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Still chasing the bobwhite

James H. “Goat” Hollis and Tommy Russell after a successful hunt.

“Goat” Hollis began hunting the bobwhite 77 years ago, and hasn’t stopped since

Seventy-seven years ago, 9-year-old James H. Hollis held his 20-gauge Sears and Roebuck single-barrel shotgun close to his chest as he inched past the English pointer locked up on point, just behind a covey of wild bobwhites. As the young hunter passed the dog, an eruption of bobwhites filled the sky in front of him.

Briefly startled, but recovering quickly, young Hollis swung the barrel toward his target and pulled the trigger. A direct hit tumbled the bird as feathers floated down on a gentle breeze. “Goat” Hollis, as he is known locally, had just bagged his first bobwhite and sealed his fate as a quail hunter for life. 

Today, at 86, he is still chasing the bobwhite across the hills and hollows of Crenshaw County.

Hollis enjoys telling new acquaintances how he got his nickname, “Goat.”

“When I was 6 years old, my uncle bought me a billy goat and a little red wagon with a harness so I could hitch my goat to the wagon. I would ride my wagon, pulled by my goat, all over Brantley. People would meet me on the sidewalk and say ‘Hello, Goat.’ This continued for some time until I got rid of my goat and people kept saying ‘Hello, Goat.’ All that time I thought they were telling the goat hello, but it was really me they were talking to,” Hollis laughs.

After killing that first bobwhite, Hollis says he got his first bird dog at age 10. “My first dog was an English pointer, but over the years I have had many different breeds. I’ve hunted with English pointers, English and Irish setters, and Brittany spaniels. The best birddog I ever had was a ‘drop,’ which is a cross between a pointer and setter. You don’t see many drops today, but they were fairly common when we had a lot of wild quail.”

Bobwhite quail were abundant through the 1950s and ’60s, but began a decline in the ’70s. By the 1980s, it was hardly worth a hunter’s trouble to hunt wild birds exclusively.

“My hunting buddy and birddog trainer, Tommy Russell of Luverne, Ala., and I stock our hunting land with flight-conditioned, pen-raised bobwhite today, but we both remember the good old days of wild quail hunting. Back when Tommy and I could hold out to walk all day, we found plenty of wild birds up until the early ’80s. Tommy is still just a youngster at 84 and can still outwalk me,” says Hollis with a grin.

Both Hollis and Russell agree that the major decline in wild quail populations was due to habitat change.

“Back when I started hunting quail there were a lot of small farms with corn and peanuts and a large family garden,” Hollis says. “This situation was ideal for quail. Also, people allowed their fence rows to grow up and they burned the woods off every year or two. Again, this created ideal habitat for quail. Also, predators were controlled better back then. The disappearance of these things worked to the detriment of the wild bobwhite. By the early ’80s we began to put out pen-raised birds. Today, that’s all we hunt because wild quail are just not there in huntable numbers.”

Hollis has spent most of his life in Brantley, except for the time he spent in the army during the latter months of the Korean War. He began working at Brantley Bank and Trust in 1956 and became president in 1975. He still puts in a full day’s work most days, unless Tommy Russell calls and suggests a quail hunting trip. When this happens, he often slips out the back door, loads the dogs and heads to the field.

Hollis and Russell like to tell first-time hunting guests about the five-star tailgate meal they have planned for them. They are quite surprised when their hosts break out the bologna, sardines, potted meat and Vienna sausage with vintage Pepsi Cola to wash it down.

Today, Hollis and his guests hunt from modified golf carts or utility vehicles. Rather than “walking the birds up,” they now use a flushing English cocker spaniel, Winnie, named after Hollis’ beloved mother and owned by Hollis’ grandson, Stuart Mash Jr.

While the years have slowed their pace a bit, “Goat” Hollis and Tommy Russell won’t let a few aches and pains associated with the senior years get in the way of a good quail hunt. When Winnie flushes a bobwhite, Hollis leads the bird with his old briar-scratched double barrel and fires. When the bobwhite falls, he once again becomes that excited 9-year-old boy of 77 years ago.ν

Ben Norman writes from Highland Home, Alabama.