A walk in the woods, hoping for quail

Tim Long (left) and Ross Rames hunt quail in the Francis Marion National Forest.

Few ways remain to hunt quail in this part of the world. Fewer still involve much shooting.

You could wrangle an invitation to a high-end plantation whose owner spends a fortune every year trying to sustain coveys of wild quail. Good luck with that.

You could pay to hunt on a property where managers release pen-raised quail into fields and woods a few hours before you arrive to shoot them. Paying customers at such preserves often don't need a dog - the pointers and their handler are usually part of the hunt package.

With either of these two options, you're likely to flush quite a few coveys, run through a box or two of shells and come home with a decent bag of delicious quail.

There's another option, though, one well worth considering. You could head out into the beautiful piney woods of the Francis Marion National Forest on a free, do-it-yourself quail hunt. The season runs through March 1, with a bag limit of eight birds per hunter, per day, in that wildlife management area.

You'll need a pointer or two (or, better yet, a friend who has them), a nice 20-gauge shotgun and shells, brush pants, a blaze orange hat and vest, and all the appropriate licenses and permits.

You'll also need realistic expectations. Though wild quail really do live in the Francis Marion, coveys are few and far between. You might walk behind the dogs for five hours and not flush a single covey, and you might do this a few times before ever bagging your first bird. The forest, after all, encompasses more than 250,000 acres.

But you can zero in a covey or two . even if you don't, the woods are mighty beautiful this time of year.

Tim Long of Mount Pleasant, president of the Lowcountry chapter of Quail Forever, has been hunting birds in the Francis Marion since 1998. Long and the club's 40 or so other members work with the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources to create good brood-rearing habitat on a few dozen wildlife openings in the forest. Heavy with cover and thick with insects, such areas give bumblebee-sized quail chicks a better chance at surviving to adulthood.

The chapter also gives quail hunters a chance to network and learn from each other. (To learn more or join the chapter, contact Long at 843-324-8734 or timlong1@gmail.com.)

I recently joined Long, his two German shorthaired pointers, Dixie and Ellie Mae, and longtime hunting buddy Ross Rames on a quail hunt in the forest. Enjoying a cold, clear morning, we walked for miles through beautiful, open longleaf pine forest. We worked through thick and thin understories of bluestem grasses, gallberry, partridge pea and recently burned remains of young hardwoods. We dipped down along the edges of swampy cypress stands looking for a bonus woodcock or two, and scoured the edges of wildlife food plots planted by DNR.

Along the way, we discussed quail habits and habitats, hunting tips and dog-training techniques. We watched a few whitetails bound away, all the while admiring the way Long's two pointers worked the woods and fields ahead of us.

The dogs got birdy a few times, raising our hopes. But none of us ever fired a shot that morning, which was fine.

"This is not back in the day when your father or your grandfather went out and found 20 coveys," Long said as we tramped along. "Those days, unfortunately, may be gone forever.

"So you savor it, when you come out here. You're getting exercise, you're getting good air, you're getting away from everything. Who doesn't get their batteries charged by taking a walk in the woods?

"But of course, when you're quail hunting it's nice to find some quail. If you hunt all day and find two, maybe three coveys - that's a day to write home about."

Long concentrates his efforts on areas that have undergone a controlled burn about two years before. Such sections of the forest will feature an understory that's open enough to walk through but thick enough to attract and hold the elusive game birds.

He gives his dogs few obvious commands when hunting; they naturally work out ahead of the hunters, constantly searching for the scent of hidden birds.

When the dogs catch a scent, they start circling an area excitedly. When that happens, Long slows down and lets them completely search the area.

If the dogs point, he approaches carefully, trying to anticipate which way the quail might fly at the moment of truth.

"When they flush, they will typically fly toward a swamp," he said.

Long won't shoot if the covey flushes before the dogs find it.

"I don't shoot much, and when I do I shoot sparingly," Long said. "My goal is to see the dogs work. If the dogs point, then I'm definitely going to shoot, because that's the reward for pointing."

Long also won't shoot birds from a small covey, those with only half-dozen or so birds.

"When they covey up at night, they're going to roost in a small circle, all facing out, to guard against predators," he said. "And like anything that's on the bottom of the food chain, there is strength in numbers. Remember, if you're six inches tall on the bottom of the forest floor, you're on the bottom of the food chain."

Long says an average covey in the Francis Marion might contain a dozen birds. Often, these coveys will remain in the same area and can located over and over. He remains tight-lipped about those spots.

"It doesn't take too many hunters to keep pounding one covey until that covey starts moving somewhere else.

Reach Matt Winter at 937-5568 or mwinter@ postandcourier.com.