Ruark classic rekindles memories of bountiful quail

I've been enjoying reading Robert Ruark's classic The Old Man and the Boy. Ruark grew up a few years before I did, but I can connect with him, especially when he writes about the quail that during his time and mine were the prime outdoor pursuit of nearly every boy who grew up south of the Mason Dixon line.

One particularly interesting thing to me is that almost none of the farm and woodland we hunted back in the 1920s and 1930s was posted. Where I grew up in the hill country of Yalobusha County, Miss., a landowner who posted his land against quail hunting was looked down upon by most of his neighbors who hunted or in some manner obtained quail for the table.

I remember one landowner in my neighborhood who posted his land would invite my Dad to hunt with him, but was quite insistent that the hunt was over when each of them had bagged a half dozen quail. That was somewhat unsettling for Dad, who was used to hunting on his and my uncle's land where they ordinarily bagged about 25 birds each on an all-day hunt.

They made certain to not shoot down any one covey so that they would reproduce for the next season. Eight or 10 were usually left in a covey. That program worked back then. You could be certain there would be a new covey in the same area the next season.

The trend to post hunting land — both upland and woodland — became more common directly after World War II. Although there were some hunting clubs along the Mississippi River in my area, most of those were on lands behind the main levee or heavily wooded land in the south Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas.

The first such club I had any real contact with was the famous Merigold Hunting Club that is mostly in Bolivar County, Miss. It was organized as early as 1922, I believe. This fine old club still exists and had a great deal to do with the rapid increase in deer in all of the woods along the river front, both north and south of the club's lands. Merigold Hunting Club had lots of deer even in the dry days of the 1920s and 1930s. When poaching was almost ended right after the war, deer from Merigold migrated to adjoining woods. Deer hunters in the Delta today owe a word of thanks to the club.

The whitetail might very well have spread anyway, but I am quite sure that the Merigold club hastened the increase.

It is somewhat ironic that big game like deer and turkey have multiplied almost unbelievably while quail have declined in virtually all of the Southeast United States during the past 30 years — to the point that most would-be quail hunters have given up entirely. It's a sad state of affairs, but it proves that the cessation of hunting has little or nothing to do with present day quail numbers.

Most of the traditional quail habitat all over the region has been posted and controlled for many years, but the birds have disappeared anyway.

An interesting note from Ruark's book is that during his growing up days, deer and turkey were very scarce. In fact, bagging a deer was an occasion for a newspaper story and the only turkey hunt he described was one when the Old man and his cronies built a turkey blind that adjoined a huge wood area owned by a rich non-resident and entirely closed to hunting. In the dead of winter they baited the place with shelled corn and sat in the blind until a drove of turkeys fed to within easy range.

They took pot shots and killed seven. Since that was the only experience he had with turkey hunting, it is a blessing he wrote no more on the subject.

Nevertheless, the book is a delight. If you can get your hands on a copy, do so.

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