By Dylan Cooper, columnist
I recently wrote about my 4-year-old Labrador, Noah, getting in some more reps at water retrieves, but something that not a lot of hunting labs do is go after upland birds. Noah has a few natural instincts that I had no part in teaching him. One is that whenever I have a gun in my hand in the field, he is zigzagging back and forth in front of me about 10-15 yards out, sniffing out whatever it is he thinks I am hunting for. I have been trying to capitalize on this motion in order to make it useful for flushing grouse, woodcock, or quail that I could hopefully connect a shot with and then have him retrieve. But currently, finding those birds in Virginia is a very tall order. We’ve walked miles in the steep mountains from here to the West Virginia border without ever laying eyes on a prized Ruffed grouse. I hope it happens one day before he gets too old to do so.
I was recently made aware of an effort happening in Virginia to bring back the sport of quail hunting. No, it’s not on a game preserve, but they aren’t wild quail either. The Wildlife Foundation of Virginia (“WFV”) has released 650 quail each September over the past six or seven years on their property called Fulfillment Farms. The effort is mostly to keep quail hunters and dogs engaged in the sport. I jumped at the invitation to go, even though it was on one of my favorite days to be hunting the deer woods during the rut. I thought it would be a rare opportunity to get Noah on his first upland bird. It turned out to be quite a tiring day for him.
Upon arriving, the parking area gave us a grand view of the land we were about to traverse looking for our small quarry. We walked upwards of a mile before we had the first flush. We had checked thick creek bottoms, unmown fields, wooded hillsides, and finally found our first birds in a small isolated patch of woods. I would say that at first, we struggled to get the birds to work in our favor, as Noah had no clue what we wanted him to do starting out, and we didn’t really know how the birds would react either. But wow, it was very exciting to hear a quail flush again! I thought the sound of their fast wing beats was comparable to a toy helicopter.
A couple others in our hunting party harvested their first birds early on. It took a few misses from me before I got to connect with my first one. I had seen the bobwhite escape into a downed cedar on the edge of some open hardwoods. I sent Noah in there with the “Back!” command, and he actually worked it perfectly out into the open woods for me to sneak a flying away shot between the trees. Down it went and Noah was on it in an instant, so together we got to enjoy our first retrieve of a new species for him. When he didn’t see the birds go down, it was funny to watch Noah trot right past the downed quail because he was probably thinking he was supposed to be smelling out a duck or goose. Eventually, he caught on to the smell and was able to retrieve a few for us.
My favorite memory of that hunt was the last bird we harvested. I was walking a grown up road with the other hunters flanking above and below me with Noah zigzagging along. I spotted the male bobwhite in the brush above me and sent Noah in there. This time he used his nose and followed that quail right out to the edge and then back in. Suddenly, it flushed across the lane in front of me and I had less than a second to shoot in my narrow window. Somehow I connected with one shot but the bird kept going for another 30 yards with the momentum it had before going down. Noah didn’t see it go down, and we struggled a little bit to get him to find it. Once he did, you could tell he was happy and proud when he came prancing back to me with that bird, and I was also just as happy and proud.
The Wildlife Foundation of Virginia allows quail hunting on Fulfillment Farms on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (except holidays) during the quail hunting season set by VA DWR (this year it runs from November 6 through January 31). One party per day is permitted and a party is allowed up to four guns and a more modest harvest than permitted by DWR. Quail hunters must wait to request a hunt day until November 1st. A return trip may not be reserved until your most recent reservation has concluded. To book a day and check for availability, it is best to email Jenny West, the Executive Director of WFV, at [email protected]. A valid state hunting license is required.
In 1997, WFV acquired almost 2,000 acres in Albemarle County to provide no-fee recreational opportunities to outdoor enthusiasts. Fulfillment Farms is a gorgeous property tucked away in the Blue Ridge foothills about a half hour south of Charlottesville in Esmont, VA. From what I saw, it has a little bit of everything from cedar thickets to corn fields, hardwoods to brushy creek bottoms, and overgrown fields with old fencerows. The property has excellent small-game habitat but, like most areas across Virginia, was lacking the birds. Now the area gets a fresh batch of quail every year for hunters to pursue. Most hunters have very good success, particularly early on in the season.
Fulfillment Farms also provides opportunities for deer and spring turkey hunting. They received over 250 hunt applications this season. Applicants have to attend an on-site safety briefing to get a permit to hunt the property, one of which happens in September and the other in October. There are currently 150 active permits that are valid through the end of the following spring gobbler season. The farm is divided into seven zones. Two hunters are allowed per zone per day in gun season, and three per zone per day in archery season. The permit application is available on their website in August of each year.
Fulfillment Farms even features a couple waterfowl impoundments which are naturally flooded. The impoundments are planted with Japanese millet and were built with duck stamp money. Waterfowl hunting as well as small game hunting is permitted on the farm as well.
Part of the mission of the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia is to help facilitate the state with acquisition of lands for conservation purposes. A few recent efforts will be forthcoming in new Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in Gloucester and central Virginia. WFV also owns other lands that they manage for public access. A property near Danville is open to quota hunting through DWR called the Adams Daniel Farm.
There are other possible opportunities to replicate this program on their other properties across the state. Funding is a big hurdle for doing the quail releases. The Wildlife Foundation of Virginia is mostly internally funded. Donations to the foundation help offset the costs of these programs but not entirely. Timber management and grant awards help fund their projects.
A big fundraising event they host every year (except for these past two years due to COVID) is called the Old Dominion One Shot. It connects new and experienced hunters to the outdoors in a spring turkey hunt on some wonderful lands spread across the state of Virginia. Participants each year include youth, women, wounded veterans, and first responders. Volunteer guides, corporate sponsors, big prizes, and some very courteous landowners make this event possible. I was fortunate enough to participate in the 2019 One Shot, and was very impressed that such an event brings people from all across the commonwealth. This event will happen in 2022 so keep an eye on vaoneshot.com for more info.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.
Email: [email protected]