A Royal Passion
Bobwhite Quail, the king of game birds, fuels the plantation business of Northwest Florida.
Hunters from across the globe travel each year to the pine forests of North Florida and South Georgia, a region in its heyday considered to be the quail hunting capital of the world and a sportsman’s winter paradise. Plantations that once produced cotton, turpentine or timber still dot the region’s landscape but now boast the best hunts, the best dogs and the best experience in search of the elusive Bobwhite.
Named for its distinctive call — “bob, bob white” — the Bobwhite is known as the king of game birds and is often referred to as “Gentleman Bob” because a covey will hold for a hunter before it suddenly erupts into flight. An estimated 1.7 million American quail hunters prepare each fall to seek out their quarry, anxiously anticipating their bird dog’s first point and the sound of a covey exploding out of the brush.
Most of the local plantations, which encompass thousands of acres, are private. Many were gobbled up by Northern industrialists in the late 1800s.
“The industrialization of the country’s northern cities fostered a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs,” wrote Joseph Kitchens in “Quail Plantations of South Georgia and North Florida.” “They were often immigrants, if not to the United States, at least to the new and rapidly growing cities of the heartland. Proud and successful, these newcomers were eager to participate in class traditions similar to those of Europe that had spawned their Irish, Scottish, English or other European ancestors. Perhaps the inspiration was only mild winters and great shooting, but one is tempted to think that a new American aristocracy was confirming its social station by donning the mantle of the earlier Southern gentry.”
This patchwork of private plantations continues today, but nestled in among them are a number of commercial plantations that range from a few hundred acres to thousands of acres. Most thrive on hunts booked by paying customers. Paying fees that range from the low hundreds to the low thousands per day, these hunters are the lifeblood of the plantations that offer a taste of the blueblood sport this region has become famous for.
“I remember that first quail … I was ten years old, hunting alone with my bird dog and my bolt-action .410, and I was so excited when that bird fell I ran all the way home to show it to my daddy. After suitable admiration, he asked, ‘Where’s your gun?’ It took three days to find where I had thrown it down in my excitement.” President Jimmy Carter, “Prince of Game Birds; The Bobwhite Quail”
But keeping up the plantations is labor intensive. Many owners do their own mowing and bush-hogging, getting rid of underbrush that makes it difficult for bird dogs to do their work and hinders the growth of native foliage that the birds thrive on. They plant crops that provide food for the quail and grasses that give the birds better protection from predators. Some keep their own kennel of dogs, usually Pointers or English Setters. Others use local guides who have their own dogs.
Many bought their plantations as private family retreats and then later decided to open their doors to others that would pay to share their love of hunting.
Much of the joy for the plantation owners comes in seeing multi-generational hunts and especially the bonding that takes place between fathers and sons or daughters.
That, they say, is where the memories are made.
Dan-D-Ridge is nestled among pine forests, jack oak ridges and palmetto flats near Marianna. Guests are invited to “step back in time to the old South” to enjoy some wing-shooting for quail and pheasant through customized hunting packages.
Bobby Sullivan grew up in Youngstown, just north of Panama City. With permission from neighbors, mostly local farmers, he fondly remembers the days of his youth when he and his dad would hunt fence rows and fields and “have a blast every day.”
Now a general contractor and owner of BCL Civil Contractors in Marianna, he and his wife decided to purchase more than 500 acres of local pine forest and turn it into a hunting retreat for the family.
“At first it was just a family thing. Then we started entertaining clients with dogs. Finally, I said we should do this commercially,” Sullivan said. So, four years ago he expanded his reach, opening Dan-D-Ridge Plantation to outsiders willing to pay for the privilege to hunt on his land.
“I had hunted most of the South Georgia plantations, so I took away from that what I liked and what I didn’t like. We wanted to make it a place where it was enjoyable for a hunter to shoot and see plenty of birds — instead of some plantations, where it is more show than go,” he said.
During the recession, Sullivan said, “the bottom fell out” of the hunting business. Corporate retreats and entertaining that were his “bread and butter” slowed down considerably. Now, however, while his contracting business is still running only 30 percent of what it was three years ago, “our online interest (in hunting) has increased threefold.”
Part of that, he thinks, is because of the still-recovering economy. He is getting more inquiries from local hunters, including some who may have previously hunted in Texas but now prefer to stay closer to home. Said Sullivan, “We can give them woods time with their kids and they’re not spending money out of state.” He also gets a lot of inquiries from Great Britain, but most of them want to come in the summer months, which is off-season. “And, I tell them, ‘You don’t want to hunt that time of year. I promise you, you’ll die from the heat,’” Sullivan added.
Ideally, the business should support itself year-round — and it came close last year. Right now, Sullivan says he has enough business to support the plantation’s operation during the hunting season.
Perhaps most importantly, the 48-year-old Sullivan still has time for family hunts with his 70-year-old father and his 26-year-old son.
Hunting With Hank
Any avid quail hunter knows Hank. The Llewellin setter starred on TV’s Outdoor Life Network for six seasons (67 episodes) with his two-legged partner, Dez Young. The pair hunted from Alaska to Florida, including with Ted Everett, owner of Hard Labor Creek Plantation and Hunting Preserve in Chipley. This November, Everett will host Dez Young again, but this time the four-legged partner will be Dash, Hank’s son.
Hard Labor Creek Plantation and Hunting Preserve
Located just south of Chipley, Hard Labor Creek offers quail and trophy bass fishing along with an A-frame chalet that’s open for families and business groups. Owner Ted Everett promises a 10 percent discount to any 850 reader who books a hunt and brings a copy of the magazine.
Everett has been in business for 12 years, taking nearly 3,000 acres of timberland and building from scratch to a business that specializes in the Southern tradition of quail hunting. During the season, which lasts October through March, he has about 500 people come through, most of them hunting in groups that range from two to six.
He decided to get into the plantation business after he had moved from Georgia to Florida to manage 5,000 acres of timberland. He knew “we had to turn the land into something more than just timber.” Although he had already gotten a degree in political science and studied urban affairs and real estate in graduate school, Everett returned to college to earn a forestry degree with a minor in wildlife management. Now he manages his own 2,700 acres that include an 85-acre spring-fed lake with a house that he renovated into a lodge.
“Three years ago we had a good season but you could tell it was the beginning of the recession. A year later, you knew there was a recession going on,” said Everett, 51. “But, last year it was better. There were a lot of hunters … who had pent-up hunting fever and just had to go. This year, I’m not sure yet.”
To entice hunters back, he didn’t raise his prices this year. “I know that no one’s paycheck has gone up, even though the costs around them have gone up.”
A lot of his clientele are businessmen, CEOs and retirees. Many come to watch the dogs work and enjoy camaraderie with friends, making the shooting of birds almost secondary. And Everett hires outside guides who have their own dogs, picking those he feels have the best life experience to deal with his clientele.
He named a tract of woods after one of his guides, Bill Baxley, after he retired at the age of 81. “He was one of the best guides in the state but his knees just couldn’t manage a five-hour hunt any more,” Everett said. “He still comes out and visits with me. He helped make my business, bringing a lot of business with him.”
Running a plantation is hard work.
At Hard Labor Creek, after the season ends, it’s time to do controlled burns and then plant feed plots. Time is spent on the mowers and working on roads, doing facelift work to get ready for the next season.
“It consumes a lot of time and energy. But I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t making money,” Everett said.
Pinnacle Place Outdoors
Turkey and dove hunts, fishing and weddings are the specialty at Pinnacle Place Outdoors, which is located in Alford and has a large lodge for guests. Says owner Connie Smith, “It started as a place for our grandchildren to enjoy, and we’ve been expanding ever since.”
In nearby Alford, Connie Smith owns a liquor store and the Pinnacle Place Outdoors, where she offers dove hunts, bass fishing, turkey hunting and corporate retreats in a log cabin on a mill pond. She became owner on Jan. 1, after a divorce.
Her 300 acres has a healthy turkey population — as many as 30 in one group — and that’s her forte. Most of the hunting action on her place happens in the spring. This fall, several weddings have been booked.
While it’s not a full-time job every day, on a recent weekend she was busy cutting grass, bush hogging and cleaning the lake. To keep customers coming, she tries to keep her prices low. But now, she admitted, she is mainly promoting the property as a venue for weddings and corporate meetings.
“I think people have been doing a lot of shopping around because of the expenses. Some of these plantations charge in the thousands, so I think things have slowed down a good bit. They have for me,” she said.
Hunting With Amenities
A half-day hunt followed by an afternoon at the spa? That’s part of the fare at Honey Lake Plantation in Greenville, which offers far more than the traditional rod and gun activities. Officially opening in November, the Madison County plantation is spread over 4,700 acres and is billed as a resort and spa.
Like Dan-D-Ridge, this plantation also started out as a family retreat after it was purchased by Bob Williamson.
“I had lived in the Keys for six years and was doing a lot of deep sea fishing, but then I started having a lot of problems with skin cancers and my doctor said I needed to get out of the water,” said Williamson, 64, a serial entrepreneur who has started and sold 11 businesses.
After looking at 25 plantations, in 2008 he settled on Honey Lake, which had been established as a private quail hunting retreat by Elizabeth “Pansy” Ireland Poe, the last owner of Pebble Hill Plantation in Thomasville.
“I initially bought this just for myself and my family as a place to live and retire but it’s just such a beautiful place, we decided other people would enjoy it,” Williamson said. The business started with weddings and corporate retreats and then “just kind of got away from us.”
For outdoors enthusiasts there are six stocked lakes, one of which will be set aside for fly fishing for rainbow trout in the cold months, dove fields, duck ponds, more than 100 planted feed lots to attract game birds, and sporting clays. Those who come to hunt quail can do it on foot, by wagon or on horseback.
While he’s heard that business at other plantations is off by up to 30 percent, Williamson said he is “very well pleased” at the bookings he has gotten. But he also emphasized that hunting is not the primary feature of Honey Lake.
“We do have excellent hunting, but we’re catering more to events,” he said.
Honey Lake has 25,000 square feet of meeting space, a bar, restaurant, spa, pool, three ballrooms, three boardrooms, an equestrian lodge, a lodge, a chapel, salon and pool.
Still, Williamson and his son are avid hunters and his wife, who loves to shoot trap, is interested in doing more hunting.
“There are lots of quail, lots of beautiful scenery. It’s an awesome way to live,” he said.
Conservation Is Vital
The quail population in North Florida and South Georgia is nowhere what it once was. There’s not as much habitat and much of it that does remain is not being maintained the way quail need to survive.
But those who own the commercial plantations work hard to ensure they protect flora and fauna in the region’s delicate eco-system.
At Dan-D-Ridge, Sullivan is installing fence rows to give the quail shelter. He’s planting millet and milo for feed, and love grass, which gives the birds a place to go chasing after bugs in the spring.
“We started off on a learning curve,” he said. “We were putting feed in quail feeders but the predators learned where the feeders were, and we had to put the brakes on that.”
Honey Lake Plantation
Acres of classic red-clay quail country — with rolling hills, 40-year old pines and sweeping native grasses — flow through the heart of the plantation, which also offers dove fields, duck ponds and six stocked lakes. Originally bought as a family retreat, it is a resort destination specializing in weddings and group events.
While the quail are natural prey for hawks, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons and possum, their nests are also susceptible to fire ants because the birds nest on the ground. Sullivan works with state wildlife officials on habitat restoration programs for the small birds the region is known for.
“It’s not just about hunting. We are trying everything we can to help the birds,” he said.
Everett, owner of Hard Labor Creek, was honored by the Florida Wildlife Federation as Forest Conservationist of the Year for 2006 for his management practices that have helped preserve local wildlife.
“We do a lot of (controlled) burning,” he said. “That’s one of the critical tools you use to push Mother Nature back so wildlife can survive. I was listening to quail calls early this morning and late last night, so it was a good nesting season this year for the birds.”
The burns are important to thin out the timber so that sunlight can penetrate the forest floor, enabling native grasses to grow, said Tony Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It also keeps the hardwoods from encroaching on the land where pine should be growing — the habitat that helped the quail survive here over centuries.
“It puts Florida back to how it looked when the Spanish explorers set foot on the land. Back then, when lightning hit, there would be a wildfire and it would burn until it hit a creek or a river,” Young said. “Now that everything has gotten so fragmented with development, that won’t happen any more.”
But protecting the Bobwhite has become important to hunters as well as conservationists and birdwatchers, he explained. And that concern has helped other species that may not have such a dedicated following.
“Quail is really kind of a flagship type of species,” he said. “A lot of different people can rally around the Bobwhite. And when you manage the land for what the quail like, you are managing it for the gopher tortoise, the scrub jay and the red cockaded woodpecker.”
Everett has seen plantations come and go, but he thinks competition is healthy and said one of his closest friends is getting ready to enter the hunting business.
“The way I look at it, if you are good, you will do well. But if you get content, you will fall by the wayside,” he said. “I’m always trying to find a bird that will fly better than last year’s birds, trying to find the right guides. So, it’s like any other business. You’d better pay attention.”