- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The most popular upland game bird in the country—by a hefty margin—is the bobwhite quail. Each year, from late fall to early spring, more upland hunters go after quail than after any other feathered quarry. But of all the nation's numerous shooters, only a small and select handful are ever fortunate enough to savor quail hunting as it is pictured here on L. B. Maytag's 14,000-acre Sedgefields Plantation near Union Springs, Ala.
At Sedgefields, quail hunting is more than sport—it is a rite renewed each season with all the pageantry of its antebellum past. The procession of scouts, handlers, grooms and gamekeepers is as vital a part of quail hunting at Sedgefields as the hunter himself. Even the dogs perform with the style and enthusiasm of professionals. But the stars of the drama are the quail, and at Sedgefields they literally make up a cast of thousands.
"Quail are our business," Sedgefields' manager for the past three decades, George L. Harden Jr., told me when I visited the plantation. "They're a crop just like cotton or corn or potatoes, but here they're our only crop. Everything else we grow, everything else we do to improve the land, that's all for the quail. We're in the business of raising birds, and you might say we're the best in the business."
You might also say that this is not accidental. The production of birds at Sedgefields is as conscientiously and creatively managed as the production of washing machines at the Maytag plant in Iowa. The plantation employs some 25 people, many of whom are the second or third generation born on the land. Each year well over 200 miles are planted with sesbania, lespedeza, corn and other bobwhite foods to supplement the natural broom sedge and fennel that grow in profusion everywhere. The plantation's thousands of acres of carefully rotated cover, interlaced with patches of pines, hardwoods and hundreds of creeks and streams, provide exactly the protection and habitat quail need to prosper.
Quail populations are usually figured in terms of birds per acre, a purely statistical measure since single quail rarely stray far from their brethren, preferring to congregate in groups of a dozen to 20. However, the covey customarily remains within a fixed territory, which makes counting the number of birds and keeping track of their general whereabouts considerably less difficult than it might appear. Sedgefields produces 1.5 birds per acre, which is probably the highest natural bobwhite yield anywhere in the U.S. today. It is more than four times the yield of both pheasants and partridges in Britain, where one bird to every three acres is considered excellent.
There were always plenty of quail at Sedgefields, it is true, even before L. B. Maytag bought the land in 1928. The abundance of birds, in fact, was what sold him on the place during his first visit to Union Springs. He was there from Colorado to attend a local field trial being run on the property. After watching a dog named Sun Ray point nine coveys of quail in 15 minutes, he was so excited by the land and its game that he did not wait to see the end of the trial. Instead he went to the Union Springs bank and began buying up acreage. The bank, as well as most of the townspeople, looked upon the whole operation with benign amusement. Anyone not only willing but eager to pay as high as $20 an acre for idle land was obviously another Yankee gone mad in the Alabama sun.
With Sedgefields now worth somewhere between $500 and $1,000 an acre, the rewards of such madness have proved substantial. But making a million (or 10 or 12) in real estate was never Maytag's goal. The only rewards he has ever cared to reap at Sedgefields have been not profits but the pleasures of the field. Over the years these have been considerable.
Maytag has seen the National Shooting Dog Championship, which he helped found at Sedgefields in 1950, emerge as the premier field trial of its kind in the U.S. Today it is not only the nation's most respected and distinguished shooting-dog stake, but it is also the largest and best attended.
A gallery of more than 400 mounted spectators followed the 1966 running last March, and some 1,500 people turned out for the opening barbecue, an annual event that is as eagerly anticipated as the fine bird work afield. For the entire week of the trial the spirited holiday atmosphere at Sedgefields spills out into Union Springs and the surrounding country. Shops close, schools let out early and everybody joins in the fun.
About the only activity Mr. Bud (as Maytag is called by his friends) enjoys more than the National Shooting Dog Championship is actually shooting quail. His skills with a shotgun are legendary. For years he tested himself and the credulity of his hunting companions by trying to shoot only male quail, a feat comparable to going fishing and trying to catch only male bass. His record for a single season stands at 710 birds, of which only three were females. "Of course, there is no ecological reason for sparing females," Maytag points out. "About 85% of all quail die each year, whether or not they are hunted. Nature takes what the gun leaves. There is no way to stockpile birds, male or female. That is why hunting is such a vital part of quail farming."