The challenge of quail shooting in North Carolina
An opportunity to shoot quail over pointers in North Carolina is too good to pass up, and you underestimate the challenge of the little birds at your peril
My mentors never had anything positive to say about how our American cousins conducted game shooting. In summary, they believe US shooters “walk through boring covers, shooting with no regard for sportsmanlike conduct, tradition or safety”. I had long concluded their sentiments were nothing more than blindly patriotic and plainly ignorant lunch-break chat. But when I took part in my first quail hunt, I must admit some small taint from that childhood influence remained.
The story started with a call from Jim Stewart, owner of Longthorne Guns. “Mr Carter, I have made a quail gun,” he began. “It’s a 28-gauge over-and-under sidelock with 32in titanium barrels.”
He then asked if we would be interested in testing the gun out at its intended quarry, quail. How could I say no to that? My first point of contact was Reid Bryant, host of The Orvis Hunting and Shooting Podcast, sporting writer and all-round good guy, and a few short months later we were stateside and driving south towards George Hi Plantation in North Carolina.
Although I was giddy with the thought of hunting a new bird on a new continent, this trip so far had been a nightmare. Lost luggage, broken vehicles and snowstorms had made an already tight schedule even tighter and had put my stress levels uncharacteristically through the roof. However, pulling into the George Hi entrance, I discovered that this is one of those rare locations that refuses to let stress through the doors.
The next morning we were up early and ready for action and, over a cup of coffee and a plate full of frittata and bacon, Reid explained how the whole thing was going to work and what the safety rules were.
Quail hunting is usually done in half days, hunting one area in the morning and one in the afternoon, each with a different dog handler. The combination of dogs used is limitless, but the mix is usually one pointer and one flusher. Due to the heat, each handler will change dogs over as often as possible to prevent them from getting exhausted.
The pointing dog will work out ahead and, when it goes on point, a maximum of two shooters will step forward, one each side of the dog. Until this point, all guns must remain open and only on command of the dog handler can the guns be closed.
The shooter on the left can shoot from 12 o’clock to nine o’clock only, and the shooter on the right can shoot from 12 o’clock to three o’clock only. No quail are to be shot below the peak of your cap in height and everyone must be wearing some blaze orange, preferably a hat.
At this point I went from excited to rather nervous, and remembered what it was like before my first driven shoot day. All the training and learning count for nothing when faced with a lack of experience and the fear of breaking the rules.
Luckily, there was no time for an existential crisis, as it was time to go to our first area in the Piney Woods. Getting out of the car and gearing up, it was decided that Reid and I would shoot first, Reid with the Longthorne true 28-bore titanium and I with a full-size Longthorne Valkyrie action fitted with the 28-bore titanium barrel set, weighing in at 6lb 4oz.
Off we went up a track mowed into the thick white grass, watching up ahead as the pointer occasionally burst from the cover before continuing in his pursuit of game. When I asked the dog handler how they keep track of the dogs in this 3ft- to 5ft-high cover, he showed me that each of his pointers wears a locator collar. These tell him their distance and direction, as well as informing him when they are not moving — so likely on point. A button on the remote emits a beep on the dog’s collar, so he can give commands to the dog at ranges at which a whistle might be ineffective.
Before long, the dog was on point and it was my first time stepping into a potential covey of birds. I was nervous and although I said ‘ready’ when the handler was about to put his cocker into the cover, I really wasn’t. The covey flushed, I panicked. Reid skilfully took a bird going out to the left; I didn’t even fire a shot. The pointer indicated there were still birds on the ground, the cocker went back in and a pair of birds rose from the cover. ‘Bang, bang.’ The birds continued on to the horizon.
I broke my gun, reloaded and walked back to the track. My body was shaking, my hands trembling uncontrollably. That was a lot to take in. The first birds were totally shootable, but the part of my brain that is so well trained for ‘is it safe, it is a legal quarry species, go/stop!’ wouldn’t even let me shoulder the gun. The second shots were nerve driven, bad shots where I failed even to connect the gun to the bird.
Those little bobwhites — also known as Virginia quail — are very well camouflaged, melting into the background as they get further and further away, using every bit of wind and terrain to their advantage.
We walked on and another covey was pointed. We were instructed to walk into the dog from the front, ready, the spaniels were put in and the covey got up. Reid again got two great singles and I was left a trembling mess. I had been bitten by the covey rise.
When you are standing up on that point, gun ready, surrounded by dogs, guns and people, you are 100% present in that moment. It uses every part of the human brain and you can’t help but be addicted to the intensity of that feeling. Then a covey rises and the stimulation continues. As a hunter, you must hold your nerve, make a safe and clean shot, while looking at the rest of the world to make sure it is safe and to prepare yourself for a potential second bird. Though I was failing as a shooter, I was already in love with quail hunting.
After a pep talk from Reid, the mantra for the next covey was to hold your nerve. Calm down, breathe, pick a bird, stay with the bird, kill the bird — no different from shooting driven pheasants. We moved into the next point. The spaniel was put in and a single bird flushed. Connect, stay with it, make the move, shoot. The bird dropped cleanly to the floor and I could feel my emotions rising.
“Stay calm,” I told myself, just as a pair of birds got up, one to me on the right and one to Reid. We both fired, both birds fell, then the ultimate question after a single shot on live game presented itself to us both: do we reload and miss an opportunity or do we go with a single shot left? I reloaded, the empty case flying over my shoulder, a 21g No 8 cartridge dropping into the chamber and the action locking up with the noise only a titanium barrel can make.
A further three birds broke, one to me and two to Reid. Mine hugged the floor and the thought of a spaniel appearing out the cover held me back, but I stayed on the bird all the same, focused on its small wings and trying to predict a movement. It banked up and to the right; this was the time. I pulled through the bird, accelerating the Longthorne up to speed and pulling the trigger at a point that felt like it was going to be a miss. The bird fell, much to my surprise.
The next few coveys went well, with a few misses and a few hits. Emotionally drained at this point, I stepped out to give Jim a chance to experience this sort of hunt. I had expected this to be good, but not this good. This is much more of a hunt than a driven game shoot; you pay acute attention to the dogs to see if they are getting ‘birdy’, you quietly get into position and work as a team with the other shooter to ensure you make the most of a cover rise.
In between these moments of intensity you are treated to a calm, full day. With this gun, at this place, with these people, I was in paradise. This is something every English sportsman should try. I promise that you will end the experience fulfilled, tired and converted to quail.