My cousin, Drew, is more than just my cousin. He is also one of my best friends. The guy is just awesome and I can't even count on two hands and two feet the amount of epically kickass times we've had together. Drew is also into a bunch of stuff that I've never really got into, and because of that, I've learned a lot from him. One of those things was how to shoot a shotgun. About a year and a half ago, Drew took me up to Quail Creek Plantation to shoot clay pigeons. I was extremely nervous because firearms had always made me uneasy but Drew demanded that I go, so I did. Did I mention that in addition to being a kickass guy that Drew is also the biggest enabler on the face of the earth? I ended up having an awesome time and was a pretty good shot too.
This year, right around my birthday, I had been talking with Drew about going shooting again as I knew he is always looking for an excuse to go. It was then that he decided that he would one-up our last shooting trip and take me on a quail hunt with a guide and hunting dogs for my birthday. The real deal. Once again, I was a tad nervous but I had a feeling that this would be a great time so I said, "I'm in". It turned out being one of the best times I've ever had.
Quail Creek Plantation
We woke up on a Saturday morning at 5:30am and were out the door by 6am. We had got in on a hunt that had become available at the last minute thanks to a cancellation so we had to be at Quail Creek in Okeechobee, FL by 8am. It was only about a 1.5 hour drive from Drew's place in West Palm Beach, but we wanted to give ourselves some time to get there and wake up. It was a chilly morning and we were driving with the top down so waking up wasn't too hard. We arrived at the plantation and checked in. They brought me a 20-gauge shotgun to use for the day as Drew only had his one 20-gauge because his 12-gauge was with the gunsmith for a tune-up. A smaller gauge shell is better for hunting the tiny quail anyways. After signing our waivers and meeting our guide, Eric, a guy about our age who had relocated from Illinois in 2005 to work at Quail Creek, we headed to our buggy which would take us out into the field to hunt for quail.
The Hunting Buggy
The buggy was equipped with a couple of gun racks, comfy seats, some storage space, and cages where the dogs were held. We donned our orange vests for safety while out in the field and loaded the pockets with shells. Eric then introduced us to three of the five dogs that would be helping us locate the quail that hide amongst the bushes in the field. The cages opened and two "pointers" (I forget the actual breed) named Willie and Joker went flying by the buggy, followed by a black lab "retriever" named Storm. These dogs were tearing up the field, running with great speed and bounding over tall grass and in between the brush while taking a few short breaks to relieve themselves. I told Eric that I wished I had about one-tenth the amount of energy these dogs had. He said that they have a high protein diet and will run and run for our hunt as well as an afternoon hunt on a nice cool day like the one we had going for us but he liked to give them a rest and let the other dogs (there were 2 more pointers in the buggy) stretch their legs too.
Storm, Joker, and Willie searching for quail in the field
It wasn't long before Joker and Willie stopped dead in their tracks, nose and paw pointing at a bush in front of them, tail raised high and stiff. "Whoa dog! E-zay.", Erik commanded. "Bird in 'ere. E-zay." Drew and I took position to the left and right of Eric and the dogs who had this bush surrounded. Once we were set, Eric called for Storm to come over and flush out the birds. "Storm! Bird in 'ere, dog. Get 'em bird. Get 'em bird." Storm prowled up to the bush looking for his spot and, once he found it, darted at the bush. This sent two quail flying to our right where Drew had the shot, the flutter of their little wings filling the air in front of us. He missed and Eric decided we'd call it "morning rust". It actually made me feel better because I was sure I was going to miss a lot throughout the day and I did just that the next time the dogs sent quail flying to my side. On our third attempt, however, I nailed the first quail of the day and at a decent distance too! I was pumped with adrenaline and excitement and was now completely over my "first quail jitters".
Willie returning with quail as Storm looks on
"Hunt dead, Willie. Hunt dead, Joker.", Eric commanded and both Willie and Joker set out to the spot where the bird had gone down. Willie proudly returned with the quail in his mouth, the bird still squeaking as he approached. "I guess that one's still alive?", I asked Eric. "No, you shot it in the head, I'm quite sure it's dead.", Eric replied while I stood there puzzled. "Why is it still squeaking then?", I asked. "Oh, that's the original squeaky toy.", Eric said while removing the bird from Willie's mouth. He held it up and gave it a few squeezes and, sure enough, the bird squeaked each time from the air going in and out of its lungs. I laughed at what I had just learned and we returned to the hunt.
Willie and Joker were doing a great job finding quail for us and later on Clyde and Maggie were pretty effective as well when they came in from the bullpen to give the first 2 sprinters a rest. These birds don't fly too far but man can they hide. Sometimes we would be able to see them running on the ground away from the dogs too which was kinda funny. We had to be careful at all times once the birds flew as the dogs would take off after them and sometimes be in the line of fire. Any sort of wound inflicted on a dog would carry a $2000 fine and the guilt of knowing that you shot a dog, a feeling I was not eager to experience. There were many shots that I held off on because of this and I know Eric appreciated my caution. I also held off on a few shots when we had ventured into the more wooded part of the field as I was not eager to get a face full of splinters.
A couple of times the dogs flushed out a covey of anywhere between twenty and thirty birds! It was almost too overwhelming deciding where to point and shoot so I rarely aimed at these times, operating on the premise that I had to hit something and both Drew and I did just that. At one point Drew was on fire, the dogs flushing birds his way and him taking 'em down with one shot. His streak lasted for about 8 birds, including one where he started laughing as Storm literally bounced a quail off the ground twice before it flew and then continued to laugh as he shot it down with one pull of the trigger. This made us all crack up and pretty much summed up the day as a great time.
At the end of the day we had taken down 32 quail and had a lot of fun doing so. Hunters are allowed 12 apiece on the hunt but we were having a great time so we stayed out for a few more at an extra fee before the hunt's scheduled completion at 11:30am. At that point, we unloaded and stowed our shotguns, watched as the dogs leaped back into their cages, and fired up a victory cigar.
The victors and the spoils!
We chatted with Eric on the way back about various hunts that they do at Quail Creek which include quail, turkey, deer, and hog. The hogs actually are quite a nuisance as they tear up fields and leave them prone to slight flooding as evidenced by a field we saw with large lines of what appeared to be swampy marsh. Once we got back to the lodge, we were greeted by the plantation chef and served a nice lunch that consisted of pork with mushrooms in a mustard sauce, fried quail, zucchini with a cheese sauce that was seasoned with a little cinnamon, some yellow rice, and one of the best biscuits and gravy I've ever had.
After lunch we sat out on the deck at the lodge and enjoyed another cigar while basking in the sun. It had warmed up throughout the day and ended up being one of those days where I am extremely thankful to be living in Florida. Eric appeared with two coolers filled with sixteen quail apiece for us to take home and eat. These weren't the actual quail that we shot, rather ones from a hunt on the previous day as it would've been a few hours for us to wait for our quail to be cleaned. With hunts going on at a clip of twice per day, I know these quail had not sat long.
Nothing says, "I'm going hunting" like a 1987 Ferrari 328
As we walked to the car, a hunter in a cowboy hat looked at us and said, "Howdy, men." I thought that was fitting. We said hello and I turned to Drew and said, "That guy's right. You see a couple of guys with two bags of quail and a shotgun and "men" is the appropriate way to address them." We laughed as we loaded up our "hunting mobile" and were on our way back to West Palm Beach. I was smiling from ear to ear and extremely thankful to have been invited on such an awesome trip. Another batch of great memories for the good ol' memory bank and a perfect final adventure to end what has been a somewhat tumultuous year for yours truly. Thank you times a thousand, Drew.
As we rode I-95 on the way home, I thought of the meal that could be had with our quail and made a phone call. We'll save that for another post on another day though...