Lady was locked tightly into the most perfect pose one could desire. Ordinarily stubborn and less than cooperative, she was now in rare form.

Equipped with a Stevens side-by-side in 20-gauge, I eased in behind the little spotted pointer with great anticipation. I was not to be disappointed.

A sudden and unnerving burst of wings filled the air with quail. Perhaps as many as a dozen were in this covey. Both barrels spoke; one bird fell. A graceful retrieve was too much to ask from Lady, so I contented myself with her point as I scooted across the broom sedge to pick up a handsome rooster collected with one of the charges of No. 8s.

This event was not uncommon on the small farm where I grew up. The 80 acres held five coveys, and adjacent land to which we all had access was similarly populated. It was grand indeed.

But that was more than 40 years ago. Quail hunters in Mississippi are not so fortunate today.

It's no secret that Mississippi quail have fallen on hard times. Populations have been on a steady decline practically statewide for years. Now it is rare to encounter a quail. That gentle, soothing whistle of the bobwhite that once filled every early morning and late afternoon across most of the Magnolia State brings a curious tilt of the head and broad grin when it is heard from time to time in isolated spots today. That is tragic, but it is fact.

What happened to the quail? There are few solid answers. Certainly land-use change has entered the picture. Those small farms of the 1960s with grown-up ditch banks and fencerows and a scattering of gardens, pea patches and corn fields are basically a thing of the past.

In their place are big, clean farms or pine plantations. Food and habitat changed as a result.

And there is predation. With a decline in trapping and subsistence hunting, a great many predators have increased. This could play a role in the reduction of quail. And disease could perhaps enter the picture.

When several small ingredients come together, they combine into a major obstacle. The quail is victimized.

For anyone wondering if the quail will ever return to the Mississippi landscape, there is a glimmer of hope. Biologists are working diligently to see what can be done. There is already a degree of success in various spots across the state on wildlife management areas, and some landowners are becoming more interested in proper habitat.

This could all translate into a measured improvement in quail numbers. We can all hope and work toward that possibility. But in the meantime, those who hunt quail must consider alternatives to the once-abundant wild populations and ample land access.

Hunters wanting to experience quail in 2008 as they were four decades past may have a dismal view of the situation. And such a view is justified. These hunters may walk many miles in search of only one covey, and even in that walking there are few guarantees. Or they must go to quail preserves to enjoy some shooting. But there are quail preserves, and then there are quail preserves.

A unique system in place on an increasing number of preserves is one known as early release. This, when done right, is a labor- and management-intensive proposition. The core of the program is to use pen-raised and flight-conditioned birds, and place them in coveys across a property well in advance of any shooting activity.

The release process may begin as early as September for the fall/winter hunting season. But the proper approach, it doesn't end with simply putting out 10 or 12 birds here and there.

One thing that must be done is to provide feeding stations with some level of security. Manufactured devices are used, as are brush structures. A call-back box, often a mechanized system set on a timer, is essential at or near this secure feeding locale to keep birds focused there until they become more acquainted with the surroundings. As they do become acclimated, they are free to venture out and search for other food sources. And this is where the bulk of the effort enters the scheme. It is long-term land management.

"The things we do for a quail course are pretty extensive when it comes to planting food," says Ed Carruth, a dedicated quail enthusiast and owner of Millbrook Plantation in Stonewall. "We also do a lot of planting for cover. We use lots of partridge peas. These are a good combination of food and cover, and they last all year."

But Carruth's management doesn't stop with the planting of food. He manipulates his timber land so that natural foods are abundant. Applications of Arsenal, timber thinning/harvest and controlled burns are part of the overall plan.

None of these is a one-time venture, and to do them right takes a great deal of effort and planning. The practices are also expensive.

Still, the results speak for themselves, and coupled with meticulous early release, those results are quail that will do the 1962 version of truly wild birds proud.

Carruth dedicates approximately 800 acres of his property to quail courses. This acreage consists primarily of pine timber. There is also a gas line and powerline right-of-way crossing the land, and these afford edge and openings that are managed for quail.

The timber has, for several years, been handled meticulously, including thinning. After the thinning, herbicide applications keep undergrowth in check, and controlled burns open the ground to sunlight so that desirable plants emerge to provide a natural food source. Beggar's-lice is one of these plants. Those pesky little seeds that stick to pant legs and shirt sleeves are a favorite of quail, and they are sure to be visible after a walk around Millbrook Plantation.

I have been fortunate to hunt Millbrook on many occasions, and this past season was no exception. The last trip there, however, was particularly memorable, for I was along with two young wildlife biologists who were relatively new to quail hunting, Amy Blaylock and Scott Edwards.

In fact, this was Blaylock's first quail hunt. She is a regional deer biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and Edwards is a wildlife biologist in the Private Lands Program of the MDWFP.

As we moved about the property, we all talked quail hunting. Carruth noted that having them there was like a site visit. They could give advice on habitat.

As two energetic pointers locked into position on the first covey of the day, Blaylock and Edwards stepped from the buggy and followed the hunt master's instructions. They moved in on the dogs, Blaylock on one side and Edwards on the other.

When everyone was in place, Carruth signaled for Daisy to enter the picture. Daisy is an English spaniel trained as a flush dog, and she is poetry in motion. From her little rest on the front of the buggy, Daisy leapt into action and headed for the pointers. Tail twitching and nose to the ground, she had no doubt of what was to take place at any minute.

The air was suddenly filled with exploding bobwhites. This was a big covey, and the chore at such times is to select that one bird and make the shot before focusing on another.

So many birds and the rumble they create are often distracting, but these two hunters performed well. They were using pumps, but the rules on Millbrook limit pumps and autos to two shells. Four shots erupted; two birds dropped. Each hunter had scored, and Blaylock could now say she had taken a quail.

The pointers gathered the birds quite handily and deposited them with the hunt master.

"I really like this," Blaylock said as she climbed back into the buggy while wearing a broad grin. "It is more challenging than I thought. And I have never seen dogs work like that."

Her quail-hunting day was just beginning, and that pleasure she expressed continued to grow as more coveys were put up before lunch.

The next point afforded the opportunity for Carruth and me to shoot. True, he is host and owner of Millbrook, but he takes every opportunity he gets to hunt. This was such an opportunity.

A German shorthair had been released from the buggy crate after that first covey, the pointers coming back into the crate for a rest. The shorthair worked the breeze gracefully. She would run perpendicular to it for 50 yards or so, and then move into it for perhaps 20 yards and work back in the other direction. It was all art and magic and style.

A long and narrow patch of corn stubble lay hard against the woods road and abutted the pine timber. It was here on this edge that the shorthair froze, her entire body fairly vibrating with enthusiasm.

"Our turn," Carruth said with a smile.

He moved from his seat, and walked to the gun rack on the back of the buggy. I followed his suggestion with no hesitation. Carruth extracted a dandy little .410-bore O/U from the rack, and again smiled.

My favorite shotgun for this type of hunting is a Remington 870 Wingmaster in that same size - .410. But on this day, I had along a Remington 332 O/U in 12-gauge. This gun is no longer available from Remington, but it is a classic. When it is in the crook of my arm, I feel empowered. I have visions of Nash Buckingham. I feel the warmth of wool jackets. I enter a realm apart from the clatter of technology and enter a time of gentleman hunters and nostalgia. The O/U perfectly fit the occasion.

Again Daisy came into play. Again the air was filled with bobwhites opting for altitude and distance from the disturbance. Again four shots were heard. And again two quail tumbled from the covey. More smiles.

Not far down the road, the hunt master pulled the buggy to a stop, and we got out to look over some planting Carruth had done.

"Partridge peas offer an open cover down near the ground and heavier cover up high," Edwards said as he examined the plants. "They provide good food and offer a place for quail chicks to move around; this diminishes the threat from avian predators."

Edwards was obviously pleased with what he saw.

Edwards also commented on the woods he had seen as we moved about.

"These are 'old way' woods," he noted. "Open pine, broom sedge. Early hunters probably found the habitat much like this. There were wildfires that spread, and native Americans also set fires."

And we must remember there were quail then as well.

The hunt continued from that point, and never was there a lack of action. The dogs would point; two hunters would move into position; Daisy would flush the birds. Before lunch, we put up 14 coveys and collected 32 quail. Not a bad morning!

And lunch was truly Southern style - fried chicken and vegetables. As to be expected, talk between bites centered on habitat management and quail hunting. Quite grand, it all was.