On a sunny winter morning, two pickup trucks turned off a paved, farm-to-market road into a Columbus County farm field. In the beds of the pickups were dog kennels. However, they were not housing packs of deer dogs and coonhounds. Not even the whining of expectant beagles could be heard.

Rather, bird dogs panted excitedly, their tails drumming happily against the insides of the plastic crates to greet the hunters when they dropped the tailgates: Ricky Ward of Phoenix Forestry Services who is the head guide at Lumber River Outdoors, and Jerry Simmons, a dog trainer and shooting preserve operator from Castle Hayne.

“I want my children to experience hunting for wild quail,” Ward said. “I heard stories from hunters back in the day, and I have been trying to restore their habitat with the help of landowners and biologists from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Depot in Elizabethtown. It has been difficult to get landowners to change their ways, but we are starting to see real progress.”

Ward was mesmerized the first time he saw a bird dog on point. That led him to buy his black German shorthair, Roxy, saving her from neutering — or worse.

“I wanted a black one, which is a color that does not fit the standard for shorthairs,” he said. “No one else wanted her, so when I found out about the black puppy in a litter, her owners were glad to part with her.”

Ward describes himself as just a “spoke in the wheel” at the Columbus County Quail Co-op, the center of which is The Roost, a restored farmhouse owned by Derek Strickland, the president of Lumber River Outdoors.

“My role is mostly to keep the fire going,” Strickland said. “We have about 200 acres on the farm surrounding the house.”

When Ward and Strickland got their quail co-op up and going, they had only one cover on the farm they could count on finding. They contacted adjoining and nearby landowners to get them to join the co-op.

“Since I am in the timber business, I want to see farmers manage their timber resources for the maximum yield of forest products,” he said. “Most of them do not do enough to promote that, because it entails a lot of work and planning. They don’t think about trees in the same way they do row crops that are planted and harvested annually. Nonetheless, trees are a crop that can produce higher yields with good management.

“Prescribed burning is one of the best ways to increase growth rates by reducing competition from undesirable understory species. Another way is to decrease time intervals between thinning operations and maximizing the tree removal during thinning. Both management practices also happen to benefit quail because the open the canopy.”

Ward does most of the actual burning on the more than 4,000 acres that is now in the quail co-op and, in return, he controls hunting rights for other game species. 

Ward’s quail hunts are not guided hunts. Hunters must bring their own dogs and pay a day-use fee that includes the use of The Roost for overnight lodging and meals.

Ward invited Simmons to hunt with him, mainly to try to find coveys of quail that Ward had yet to identify, to help gauge the results of the effort as the project took shape.

Ten hunters had hunted with Ward in 2013-14, when the one original covey had grown to five including the 600 additional acres that had been added to the co-op.

Simmons and Ward, however, were hunting a piece of property that was still suffering from the effects of farming and silviculture practices that were too “clean” to produce many quail. Looking at a water swale running through a field that had sloping sides covered with short, mowed grass, Ward shook his head.

“That could be a travel corridor for quail,” he said. “That fence row, with trees and a barbed wire fence, could also be a travel corridor, but all you see is the bare wire. If the swale had the right kind of vegetation, and the fence row was not been treated with herbicide, there could be a covey here. If a landowner sees that his property has overgrown field borders, he thinks the tenants are not taking care of his land. It is hard to convince them that just the opposite is true.”

Helping landowners and hunters connect is the Columbus County hunting initiative. Jennifer Holcomb of the Columbus County Chamber and Tourism office said the loss of income with the end of the tobacco price-support system has given the farmers and everyone else in the county and its towns the prodding necessary to open up their arms to welcome outside hunters.

“We worked with Southeastern Community College to establish a hunting-guide school,” she said. “Participation was very high. Without tobacco production, everyone is looking for alternative sources of income. Hunting alone will not replace all of it, but it will help. Columbus County has world-class wildlife resources, and we are trying to get the word out.”

Simmons’ four English setters at his Shelter Creek Plantation, his shooting preserve in Pender County, but he has also hunted them at other preserves. Hunters have killed approximately 15,000 pen-raised quail in front of his dogs, but fewer than 100 wild quail.

“They are getting old, now,” he said. “The oldest dog is 12, but, an old dog is more thorough at working cover and much more cautious around wild quail. My dogs have worked together as a team for years, so they will find the birds if they are here.”

They first a tract consisting of stands of young pines with little understory, clean ditch banks and a few older-aged pine stands that had been burned since 2010, plus a fallow field that showed the most promise. However, in several hours of hunting, the dogs had not found a single bird.

Loading the dogs, they headed to an overgrown area beside a shed. Abandoned farm equipment, piles of trees and soil from field-clearing operations, along with head-high blackberry briars woven together with honeysuckle made the area appear unwelcoming to humans and hunting dogs. 

“We found a covey right here when we were rabbit hunting last week,” Ward said. “It’s not much more than an acre.”

Simmons released his setters. Within minutes, they found the covey.

“That’s what I’ve seen,” Ward said. “They are in the areas that are too difficult to maintain with equipment, but areas like that are few and far between.”

Their next stop was an area with a hill of soil created from the excavation of an irrigation pond.

“Look at all of that multi-flora rose. Doesn’t that look like a great spot for quail?” Ward asked.

However, Roxy, a puppy and not a veteran like Simmons’ setters, had no luck locating a bird. 

The hunters next headed to an area with an overgrown power line and dense thickets in a young loblolly pine stand on either side.

“Power line rights-of-way are some of our best quail habitat,” Ward said. “This one leads to a marshy area on the edge of a pond.”

It wasn’t long before Roxy pointed a covey of  about two-dozen birds. After the flush, the hunters tried to find the singles, but the woods, which was had not yet been subjected to burning, was a maze of vines, briars and saplings. They could not locate the birds again.

“We already have firebreaks cut to burn that area,” he said. “Getting the vegetation down to waist high, that’s what it takes to grow quail.”

While most of Simmons’ dogs are in their waning years, Roxy’s hunting was waxing toward a bright future filled with the scent of wild quail. It may not be a return to the fabled hunting before quail habitat virtually disappeared, but by educating landowners of the value of leaving hard-to-maintain areas unkempt and managing timberlands more efficiently, Ward is demonstrating that quail can pay their own way. His children will be able to follow Roxy, hunting for more than just a hope.


DESTINATION INFORMATION  

HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — Headquarters for the Columbus County Quail Co-Op is The Roost. To reach it from Chadbourn, head west on US 76 for 3.5 miles, then turn left onto Dolph Lewis Road and go 6.5 miles. Turn left on Lennue Strickland Lane; The Roost is at the end of the road. Quail season is open through Feb. 28, with a daily bag limit of six and a possession limit of 12.

BEST PLACES —  To hunt quail, the best tracts of land will feature young stands of longleaf pine with thick grasses, dog fellel, blackberry briars and vines, and stands of loblolly pines that have been thinned and/or burned. Swamp areas and power-line right-of-ways where it’s difficult to get heavy equipment in to maintain can also be great spots.

EQUIPMENT — Most hunters use 12- or 20-gauge shotguns shooting a 1-ounce load of No. 7½ or No. 8 shot. Improved cylinder is the best choke, but a hunter with a double barrel may prefer improved cylinder in one barrel and modified in the other. 

GUIDES/HUNTING INFO — Ricky Ward, Lumber River Outdoors, 910-641-7303, lumberriveroutdoors.com; Jerry Simmons, JoRoMo Kennels/Shelter Creek Plantation, 910-620-6898; Jennifer Holcomb, Columbus County Chamber of Commerce, 910-642-3171. See also Guides and Charters and Hunting in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — The Roost, Lumber River Outdoors, 910-641-7303.

MAPS — DeLorme North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-452-5931 or www.delorme.com; Columbus County Street Map, Map Supply, www.mapsupply.com