Mays Pond Plantation / by Phoebe Bean

After 14 hours of being stuck in crates, the dogs were relieved to get some fresh air.

After 14 hours of being stuck in crates, the dogs were relieved to get some fresh air.

Mays Pond is a quail hunting plantation located near Monticello, Florida, that has been in the Perkins family for generations. I was fortunate enough to be invited by Nancy and Dave to go down last week with them; after hearing about it for most of my life, I was beyond thrilled to be able to experience what Mays Pond was all about.

The journey on Saturday from Vermont to Florida while traveling with three dogs and guns was anything but smooth… After dealing with exceptionally rude TSA agents at 4:00 AM, loopy dogs, and getting separated on different flights, we finally made it to the “Big House” at Mays Pond. One step through the front doors and I knew this was going to be a week to remember. One wall in the living room showcased every species of duck that had ever been shot on the plantation, and huge maps of the region displayed the quail courses on Mays Pond and surrounding plantations. If it was this cool at night, I couldn’t wait to explore it during the day. After a scrumptious dinner of rock crab by the fire, I went to bed and dreamt of alligators and poisonous swamp creatures. 

Before dawn on Sunday, we loaded our gear into the rental and drove to one of the plantation ponds in search of ducks. I have been blessed with countless breathtaking views in my life, but the millions of overhead stars reflecting on the black, glassy water as we canoed to the blinds left me awe-struck. Unfortunately, I was so intent on looking for all of the alligators I knew were out to get me that I didn’t take any photos of the stars.

A beautiful sunrise at the duck pond.

A beautiful sunrise at the duck pond.

After a somewhat successful hunt (for Dave, at least) we swapped our camo out for briar pants and went on a walk-shoot for quail. I spent three months in North Carolina one summer so I’m no stranger to heat and humidity, but that hunt was HOT! My excitement to hunt with horses and a wagon for the duration of the trip was exponentially heightened after walking all afternoon in knee-high, heat-locking, leather snake boots. 

Fast forward a few hours after a nap and we were back in our camo – this time, in a Cyprus swamp. I consider myself a relatively fearless person when it comes to being in the outdoors; put me in a place with alligators, though? Nope. Can’t deal with them. I spent more time jumping at every splash and breaking twig than I did looking for ducks. Luckily, there weren’t any ducks anyways so my distracted state didn’t cost us dinner. That evening, Andrew Pierce from Orvis and Brandon Boedecker from PRO Outfitters arrived and Dave joined them in a “mother-shucker” competition with a bucket of oysters.

Jess figured out the wagon routine pretty quickly and was deemed the "Most Improved Player" on the team.

Jess figured out the wagon routine pretty quickly and was deemed the "Most Improved Player" on the team.

The quail hunting from Monday through Thursday was unreal. Riding in the back of a mule-drawn wagon next to a bunch of southern men on horses felt like taking a step back in time. I was definitely called “Ma’am” and “Miss Phoebe” more in four days than I ever have in my life, and having grown up on a working ranch, the idea of someone else adjusting my stirrups every time I got on a horse was novel. The hunting itself was the most difficult I have experienced in terms of shooting skills. Trained to be a cautious shooter, the quail (or fighter jets as I like to call them) would often disappear before I could get a shot off. I definitely appreciated a bird in the bag a lot more.

The four men guiding us on our hunts were Mike Willis (the namesake for Nancy and Dave’s youngest setter), Brian Smith, Jason Willis, and Luck Bradley. Mike, who runs the plantation, is incredibly knowledgeable about the region’s history and I loved listening to him recount old memories and his thoughts on how to improve the plantation. It was obvious to me that he truly cares. Brian is the head dog trainer for the plantation kennels, and he kindly answered all of my questions about his style of training. He also always had the group’s safety in mind at all times and made sure everyone had a great time. Jason, Mike’s son, is also a dog handler (he graciously put up with my questions, too) and I would often turn around to look for my horse after a covey rise and Jason would be right behind me with my steed, reins and stirrups all ready to go. The efficiency that those guys had in the field was outstanding! 

One of my favorite parts of the trip was riding in the wagon with Luck, the man who is the namesake for Nancy and Dave’s oldest setter. We all learned many valuable lessons from Luck, such as the necessity of first pot-boiling and then frying every type of food except wharf rats, which need to be cooked outside on a spit (duh). Luck also taught us how to kill three deer with one shot, the positive impact that chewing two bags of Red Man everyday has had on his life, and that doing nothing at all for your wife’s birthday is totally acceptable. I doubt I’ll ever forget his trademark “hehehe” giggle, which was usually followed by a grumpy comment about one mule letting the other do all the work. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much.

The photo Brandon took of his "overcooked" duck.

The photo Brandon took of his "overcooked" duck.

Along with a few stops at Bradley’s Country Store for some sausage dogs, Nancy’s cooking was fabulous. We ate like kings. Gulf shrimp risotto, grilled quail, spicy grits, local field peas (grown by Luck), roast duck, wild rice, the famous “streakers” oyster recipe… Needless to say, I should put myself on a diet now that we’re back. One night, Dave came in to the dining room carrying a platter of ducks and apologized profusely for overcooking them, which is a serious offense in the Perkins household. Those birds were anything but overcooked and I know we all enjoyed them. Brandon's quote of the night was, "If I had poked that duck with my finger it would have quacked!"

After dinner, we usually settled into a few heated games of Liar's Dice in which beers were cracked, some serious name-calling occurred and profanities were continuously shouted across the table; I actually think I remember my godfather swearing more than four times in a single sentence (you tell 'em, Dave!). I learned I am not a very good liar.  As riled up as the group could get, one thing that reiterated my fondness for the people sitting around the table was that it was all in good fun; no one got so competitive that it turned ugly. We always went to bed happy, full, and excited for tomorrow's adventures to begin. 

There are too many memories to write down without sounding like a windbag, so I'll stop here. Every aspect of the trip was amazing - yes, even the alligators and spiders the size of my face - and I am so grateful and happy that I was able to go to such a special place with such extraordinary people.