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Bobwhite In The Brush

One minute a wild-eyed, drooling, hard-charging English Setter named Bo is ranging far and wide, combing a clearing amid stands …

One minute a wild-eyed, drooling, hard-charging English Setter named Bo is ranging far and wide, combing a clearing amid stands of slash pine, red oak, and magnolia trees; the next he is frozen in space, his nose trained on a clump of brush about 15 yards away. Having dismounted from our horses, and loaded our 12-gauge, double-barreled shotguns, my compatriot and I advance cautiously, escorted by the hunt master, who rhythmically beats the ground with his riding whip, seeking to flush the first bobwhite quail of the afternoon. My sense of anticipation is keen: This would be my first wing shot, and the taste of last night’s feast of pan-fried quail with sweet-potato casserole remains on my tongue.

Suddenly, a half-dozen birds burst from the turf like tracers, briefly moving in formation, then peeling off sharply in different directions. I freeze momentarily like a teenager catching a glimpse of his prom date, beset by a mixture of panic and awe. The safety on my rifle snags, and by the time I fire, it’s too late. A puff of smoke disburses, and a few feathers flutter to the ground: My partner’s #8 birdshot came close but failed to find the mark. We snap open our rifles to eject the empty cartridges and head back toward the horses. The compassion I felt for the pigeon-sized creatures .at the start of the hunt fades, replaced by respect for cunning and instinct, and the knowledge that I had been bested in one of mankind’s oldest pursuits-putting dinner on the table.

“Don’t feel bad,” says R. Charles Loudermilk, chairman, president, and CEO of Aaron Rents, an Atlanta, GA-based furniture rental and sales operation and the host of the hunt. “I remember the first time I saw a covey rise, I was so surprised at the sight, and the sound of the wingbeat, that I didn’t even get the gun up to shoot. I don’t know of a hunter who doesn’t get a tremendous thrill every time they get one.”

There are 10 of us out in the field, friends and business associates of Loudermilk. We’re kicking around on horseback on his 4,600-acre Woodhaven plantation near Coolidge, GA, about an hour’s drive north of the Florida panhan dle and an hour’s flight southwest of Atlanta. Loudermilk bought most of the land in 1983 and has added several contiguous tracts over the years. The compound, which encompasses guest cottages, riding stables, a trap range with clay pigeons, and lakes stocked with largemouth bass, is available for private use only.

For some time, Loudermilk hunted in the area on leased land with a group of fellow Atlantans under the auspices of the Peachtree Rod and Gun Club. Having founded Aaron Rents in 1955 with a $500 loan, Loudermilk took the company public in 1982. With operations in 21 states and sales of $185 million in the fiscal year ended March 31, the company is the largest of its kind in the U.S.

“One of the main reasons for the IPO was to get some cash to buy this place,” he says, surveying Woodhaven’s rolling slopes and fields of peanuts, cotton, and winter wheat. The estate also is the base of his thriving cattle business, which features the hardy French Limousin breed. “None of the Peachtree boys could afford to buy a plantation,” Loudermilk says. “If you’re building a company, you continually invest and reinvest, and you never have any cash. I was 55 years old when we went public. I decided to enjoy life a little bit.”

Wing shooting is a passion for Loudermilk, who says he’s never done any other kind of hunting. Over the years, it has carried him to distant corners of the globe. He’s pursued doves in South America, ducks in Denmark, and grouse in Scotland. “Going for Scottish grouse is really exotic,” Loudermilk says. “There’s lots of tradition involved. You shoot in a coat and tie and live in a manor house.”

But Loudermilk finds the bobwhite quail in his native Georgia to be the toughest challenge of all. “They’re probably the fastest bird I’ve hunted, so you have a very short time to shoot,” he says. “With most other birds, you see them for some distance as you approach on foot, but with quail, they flush, and when they do, it’s just a matter of seconds until it’s over. And even though you’re expecting the flush because of the point of the dog, you don’t know quite where it’s going to come from. It can come from right beneath your feet, or behind you, or from either side, or in front of you.”

Despite the challenges, quail hunters have it relatively easy: While grouse hunters trudge through thick briars, and pheasant shooters often slosh around in swamps, most quail hunts take place on horseback or mule-drawn wagon with the participants only stepping down to pursue a point. Quail hunting long has been a rite of passage in the south. It was enjoyed by the founding fathers of the Confederacy, and often it is a pastime passed down from father to son. “My daddy taught me to shoot when I was growing up in Texas,” says Ricky Thedford, Woodhaven’s manager, who generally serves as master, or guide, of expeditions on the plantation. “Except we didn’t have bird dogs. We’d kick them up ourselves along creek banks just by beating the brush.”

It is the work of the dogs that Loudermilk finds particularly spellbinding. The hunting string-the dogs selected by the master for a day’s work in the field-usually consists of German short-haired pointers, English setters and pointers, and an occasional Labrador retriever. Each breed has strengths and weaknesses, Loudermilk says. German pointers, close-working dogs without a great deal of range, generally are deployed when hunters travel by foot. English setters’ longer coats afford them protection against briars, though they become a liability in warmer weather. At Woodhaven, a yellow lab named Sugar is called into action to retrieve downed game because of her “soft mouth,” Loudermilk says.

To be sure, there are as many dog stories as there are quail hunters. Loudermilk recalls having been given a dog by Rankin M. Smith, principal owner of the Atlanta Falcons football team, the owner of a nearby plantation, and an ‘Original member of the Peachtree club. Smith also serves on the board of Aaron Rents. “Rankin gave me a dog, and it was the meanest dog I’d ever seen. He’d bite through the fence in the kennel to get loose, and he’d jump over the fence to tussle with the other dogs. We constantly were carrying him or some of the others to the veterinarian to get stitched up. So I told Rankin, The dog you gave me has a great nose, and he really loves to hunt, but he’s real mean.’ He told me, ‘Charlie, you gotta remember that no one gives you a good bird dog.’ That’s a lesson I never forgot.”

The southern quail population has thinned considerably since the turn of the century, Loudermilk says, partly because of agricultural changes in the region. Once a land of small farms with crop fields and pastures separated by weedpatches and brush-which quail find essential for nesting, feeding, and hiding-the modern South has become an unbroken mosaic of cow pastures and timber, neither of which are quail-friendly habitats. To support Woodhaven’s quail, Loudermilk encourages controlled grazing, and each year he burns roughly one-third of the plantation’s acreage. These practices destroy undesirable vegetation prior to planting sprout- and seed-bearing plants such as grain sorghum, Egyptian wheat, and round-top millet-all delicacies to the quail palate. Woodhaven’s copper-roofed, 20,000square-foot antebellum-style mansion-begun in 1989 and completed three years later-was designed partly by Louder-milk’s daughter, Lisa Carter. She bought some of the house’s furnishings, such as the 7-foot square paintings of the Royal Hounds of Louis XIV, while on trips to southern France and the English Cotswolds. The hunting motif dominates, down to a wood carving of a brace of quail on the living room mantelpiece.

Indeed, at Woodhaven, everything revolves around birds: Quail season runs for four months beginning in late November, with dove- and duck-hunting in the fall and winter, depending on migration patterns. Though quail often end up on the menu, they also manage frequently to elude their pursuers. “They get smarter as the season goes on,” Loudermilk says. “It gets to the point where they hear the jingle of a harness and sake off.”

“He’s a hard fellow to find,” adds huntmaster Thedford of the quail, pausing momentarily to ponder the cleverness of his adversary. “That’s because everything in the world is after him. Everyone likes white meat-including humans-and that’s what he is. So he’s not gonna have an easy time.”

About joseph l. mccarthy