DAWSON -- Given the financial uncertainty that plagued the Quail Unlimited conservation organization before Albany's Bill Bowles was named president of QU in November, many local supporters feared the annual Celebrity Quail Hunt held at plantations in and around Albany for the past 21 years was in jeopardy.
But Bowles, managing partner of Quail Country Plantation in Arlington, said one of his top priorities as president of Quail Unlimited is to make sure the annual hunt, the organization's largest fundraiser, goes off as usual.
"Our ultimate goal is to make this a weeklong event in Albany," Bowles said Thursday. "We want to combine our national convention and the celebrity hunt and bring them all to Albany. We're starting that process this year by bringing one component of the convention to Albany.
"On Tuesday, Jan. 26, the state chapters' chairmen and boards of directors, delegates, Quail Unlimited staff, the national board of directors and other officials will arrive in Albany for the first time. We will meet all day on the 27th and on the morning of the 28th before a landowners' appreciation reception of Stone Bridge Country Club that afternoon."
Bowles said events on the 29th and 30th -- Friday and Saturday -- would be memorable.
"We'll have a sit-down dinner Friday and a live auction with some of the nicest auction items we've ever had," he said. "And on Saturday -- Anheuser-Busch night -- we'll have music to listen to, music to dance to and music by legends of the Grand Ole Opry. Confirmed are Jim Ed Brown, John Conlee, Jeannie Seely, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jett Williams, Daryle Singletary, Helen Cornelius and others.
"You can't buy a ticket for a show like that."
As the Jan. 26-30 showcase, this year renamed the Quail Unlimited Conservation Celebrity Event to redirect attention to the primary focus of the fundraiser, draws nearer, hunt organizers say they're excited about the growing response locally and nationally.
"We've gotten around 18-20 celebrities so far confirmed for the event this year, and all of them have volunteered to pay their own way to get here," Hunt Committee Chairman Hill Mackey said Thursday. "A lot of them have told us Quail Unlimited has been good to them over the years and now they want to step up to the plate and do what they can to give back."
Among the celebrities confirmed for the 2010 hunt are Vince Dooley, Andy Hillenburg, Steve Kanaly, Patrick Kilpatrick, Sam Klement, Ryan Klesko, Daryle Lamonica, Chris Mohr and Jeff Treadway.
"Guys like Daryle Lamonica, Patrick Kilpatrick and Steve Kanaly are coming from the West Coast, so they're really going out of their way to help," Mackey said.
The hunt chairman said he's pleased with national and local sponsors who have gotten on board for the 2010 event as well, but he has special praise for the plantation owners who are allowing their land to be used for the weekend hunts.
"We've picked up two or three new plantations -- I know Triple Creek around Ellaville and Alaga in Stewart County are two of them -- that have gotten on board this year, and there are others who haven't been involved in the last few years who are joining us this year," Mackey said. "That's the key to this whole event."
Piney Creek Plantation just outside Dawson is one of the hunting facilities that is getting back on board after becoming disillusioned with the recent focus of the hunt.
"The key to this whole thing is quail habitat," said Allen Ingram, who with James McLendon owns the 2,200-acre hunting paradise. "I think the last few years the focus of the celebrity hunt has been on money; quite frankly, they'd gotten away from what it was supposed to be all about.
"We made a commitment to get involved this year because we want to help with the quail population and their habitat."
Piney Creek is one of the newer plantations in a region teeming with them. The Ingram and McLendon families had been purchasing property surrounding the original Piney Creek farm since 1995, and they opened up their land to hunting six years ago.
"We finally got enough land that we could put on a good show," Ingram said. "I've hunted with or guided for just about everybody who's ever had 25 acres of land and a bird dog from Albany to north Terrell County.
"What we've tried to do at Piney Creek is take everything we've learned over the years -- right and wrong -- and incorporate it into what we do. We have a way that we do things here that we think offers the best opportunity for hunters to have an enjoyable experience."
Jared Romero, who has guided for a number of plantations in Southwest Georgia, said he is most impressed with the facilities and the attention to detail at Piney Creek.
"I chose this place to guide because of the exceptional hunting," he said. "Piney Creek has the most realistic setting for a quality hunt: great dogs, great land and great habitat. During a half-day (quail) hunt here, you're going to come up on an average of 15-29 coveys. That's about as good as it gets.
"And I think the hunters here love the fact that they can kill an unlimited number of birds for one flat rate."
Adds Ingram: "The saying we have on our Web site (www.pineycreekplantation.com; phone (229) 317-3624 or 3680) is 'Southern quail hunting at its best with no hidden costs'."
Piney Creek offers quail, deer, dove, mallard duck and turkey hunts, and teams with Jager Pro Thermal Imaging Hog Control of Columbus (706-718-9789) for feral hog hunts as well.
"We try to meet the expectations of the people who hunt here," Ingram said. "My wife, Staci, looks after the (Winifred) lodge like it's her home, and I'd put our first string dogs against any dogs from here to Kansas.
"This is our seventh year of hunting, and we started with zero clients.
Word of mouth has been very good for us. Our business was up 50 percent last year, our corporate business up 100 percent. And in November of this year, our business was up 40 percent over last year. Here, it's about providing the habitat and the experience hunters want. We think people would rather get what they pay for -- a great hunting experience -- rather than sit in a $4 million lodge and smoke a $50 cigar."
Bowles said this year's celebrity event offers the entire community an opportunity to step up and support it.
"This is not just a quail hunt, it's a very important part of tourism in our area," he said. "We've got national sponsors -- Nestle-Purina, Winchester, Kubota Tractor, Anheuser-Busch -- coming here, and they need to see this community getting behind this event. Now more than ever, the community needs to show its support.
"We'll have the Boy Scouts, the Marine base, the Chamber of Commerce and the CVB involved, but this is for the entire community. We don't need to let this get away from here."
Locations and times for the dinner/auction Jan. 29 and the Jan. 30 Budweiser/Anheuser-Busch party will be determined next week.