When Curtis “Sonny” McLellan was 9 years old, he, like any Southern boy, developed a hankering for a dog.
Specifically, a bird dog.
In a stroke of luck, McLellan traded 12 hens and a rooster for Jill, a black and white bird dog he hunted with for 13 years. His future as a quail-hunting enthusiast was cemented.
“I’ve loved dogs and quail hunting ever since I could remember,” said McLellan, 72, owner of Quail Valley Hunting Preserve in Vernon in Lamar County. “I guess I’ve seen a million dogs point (freeze and aim their snout toward game), and I never tire of it.”
Growing up, McLellan’s dream was to farm, but his folks insisted he and his siblings attend college.
“That’s all we heard, ‘You’re going to get an education,’” remembered McLellan, who studied agriscience education at Mississippi State University (MSU) in 1962.
Several years later when saving money to finish his last semester of school, McLellan got a shot at his dream.
“I never thought I’d get a chance to farm, but I did,” he said. “For 37 years, I never finished that semester.”
That is, until 2001, when he completed the three classes standing between him and graduation.
That’s where his love affair with quail hunting recommenced. In the 1980s, Alabama’s natural quail populations disappeared, and game enthusiasts could no longer hunt the 3-ounce birds. As a result, pen-raised birds released at preserves became the norm for quail hunting in the Southeast.
While at MSU, McLellan considered starting a preserve for his buddies, but encouragement from friends in MSU’s wildlife department convinced him to open the preserve to the public.
Quail Valley Hunting Preserve, located on 130 acres of former soybean fields in McLellan’s backyard, was a dream that became reality.
“Most visitors are people who want their children and grandkids to know what quail hunting is like,” McLellan said. “I’ve tried to make the experience as natural as possible.”
McLellan’s quail come from Oneonta. The morning of a hunt, he releases birds in the field, but not too early. If the birds fly too soon, predators like hawks swoop in before hunters can raise their shotguns.
“I wish there were wild birds like there used to be,” McLellan said. “A quail just doesn’t survive well with predators we have now.”
Though today’s hunts don’t exactly mirror those of his childhood, McLellan is passing on a passion for quail hunting to his grandson, Austin Duran, who said the sport’s fast pace and relaxed atmosphere keeps him coming back for more.
“I like being able to talk and interact with people,” said the 21-year-old. “It’s really fun to have your own dog and see the progress that dog makes in a day.”
Duran trains his dog, Bella, at Quail Valley, taking after his grandfather, who has 10 bird dogs he’s raised including setters and German shorthaired pointers.
“There are two things you can’t teach a dog – to smell and hunt birds,” McLellan said. “Dogs smell that bird and learn over time they can’t catch it. They freeze when they smell it, and we call that pointing.”
Before opening Quail Valley, McLellan grew row crops and raised cattle around Vernon and Sulligent. An active member of the Alabama Farmers Federation, McLellan flew to the District of Columbia in 1977 for the organization’s first Washington Legislative Conference, a trip he made for 27 consecutive years.
A jack-of-all-trades, he served on the Federation Board of Directors in the 1980s before being elected Lamar County probate judge. He also preached for over 40 years.
Quail Valley hunters range from college students to men McLellan’s age, and they come from as far as Charlotte, North Carolina, or as close as Tuscaloosa County.
“It’s nostalgic,” said Northport’s Skip Lambert, who trains dogs at Quail Valley. “People are reliving how they hunted as children.”
Lambert and McLellan met 15 years ago, when similar affections for quail hunting, dogs and the outdoors made them fast friends.
“Sonny’s a farmer,” Lambert said. “I’m a farmer at heart.”
When McLellan takes customers to Quail Valley, they’re not just shooting quail, tasting homemade snacks provided by his wife Joan or checking out the Sears, Roebuck & Co. shotgun his father gave him 63 years ago. McLellan is helping them create and reconstruct prized memories.
“I look back over my life, and of all the things I’ve ever done, I’ve really enjoyed this,” McLellan said. “It’s unbelievable the things you learn about people.”
Quail Valley Hunting Preserve’s season runs from October to March. For more information, visit QuailValleyHunting.com.