The most popular upland game bird in the country—by a hefty margin—is the bobwhite quail. Each year, from late fall to early spring, more upland hunters go after quail than after any other feathered quarry. But of all the nation's numerous shooters, only a small and select handful are ever fortunate enough to savor quail hunting as it is pictured here on L. B. Maytag's 14,000-acre Sedgefields Plantation near Union Springs, Ala.
At Sedgefields, quail hunting is more than sport—it is a rite renewed each season with all the pageantry of its antebellum past. The procession of scouts, handlers, grooms and gamekeepers is as vital a part of quail hunting at Sedgefields as the hunter himself. Even the dogs perform with the style and enthusiasm of professionals. But the stars of the drama are the quail, and at Sedgefields they literally make up a cast of thousands.
"Quail are our business," Sedgefields' manager for the past three decades, George L. Harden Jr., told me when I visited the plantation. "They're a crop just like cotton or corn or potatoes, but here they're our only crop. Everything else we grow, everything else we do to improve the land, that's all for the quail. We're in the business of raising birds, and you might say we're the best in the business."
You might also say that this is not accidental. The production of birds at Sedgefields is as conscientiously and creatively managed as the production of washing machines at the Maytag plant in Iowa. The plantation employs some 25 people, many of whom are the second or third generation born on the land. Each year well over 200 miles are planted with sesbania, lespedeza, corn and other bobwhite foods to supplement the natural broom sedge and fennel that grow in profusion everywhere. The plantation's thousands of acres of carefully rotated cover, interlaced with patches of pines, hardwoods and hundreds of creeks and streams, provide exactly the protection and habitat quail need to prosper.
Quail populations are usually figured in terms of birds per acre, a purely statistical measure since single quail rarely stray far from their brethren, preferring to congregate in groups of a dozen to 20. However, the covey customarily remains within a fixed territory, which makes counting the number of birds and keeping track of their general whereabouts considerably less difficult than it might appear. Sedgefields produces 1.5 birds per acre, which is probably the highest natural bobwhite yield anywhere in the U.S. today. It is more than four times the yield of both pheasants and partridges in Britain, where one bird to every three acres is considered excellent.
There were always plenty of quail at Sedgefields, it is true, even before L. B. Maytag bought the land in 1928. The abundance of birds, in fact, was what sold him on the place during his first visit to Union Springs. He was there from Colorado to attend a local field trial being run on the property. After watching a dog named Sun Ray point nine coveys of quail in 15 minutes, he was so excited by the land and its game that he did not wait to see the end of the trial. Instead he went to the Union Springs bank and began buying up acreage. The bank, as well as most of the townspeople, looked upon the whole operation with benign amusement. Anyone not only willing but eager to pay as high as $20 an acre for idle land was obviously another Yankee gone mad in the Alabama sun.
With Sedgefields now worth somewhere between $500 and $1,000 an acre, the rewards of such madness have proved substantial. But making a million (or 10 or 12) in real estate was never Maytag's goal. The only rewards he has ever cared to reap at Sedgefields have been not profits but the pleasures of the field. Over the years these have been considerable.
Maytag has seen the National Shooting Dog Championship, which he helped found at Sedgefields in 1950, emerge as the premier field trial of its kind in the U.S. Today it is not only the nation's most respected and distinguished shooting-dog stake, but it is also the largest and best attended.
A gallery of more than 400 mounted spectators followed the 1966 running last March, and some 1,500 people turned out for the opening barbecue, an annual event that is as eagerly anticipated as the fine bird work afield. For the entire week of the trial the spirited holiday atmosphere at Sedgefields spills out into Union Springs and the surrounding country. Shops close, schools let out early and everybody joins in the fun.
About the only activity Mr. Bud (as Maytag is called by his friends) enjoys more than the National Shooting Dog Championship is actually shooting quail. His skills with a shotgun are legendary. For years he tested himself and the credulity of his hunting companions by trying to shoot only male quail, a feat comparable to going fishing and trying to catch only male bass. His record for a single season stands at 710 birds, of which only three were females. "Of course, there is no ecological reason for sparing females," Maytag points out. "About 85% of all quail die each year, whether or not they are hunted. Nature takes what the gun leaves. There is no way to stockpile birds, male or female. That is why hunting is such a vital part of quail farming."
Until recently Maytag seldom missed a day of quail hunting at Sedgefields during the season. He is troubled by arthritis now, but this has not slowed his reflexes on a covey rise or dulled his incredible eye for spotting the white-throated males in a bunch of birds. It has forced him to give up hunting from horseback as he did for most of his 78 years. Instead he rides along on a specially built buggy, shooting from it when he is alone, content to watch others hunt when he has guests.
A day at Sedgefields begins with a breakfast of buttermilk pancakes, bacon, eggs, homemade biscuits and a selection of jams and jellies worthy of a church bazaar. Like everything else about Mr. Bud, it is solid, hearty fare—no frills, no fancy trimmings and no tiny crustless slivers of dry toast.
The main house at Sedgefields is as unpretentious as its master. Unlike that at Mrs. George F. Baker's Horseshoe Plantation near Tallahassee, Jock Whitney's Greenwood at Thomasville, or John Olin's Nilo near Albany, it is neither columned nor capacious. Rather, it is a rambling, clapboard, one-story affair, simply furnished, marvelously comfortable and obviously lived in. It is the kind of house in which a hunter would not be disgraced to wear his boots, and where he can always be sure of finding some very old bourbon waiting for him on the pegged-wood bar at the end of the day.
The kennels, about 200 yards from the main house, are also white clapboard, trimmed with green. Although there are fewer dogs now than when Maytag went out after quail every day, the kennels still house some 15 finished pointers and setters and about twice that many for breeding and training. George (Bubba) Harden III, who, like his father, has spent his lifetime at Sedgefields, is in charge of the kennels and the stable of walking horses. Although Maytag can no longer ride himself, he has adamantly refused to go along with the jeeps and pickups that have replaced horses for quail hunting on most other plantations. This even applies to his shooting buggy, which is pulled by a matched pair of great black mules.
There are never more than two guns on a proper southern quail hunt, although the size of the caravan suggests a full platoon. A man could, it is true, go out at Sedgefields as he might at home, with only his dog for company, and he would doubtless shoot a limit of birds, but he would miss the real flavor of the sport. For the Old South formalities of plantation hunting are what make shooting at Sedgefields so memorable.
When I shot there, for example, there were grooms for me, for my hunting partner and for George Harden Jr., in addition to George III, who handled the dogs, two scouts, a driver and an attendant for the shooting buggy. Mr. Bud and his good-looking brunette wife Elizabeth rode along in the wagon to watch. All of Sedgefields' 14,000 acres are hunted each season. The area is divided into courses, each of which is hunted for an hour and a half, with a different brace of dogs worked on each course. Normally two courses are shot over each morning and two each afternoon. Between the second and third courses there is always a picnic lunch served somewhere in the field or, when the weather is bad, before a big stone fireplace in the new clubhouse.
It was exactly 9 o'clock when George III took two pointers from their boxes on the shooting buggy and set them down, yelping and straining at their collars, on the first of the morning courses. He held them side by side for a brief moment, then released them. They lunged forward, bounding across the yellow fields of sedge, eager for the scent of birds.
We followed, our horses moving at a brisk, steady walk, our order carefully prescribed by protocol. George Harden, who led the hunt, went first. A few paces behind him, George III and the scouts rode abreast, never taking their eyes from the dogs quartering the fields ahead and to either side of us. Plantation pointing dogs range wider and move faster than most dogs used by foot hunters. This means they cover more ground, but in doing so a dog occasionally gets out too far and disappears from sight. When this happens it is the scout's job to find the dog and direct it back on course.
As one of the guns, my place in the procession was just behind the scouts, followed by the grooms and the shooting buggy. It was a perfect morning, crisp and clear, with the hint of winter in the air and a bright, blue sky overhead. Riding leisurely and relaxed through stands of long, thin pines and rolling fields of burnished grass, my thoughts wandered lazily from quail to a dozen other things. Then, up ahead, Harden stopped. He raised his hand to his hat, the fingers just touching the crown. This meant a dog was on a scent but had not yet located the birds. I could see the dog sniffling the sedge with agitated, erratic movements, his nose and body close to the ground, his tail waving like a baton.
Then, abruptly, he stiffened, freezing in midstride, a forefoot poised, his body rigid. Harden raised his hat high in the air, and the deep, resonant call, "Point," rang across the morning.
In unison we galloped toward the dog, stopping yards from where it stood in classic pose. I slid from the saddle and pulled my gun from its scabbard. A groom came forward to hold my horse. Harden was already on foot. He stepped back, motioning me to go ahead of him. I loaded my gun and began moving in, my eyes fixed just above the tangled sedge in front of the dog. Again I felt the surge of excitement that inevitably accompanies the suspense-filled moments before the birds burst from the cover.
The noise of a covey rise is always startling, always unexpected, even for experienced shooters. Suddenly the air is filled with whirring, whirling creatures, shapeless blurs that seem to wing in a dozen dizzying directions at once. A hunter who can shoulder his gun, single out a target and fire at it amidst such confusion has earned the right to call himself a quail shooter.
It is not even essential that he bring down a bird to claim the title. Part of the unending fascination of the sport is that even the best quail shooters sometimes bag only air. The reasons for missing quail are legion—the day was too hot or too cold, the birds were too tame or too wild, the gun was shooting too high or too low, the cover was too thick or too sparse. The true measure of a quail shooter is not the number of birds he hits, but the number and originality of reasons he has for the ones he misses.
A hunter at Sedgefields conceivably can miss quail out of as many as 40 or 50 coveys in a single day. When I hunted there, shooting over two morning and two afternoon courses, I saw at least that many coveys daily. In fact, the quail at Sedgefields were so numerous that after a while my shotgun got tired of shooting at them. Every now and then it just refused to hit one.