Labrador Retrievers are a special breed of gun dog. They can do it all — retrieve a duck, flush a pheasant, and even work side by side with pointers. But to get the most out of your dog, you will likely have to hook up with a trainer.
For our dogs, we turned to master guide Gary Clark who takes the special attributes of pointers and flushing dogs and blends them together to create an ideal bird-hunting experience. Gary’s team of pointers and labs work in hourly rotations with two pointers ranging out front of the hunters with one Labrador held in close or heeled up. The rest of the team rides in a custom-built trailer towed by a Kawasaki Mule. The trailer has seats for two hunters who ride in comfort while they watch these incredible dogs work their magic.
Gary hunts at Hard Labor Plantation, located in Chipley, Florida, a 3,000-acre quail property owned and operated by Ted Everett. Before a hunt, Ted will release birds in groups of anywhere from three or four to a dozen or more, spreading the birds out over acres of perfect cover in this vast plantation. Ted uses a mix of wild and pen-raised birds. Hunters and natural predators will take about 90 percent of the pen-raised birds in the first week of being released. The remaining 10 percent will form natural coveys and add to his wild bird population.
ON THE HUNT
After a brief safety speech, hunters load up on the Mules as Gary selects the starting team of pointers. Ruby and Doc, and a beautiful yellow lab named Max are first up. The pointers immediately start off ranging off both sides of the road, with Max running just ahead of the two Mules. Within minutes Doc is locked up solid on our first covey of the day.
Gary directs Ruby over towards Doc and the birds. Max is held back and heeled up as we form a line on both sides of Gary and work in towards the two pointers. I included my two-year old chocolate lab Abby in on busting up the first birds of the day.
Gary gave the command to Max to flush the birds and I released Abby. The two labs moved in on the locked up pointers, and five quail took flight. The labs get the pen-raised birds up and flying away instead of taking a short hop and back into the cover.
The Labradors add so much to these hunts, with their eagerness to bring downed birds back to the hunters and freeing up the pointers to find the singles.
Gary uses a shock collar on each of his dogs, the master switch is set on tone, but he seldom if ever has to send out a jolt. The dogs are conditioned to his voice commands. My dog could have greatly benefited from this. Abby would repeatedly break off after missed birds, driving them deeper into the cover. Watching Abby just reinforced how well trained Gary’s dogs are, and how much work I still have ahead.
As the first group of birds fan out, three break hard to the left, and I am introduced to the most amazing wing shooting I have ever witnessed. Gary’s 12-year-old son James Wesley Clark was on station far to the left as a mop-up guy to drop any that the inside guys missed. Well, he had three to deal with and they were all ranging out in that 40-yard range in a 100-degree arc.
James’ 20-gauge rang out three times, following though from one bird to the next. All three quail folded up, giving James a triple that I couldn’t make if my life depended on it.
We worked in a large circle, changing out the three dogs for a fresh set after about an hour. Dixie and Daisy took over pointing duty from Doc and Ruby, and a beautiful black Lab named Oslo gave Max a break. The fresh pointers were locked up in minutes, and Olso reluctantly broke off his new romance with Abby to get some work done. Gary sent him in to bust up a bunch of eight birds.
We only dropped three birds and I released Abby to help in the retrieving as Dixie and Daisy were already on point with a single. The action was so fast, the dogs so dialed in, that it was nothing short of magical.
We hunted hard the next two hours, finding all the birds that Ted released earlier and then some. We had Trip Carter with us, a young college student who works with me in the summers on the sport fishing boat. He’s an avid hunter and this was his first time quail hunting. Trip pulled me aside and said, “Corky, I have never seen anything like this. These dogs, how is it even possible, how do you train a dog to do what these are doing?”
“Trip, I don’t have a bloody clue,” I said, “but Daisy is on point again!”
At the end of the three-hour hunt, we covered about three miles of terrain, put up about 50 birds and had 20 hanging from the dog box. Back at the barn we took some photos and loaded up a worn-out Abby. I think I heard Olso whine a bit as we said our goodbyes till the next hunt. It can’t come soon enough!
Plan a Quail Hunt
You can find Gary Clark at Hard Labor Creek Plantation from November till April every year. If you want to plan a hunt of a lifetime, this is the place to do it.