Hunting is a multi-faceted sport that requires special skills, techniques and equipment depending on the prey. In Northeast Florida, prey includes deer, turkey, quail, hogs, ducks, doves, alligators and more.
At Broomsage Quail Plantation in Callahan, hunters hunt deer, hogs, doves, turkeys and, of course, quail, which they hunt on foot with dogs. It is the only commercial quail plantation in the greater Jacksonville area.
In the Guana River Wildlife Management Area, hunters go to learn about hunting for ducks, deer, turkey, migratory birds, wild hogs, alligators and small game such as rabbits. The coastal land between Ponte Vedra and St. Augustine is government managed and hunters must apply for quota permits according to prey and season.
At Chinquapin Farm, south of Lake City, wild quail are hunted on horseback with the assistance of highly trained bird dogs. Twice a year people from around the First Coast and the country who practice the sport of “field trialing” gather at the private farm to compete to see who has the best bird dog.
I visited Broomsage, Guana and Chinquapin to explore the world of hunting on the First Coast.
Broomsage Quail Plantation
I was a novice to the world of hunting the day I entered Broomsage Quail Plantation. But I could tell I was in for an adventure. After driving through the small rural town of Callahan and then for five and a half miles along a country road turning into its gates felt like entering another world; one where a natural land of fields and woods stretched on forever and I was the only human for miles around.
After driving several more miles along a rustic, packed-earth road, I finally came to the plantation’s wooden lodge, where David Mobley and his 19-year-old son Adam were preparing to go hunting for quail with guide Harold Griffis. The Mobleys climbed onto an old fashioned 1800s style buggy that was hitched to a truck driven by Griffis. Also aboard the truck were four dogs in cages to assist with the hunt.
“You ever watched a hunt before?” Adam asked me as I scrambled aboard the buggy with them.
“It is fun,” David said as I shook my head no.
“I think watching the dogs is the most fun,” David said. “Watching them point and retrieve.”
The bird dogs are owned by Broomsage, which provides German Pointers, English Pointers and Britney Spaniels to their hunter customers. The plantation is run by brothers Wayne and Harold Griffis and partner Ralph Higgenbotham, whose wife’s family owns the 4,000 acre property. It used to be the Wright family dairy and the three men lease the hunting rights and use of the spacious 4-bedroom lodge.
With the assistance of the dogs, hunters track quail that are released in the plantation’s pine forest before hunters arrive. The birds then move around and leave a scent, which the dogs are naturally attracted to, David said. When released from their cages, the dogs “run full blast,” he said. “When they stop and point in mid strut and their tails are standing straight up, that’s when you know you have a bird. They stay in that position until the guide tells them they can move.”
After bouncing up and down for a mile and a half along a rutted road, we stopped in an area of open pine forest and got ready for the hunt. Griffis opened a cage and placed a tracking collar on “Snow,” a 7-year-old English Setter.
The birds, Bobwhites, are imported from North Carolina.
The dogs were eager.
Snow shot off into the woods and Griffis and the Mobleys, who each carried a shotgun, followed. I followed close behind them. Concerned I might have to walk for miles, I was pleasantly surprised when Snow found the first quail no more than the length of a football field from the truck.
Snow pointed. Griffis looked at the bird, hidden in brush and threw down his hat. Startled, the quail flew into the air, and “bam, bam, bam, bam, bam,” went Adam’s gun. He hit it. Snow retrieved it by gingerly picking it up with her teeth and brought it to Griffis, who stuffed it in his jacket pocket.
Within 30 minutes in the same general area the two hunters had shot about 10 birds. Wayne Griffis had planted a dozen in each of three locations that morning and Harold Griffis released another dog to help Snow find the last two in that place. Then they planned to move to location number two.
Snow jumped into a bucket of water to cool off. Buckets for that purpose are placed throughout the plantation’s quail area, Griffis said.
“This is great, it’s a good morning, perfect weather,” David said. A Broomsage employee picked up the quail as the men continued to hunt.
By the time they are finished, and have lunch, all their game will be cleaned, dressed and packed in ice, Wayne Griffis told me after I caught a ride with him back to the lodge. Hunters eat the quail, “which are some of the best eating you can imagine,” Harold told me. “I prefer them fried, but some people cook them on the grill.”
The plantation is open to hunters who purchase yearly memberships or to those who pay a daily fee. The lodge is also available for overnight rentals and special events. Some customers are first timers who’ve never held a gun before while others are regulars who come every week, Harold said. “Nobody goes home without killing a bird.”
Due to the disappearance of small farms and exploding population growth, “quail hunting is getting to be a thing of the past in this part of the country,” Wayne said. “It used to be part of everyday living and it’s gotten to be more of a novelty.”
Guana River Wildlife Management Area (GRWMA)
Many people recreationally hike and bike through the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve located off Florida A1A between Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine. Many people also hike and bike through the land north of and adjacent to the reserve – a 10-mile stretch of wildlife management area where hunting is permitted. The land is natural woods and fields and a great place to explore the outdoors. The public is safe at all times in both Guanas, however, because hunting seasons are defined and permitted only during certain days and times of the year.
I visited the GRWMA one recent day to talk to area manager and wildlife biologist Justin Ellenberger about hunting there. Then he took me in his truck to Capo Tower, an observation tower in the heart of the GRWMA, which hunters, hikers and bikers alike can climb for a view of salt marshes, pine and oak woodlands and the Intracoastal Waterway beyond.
“It’s nice that you can get a vista here that you just can’t get in Florida,” Ellenberger said. The GRWMA is a favorite destination of duck hunters from November through January and deer, hog and squirrel hunting are popular through fall. Hunters can hunt small game in fall and winter; spring turkey season takes place in March and alligators are hunted August through October. Florida’s quota hunt program ensures a good hunting experience and prevents overcrowding of hunters, according to GRWMA literature.
However, it is more challenging to get permits for some species than others, Ellenberger said. Alligator hunters are selected through a lottery system and only a few turkey permits are given out each year. “You don’t usually get picked for alligator or turkey the first year you apply,” he said. If not selected you get preference points awarded for the next year, which increases your chances.
Turkey season consists of two or three hunts the last two weekends in March. Guana only gives out six permits for those, as turkeys were just reintroduced to the area in 2002.
For waterfowl, hunt days are Wednesdays and Saturdays during the season and the first 100 people who show up get permits.
Small game hunts are held in December and January and the first 75 hunters who show up each day are in.
Deer permits are easier to get, but were recently reduced from 100 per weekend to 60 because of overcrowding, Ellenberger said. The ideal ratio is one deer hunter per 100 acres, and there are about 10,000 acres in the GRWMA, however half the acreage is water.
For most game, “the seasons progress from archery to general gun and, as they do, the game get wearier and figure out they are being hunted,” Ellenberger said. Hunting is a sport and can be a challenging, but it’s safe, he said.
Kicking up dust, a dozen horseback riders trotted up and down a hilly trail that wound through the North Florida brush filled with scrub oaks, palmettos and wire grass. Ahead of them, two dogs darted through the landscape, zigzagging at top speed as they searched for coveys, or groups, of wild quail. Each dog had a handler and those two men rode at the front of the line. Each dog also had a scout. The scouts rode in the brush with the dogs, keeping track of them.
Suddenly, one of the dogs stopped. Using its body as an arrow, tail out straight and nose forward, it pointed to the quail concealed on the ground. Everybody halted and watched as the handler approached the birds, then fired a pistol in the air. All the quail flew up and off in different directions. It was another successful “find.”
“That’s one of the best I’ve seen today,” said my guide, John Hicks, who rode beside me on top of an open-top truck that followed the horseback riders.
No one that day shot any quail, but that was okay. No one shoots any quail in field trialing, it’s all about the hunt and seeing whose bird dog is the best. It’s a sport that “requires an amazing skill set,” Hicks had told me earlier that late October morning when I went to watch the amateur division of the Sunshine Field Trial Club’s annual field trials at Chinquapin.
“It’s one thing to be a good hunter, but you’ve also got to be a good horseman,” he said. “The land is not marked,” he explained, pointing to a vast open area of wild land surrounded by woods. “There are so many variables and so many things take place. In front of you, the dogs are hunting the land as it lies.”
There are field trial clubs throughout the United States and competitions are held in most states, but the competitions at Chinquapin are special. The farm, owned by the Baker family of Jacksonville, is an approximately 7,200 acre plantation that is filled with wild quail. There are about 300 to 400 coveys with about 20 to 25 quail in each. The Bakers keep about 80 bird dogs and a stable full of horses for the use of their family and invited guests. Twice a year, the Bakers open the farm to people participating in the field trials for “continuous course” competitions. The Sunshine field trials for amateurs and professionals are held at the end of October and the Florida Open All Age Championship for professionals is held the second week of January.
During competitions, judges on horseback accompany the dogs, their handlers and scouts as they hunt over a five mile course. Two dogs compete at a time for 60 minutes, which is called a “brace.” There are many rules, “and the dogs are judged on their style, form, response to their handler’s commands and on their ability to find and pin the birds,” Hicks said. Pinning the birds means keeping them in a frozen state in which they sense danger and are not sure whether to stay still, run or fly away.
The handlers then flush them, at which point the dog “has to remain steady to wing and shot,” Hicks said. When the birds are flying and the handler is shooting that means the dog remains still.
It’s a spectator sport, which is part of the fun. Horseback riding spectators, called “the gallery,” ride behind the handlers and judges. They are followed by an open top truck that carries a few spectators and competing dogs in cages below.
English Shorthair Pointers and English Setters are breeds of dogs used in the sport and there are prized champion pedigree bloodlines, just as with race horses, said Hicks, who grew up in the field trial world because his late father, Pete Hicks, was a renowned champion dog trainer. John Hicks is a judge and a scout. John’s brother, Joe Hicks, has trained over a dozen Champion bird dogs through the years and has been a plantation manager for over 25 years.
“The sport is all about tradition and sportsmanship,” he said as we got ready to follow the third brace of the morning. Keeping with tradition, everyone gobbled down a quick breakfast of bacon and sausage muffins and then the next two competing dogs were led to the front of the line and then let go. As they bounded off into the brush, everyone followed by horse or truck.
“This is my 45th year putting on this trial,” Sunshine co-president Don Price had told me during breakfast. “A lot of spectators come along to be with other horse people,” he said. “For us dog people, horses are tools, necessary equipment.”
Equipment they must be highly skilled at using. The people competing have to be able to ride “like an Indian,” Hicks said. They also need loud, strong voices because they communicate with the dogs through sing song commands and shouts.
They also use whistles.
“It’s a very tightknit group, we’ve all been field trialing for 40 years or more,” said Hicks, who is concerned that it’s “a dying sport” because at age 50 he’s one of the youngest participants. Most are men, but women take part too. He would like to film a field trial documentary or create a reality television show about the sport and is looking for “a strategic partner.”
Professionals in field trialing travel a circuit for much of the year through the U.S. and Canada and not many young people are entering it because of the time and expense involved. In addition, there are fewer and fewer places to hunt quail on horseback in a natural environment like Chinquapin, Hicks said.
In the field trial world, the Florida Open is the equivalent of the U.S. Open in golf he said because Chinquapin is one of the best places to hunt quail in the country. “We are grateful to the Baker family for providing access to this wonderful place for many years.”