Comeback Quail

This Clay County sporting estate is bringing back the Black Prairie’s ‘prince of game birds’

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter & Kelly Tippett

Dirt road dust dances behind a green pickup fading from sight on the far side of a soybean field. For the moment, it’s the only visible movement in a quiet tableau. A few lazy cattle converse briefly in the distance. In the sunlit silence, it’s easy to feel life is simply biding its time.

But make no mistake: Mother Nature is busy at Prairie Wildlife in Clay County. And she’s getting plenty of help from Jimmy Bryan and the team dedicated to upholding Southern sporting traditions on this conservation-driven estate.

UNSETTLING DISCOVERY
As a boy growing up in West Point, Bryan took genuine pleasure in cool, crisp mornings in the field, a good hunting dog at his side. Quail were plentiful, and Mississippi’s Black Prairie ecosystem seemed to be thriving. As years passed, an expanding family and the demands of commerce would dominate the businessman’s time.

“About 15 years ago, I wanted to start hunting again, but I discovered there just weren’t many birds,” said the general manager of the 5,800-acre working farm and adjacent Prairie Livestock commercial cattle operation.

It’s no secret to outdoorsmen that the Magnolia State’s Northern bobwhite quail populations have dramatically declined in the past 30 years. Changing agricultural and land-use practices designed to maximize production of food, fiber and forest products have diminished habitat for the game birds that once prospered in tall native flora.

Ground-nesting quail need grassy covering for nesting, weedy areas for safely rearing their broods and woody fencerows for protection from harsh winters and wily predators. Modern land-use methods have reduced all of it.

Concerned and committed, Bryan decided to do what he could to bring back vanishing quail communities and preserve the sporting traditions he wanted passed on to his children and grandchildren.

Enter Dr. Wes Burger, professor of wildlife ecology and management at Mississippi State University.

TEAMWORK
“Dr. Burger came over and gave us direction, helped me get started,” explained Bryan. “He told me we needed to have a lot of the same farming practices we had back in the 1950s.”

With guidance from MSU and assistance from the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, Bryan implemented a strategy that included converting certain croplands to native grasses, legumes and wildflowers. Field borders of native grasses were also established around soybean and corn fields. Studies show these “bobwhite buffers” aid dramatically in increasing quail numbers. “We also plant native shrub corridors for protection from predators like hawks in winter,” said staff wildlife biologist Lee Woodall, who also oversees hunting operations.

“Prairie Wildlife has been an invaluable research partner with MSU,” Burger said. “This working landscape has served as an outdoor laboratory for at least 12 research projects. ”

Extensive habitat restoration, combined with supplemental feeding and predator management to reduce threat to quail from raccoons, opossums and skunks, have paid off. In 1997, MSU could confirm only four or five coveys on the estate. “Now there are more than 60,” said Bryan. “In the last three or four years, we’ve seen the covey sizes increase, too, to what it was in the old days.” West Point native Doug Shaw manages food plots and assists Woodall. “That’s what I love. I get to help establish habitat, and then you’re actually able to see it produce,” he said.

THE HUNTS
As game — quail, dove, deer and rabbit — continues to increase, Prairie Wildlife offers an array of commercial hunts. And whether heading to the field by mule-drawn wagon, horseback or on foot, many a visitor has shed stress with each hoofbeat or footfall.

The signature all-inclusive wild quail hunts, from near Thanksgiving into March, feature multiple outings, all meals, guide service, cleaning and packaging of birds and choice of accommodations in the recently-built lodge, or in an historic (and discreetly-modernized) circa 1845 log cabin.

A kennel of two dozen well-trained working dogs, led by tested veterans like Delta, Jack and Savanna, are honed for the season. (And then there are the irrepressible beagles, waiting their turn, noses keen for the scent of a hare.)

Other activities include fly or spin fishing on the estate’s lakes, canoeing, skeet shooting, hiking and bird- and butterfly-watching.

PLEASING THE PALATE
Whether for corporate retreats, private functions or hunting parties, Lodge Manager and Executive Chef Harry Pasisis specializes in expertly-prepared Southern-style breakfasts and luncheons for guests. Evening cuisine features top-quality beef, veal, lamb or fresh seafood in innovative menus. (Don’t miss the chef’s own creation, Mississippi Tiramisu.)

In March, Prairie Wildlife introduced its Chef’s Table, a fine dining night-out presented monthly in the off season.

“The Chef’s Tables are opportunities to get people here who might not normally come during hunting season,” said Pasisis. “These offer a chance for the public to come out and see and hear about what we do.”

TRADITIONS CONTINUE
Bryan’s early vision of getting back to nature is falling into place.

“The challenge has been just time and perseverance,” he shared. “It came slow, but we could see the benefits every time we did something.”

He’s well aware the once quail-rich Black Prairie holds a sacred place in bird hunting history. The first national grand championship field hunt was organized and held near West Point in 1896. At Prairie Wildlife, conservation efforts honor that sporting legacy.

For Jimmy Bryan, the best reward comes in a small, feathered package — a handsome quail perched on a fence post, calling a mate, its distinctive song just as sweet to the ears as when he was a boy.

“It’s really just satisfying to see it come back to what it was,” he summed up. “It’s good to see things the way they used to be before we broke all the ground up … good to get it back to what it was when we were kids.” Learn more about Prairie Wildlife’s conservation efforts, hunts and events at prairiewildlife.com.


Chef Harry Pasisis of Prairie Wildlife shares two of his favorite recipes:

FRESH GULF COAST CRAB CAKES

1 pound fresh Gulf Coast jumbo lump crabmeat
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped fine
1½-2 cups plain breadcrumbs
1½ cups grated Swiss cheese (Use large grate size)
¼ cup fresh chopped flat leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon kosher salt (If using iodized, just a couple pinches)
¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 large egg
1 cup yellow corn meal
¼ cup olive oil

• Sauté onion in butter on medium high heat until tender and opaque (about 10 minutes). Cool for about five minutes.
• Mix all dry ingredients with crabmeat. Mix thoroughly but not enough to break up the lump crab.
• Add butter and onions to the mixture. Add egg. Mix thoroughly but gently.
• Gently form cake with your hands. Lightly press into yellow cornmeal.
• Add olive oil to a heavy pan. Bring to medium high heat. Add the crab cakes and fry until golden brown.

MISSISSIPPI TIRAMISU

10-pack of mini chocolate moon pies
1 pound mascarpone cheese
2½ ounces sugar
2 egg yolks
4-5 shots of espresso from instant espresso mix at room temperature
3 ounces Tia Maria Liquor Cocoa Powder for dusting
1 bar semisweet chocolate

• Add espresso and Tia Maria to a pan. Cut moon pies in half to make half moons. Place them into espresso and Tia Maria mixture so that they soak up all of the liquid. (Arrange them into the bottom of an 8-by-9-inch pan as closely together as possible if you have to.)
• To make filling:  add mascarpone, sugar, eggs and one shot of the espresso & Tia Maria into a bowl. Mix until smooth. Add the mixture to the top of the soaked moon pies. Evenly sprinkle cocoa powder over the top and grate the semisweet chocolate over the top.
• Let set up for about an hour before serving. (I like to sprinkle the plate with more cocoa and chocolate after the tiramisu has been added. Fresh berries also make a nice addition.)