Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
DESOTO — On a cold day — not biting, but just right for quail hunting — the hospitality of the hosts warmed the atmosphere considerably. This is the time of the year when all of south Georgia is in an aim-and-shoot mode. You consider yourself fortunate when you are the beneficiary of an invitation to walk fields of broom sage, brush land, and piney woods.
Like at The Covey, where you are greeted by 84-year-old Hap McNeel, who is a successful building contractor in Marietta but can’t wait to spend his winters here, which is where Hernando de Soto, the explorer, may or may not have set foot. History says the Spanish conquistador did make his way into this part of our state and that he received a gift of wild turkeys and partridges. More than likely it was turkeys and quail.
An exposure to Hap McNeel, his family and his friends leaves one convinced that ol’ Hernando didn’t experience more fun — even when inefficient marksmanship caused the host, who can aim his .410 side-by-side with those in any age group, to chide those who disrupt more vegetation than feathers. Andy Griggs, the country singer, who was Hap’s guest last week, missed a couple of shots Hap deemed easy, causing Hap to exclaim, “Boy I hope you can sing better than you can shoot.”
The next day, Jett Williams, daughter of legendary Hank, showed up with her husband, Keith Adkinson, and Hap remained just as caustic. When Jett missed a shot, he said, “Honey you ain’t been shootin’ a lot lately, have you?” Then when she shouldered her Winchester pump and fired straight and true, her smile reflected the adrenalin rush that comes with such outdoor fulfillment-Hap was leading the cheers. He followed that up with an affectionate hug as if she had just given a signature performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
The hunting was good, but lunch was overwhelming. Hap’s generous wife, Patricia, their daughter, Peggy, and daughter-in-law, Lisa, were hovering about the kitchen in a style reminiscent of the old days, when the hostess was bothered if you didn’t ask for seconds.
Any and all of us could have auditioned for “a man in full,” as we, heavy-footed, came in from the fields in the company of a man who seemed to have more energy than the rest of us combined. He headed straight to the bar, suggesting we have a “shooter” before lunch.
Hap ushered his guests into his den, which is accented by a few artifacts, Bulldog paraphernalia and animal mounts, showcasing his greatest passions — Georgia football and the great outdoors. There, before a roaring fire in a fireplace that was at least a half a first down in width, he proclaimed his gratefulness for the influence of quail hunting and farming. “No question, it has been healthy for me,” he smiled as he savored a sip of Famous Grouse. “I can’t wait to get here in the fall,” he was saying to Jett Williams. “Life is good when you are down on the farm. You must come back to see us.”
Hap’s place is not organized for commercial hunting. “Got too many grandchildren,” he said. “Taking your grandchildren out to shoot a quail or catch a bass is one of the most important things you can do in life. This place is good for grandkids, and it is good for me. It’s made me live longer.”
Hap, a likeable, colorful, and unforgettable character, hosted hunters on a recent weekend for Quail Unlimited, which has its annual charity outing in Albany each January. “That’s a good organization, and if folks come hunt with us, we want them to enjoy themselves.”
As Jett Williams eyes sparkled, you wondered if a new country title might be forthcoming. Something like “Hunting With Hap” would go off the charts.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.