Americans have a love affair with the dog. Granted, in recent years the cat has eked out the coveted spot as the most popular four-legged pet. Nonetheless, at the risk of offending cat lovers, dogs still lay claim to the title of “man’s best friend.” Dogs and humans have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship where each party thrives on the companionship and esoteric benefits thereof. Conversely, cats thrive on having well-trained staff—their owner—largely based on the need for personnel with an opposable thumb to operate a can-opener.
Since the beginning of time, dogs have been bred and trained to perform countless specific, harrowing, dirty, thankless, invaluable and essential tasks that improve both the quality and enjoyment of life. Hunting is one such activity where dogs truly hit their stride. Granted, cats also like to bird hunt but they generally prefer to hunt alone and definitely not with a human pointing a shotgun in their general direction.
Residents at The Ford Plantation do their winged hunting at the nearby Dorchester Shooting Preserve—5,000 acres of resplendent quail and pheasant habitat. Tender-hearted shooting enthusiasts can also help control the American clay pigeon population explosion at Dorchester’s 15 station sporting clays course, but to date, they haven’t trained a dog to retrieve bits of flame orange clay disc.
Different kinds of hunts require the unique skills of different canine breeds. For instance, hunters of waterfowl such as geese and duck will generally do well to hunt with retrievers whose primary skills and genetic attributes favor webbed-feet for swimming and thick undercoats for insulation from frigid water. Upland hunters of quail and pheasant will be most successful with the assistance of dogs adept at tracking, pointing and flushing birds.
The hard-working bird dogs at Dorchester are English Cocker and English Pointer—each bred to perform different roles during a hunt. All have been bred from English stock and trained from the youngest age by Dorchester’s award-winning trainer Tommy Hagan to track, point without flinching, and then flush a covey into the air thereby making the birds fair game for the hunters. During a half-day outing at Dorchester, it’s not uncommon for hunters to see 200–300 birds—but every hunt is different and where nature is concerned, anything can happen.
A typical quail hunt lasts three hours. Two hunters are accompanied by a guide, working with a brace (team) of dogs consisting of two Cockers and one Pointer. The brace works for approximately 20 minutes before being relieved by a second brace with fresh legs. The skilled guide advances the group through the expansive preserve driving the Pointers ahead. Once the Pointers hit on the quail scent, they will remain fixed in place completely motionless. Then upon command, the Cockers rush in to flush the covey into the air—all are unfazed by the gunshots. After the Cockers have successfully flushed the covey, they scan the sky for falling birds and shift their role to that of retriever.
One thing is guaranteed, with more than 100,000 birds on the preserve during the season, quail hunting at Dorchester is among the very best in the South. The private preserve provides the ideal quail habitat with ample ground for bevies of quail to forage among the sparsely populated pine forest. “The terrain is so unique [at Dorchester Shooting Preserve],” says Ford Plantation resident Bill Evans. “Typically you only find quail habitat like this in western Georgia, the Florida panhandle or Texas which means a day of travel, a couple days to hunt and a day to get home. But I can leave the Ford gate, be at Dorchester in 30 minutes, hunt for half a day and be home that night,” adds Evans.
In fact, Evans specifically chose The Ford Plantation to be closer to Dorchester where he often hunts with his own dog, an English Cocker named Renegade. “Hunting with Ren makes the experience more enjoyable for me—actually for both of
us,” states Evans. “When we’re about two miles away from Dorchester, Ren can sense it and starts howling.”
Cooler weather in October ushers in the much-anticipated beginning of quail season that will last through March. Despite intermittent distant gunshots penetrating the silence, and the heart-pounding excitement of flushed birds taking flight, being immersed in the solitude of a sparsely forested game preserve is wildly peaceful. Watching a brace of dogs guided by their keen olfactory sense creates an extemporaneously choreographed canine ballet before your eyes. This part of the hunt is surely akin to watching a painter coax a blank canvass to life, each stroke guided by some invisible force that draws the artist nearer to a surprising reveal.
For many members at The Ford Plantation, like Bill Evans, being on the Dorchester Shooting Preserve is the pastime of choice for a variety of winged hunts in season or to enjoy 15– station sporting clays. Even for those who may not be seasoned shooters but love to be outdoors in the fall, a quail hunt is an unforgettable bucket-list item to experience—the only thing anyone needs to have is enthusiasm. The Dorchester Shooting Preserve team has the equipment and expertise to introduce you to a fun new activity. You may even be able to bring your own dog to begin learning new skills (you’ll likely want to leave the cat at home).