"This month, at the peak of its season, Palm Beach can boast the greatest concentration in the world of inch-square diamonds, block-long yachts, beautifully dressed women and heavily bankrolled men. It can also boast some of the finest quail shooting anywhere.
The idea of quail shooting in Palm Beach is somewhat startling; a stroll down Worth Avenue hardly suggests the outdoor life. But the scenery changes dramatically just 25 minutes from the sparkling shops and beaches of society's winter capital. West of the Sunshine State Parkway, trimmed lawns and palm-lined avenues abruptly give way to great open fields of wire grass and stands of longleaf pine—an ideal setting for the 24,000-acre shooting preserve operated by William A. Bonnette Jr.
For years Bonnette, a retired Navy warrant officer, had been spending his leaves wandering, shotgun in hand, among the palmettos of his native Palm Beach County. As far as Bonnette was concerned, there was better bird hunting around home than anywhere else in the U.S., but each year he found less and less of it available for public shooting. The birds, especially quail, were still there—if anything in increasing numbers—but as cattle ranches and citrus groves moved westward into Florida's interior, posted signs and fences followed. "Eventually I was spending as much time on leave hunting for a place to hunt," he recalls, "as J spent actually shooting."
Bonnette decided to do something about it. Two years ago, fresh out of the Navy, he began leasing shooting rights on lands in the vicinity of Palm Beach. By midwinter he had lined up 1,000 acres, obtained the necessary preserve permits, posted his own signs and talked half a dozen well-heeled wintering sportsmen into buying memberships in a loosely organized shooting club.
The dues collected from these initial memberships were immediately converted to additional leases and, surprisingly, Bonnette didn't have to look far for available land. In fact, soon he didn't have to look at all. As word of his project spread, the landed gentry of Palm Beach County started coming to him. People like Philip and Stewart Iglehart were delighted at the prospect of making money on vast, unimproved tracts of land they held principally for future appreciation.
By the time the preserve season opened last October, less than a year after he entered the business, Bonnette had under lease 24,000 acres of the choicest quail-shooting land in Florida, a membership list that read like Who's Who and a reputation that extended across the border into Canada. "It just started rolling," Bonnette says, "and it hasn't stopped yet. Everyone who hunts here once seems to come back with two friends, and they in turn come back with two more. I haven't had to advertise because the shooters have been doing it for me."
Proof that contented customers do a good job is Delmer C. Bodkin of Islington, Ontario, who flew into Bonnette's by private plane two weeks ago for a day's shoot. The week before, a fellow member of Bodkin's trout-fishing club in Ontario had sent him a Bonnette brochure. Scrawled in red crayon across the front were six words: "Twenty quail in two hours. Fabulous!"
"It was 10 below zero up there," Bodkin said, "and I knew this fellow wasn't the kind to exaggerate, so I just thought I'd better drop in and take a look. He wasn't kidding. I've taken a basket of birds so far." Bodkin left with a dozen brochures, each earmarked for a friend.
The phenomenal success of Bonnette's Palm Beach preserve is based on a combination of factors, not the least of which is a nationwide trend toward preserve shooting. For the past two decades sportsmen everywhere have watched their happy hunting grounds sprout supermarkets and drive-in theaters, until now about the only bag they can expect to bring home is a plastic one filled with popcorn. Preserves offer hunters a chance to enjoy more of their sport with less effort. Seasons are longer (six months in most states), game more plentiful, and traveling time to and from a shoot is shorter than in most wild hunting. Such convenience has lured a lot of people onto preserves who might otherwise never hunt at all. And as the preserve movement has boomed through 44 states some of the very hunters who originally criticized it the loudest are now sheepishly lauding it.
Their turnabout is not without reason. Preserve shooting, too, has undergone a turnabout in recent years. A typical "hunt" is no longer a matter of planting an unconscious bird in the middle of an open field and leading a dude by the hand up to it. Preserve hunting today in a really well-run operation like Bonnette's closely approximates wild hunting. At the beginning of this season, for example, Bonnette released some 8,000 birds, mainly quail. By midwinter, in the superb cover and feed his land offers, these birds had not only reverted to a semiwild state but many had joined up with groups of wild birds.