By Dan Frasier
NEAR BEAUFORT, S.C. – I’d been on many January bird hunts in the past. They are blisteringly cold affairs full of layers of clothes, chocolate in the pick-up to keep your energy up and frostbitten fingers – albeit not the kind that leads to amputations; just your run-of-the-mill ‘I can’t feel certain body parts’ and it hurts so bad to warm them that I tear up. This would be considerably different. I had been invited to enjoy a January Quail hunt on an exclusive hunting club in South Carolina. Frostbite was not in the forecast. When I left the house, gear in hand, it was 7 degrees outside. Hunting birds the next day, it was 70. Funny how that messes with you.
Turkey Hill Plantation is not a lodge. It’s not a farm or an outfitter. It’s a hunting club. Think country club; complete with clubhouse, staff and equipment. Only it’s on a working cotton plantation, and instead of golf ball it’s … quail. Like a country club, you can only hunt here if you are a member or are accompanied by one. It’s all very formal. This particular plantation has a long and rich history. Purchased by the Milbank family of New York in 1939, it has played an interesting role in America’s history over the years. I strongly encourage you to check it out here.
Anyway, back to the hunt. My buddy, Tuck, had procured a quail hunt for us and two other guys. The plan was for Tuck and I to meet the other two at the club about 30 minutes before the hunt. That would give us time to get organized, attired, watch the mandatory safety video and then get to hunting. I learned before I left that there were strict rules as to the type of gun you could use: double-barreled shotguns only, 20- or 28-gauge preferred. I would be borrowing a gun. For one thing, that would make flying much easier, plus my pump action 12-gauge would get me thrown out of the club. I borrowed a sweet little 20-gauge Beretta over/under from Tony, Tuck’s father-in-law. Tony is a good friend and a true southern gentleman. I was in business.
Tuck and I rolled into the club about 10 minutes early. And by rolled into the club, I mean took the half-mile winding, 200-year-old oak-tree lined drive to the “Big House.”
This drive was quintessential Southern Plantation. Pre-Revolutionary War Oak trees draped in Spanish moss, surrounded by perfectly manicured grass. Somehow, the people who planted these trees could picture how it would look in two centuries; not a stump or cutback tree in sight. Astounding.
There really was no good reason for Tuck to take me on this slow drive through the trees to the big house (other than for my jaw to drop) because visitors are not allowed here. This is still the personal vacation residence of the Milbanks, and the big house is for them and them alone. Still, I’m glad he did. It rounded out the experience.
We turned around and made our way back down the drive, down a dirt road for a few miles and eventually up to a smallish (far more practical) building that was the hunting club offices. There, we went in, signed the proper releases, watched our video, decided not to buy the Turkey Hill branded hats, T-shirts or knives, and were introduced to Bubba.
Bubba is exactly what you are picturing him to be. Six-feet tall, substantial and has spent his life outdoors. I would have guessed Bubba was in his late 40s, but he later told me he had been working at the plantation for 35 years. After getting to know Bubba a little, I would say that the length he has worked there doesn’t make it impossible that he is only 49 or so, but more likely he is in his early 50s. Either way, I have to admit that having a man around that looked like a Bubba and was named Bubba while hunting quail on a South Carolina low-country plantation added to the experience. I mean, what else could his name have been?
Bubba explained to me that he was not our guide. Instead, he would be driving the buggy. Yep, that’s what I said: buggy. These custom vehicles used to be either a Ford F350 or a short school bus (nobody could remember which). It has been stripped to the frame, had a layer of diamond plate steel laid down as a floor with the steering wheel and pedals sticking up through it, a canopy added and six swiveling captains chairs attached. Apparently, we would be riding on this beast.
After getting that much information from Bubba, we were introduced to our guide, Canada (given name) and his non-English speaking assistant Julio. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Canada is the head guide at Turkey Hill and runs the entire hunting operation. An interesting cat, Canada had come to South Carolina from working out of Sydney, Neb., running the guiding operations for Cabellla’s. Between Cabella’s and Turkey Hill was a small stint in Jackson, Wyo., as a guide. The Jackson experience involved some stories about seedy cowboy bars and dancing celebrities. But that’s a story for another day. He would prove to be the perfect chaperone, a balanced combination of fun-loving outdoorsman and business-like guide.
Canada described for us how this hunt would go. The hunters would put their guns in the gun cases mounted on the buggy and ride in the captain’s chairs, with Bubba at the wheel. Canada and Julio would ride horses (beautiful, enormous Tennessee Walkers) in front of the buggy with two pointers out in front of them. Moose, the middle-aged cocker spaniel, would ride in the lap of whomever he pleased (it rotated) on the buggy. When the dogs would go on point, it would be because there was a covey of quail there, no question. Canada’s hat would go up and he would dismount, two hunters would get down, get their guns and walk through the covey with Canada. You would shoot what you can and get back on the buggy. It was an efficient, effective operation with the only weak spot being the shooting prowess of the sports for whom this had all been engineered. Quite a deal.
Now we have some damn good hunting dogs here in South Dakota: pointers and retrievers. But these dogs made the ones I’ve hunted with look like amateurs, and in a way they are. These dogs hunt all year, they live on a hunting club and when they aren’t hunting they are being worked. They were strong, lean, tireless and ruthlessly efficient. It was as though they didn’t have to hunt for the birds, they just ran from one covey to the next at full speed, sometimes flipping over as they would go on point while at a full run. Their momentum would actually cause them to roll, but they would come up still on point. It was utterly amazing.
So we tooled along winding little paths along the edges of picked cotton fields and through thin stands of trees. Remember, this is a working plantation, so it wasn’t like we were just driving around on roads or through fields. We had to stay on paths, but basically we were driving right where any pheasant hunter would have walked if he were hunting somebody’s farm.
South Carolina had one last surprise in store for me. As we tooled along and the dogs went on point at the first covey, I was selected to be one of the first two hunters to get a shot. I got down, got loaded and we flushed the covey. The words that Tony last said to me rang in my ears, “Hey, Dan. Don’t (mess) it up.” Ah, Southern humor. Flushing a covey of quail is like tripping the first mousetrap in a room full of mousetraps with ping pong balls setting on them. One gets up and then, in a flurry of sound and color and chaos, 30 birds explode in all different directions. Tuck told me quail would be easy for me, they were just like shooting pheasants only smaller, faster and more erratic. Thanks for that, Tuck. Anyway, we flushed the covey and it scared the bejesus out of me. Somehow, I managed to get my gun up, get a shot and bring down my first quail. This is where the surprise occurred. Once that bird was dead, the pointers had absolutely no interest in it. We unloaded our guns and Canada yelled, “Come on Moose,” and that little cocker left Bubba’s substantial lap, took one leap off the buggy and came tearing into the thick cover at a full run. In short order, he found the bird, grabbed it and took it back the buggy where he gave it to Bubba (the only person to whom he would give up his birds), and found a seat on the lap of one of our fellow hunters. Like I said, these operations were efficient, even down to the “extra” dog not being extra, at all.
We hunted the morning in gorgeous weather on beautiful countryside. The birds were there, although the coveys were a little scattered thanks to some resident bobcats that the plantation was working to trap and the hawks that harass the quail. We flushed a bunch and I shot my fair share. It was pretty clear how this style of hunting had come to be. The coveys are tight and far apart and there are not any singles in between. The only way to effectively hunt these birds it to be able to hurry from one covey to the next; covering a lot of ground, knowing you aren’t missing any birds in between. We all chatted, laughed and had a great time. At one point a bird that had been shot, retrieved and (we all thought) had his neck properly broken, miraculously reanimated and flew out of the basket we were carrying our dead birds in. And I mean FLEW… like, flew away, never to be seen again. It was the damnedest thing.
After the hunting was over, the four of us were instructed to go to the log house. Here, an onsite chef had prepared fresh build-your-own Cobb salad and some kind of chili-like soup for us. We ate, drank sweet tea and generally enjoyed each other’s company for upwards of an hour. Great company makes the unparalleled surroundings all the more special.
As Tuck and I drove away, I couldn’t help thinking, “Who has it better? The Milbanks, who get down here a couple times a year, or Canada, who gets to hunt and fish this property everyday?”
About the author: Frasier is the No. 1-ranked quail hunter in the history of TVFury.