Quail in Carolina
Could anything be finer than to be in Carolina? Mike Barnes goes in pursuit of quail at Brays Island.
It's a hunter's paradise.” Driving me from Savannah airport to Brays Island, the journey of less than an hour, 60-year-old James Harvey had no doubt about it and gave me a guided tour of the many reasons why South Carolina is a place apart. Blue skies, beautiful landscapes, big beaches, perfect climate, doves, deer, rabbits and (the reason I'm here) Bobwhite quail.
Not forgetting fantastic fishing and especially our destination on that gorgeous February afternoon – Brays Island.
James was just the perfect one-man welcoming committee. He has been a hunter all of his life in South Carolina and now enjoys the companionship as much as the sport and leaves much of the hands-on action to his son and grandson, both chips off the old block.
I have for many years harboured a desire to sample quail shooting and all that it entails. Fifteen years ago I received an invitation from a wonderfully generous reader to join a quail hunt in Florida. But I couldn't make it. Just impossible. Then nothing. I could have made it happen but for one reason or another I never did. However, last autumn in an exchange of correspondence with Jan Roosenburg, as an aside he invited me to try it for myself. “I think you'll enjoy it,” he wrote. I jumped at it. He also added that if I came during the first week of February then my visit would coincide with the 2014 SCI show, the huge sporting convention in Las Vegas.
The dates were good and back at Fieldsports there was a big green light.
I was intrigued, for several reasons. I visited South Carolina 20 years ago and loved it. Savannah, Charleston and Beaufort – all delightful places to visit. The Spanish moss which hangs from the roadside oaks, forming archways over the roads. The wonderful old colonial architecture. The warmth of the people. And the sport.
It added up for a great trip, but what would the shooting be like? We are rather spoiled in the UK. We have lots of really high quality driven game shooting, so consequently those with no first-hand experience of shooting in the States tend to speak rather sniffily about it. “I don't like to shoot birds up the bum,” is the kind of response you get. So I keep quiet.
Bobwhite quail – like a small partridge
The other intriguing aspect of my trip was of course Brays Island. I'd heard much about this one-time plantation, but I'm happy to say that nothing prepared me for the reality. For it is absolutely unique – there is nothing like it anywhere, even in the USA. Yet it so nearly never happened.
To go back a little, Brays Island was discovered in 1663 by British Commander William Hilton, after whom Hilton Head was named. Brays, meanwhile, was named after Indian trader William Bray who was killed by Yemassee Indians in 1715.
Then followed some successful years of growing cotton and rice, providing for a fashionable lifestyle for the plantation owners who also showed great taste in the architecture of the time. But the Civil War brought devastation to the area as General Sherman made his ‘march to the sea' torching all that was in his path.
Brays has had various owners, but the most significant was Sumner Pingree who bought the place in 1963, after being kicked off his 85,000-acre farm in Cuba by Fidel Castro. Pingree farmed Brays Island for a further 25 years but, because his heirs had no interest in farming, important decisions needed to be made regarding the plantation's future.
Most property owners at that time, when faced with the same difficult decision, opted for property development. Condo world. Not Pingree. To him Brays was precious - there was no way he was going to let it go. So together with highly respected landscape architect Robert Marvin, they came up with a unique concept, both architecturally and financially.
As a result, Brays Island is today debt free and fully controlled by the property owners themselves. Moreover, many features which made the place so appealing (both natural and man-made) are still in place and in many instances better than ever.
So what's the concept? It's simple but clever. Part of the estate is divided into 325 circular one-acre plots, so everyone has space and no one can put two plots together to create one property. Each house is built in a variant of Southern style with a proviso that it is largely surrounded by trees so that the risk of design clash is dramatically reduced.
Of the 5,500 acres, some 3,500 are devoted to ‘hunting fields', so while the residential areas are spacious, the woods and fields are in a truly natural state.
Looking after the sales of plots and houses are Perry Harvey and Paul Burton. Perry had been in real estate for 30 years at Aspen when he came to help in 2001/2. The other half of the partnership is Paul, a South African who studied law before falling for an American girl and following her back to Carolina. Both men are keen Shots, and Paul is also a fanatical fisherman. They clearly love the place.
The whole set-up is done to perfection – casual elegance is the perfect description. Yes, there is a gun club, but not as we know it. The clubhouse is built in plantation style, smart in and out. There is a sporting clay course with 15 stands designed by Holland & Holland, plus rifle and pistol ranges. Fishing, both freshwater and salt, with bass, mullet, flounder, redfish and many more – there are lots of ponds and lakes, as well as the river which runs out into the Atlantic. A great golf course too. And then there's the hunting – deer, doves, and quail.
So was it bum shots – how could it have been sporting? It was definitely sporting, big time.
I was there for three days (two and a half to be precise – the other half was spent fishing). On the first two we were at Turkey Hill, accompanied by a couple of guys on horseback. They led us into the hunting field, one of many designated for quail shooting on any given day, Sunday mornings excepted. Our party rode out on a converted wagon (we all sat on swivel chairs) and our leader on horseback was Canada Smith, estate manager and a serious authority on quail hunting, who joins parties as often as possible – he is a very busy but likeable man.
The converted wagon
The quail shooting season is October 15 to March 15 (earlier if very warm weather), only two Guns to shoot at one time and with the exception of wagon hunts, there is a limit of four Guns in the field. Orange hat, vest or coat is compulsory. Safety considerations are paramount – semi-automatic guns are not allowed, all guns are kept open until prepared for the covey flush and there is no shooting behind, sideways or at low-flying birds.
So how was it? Good. Very good. Having been totally seduced by my surroundings, the warmth of the welcome, and the kindness of my host Jan and his lovely wife Nina, I was primed to savour what was about to unfold.
As ever, company is important and our party could not have been better. In addition to Jan and myself, we were joined by Mike Fitzgerald of Frontiers, Wilson Young (and wife Isabelle) of Eskdale Sporting, who has a number of American clients who are regular visitors to his shoots in the Scottish Borders, and Holland & Holland MD Daryl Greatrex.
The first day was an unexpected bonus. Brays Island resident John Oliver gave two spots on his afternoon quail hunt at nearby Turkey Hill Plantation – we were joined by his good friend Toby Hatfield. The hunts are booked for morning or afternoon and typically there are bag limits of 25 quail per hunt. Lunch of Brunswick stew at the old plantation house set us up for an afternoon's sport. Jan quite rightly nominated Wilson and Daryl to shoot on behalf of the visitors, wisely as both were experienced as we were soon to witness.
The wagon gives a great view of proceedings. Out front, the riders were tracking two English pointers who, in classic fashion, were soon on point. The pair's heads were locked in the same direction, craning forward while their tales were pointing vertically at 90°. Scrub at the base of the trees and in fairly open woodland clearly held quail. The dogs knew it. One of the riders raised his hat, the signal for two Guns to come forward. Wilson and Daryl stepped down, collected their guns from the vertical racks at the front of the wagon and moved forward to position themselves at the ready on either side of the dogs. When all were in place the pointer handler urged them forward. Nothing, and then… quail burst in all directions. Quick, silent and sudden. As I was to discover, birds which in paintings look like hanging grapes, in reality were like sparks. Up in a flash and gone, it was genuinely exciting stuff and while the birds may not have been wild, there was nothing tame in the way they looked to escape. The shooting was also further challenged by safety requirements: “This one, that one – is it safe to shoot?” The thought process went into overdrive. Both Wilson and Daryl distinguished themselves opening their accounts. As the day unfolded, each Gun took their turn.
On point... Daryl Greatrex & Wilson Young at the ready
Increasingly, I fell for a form of the sport which 200 years ago was how it was done in Britain – sporting prints on pub walls bear testament to the way things were in the UK – yet sadly on English soil there is now little scope for the wondrous work of pointers.
The preferred gun is an English 20 or 28 bore but further down the scale Browning and Rizzini are also popular in small gauges.
The pattern was set for the next two days which became all the more special when clouds peeled back to reveal a deep blue sky. We took our turns, and as Jan said, spotting a huge grin on my face at the end of the second day: “You really don't have to shoot a lot to enjoy yourself”. He was absolutely correct, but in fact I had plenty of shooting – admittedly, not always straight, but it didn't matter.
We shot at Brays Island itself on the final day where we took the walking option (i.e. no wagon). Just Paul Burton, Perry Harvey, dog handler Chad McClure and myself. The hunting field on this occasion saw us shooting largely over broom which was abnormally high. Little wonder then that Chad used satnav to locate his dogs. GPS has been embraced in a big way in the US.
It was pretty idyllic – the sky again both blue and clear, the temperature around 70°F, the colour of broom set against sunlit woods of oak and pine – it all made for the most perfect setting and with a soft, stirring breeze the shooting was excellent, the birds finding the wind and using it to best advantage. Yes one or two bum shots, but other sharp crossers and a 40 yarder reminiscent of angling teal. Basically
a bit of everything. Then back to the Plantation Inn for a bite of lunch, followed by fishing… another story for another time.
James took me back to the airport on Friday morning. “You're right,” I said to him, “it really is a hunter's paradise”. Indeed, nothing could have been finer.