Alabama's Quail Trail
The Black Belt of Alabama is known for its history, its soil, and its poverty. But it should also be known for its bird hunting
Rolling down the highway on my way to hunt some birds and what could be finer than that? Actually, things could be a little better. The Atlanta airport and a nameless airline might, for instance, not have lost my shotgun. I had waited around the airport for three or fours hours and finally decided the hell with it. Someone at the lodge would have a spare.
Now I am headed west, across the waist of Alabama, and my mind is on other things.
This road, for instance. Highway 80 is the route that some six hundred protesters took on a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. They were marching for the right to vote, which was still pretty much a notional thing for blacks in Alabama in 1965.
Much has changed since then and vastly for the better. Still…as you approach Selma the scene is one of neglect and abandonment. Shotgun houses with boarded windows. Rows of depressing project homes—empty now and gutted. Concrete buildings that were once bars or rib shacks and are now just empty eyesores. The neglect and the poverty are as palpable and oppressive here as they were before the clash at Edmund Pettus Bridge. Worse, actually, since so much of the rest of the world has moved on and prospered. They make automobiles in Alabama these days. But not here. In the Black Belt, poverty still rules.
I’ve been invited down to learn how an effort to promote bird hunting might help improve things around here. And having never, in my life, turned down an invitation to go bird hunting, I am not about to start now.
So I drive on through Selma, west toward the Mississippi line, and then turn off the main highway. Another turn and the road is now dirt. The dwellings are small and rough. Then, I come to the drive that leads into a hunting lodge called Cottonwoods where I am expected and where I will hunt birds and spend the night.
The lodge is rustically handsome, but that’s not what draws your attention. If you are a sportsman, you will find yourself looking—with lust—at a forty-acre lake with the banks grown up in the kind of cover that you just know hides large, belligerent bass.
Nobody, however, is fishing. Not today. Wrong season. Things still happen according to the old rhythms in the Black Belt. There is a time when you plant and a time when you pick. You burn the woods once a year, and you hunt turkeys when the dogwoods are blooming. And you hunt birds (aka quail, aka bobwhites) from November, sometime, until February, sometime.
I’ve caught the tail end of that season in the coldest winter anyone can remember. The fire inside the lodge feels good. The big stone fireplace is at one with the rest of the interior. Hardwood floors. Overstuffed furniture. Mounts of deer with heavy racks.
The lodge is run by an affable man named Montgomery Smith. You find yourself immediately at ease in his company and start talking about bass fishing and bird hunting and other essential things.
Smith has hunted these parts all his life, and he remembers a time when bird hunting was a matter of knocking on doors and asking for permission and almost always getting it…and getting some birds. Those days are gone. Farming and forestry practices changed, and the wild bird population declined to the point where it was hardly worth hunting them. Deer hunting came on. So did turkey hunting. The local boys kept hunting; they just didn’t hunt birds much anymore.
But there were plenty of people who missed it. Missed walking behind a couple of big-going dogs, watching as they coursed through the broomweed and then feeling that little thrill when one went on point and the other backed.
So, commercial lodges began to appear. These were places where you could replicate the old experience. The biggest difference was that you hunted what are called planted birds. Or release birds.
They don’t fly as explosively as wild birds, but for people who love the sport, this is not necessarily a deal breaker.
“Good dog work and good ground,” Smith says. “Those things make a lot of difference.”
We go out after lunch and the ground looks just right, if a little damp. We will be walking today, and after the hours spent in airplanes and rental cars, this suits me fine. Walking was the way we hunted them when I was growing up, and it has always seemed the sovereign way of doing it.
The rolling country around Cottonwoods is grown up in broom sage, briars, and islands of pine, scrubby oak, and honey locust. There are a few small plots of tilled ground, planted in millet.
Smith’s dog is a sturdy male pointer.
“Hunt ’em up,” Smith says when he lets the dog off his lead.
Bird hunters say this to their dogs the way that preachers say, “Let us pray” to their congregations. It translates to “Game on.”
The dog gets right to work and he is all business. He dives into the briars and works through thick brush, moving fast but with deliberation. A few minutes later, the dog stops moving as if someone has hit a switch. The dog is motionless except for the soft heaving of his rib cage. He does not flinch as we move in past him. Or when four quail get up, making more noise than seems possible, and angle off toward a stand of pines. I’m slow, then quick, and miss with both barrels. But I have an excuse. I’m shooting a borrowed gun.
I feel, as I always do after a miss, that I have somehow let the dog down. But this one is not dismayed. He picks up the two that Smith has killed and goes back to work. We hear a few distant shots and, briefly, the hum of farm machinery. Otherwise the countryside is quiet and still. We hunt until dark, and we shoot plenty of birds and miss a fair number, too. We stop at one point to admire the ground and the dark prairie soil that is the reason—one of them, anyway—that this region is called the Black Belt.