Mule-drawn Carts, Fast Birds and Fine Shotguns at a Georgia Plantation With a Funny Name
By John Geiger
Photos by John Geiger and Mark Sidelinger
Originally published in Safari Magazine.
I dismounted from the horse at Sinkola Planation in southern Georgia and walked up behind a motionless pointer. A covey of wild bobwhite quail flushed with violence. It had been a while since I’d felt the explosion of wild covey. I remembered that there’s nothing like it in the world.
Wild bobwhites once ranged from the Yucatan through Canada. You’ll find pockets around the continent still, but the population has declined by about 85% since 1966, according to studies.
Back in the 19th century, rich Northerners purchased large tracks of land in southern Georgia as wild-bird hunting retreats. The area boasted an abundant population of birds because its longleaf pine stands were perfect quail habitat.
Loggers were felling trees all over the region at the time. They bypassed this Red Hills section of Georgia and northern Florida because there were no big rivers in the area to move the product. That was a blessing for those of us who love the traditions that go with upland hunting.
The longleaf pines drop seeds that quail seek out. The tall trees have thin crowns that let light get to the forest floor so forbs can grow and create shelter. Best of all, these special pines are nearly fireproof, which means they can grow to hundreds of years old and keep the ecosystem established. They can also handle wildfires and prescribed burns which are key to clearing away volunteer trees and shrubs that push out native grasses, such as wiregrass.
Find a swath of longleaf pines and you’re likely to find original inhabitants, such as gopher tortoises, canebrake rattlesnakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers and quail. Nowadays, there are about 400,000 acres of continuous stands in this region, thanks to those rich 19th century Yankees, as well as families who have seen the value in nurturing this ecosystem.
Gates Kirkham’s family has seen the value. He is managing partner of Sinkola Planation where I hunted recently. The 2,500-acre former cotton plantation near Thomasville, Georgia, is open to the public. It got its name after a family spat divided it from the larger Melrose plantations in 1950. The eccentric, accomplished owner — Kirkham’s grandmother — called it Sinkola because there were sinkholes on the property back then.
Each sidled up on either side of the honoring dog and stepped toward the pointing dog.
It’s a funny name for such a classy place. It’s a throwback to a rich time when the process of hunting was much more important than the Instagram photos of a tailgate full of birds.
At Sinkola, it’s hard not to fall in love with the old way of doing things. Here, they hunt quail the same way they did in the 1800s.
The hunt boss sat atop a tall gelding. Two pointers ranged widely among the wiregrass out front. Next were two shooters on horses. A cart drawn by two mules followed. It carried several other hunters who waited their turn to shoot. In the bed of that cart, which hauled cotton a century earlier, pointers and flushers yelped in their kennels waiting their turn to hunt. The driver, David, held the reigns and a springer rode shotgun.
The boss walked forward and slapped a flushing whip into the wiregrass with the hunters in a line with him. The dogs remained still.
The boss confirmed a point without words. He took off his red cap and held it high. That was the command for the two hunters to dismount. They pulled their shotguns from their saddle scabbards, opened the breech and loaded up.
“You ready?” asked the boss.
God gave quail a gift that helps the little bird stay alive. When a fox or bobcat stalks up on a covey and then lunges toward a bird on the ground, the whole covey’s flush bewilders a predator for a second or two. The clap of many wings, crisscrossing birds, flashes of white and brown and feathers floating behind could easily confuse the predator long enough for a few more wingbeats to safety.
If you can pick a single bird among this subterfuge and make a good shot, the dog will retrieve it and you can hold a marvel of evolution in your hand.
You’ll hear from the cart-riders either way.
“Good shot!” someone might shout as a quail folds in the air and leaves a Georgia snowfall of feathers in its wake.
Or, just as readily, after a miss, you might hear: “Are you sure there was shot in that shell?”
This is the closest thing to a spectator sport we have in hunting. If you hit, you deserve the accolades. It is not easy to connect with these speedy acrobats. They fly wild. If you miss, you’ll hear from them, too, because it’s part of the fun and tradition. Get back on your horse. Thanks to Kirkham and his crew’s hard work, there’ll be more.
As I sat in the saddle, I let the cart move past me. My mind wandered. I imagined shooting here 150 years ago. Not that much would be different.
Then I saw the red cap up. Another point, another covey of wild bobwhite quail. There’s nothing like it in the world.
Chapuis is located near the famous gun-making center of St. Étienne, France, where the family has been creating their functional art since 1936. They are known in the European market for their double rifles, straight-pull bolt-actions, over/unders and side-by-sides. Americans will be seeing more of them in their gun shops because Beretta Holdings purchased Chapuis a few years ago. They’ll be distributed via Benelli USA’s retail channels.
Europeans have many Chapuis firearm models to choose from in their market. In the U.S., residents will have rifles and two models of shotguns: the Chasseur side-by-side in 12, 16, 20 and 28, and the Faisan over-under, in 12, 16, 20, 28 as well as .410 bore. Within each model, there are two options. The Classic option has a price in the $5,000 range. The Artisan version is a bespoke gun with hand engraving, upgraded wood and long tangs that can cost three times as much as a Classic.
It was a pleasure to carry a Classic Chasseur during our traditional South Georgia pursuit of Gentleman Bob. The Chasseur, French for “hunter,” was well-balanced and pointed naturally. It was appropriately engraved with flushing pheasant (faisan) on the right sideplate and quail on the other. I also shot a delightful Faisan over/under and dropped a few caille (French for quail). I never wanted to put either back in the scabbards.