I only knew Ralph Irby for a few years before he died. But I learned enough about him in that short period to acquire an immense admiration for him.
This Clarke County man was one of the down-home heroes of my generation of southern boys who tramped the woods and fields after wild quail and who were born between the two world wars. We younger ones found scattered populations of “birds” in the fields in our earliest hunting years, and then saw numbers plummet steadily season after season. But Ralph was young in the heyday of quail hunting in the South, and we coveted his life afield.
His generation of hunters were so admired not simply because they had the finest wild quail hunting ever known and thus became masterful shooters, but largely because of their life circumstances. Bagged birds, or all game for that matter, were a much more important food source then than for subsequent generations. It just meant more when a plump bobwhite folded in a cloud of feathers and fell in the soft broom sage. It was important food for the table.
A good bird dog was valued then more than we could ever value one now in times of having plenty to eat. Gun shells were not as easily acquired. The Great Depression limited almost everything connected to quail hunting and all the outdoor sports.
We wish we could have lived when one would flush a dozen coveys in a short day afield and then go back the next day and flush another dozen. And we wish we could have brought home as many birds for each box of shells as Ralph Irby did.
Because of his long life, Ralph saw two other golden eras in the hunting world he cherished. Whitetail deer and the eastern wild turkey both thrived in his later years. He lived to see both these fine game animals grow to maximum numbers in his beloved Mississippi woodlands. And he learned to hunt gobblers with the same mastery that marked his bird hunting.
One of the outdoor life’s most heated debates would be to determine the greater sport between quail hunting over pointing dogs and calling wild turkey gobblers in the spring. Few men or women have ever mastered both. Ralph Irby did. He would tell of bagging a hundred quail in a week and hardly denting the population. And he could recall countless successful encounters with wily gobblers that eluded him and others until they attained legendary status.
When I visited his wife, Corene, and his son, Terry, after his passing, together we opened a couple of paper bags in which Ralph had kept over 70 turkey beards. “There are more,” said Corene. “One day I’ll find them.”