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Alabama Outdoors: Quail hunting preserves

Preserves bring back the glory days of quail hunting

By John N. Felsher

Nose to the ground and tail wagging, the setter bounded off into the tawny grass and stopped abruptly. Facing into thick weeds, it raised one front leg and locked up like a statue.

With the dog doing his work, my hunting companion moved off to the left as I watched for anything that might fly to the right. Bill Mooty, a guide for Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve, commanded the dog in the center. For safety reasons, we took turns with two people moving into shooting positions for each covey rise while others hung back a bit, but we all enjoyed many opportunities at birds.

Mooty gave the dog a command and suddenly, about a dozen feathered rockets exploded from the thicket to scatter in all directions. We each downed one quail and missed more birds. Some quail zipped to a nearby thicket while others glided to new hiding spots not far away.

With pressure from expanding predator populations and diminishing habitat, wild bobwhite quail nearly disappeared from many areas across its range in the past few decades. However, shooting preserves like Taylor Creek duplicate the excitement that quail hunters enjoyed a century ago by releasing birds into well-managed habitat.

“We have some wild quail, but good pen-raised birds are actually harder to shoot than wild birds,” says Keith Walker, owner of Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve. “Wild birds live in those fields and already know where they want to go before anyone flushes them. When they get up, they all go in the same direction. Pen-raised birds that haven’t been out in the wild too long don’t know where to go. They’re unpredictable when flushed and might go in all directions.”

Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve includes about 2,300 acres managed for quail in two sections near Theodore, Ala. We hunted one 300-acre section adjacent to Bellingrath Gardens. We followed the dogs through fields with high and cut grass separated by rows of pine trees. Another plot about two miles away includes about 2,000 acres of pine savannah, scattered tall pines surrounded by high grass reminiscent of the fabled quail country of southwest Georgia. Each section provides its own hunting challenges.

“Shooting in the trees gives sportsmen a different kind of competitive environment,” says Gene Duke, a Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve guide. “It’s very challenging because of the way birds fly through the trees. The shots are faster and the birds a little quicker. For anyone who ever hunted like this, almost invariably, the conservation turns to how much fun it is to watch the dogs work. When that dog goes on a staunch point and doesn’t even bat an eyelash, sportsmen come to an understanding that the shooting part is almost incidental.”

Unlike some hunts, where guides put the birds out minutes before the shooters arrive, Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve manages the habitat to enhance bird populations and periodically supplements the wild quail population with pen-raised birds. Released early, pen-raised birds link up with wild ones and learn to fly fast for cover.

“We burn the fields and mow periodically to attract birds to our property,” Walker says. “We also plant food plots and do supplemental feeding to keep birds on the property. The birds we release are slightly bigger than native quail, but they fly very well and have good wild characteristics. Some pen-raised birds of this particular cross do become wild and survive long enough to breed in the spring.”

Wild or pen-raised, these birds presented exceptionally challenging shooting. Most rapidly disappeared into thickets, embarrassing us on more occasions than I’d care to admit. Sometimes, we didn’t even get off any shots at covey rises.

“They are big, hard flying birds,” Duke says. “They are some of the fastest flying birds I’ve ever seen. The trick to handling birds so that they fly well is to not handle them. We don’t want to domesticate them so when a hunter and dog approaches, they flush like wild birds.”

A typical hunt on Taylor Creek usually lasts about three hours. Each shooter can harvest up to 12 quail, but they can pay for more birds if they wish. Sportsmen can book morning, afternoon or all-day hunts. Most hunts on Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve either begin or end with a lunch at the lodge. After the hunt, the guides quickly clean the birds on special devices set up at a processing station.

“We can’t guarantee that anyone will shoot birds, but we’ll do everything we possibly can to make that happen,” Duke says. “In a typical season, we shoot about 6,000 to 7,000 birds.”

The Alabama wild quail season lasts from Nov. 9 through Feb. 28 with a limit of 12 quail per day. However, sportsmen may hunt pen-raised birds on licensed shooting preserves from Oct. 1 through March 31.

For more information on Taylor Creek Shooting Preserve, call 251-583-4793. Online, see taylorcreekshooting.com.