The Quail Rebel of South Georgia: Outdoor Life Feature

Original Article: http://www.outdoorlife.com/features/quail-rebel-of-south-georgia/

 

At 11:15 p.m. my hotel room phone rings, shaking me from the kind of deep sleep reserved for spring turkey hunters and nightshift nurses.

It’s Bo Henry: “Hey man, if you’re still out … I’ll meet you at the Harvest Moon. I’ll be there in probably 20 minutes.”

I told him I was already back from the Harvest Moon (a bar, which Henry owns) and was calling it an early night. I was supposed to meet him the next morning to go turkey hunting at 5 a.m.

“Yeah, okay. I’m going to check things out there for an hour or so and then call it an early night too,” he says.

This was a late-night glimpse into the life of Bo Henry, a small-town business owner, lead singer of a country-rock band, family man, and die-hard quail hunter. As I hang up the phone, it strikes me that it’s guys like Henry—everyday hunters with loaded schedules and busy lives—who are saving the bobwhite quail from disappearing from their southern range.

Quail Forever

A Quail Forever sticker rides on the back of Bo Henry’s pickup. Quail Forever was founded in 2005 and has since grown to include 157 local chapters and more than 16,000 members.

And that’s the real reason I’ve come to Albany, Georgia, “The Quail Hunting Capital of the World,”—to find out how such an unconventional group of conservationists, like Henry and his buddies, are bringing back the bobwhites.

Georgia’s quail population has decreased by 85 percent since the 1960s and the state’s quail hunters have dropped by 80 percent, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Biologists and state conservation agencies have been working for decades to stop the decline, but they can only do so much. If the quail are going to thrive, it’s going to be because of the efforts of landowners like Henry.

Henry listens for gobbles during a morning turkey hunt on a plantation he leases and manages with his hunting buddies.

Waiting on a Georgia long beard.

The Rebel

Henry looks more like a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd than he does the upland bird hunters you see in an Orvis catalog. He’s got wild red hair, a deep Southern voice, and a booming laugh. It doesn’t take me long to learn that, mostly, Henry just wants to show people a good time. He and a business partner (his brother-in-law) own three successful restaurants in town, a catering business, and a hotel. His band “The Bo Henry Band” has been together for decades and plays weekly at one of the restaurants. His whole economy is based on feeding people and entertaining.

Running the backroads in Bo’s pickup is like tagging along with an overbooked party coordinator. He’s making calls to buddies, handling restaurant business, and scribbling down dates in a calendar he keeps on his dash. Walking through a store in town with Henry is like being part of a local celebrity’s entourage. Everybody knows him, everybody likes him, and everybody wants to catch up on something. It takes us an hour to leave a diner during our turkey hunt because new people keep coming in, and all stop by to say hello.

He views his hunting properties as another way to show people a good time. He invites buddies to come hunting and all the owners of the plantation host Wounded Warrior hunts and Quail Forever events. He lets the local cops deer hunt his place (because Henry doesn’t care much about deer hunting and doesn’t like to wear a seatbelt). When they first bought the property about five years ago, Henry’s band played an outdoor show and invited everybody from town.

“There were campers and trucks everywhere. It was our version of Woodstock,” Henry says.

But beneath it all, Henry has a certain intensity about him. I find this out when we get to talking about quail.

“I know there are other places that have great wild quail, but down in South Georgia it’s a thing of history and tradition,” Henry says.

Georgian Pines

Georgia is renowned for its pines, like those found on Henry’s farm.

Henry’s dad was a teacher and enjoys quail hunting. But Henry says he realized his passion for wild quail through stories about his great grandpa, Beauchamp Houston, who died a month before Henry was born. Beauchamp was a well-known bird dog trainer and breeder and had a wild streak like Henry. As Henry grew up, he got a bird dog of his own and at 18 he started guiding hunters and working habitat at a local plantation. Before long, he was training a dozen hunting dogs.

“Ever since I was a little kid people said I reminded them of my great grandad. Even though I never got to know him, I guess I always wanted to follow in his footsteps,” Henry says.

Henry saw college as a means to party and play music. A few semesters in, he dropped out and got a job surveying cotton. But even as a young man, he was smart with his money and when he saved up enough, he decided to start a restaurant.

Through all the wildness of his 20s, quail hunting was always Henry’s way of staying grounded.

Henry disks a quail food plot with a Massey Ferguson tractor.

The Lay of the Land

To understand the story of quail in the South, is to understand the story of the land. Henry and five of his childhood buddies own a beautiful 420-acre pine plantation and they manage it for quail, doves, and ducks. Our morning turkey hunt is the perfect excuse for me to walk the property, and even though we don’t kill any gobblers, watching the plantation materialize through the fog makes the early wakeup worth it.

It’s classic southern landscape: tall stands of pines in perfect rows, knee-high native grasses, wild plums in the hedgerows, expansive peanut fields, millet, Spanish moss, and swampy ponds packed with lily pads and gators. They also manage and lease a similarly sized plantation specifically for quail. In many parts of country, this would be considered a lot of ground. But down here, almost all of the land is privately owned, and much of it in huge tracts.

According to Clay Sisson of Tall Timbers, a habitat and quail conservation non-profit, Yankee businessmen started buying large plantations for quail hunting and winter vacationing in the 1920s and 30s. A decade or two later, farmers started adapting to center-pivot irrigation methods. Georgia’s patchwork of small fields intersected by hedgerows and timber lots was cut, plowed, and replaced by huge fields with center pivots. And so disappeared most of the great quail habitat… Except for on the big plantations, which were still managed for quail hunting and recreation.

In southwest Georgia, fire is a habitat manager’s most important tool.

And that legacy of big-time wealthy landowners still exists today. Ted Turner, the former media mogul, has some 8,000 acres outside of Albany. The Mellons, a wealthy banking family from Pittsburg, own about 20,000 acres. A former owner of Coca Cola and the owner of Victoria’s Secret also have plantations in the area. The wealthy landowners use these properties for hunting and reprieve from winter in the North. They hire full-time management teams to work the habitat and increase quail numbers. These plantations grow some of the finest quail habitat in the country and are one of the main reasons the bobwhite population still exists here. The wealthy landowners also bring visitors and money to the local communities — before the quail opener each year, the little Albany airport is packed with private jets. According to Sisson of Tall Timbers, quail hunting and management puts $275 million annually into the economy in southwest Georgia and northern Florida. Down here, that’s a lot of damn money.

But among all of the land barons are guys like Henry. Local boys who grew up hunting and fishing the red clay. And though the small-time landowners might have much less property, even in aggregate, there are many more of them, and this is where the culture of quail hunting in the South is preserved.

Josh Jordan, a diehard turkey hunter, gets ready to work a slate call. Jordan manages the plantations with Henry, and his business focuses on setting up conservation easements and preserving wild-game habitat.

Trial By Fire

In South Georgia, improving quail habitat is about allowing sunlight to reach the ground. Plant succession in this climate happens quickly because it’s so warm and wet, says Jared Wiklund, a spokesman for Quail Forever. Unlike the southern Great Plains states, which can have feast or famine quail seasons based on the weather that year, Georgia quail populations are all about habitat management. A year of bad weather can hurt quail numbers, but mostly, you get out what you put in.

Managers are in a constant battle with the jungle-like vegetation. Their main job is prescribed burning, which kills young sweet gums and other hardwoods. That makes way for sunlight to reach the ground. It also promotes more diverse and healthier native grasses — this is the key to good quail numbers. Each year sweet gum needs to be removed (by mowing, spraying, or both) and most properties are burned at least once every two years.

“If you don’t keep up with burning, your habitat is done,” Wiklund says. “And, it’s really hard to get back.”

“I know there are other places that have great wild quail, but down in South Georgia it’s a thing of history and tradition.” — Bo Henry

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