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Original Issue

Upland shooting down on Florida's Gold Coast

Wintering sportsmen are enjoying some of the South's best sport just a few minutes' ride from Florida's most fashionable beaches

"This month, at the peak of its season, Palm Beach can boast the greatest concentration in the world of inch-square diamonds, block-long yachts, beautifully dressed women and heavily bankrolled men. It can also boast some of the finest quail shooting anywhere.

The idea of quail shooting in Palm Beach is somewhat startling; a stroll down Worth Avenue hardly suggests the outdoor life. But the scenery changes dramatically just 25 minutes from the sparkling shops and beaches of society's winter capital. West of the Sunshine State Parkway, trimmed lawns and palm-lined avenues abruptly give way to great open fields of wire grass and stands of longleaf pine—an ideal setting for the 24,000-acre shooting preserve operated by William A. Bonnette Jr.

For years Bonnette, a retired Navy warrant officer, had been spending his leaves wandering, shotgun in hand, among the palmettos of his native Palm Beach County. As far as Bonnette was concerned, there was better bird hunting around home than anywhere else in the U.S., but each year he found less and less of it available for public shooting. The birds, especially quail, were still there—if anything in increasing numbers—but as cattle ranches and citrus groves moved westward into Florida's interior, posted signs and fences followed. "Eventually I was spending as much time on leave hunting for a place to hunt," he recalls, "as J spent actually shooting."

Bonnette decided to do something about it. Two years ago, fresh out of the Navy, he began leasing shooting rights on lands in the vicinity of Palm Beach. By midwinter he had lined up 1,000 acres, obtained the necessary preserve permits, posted his own signs and talked half a dozen well-heeled wintering sportsmen into buying memberships in a loosely organized shooting club.

The dues collected from these initial memberships were immediately converted to additional leases and, surprisingly, Bonnette didn't have to look far for available land. In fact, soon he didn't have to look at all. As word of his project spread, the landed gentry of Palm Beach County started coming to him. People like Philip and Stewart Iglehart were delighted at the prospect of making money on vast, unimproved tracts of land they held principally for future appreciation.

By the time the preserve season opened last October, less than a year after he entered the business, Bonnette had under lease 24,000 acres of the choicest quail-shooting land in Florida, a membership list that read like Who's Who and a reputation that extended across the border into Canada. "It just started rolling," Bonnette says, "and it hasn't stopped yet. Everyone who hunts here once seems to come back with two friends, and they in turn come back with two more. I haven't had to advertise because the shooters have been doing it for me."

Proof that contented customers do a good job is Delmer C. Bodkin of Islington, Ontario, who flew into Bonnette's by private plane two weeks ago for a day's shoot. The week before, a fellow member of Bodkin's trout-fishing club in Ontario had sent him a Bonnette brochure. Scrawled in red crayon across the front were six words: "Twenty quail in two hours. Fabulous!"

"It was 10 below zero up there," Bodkin said, "and I knew this fellow wasn't the kind to exaggerate, so I just thought I'd better drop in and take a look. He wasn't kidding. I've taken a basket of birds so far." Bodkin left with a dozen brochures, each earmarked for a friend.

The phenomenal success of Bonnette's Palm Beach preserve is based on a combination of factors, not the least of which is a nationwide trend toward preserve shooting. For the past two decades sportsmen everywhere have watched their happy hunting grounds sprout supermarkets and drive-in theaters, until now about the only bag they can expect to bring home is a plastic one filled with popcorn. Preserves offer hunters a chance to enjoy more of their sport with less effort. Seasons are longer (six months in most states), game more plentiful, and traveling time to and from a shoot is shorter than in most wild hunting. Such convenience has lured a lot of people onto preserves who might otherwise never hunt at all. And as the preserve movement has boomed through 44 states some of the very hunters who originally criticized it the loudest are now sheepishly lauding it.

Their turnabout is not without reason. Preserve shooting, too, has undergone a turnabout in recent years. A typical "hunt" is no longer a matter of planting an unconscious bird in the middle of an open field and leading a dude by the hand up to it. Preserve hunting today in a really well-run operation like Bonnette's closely approximates wild hunting. At the beginning of this season, for example, Bonnette released some 8,000 birds, mainly quail. By midwinter, in the superb cover and feed his land offers, these birds had not only reverted to a semiwild state but many had joined up with groups of wild birds.

One-third of the quail taken on Bonnette's preserve this past month were native wild birds. With such a ratio, the sport has got to be good. Proof that it is arc the first-class hunters—people like Leon and Carola Mandel, Paul Butler and daughter Jorie Kendall, Tommy Shevlin, Margo and Ed Crawford, Mrs. Francis Kellogg, George Gore, Jim Kimberly and a dozen others who can and do shoot on the best hunting grounds in the world—who keep coming back to Bonnette's for more.

If anyone is qualified to comment on what is or is not sporting shooting, longtime outdoorsman James Van Alen probably is the man. Recently Van Alen and his wife slipped away from the beach to visit Bonnette's for the first time. He arrived with an open mind and definite misgivings. He left smiling, a membership application in his hand and a package of plucked quail under his arm.

"It was really very good, very good," he said, still visibly surprised at his own satisfaction. "Yes, very good. I didn't think I would enjoy it so much. That young fellow has done a good job."

Van Alen, of course, had hit upon a key factor in the success of Bonnette's preserves—Bonnette himself. Tanned and handsome, with an engaging smile and laugh-crinkled eyes, Bonnette at 45 looks and dresses like a theatrical version of a wealthy cattle rancher. His handling of a dog and a shotgun is faultless, and both seem to perform for Bill Bonnette as they never would for anyone else. What makes this remarkable is that Bonnette is as much a newcomer to dog training as he is to shooting preserves.

"First he read books," says Bonnette's blonde wife, Jane. "Everything he could get his hands on. He sent away for all kinds of technical manuals on game breeding and management, and he memorized them all. Then he started visiting game farms and preserves. He must have covered 100 and corresponded with at least half of their operators.

"The next thing I knew we were raising baby quail in our backyard. Then Bill brought home a few pointing pups to learn all about them. When he wasn't dog-training, usually with a book of instructions in one hand, he was listening to records to learn quail whistles. Most of our Navy friends decided he had gone to the dogs and birds."

The rewards of Bonnette's self-exile is a game preserve that has become, in less than a year, one of the finest in the U.S. It is already a paying proposition. He has combined public and private shooting in one overall program. A season's membership at $1,250 in Bluefield, as Bonnette calls the private northern portion of his preserve, entitles a hunter and his wife to 200 quail, three wild turkeys, two deer, unlimited wild boar and accommodations, if they want them, in a comfortable, modern clubhouse.

Bluefield members may also hunt at Hood Road, the southern portion of Bonnette's preserve, but this area is also open to public, or day, shooters. The minimum daily charge of $35 entitles a hunter to shoot eight quail (additional quail are $3.50 each, wild turkeys $40), and to the use of all Hood Road facilities, dogs, guides and equipment.

Small charge for a fast freeze

The clubhouses at Hood Road and Bluefield were decorated by Jane Bonnette, who has her own decorating business in Palm Beach. They are handsome, immaculate and staffed with excellent cooks and attendants who will clean, pack and fast-freeze the day's bag for a small charge. Bonnette keeps a collection of rental shotguns at Hood Road for vacationers who come south unarmed, and he also stocks ammunition, preserve shooting licenses ($5.25) and a line of hunting boots.

There are some 30 dogs (mainly English pointers, with a scattering of setters and one coal-black pointer-Weimaraner cross that is Bonnette's favorite), divided between the kennels at Bluefield and Hood Road. In place of horses, used extensively for quail shooting in other parts of the South, Bonnette has designed a fleet of 11 hunting jeeps. They are equipped with customary four-wheel drive for covering the rough Florida terrain, fold-down windshields, gun racks, padded gunholders, double winches and beverage coolers, and they are mounted with double dog boxes on the back that form a base for elevated spotting seats high above the ground.

Customarily, the hunters perch on these seats, African-style, until after the dogs have been released and had a chance to cover some of the ground. As soon as a dog goes on point, visible often only from above, the hunters climb down. They usually continue hunting on foot, at least until they are ready to move to another area. The dogs, remarkably, seem to adjust their pace to the hunters, ranging wide when they are in the jeep and much closer when they are traveling on foot.

Some of Bonnette's dogs also have an uncanny ability to adjust instantly from one kind of game to another. He has a liver-and-white pointer named Spot, for example, who can easily hold his own against any quail champion in the country. One morning last week Spot was hauled out before dawn to an area where several turkeys had been seen the evening before. With the first gray rays of morning, when turkeys usually leave their roosts to forage, the hunters crept blindly into a heavily thicketed stand of pines. Spot bounded eagerly ahead.

Suddenly he stiffened on point; a huge bird labored with a whoosh of wings into the air, and Spot charged off through the dense brush barking like a coon dog on scent. He skidded to a halt at the base of a tree and, squatting back on his haunches, raised his nose to the still-dark sky and howled at his quarry. This was the same Spot who in 49 coveys of quail the day before had never broken a single point or uttered a single sound.

"How did he know he was supposed to be hunting turkeys now?" one of the hunters asked.

"Well, I'll tell you," Kirby Smith, the guide, answered, "any dog knows nobody would be hunting quail this hour of the day."

Really outstanding performances like Spot's are typical of the quality that distinguishes all hunting at Bill Bonnette's. It is the kind of quality—in dogs, land, equipment, guides, game and, most important, sport—that is giving new stature to preserve shooting.