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11
Sportsmen recall heyday for quail

TOM HIGGINS


It's difficult to imagine going quail hunting and jumping 22 coveys in a day.

Seems like a relative fairy tale now, but once upon a time it happened -- and right here in the Carolinas.

The subject of quail hunting "then and now" arose a few days ago in an exchange of e-mails between friends, ardent sportsmen and fellow lawyers Bill Webb, Dewey Wells and Dickson McLean. I received copies of their messages.

Webb is a Richmond County attorney who lives near Ellerbe on a large tract that has been farmed by his family since 1906. Farmed in a way, not coincidentally, that has benefited wildlife.

Webb, 51, was honored in August by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission as the state's "Small Game Conservationist Of The Year."

Editors at "Wildlife In North Carolina," the commission's monthly magazine, assigned a staffer to write an article about Webb's conservation practices.

While doing research in the magazine's archives, the writer came across an article in the issue of May, 1962. The story was about brothers Ralph and Elsie Webb and their work on behalf of quail.

Ralph Webb was Bill's father; Elsie Webb was his uncle. Both men have been deceased several years.

"I never knew that article existed," wrote Bill in an e-mail. "It's quite revealing.

"It told of my dad and Uncle Elsie planting bi-color lespedeza and annual foods.

"The amazing part is that the story documents that during the 1961-62 quail season, the Webb Farm had its most successful hunting ever. The best day was 22 coveys found.

"It was estimated that there were 45 coveys on the farm.

"Although I know it was a good era for quail in the '60s and through the soybean years, this is pretty hard to fathom."

Replied Wells, a retired attorney who lives in Avery County:

"Your message brought back recollections of the '60s when I shot a case of shells a year. I hunted at places where we'd find a dozen coveys in half a day. Often we were diverted in hunting singles by finding another covey.

"I guess things aren't what they used to be."

Dickson McLean of Wilmington added this response:

"My father, who is 77 now and grew up in Robeson County, has told me about meeting up with a tenant farmer after school. I'm estimating this would be about 3 p.m. He says they each would bag their limit of birds before dark. I think the limit back then was 10 or 12 birds a day.

"Interestingly, my dad says to his knowledge there was never a deer or wild turkey seen in the county in those days. Now, deer and turkey may well outnumber the quail."

Dewey Wells e-mailed in reply:

"Dickson, your dad is just a little older than me, but I had similar experiences. In those days when a bird or rabbit hunter saw a deer there was lots of talk about it at local gathering places. And there were no turkeys to be seen.

"Rabbits were in abundance, sharing with quail the same lush covers which proliferated.

"Hearing the yells, and shots, of rabbit hunters was a part of the ambience of quail hunting."

Nowadays, sadly, the rabbit population in most parts of the Carolinas seems about as sparse as that of wild quail.

Wildlife biologists and sportsman-landowners such as Bill Webb are working to rally these small-game creatures as best they can, mainly by managing habitat.

Webb is especially intent on restoring quail in numbers to his family's farm. He guesses that the farm holds 25 to 30 coveys now. The most he has found in a day is 11.

"After seeing that 1962 magazine article, I definitely have something to shoot for," he said. "Twenty-two coveys in a day would put me in `The Rapture.'" Tom

Higgins


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