Through the tradition of gunning for Southern bobwhites, the host connects the line between curated shotgun collections and regional bird hunting opportunities
Like so many, I enjoy traveling. New sights, regional foods, and meeting new folks are ample motivation, though, over time, one’s travels trend based on personal interests; sports, art, food, or perhaps the beauty of the natural world.
Destinations are chosen relative to how they add to a life list of experiences, like curating a collection, adding a new experience at each unique destination. For me, an interest in wingshooting and fine firearms shapes my journeys. So, when I received an invite to visit one of the finest collections of American side-by-side shotguns, I jumped at the opportunity—even before I knew I would be able to sample some Southern-style wingshooting during my stay.
In stark contrast to the conditions at Newark Airport, the weather in Charleston, S.C., was sunny and warm. Our destination was Brays Island where Eric Klein, the owner of the double-gun collection, resided. For context, Brays is about halfway between Charleston and Savannah, on the banks of the Pocotaligo River. Despite weather delays, my contact Logan picked me up at the airport, and we attended to the first order of business: lunch. After a fried chicken sandwich at Boxcar Betty’s we set out for Brays. From the palmettos to the pimento cheese, I was not in Kansas anymore.
This was my first trip to the South Carolina lowcountry and, somehow, the surroundings there felt older, set back in time. As we drove down the former plantation’s drive, Southern live oaks decorated with Spanish moss certainly set the stage. Perhaps I’ve watched “The Biscuit Eater” too many times, but I couldn’t help but visualize them in black and white. We caught up with Hank Gulbrandsen at the office, and I received a tour of the grounds. Much of the original character of the place remains, including many of the original buildings, rehabilitated into guest houses, the office, and the equestrian center (a converted dairy barn). Brays Island is now a 5,500-acre private community, though their desire to preserve elements of the working plantation that once operated there are obvious.
Southern gunning traditions
This attention to tradition applies to the wingshooting as well. For the uninitiated, the bobwhite quail can be one of the tightest holding game birds around, meaning that, when pressured, the birds tend to stay put rather than run. This pension for sitting takes some of the urgency out of the hunt.
When hunting ruffed grouse, for example, though the bird may be pointed, more often than not, grouse will flush ahead of the dogs. They can be jumpy, creep, or walk or run ahead, generally making it harder to get close to them.
Bobwhites, on the contrary, like to sit. This allows for the employment of hard-running pointing dogs that lock on and hold a point indefinitely. We had the pleasure of hunting with English Pointers that ran like well-oiled machines. My guess is that these dogs see more birds in a season than most see in a lifetime, responding to the whistle blasts of the dog handler with precision. Once birds are located by the pointer, guide and guns approach the point. Because the quail hold, the approach can be a casual affair of planning and positioning. And once the guns are set, the handler releases a flushing dog—in our case, a Spaniel named Glock—to send the birds into the air.
All of the calmness of the approach is shattered in an instant when the birds flush. The hunters take their shots, typically with smaller sub-gauges like 20s, 28s and .410 bores, and the flushing dog goes out for the retrieve. That is, if you manage to connect. All the while, the pointers are still holding, steady to wing and shot, waiting to be released to find the next birds and the process to begin again. The working relationship between guns, guides, pointers, and flushers makes this hunt special, and it satisfied all the pertinent details in my mind’s image of a Southern quail hunt. I’ll admit, there were no horses, mules, or wagons, and no one was wearing a necktie, but that did not detract from my experience.
Upland gunning takes many forms
At the risk of sounding plebeian, my personal hunts seldom hold to such staunch rigor. As I mentioned, the grouse we used to chase never held to point. In my years of hunting in New Jersey, I can recall only one occasion where we had an opportunity at a truly pointed grouse. And, our state-stocked pheasants hold about 50 percent of the time; some hold, while others run to the horizon with no sign of stopping or jump wild with pressure from the dogs. Altogether it’s a different type of hunt, where the guns must be ever ready, held at port arms, and a dog on point is approached with great haste for fear the pressured bird would take flight before you got in shooting position.
Our woodcock do hold tighter, and some elements of their pursuit are similar to that of my Southern experience. Birds that hold allow time to set shooters in clearings to prepare for the shot. Yet, we do not run flushing dogs alongside our pointers, so someone from our party must clamber into the thick cover to flush or release the dog so they can reposition or bump the bird into the air. And the cover is thick, requiring snap shooting and difficult shot opportunities.
Different yet again are the birds I love to chase on the prairie. Sharptails and huns can be incredibly jumpy, taking wing far ahead of dog and gun. If holding out for the quintessential pointed bird, one may come home day after day empty-handed. At times though, these same birds hold tightly in cover thinner than my living room carpet, only to explode underfoot. Unlike woodcock cover in the East, shots are taken in the great, wide open, where distances and angles can be deceiving.
For those wanting to try upland hunting, I would suggest doing some research about what to expect from the different gunning experiences. Disappointment generally stems from a diversion of expectation and reality, and each species presents unique challenges. The characteristics of the different upland birds and the cover types they inhabit help define the method of pursuit. Imagine the disappointment of a new hunter who wants to walk-up hunt prairie chickens, arriving to find that they are flushing wild and the only reasonable way to shoot a bird is by pass shooting. Or, similarly, a hunter expecting a relaxed Southern-style quail hunt arriving at a grouse camp where the covers are thick, walking is difficult, and birds erupt without warning. Wildly juxtaposed experiences, but each enjoyable in their own right.
All of this is to say that upland gunning takes many forms. Certainly, those of us that run pointers are always seeking that perfect point, flush, and shot. The one immortalized in paintings and in the pages of our favorite books. The Southern style of shooting I experienced at Brays Island was interesting and exciting, presenting more than one of these perfect opportunities. I enjoy watching dogs work, and the relaxed form of pursuit was a welcome change and a new experience to add to my collection.
Exceptional side-by-sides and unique gunning pursuits
Klein’s exceptional collection of American side-by-sides is curated with great intent and is likely the finest collection of guns I may ever see. He collects horizontally and vertically, through grades and gauges, obtaining each new shotgun to fill a void; no two guns the same. His collection is an inspiration, both for my own firearms and for my hunting experiences.
I hope to continue to chase unique experiences obtained by the pursuit of birds. I certainly have my favorite species, but much like sampling cultural delicacies, hiking the next mountain, or looking for a 28-gauge Parker A1 Special, I will forever be searching to add something new to my collection.
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The Gun Room Podcast is presented by Upland Gun Company
Joel Penkala is an Upland Bird Hunter and outdoors enthusiast from New Jersey. His love of all things upland has led him to travel and hunt around the United States and fostered his affinity for double guns and bird dogs. He runs English Setters in his home covers chasing Woodcock, Grouse, and Pheasants.