one a true old-timer in its 13 th year of life (that’s truly long in the tooth for a canine companion), and enjoyed solid points, whirring wings, and fine retrieves. The only fly in the soup was my somewhat inept shooting performance. I managed to hit a bunch of birds but missed some shots which should have been a cinch to anyone of my experience, and the fact that my 28 gauge semi-automatic seemed to recycle only about every other shot didn’t help matters.

By quitting time around noon, however, there were birds in the game bag, ample realization that I needed to be exercising more, and the welcome anticipation of quail suppers in the near future.

Staff at Moree’s had my birds cleaned and ready to go by the time I had put my equipment away and tendered my appreciation, and two nights later I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down to a supper of fried quail, milk gravy, cathead biscuits, and assorted side dishes. To my way of thinking that’s the equivalent of being at the portals of culinary paradise. Or, to borrow from the phrasing a 17 th century writer used in describing the flavor of wild strawberries, “doubtless God could have made a better tasting bird, but doubtless He never did.”

There’s no coloring the truth or avoiding reality—the preserve shooting experience isn’t the same as yesteryear’s hunts for wild quail. Nonetheless such outings have their own special joys and rewards, and my recent day and Moree’s provided ample evidence that such is the case.