The Belle of the Belt
There’s something about the Southland on a sunny morning of frost that can make a man want to sing and hunt quail. These South Georgia forests of mixed hardwoods and pines and swampy bottomland thickets were made for bobwhites, and bobwhites for them. Three hundred years ago, when forests gave way to fields at the hands of the first English colonists to settle these parts, the immigrants brought a bonanza of new foods for the plump little birds that can be a Southern farmer’s delight and a hunter’s highest avocation.
The quail thrived, yet their plenty prompted pursuit by those farmers and traditions spanning generations, with increasingly efficient firearms. When I came along, halfway through the century past, I used an Ithaca 12-gauge double-barrel my father had given me to tumble my first quail out of headlong flight as a covey of South Mississippi birds streaked from a fenceline toward the thick creek branch at the back of our farm where they knew safety awaited.
The cockbird folded like a picture and skidded on the pine needles. I felt his warm feathers, smoothed them, put him in my coat pocket and brought him back to my uncle’s farmhouse, where my grandmother cooked him with a brace of other gamebirds awaiting their hour on her stove.
Those wild birds of my youth can be hard to find in the Southland today, a dismaying development attributed to modern farming techniques and chemicals and, some believe, diseases introduced or encouraged by the release of pen-raised birds. Whatever the reasons, it’s an absence sadly felt in places where bobwhites and their ubiquitous whistles are iconic not just of hunters’ druthers but also of a sunny Southern sort of outlook that the cheerful, cheeky little butterballs seem somehow to personify.
No establishment draws more deeply on quail hunting traditions than South Georgia’s Riverview Plantation. The area around it, not far above the Florida Panhandle, constitutes the Deep South’s premiere region for lands managed with the welfare and happiness of bobwhites in mind and for the hunting thereof—sufficiently so that it’s called Georgia’s “Quail Belt.” Plantation hunting parties go back here to the late 19th Century, when trains bearing wealthy sports from the East and Midwest dropped off passengers to bag a few coveys on large spreads of their own or the estates of landowning industrialist friends before re-entraining for South Florida, where they would bag another social season in Palm Beach. But it took the Cox family, founders and proprietors of Riverview Plantation, to start a new tradition, now widespread, of commercial quail hunting in the South.
Riverview was started in 1956 by Cader Cox Jr. (“C.B.” to all), a Georgia farmer from a long line of such who’d been advised by an agricultural agent to consider using his land for commercial gain from hunters during the non-farming season. He set about doing so but discovered that Georgia had no laws governing commercial bird hunting enterprises—in all of the South, a tradition long-established in the North and West had yet to come to Dixie.
So his first task was lobbying in Atlanta for rules by which to operate. Then he brought in his first group of paying clients, putting them up at a decidedly basic small-town motel in nearby Camilla. Back then the area might best have been described as “rural.” And that’s what Camilla and the countryside around Riverview still are.
But the clients kept coming, from big cities and other countries, drawn by a reputation spreading via word of mouth. C-B soon built accommodations for his guests atop the high banks of the beautiful Flint River, then nicer ones, then a lodge. More than 50 years later a brand new lodge has arisen—warm with honey-colored wood and a castle-sized fireplace. C.B.’s son, Cader Cox III, and his son, Cader Cox IV (“C-4” to his family), run what may be the most accomplished bird hunting lodge in the South.
If things shake out the way all hope, the hunting guides work for Riverview for life. The Coxes have given their employees houses on the family’s land, which they still farm in the non-hunting seasons. The guides raise their own bird dogs—usually eight or more, to keep a fresh pair ranging around throughout morning and afternoon hunting sessions. The moment your guide stops the Jeep at the edge of a large open field surrounded by woods and lets two chosen pointers out of their riding kennel in the back, the seamlessness of skills, planning and purpose behind this whole enterprise becomes instantly clear. As does why you are here.
The dogs race in far circles to shake out canine nervous energy, slowing only to shed inhibitions along with impediments to bodily comfort before a whistle from Willie, our guide this morning, brings them in sharply to “Hunt close!”
Halfway down a wide row of planted sorghum, the dogs point. My nephew and I step from the Jeep, lift our 20-gauge over/unders out of the riding cases, load them, lock when Willie tells us to “Close ’em up!” and take our positions.
Both of us shooters will make sure that we flank our guide and stand slightly ahead of him, and we won’t swing on birds across his front or shoot behind us or toward our Jeep. Safeties stay on until the moment we raise stocks to cheeks to pull triggers. We mark both dogs’ locations before the flush. Safety is emphasized at Riverview with a zealous seriousness that communicates itself to the most blithe or willful of guests. Cader III backs up a superb safety video that all hunters watch soon after arrival with a talk at the dinner table, unvarying every year, that sobers my nephews’ faces when he tells us he once witnessed the results of an accidental discharge into a person’s torso. “Man has not devised a more lethal killing weapon than a shotgun at close range,” he warns.
A simple slip on a patch of ice could do it. Each Jeep has a number. We’ve noted ours, and Willie has shown us how to work its radio, always monitored at the lodge when hunters are in the field, in case he is injured.
“All you got to do is key that mike and say the Jeep’s number. They’ll know where we are.”
The birds bust out of the patch with the roar of feathers that can startle the most seasoned wingshooter. Six, seven, eight, nine . . . I can’t say exactly how many, but I resist the temptation to pick an easier shot and then a yet easier one as birds continue to leap into the air with unpredictable timing. It can throw you off, as it’s meant to, but I keep my bead on the first bird, drop it, swing on another and stop it, too. A mighty nice way to start what promises to be an exceptionally nice day.
My nephew misses. In an earlier year when the boys first started coming here on their grandfather’s invitation (and dime), this might have discouraged Bobby and presaged a morning’s streak of bad shooting and under-breath cursing—not uncommon with novice hunters and not entirely unknown even to Bobby’s more practiced uncle.
But the boys have been shining up their skills over the decade since this family tradition began. One by one, the four nephews who join my Dad, my brother and myself here each year in the week after Christmas have improved their shooting and their sportsmanship. They sneak in skeet, trap and sporting clays and hunt on their own in their respective states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Utah. They’ve become hunters mainly through the example of this gathering and my father, who’s still shooting with us as his 90s loom, and it’s my Dad’s largesse that has made this passing of the baton possible.
Because this isn’t a poor-man’s sport. But if you could take your family to the Bahamas for a week, you probably could enjoy Riverview with family and friends, and value for money is something the Caders all believe in and deliver.
That extends, in our experience this morning, to the quality of the birds. These first quail flush almost like wild birds, hitting the sky flying hard and sailing on for a sensible distance—most of them. A few in any given morning or afternoon will show the weak-minded predilection to flutter about and light down not far away that has marked pen-raised birds since they were introduced in enterprises such as this. Many seasons back at another preserve, I snared a couple with my cap just to prove a point.
But these are different. Most of the quail we jump require real shooting. During a conversation in his office, Cader III tells me that pen-raised specimens have improved immensely since the early days. The poultry industry noticed the growing demand and took things away from the mom-and-pop operations that had supplied birds until then, applied scientific techniques and feeds, and created a bird very much worth going into the field to pursue. In fact, according to Cader, the plantation’s shooting can be called hunting once again, even though pen-raised birds have replaced wild birds as the chief quarry. This is attested by clients visiting more and more from Texas and Oklahoma, despite those states’ famous wild-quail-hunting opportunities.
The quail we walk up to might represent new birds huddled alongside birds released at the beginning of the season or even wily survivors of hunters, hawks, bobcats and foxes from the year before. At the least they’ve been in the field for several days—long enough to covey up and find the places they like.
And not all the wild birds are gone. The third or fourth time we stop, the pointers seem to quiver more intently. Willie cautions us: “These might be wild birds, the way the dogs are acting.” Sure enough, they flush before I get my feet set, but I kill one and wing another while Bobby takes a third. Willie has marked where my birds are down as well as Bobby’s, and he has the singles pinpointed, too.
“Let’s go get your birds,” he says, “then we’ll swing back and pick up the singles. I marked four over yonder, and there’s two by that big oak. The rest got on down there in the river bottom. We can give up on them. They’re the ones who knew to keep going. We’ll never find ’em in there.”
Willie is a smart and friendly plantation veteran who tells me he has a fond memory of hunting with my father the first time he came to Riverview, in 1979. That places both of them at some certain age. Now, having known our boys for years, Willie can join me in critiquing my nephews’ shooting—which he’s helped them improve at tactful opportunities, a skillful teacher with a lot of experience aiding clients at every level of ability and confidence.
We agree that when it comes to wingshooting, my brother’s son, James, the youngest among them, is the pick of the litter. That’s not surprising, I tell Willie, because Steve is a chip off of our father’s block and the real nimrod among us, finding time to hunt and fish and teach his boy, even while managing a high-pressure financial career. On his way home from a hospital in Louisiana on the day of James’s birth, my brother made a stop at a sporting-goods store. A day or so later, when my sister-in-law brought James home, she had reason to open the trunk of their car. There lay a brand-new 20-gauge double-barreled shotgun, which Steve had long looked forward to purchasing for his son (and hadn’t mentioned to his wife yet).
James will soon graduate from college (with plans to be a geographer), and he shoots better than most men his senior. The guides brag on James’s skills among themselves, Willie confides to me, and experienced hands volunteer eagerly to hunt with him. They like his company, too.
That goes even more, Willie says, for the honor of accompanying my Old Man out in the field. Dad’s more likely to ride and observe these days, but he still unlimbers 88-year-old knee joints (originals!) and a Browning 20-gauge over/under he had custom-fit in England when a dog’s point isn’t far from the Jeep and just too tempting to pass up. It feels good to know that our family traditions have some resonance in Riverview’s institutional memory—with people like Willie.
Speaking of memory, the marking of singles and cripples is perhaps a guide’s most advanced art. I work to keep track of my downed or wounded birds, but long ago I gave up on much more ambitious mental geometry than that. Willie knows where every bird goes—or at least the direction headed when last in view.
That’s the fruit of a lifetime’s professionalism. Further, Willie has learned the knack of making his clients his partners for a great day in the field, a team in synch with him and his dogs that can bring out one’s best. He directs Bobby and me down both sides of a row of pines until a pair of birds flushes after running to the cover’s end. I shoot one and Bobby the other. I don’t know any greater satisfaction to share with a friend and loved one than clean swings and tumbling silhouettes against a blue cloudless sky, savoring the smell of cordite and pines—on a sunny morning of frost, deep in Dixie.
Author’s Note: For more information on Georgia quail hunting, contact Riverview Plantation, 229-294-4904; www.riverviewplantation.com.
Doug Lee is a writer and filmmaker who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He served his apprenticeship and early professional career with National Geographic Magazine, and more recently he has contributed to a range of nature and outdoor sporting magazines; edited and written books; and written, filmed and produced TV and video programs.
- By: Douglas Bennett Lee