“ If You Choose To Go . . .”
A Lament

By Tom Word

Luck punctuates my life: birth (1938, rural Virginia, solid middle-class parents); education (cheap, college $63 a quarter, law school on scholarship); job (sleepy proud law firm of 8, now grown to 900); family (loving wife, just one, two sons now my best friends); hobby (bird hunting).

Birdhunter. A choice that meant I’d never have to grow up, completely. For a practicing birdhunter remains always a boy.
Birdhunter means quail hunter in the Deep South. In Virginia it means that and sometimes more, as in my case—grousehunter, too.

What is (or was, for the smaller species is all but endangered) a birdhunter? He’s a fanatic for sure, devoted to his hobby, addicted to it in fact. And what causes that addiction? It starts with certain predilections: love of the outdoors, of working dogs, of tramping about in briars, plus a touch of a primordial urge—to hunt, our race’s second strongest. But the hobby requires one indispensable ingredient: wild birds. And here begins my lament. There are none anymore.
I say none, though I acknowledge there are a few. But to make a birdhunter, in the classic sense, there must be plenty, and not just on a few rich-held preserves. Birds must be available, as they were in most of my luck-filled life. And they must be wild. Hunting pen-raised birds is but make believe.
What was it like to be a birdhunter? I say was, not is, because even for those of us still living the dream, the experience is no longer there. Here is what it was like.
A Saturday morning in season. Your eyes pop open in darkness, your lips form a smile. You slip from bed silently to the kitchen, pull on your tattered togs and turn on the coffee. Your bird dog—pointer or setter—bangs its tail on the table legs, and you urge quiet. In minutes you’re driving away, off for a day of adventure.

Perhaps my best luck was in finding companions, like-minded buddies who loved it as I did. The first was Rosewell Page, III, law partner, Marine veteran, scion of the Pages of Hanover County’s Oakland where his ancestor Thomas Nelson Page wrote Two Little Confederates. Trainer in law school of Bob, a setter legend of the 60s that barked if lost on point! The first and only self-contained beeper!
“I’ve just settled a case—can you go?” Rosie would call and ask. I’d say yes, even if it meant a little white lie to my mentor, Tom Gordon, and we’d be off to Oakland. Bob lived in the trunk of Rosie’s ancient third-hand Mercedes, banished there by Rosie’s wife Anne, Episcopal bishop’s daughter and a dynamo interior decorator. Bob ate chicken out of a skillet, chicken simmering on the stove and intended for dinner guests. Bob was ugly and unstylish, but he had our two required talents—finder and retriever of birds. The bark on point was but a bonus.
At Oakland lived Rosie’s parents, Mr. Rosewell and Mrs. Madge, gentry. Before their open fire at dark, we toasted the hunt with bourbon, while Mr. Page told us of long ago foxhunts. Two years into my law practice, Tom Gordon called me in. “Thomas, you are ruining your chance for a good reputation as a lawyer by sneaking off to bird hunt.” He meant it, but I was already addicted. In his final years, we joked about it—he had to admit that my passion for bird hunting had brought me most of my good clients, fellows who shared my obsession. Another law partner and mentor, Bob Patterson, also shared the obsession. His ancestral lands were in Buckingham, along the James, and with his pointers Dolly and Jill, we tromped together many a day beneath the eastern brow of the Blue Ridge. A favorite place was Algoma, lands of Civil warrior and later rail baron General Logan. A log kept there in the last two decades of the 19th Century chronicles the visits of birdhunters, including John S. Wise, author of the classic Diomed, the Life of a Setter Dog, and End of an End, the best account of Virginia life just before and after the Great Unpleasantness.

In 1973 my luck reached its zenith. A life insurance salesman seeking referrals provided an introduction to his brother, Joe Prince, a farmer of Sussex County. That sparked a three-boy partnership that persisted till Joe’s death in a farming accident a decade ago. The third partner was Denny Poole, Sussex building official and the best dog trainer I’ve ever known. What every urban dwelling birdhunter needs is a farmer friend similarly addicted. For me that was Joe. A grain farmer and bachelor ten years my senior, Joe hunted quail six days a week once the crops were in (on the seventh he walked puppies). Denny was Joe’s best friend. Calm and considerate of all, Denny was the perfect foil for Joe’s mercurial nature. Denny’s occupation made him an undercover covey scout. Inspecting house trailer installations, Denny located new coveys weekly. His secret weapon was his wife Ann, who operated a hairdressing salon (a.k.a. a beauty parlor) in their Stony Creek home. Denny and Ann were the most popular couple in Western Sussex County. When Denny spotted a new covey, the odds were long Ann “did” the hair of the land’s owner or the owner’s wife or mother. Denny also served as a volunteer fireman. Permission to pursue newfound coveys just required triangulation by Denny, Ann, and Joe. Joe’s ace in the hole was his heritage—his father practiced medicine in Stony Creek for five decades and delivered all babies born thereabouts. Joe’s physician brother John practiced medicine nearby and counted many Sussex citizens his patients. Plus, Joe let deer clubs and rabbit hunters use his several thousand owned and rented farm acres.

“Where is your hunting territory exactly,” I asked Joe.
“Anywhere within a five-mile radius of Stony Creek,” Joe answered. I assumed he exaggerated, but soon realized he understated. Ten-mile radius would have been more accurate. Posted signs didn’t apply to Joe and Denny—they had worked out permission with most everyone with land where quail lurked. (On the rest we poached or had “running permission.” Every quail hunter knows what this means.)

They were careful not to go too often to any one place and not to interfere with deer drives or rabbit hunts. And Joe often took dressed quail to landowners, especially little old ladies who were friends of his mother, the tiny but formidable Mizz Grace Prince, known by all for her sometimes brutal frankness (as was Joe).
Bird hunting is a ritualistic pursuit. The rituals of the PP&W Club (as we came to call ourselves) were fixed. We’d meet at Joe’s house at seven each Saturday morning and sometimes on Wednesday. Before Mizz Grace’s stroke, she’d be supervising Margaret, cook of three decades, in fixing breakfast, always biscuits from scratch, bacon, sausage or ham, sometimes herring, always eggs. On our arrival, Joe would be on the phone, calling equipment repairmen, fertilizer, seed, and chemical dealers, his commodities broker (for a time he suffered a second addiction, playing the futures, but he broke himself of it).
While we ate breakfast, Joe’s farmhands trooped in one by one to get orders for the morning’s work and to report their hours for the week (they’d be paid before we left to hunt). Joe’s key employee was Jimmy Jennings, a talented hand with big machinery but a hopeless binge drinker. Despite his weakness, Joe couldn’t get along without Jimmy. One year while on a drunk, Jimmy and some scurrilous comrades were caught by Joe stealing soybeans. Joe prosecuted, and Jimmy went to jail, where he languished when the next harvest time rolled around. Joe panicked and petitioned the judge to parole Jimmy to him for the harvest. The theft only briefly interrupted Jimmy’s three decades as Joe’s top farmhand.  Then the breakfast conversation got serious—where would we hunt today? The territory was divided into quadrants by I-95 (North-South) and Route 40 (East-West). Key factors in choosing a quadrant were weather (the northwest quadrant, Dinwiddie County, was muddy, the southeast sandy) and deer-club activity (Denny would have checked with the clubs by CB radio on his drive to Joe’s). A well-drained cutover adjoining bean fields might be chosen on a cold clear day, while mature piney woods might attract on a warmer day. I kept quiet during these discussions.
The final breakfast discussion was which dogs to load, usually two to four of Joe’s and one each of mine and Denny’s (at lunch, we’d often come back and switch to a fresh team). Like all bird-hunting addicts, the progress of the young dogs concerned us most. Joe loved puppies, and I brought him weanlings as gifts. (Mizz Grace gave me orders not to bring any more after one dug up her flowerbeds. Thenceforth, puppy deliveries were surreptitious.)
We’d be off by 8:30 in Joe’s pickup, with me seated in the middle. At a close field, all the dogs were released to stretch and empty. Sometimes they’d find a covey, but more often they’d be whistled up for a quick ride to a second spot where three would go down for serious searching.

“You cannot watch a bird dog and worry at the same time” is a truism central to bird-hunting culture and to my life. The joy from watching dogs work spills over for me to bird-dog field trials and sheep-dog trials too. So purposeful, so graceful, and so amazingly effective.
“Point” comes the call. With hearts pumping fast, we hurry to the dog. Sometimes a flush, sometimes a stealthy or rapid relocation, sometimes a rabbit or a bedded deer.
“Hunt dead,” Joe commands. Joe will not tolerate a hard-mouth retriever, no matter how stylish. Bring a hard-mouthed dog to hunt with Joe, and you’ve had your last invitation.

Before we know it, it’s lunchtime, and we drive to the nearest country store for a tailgate lunch of sardines and crackers, hoop cheese and pork n’ beans, washed down with a cola or an orange soda. Then back in the truck (or back to Joe’s kennel to re-dog).

Through our twenty-five years of bird hunting, Denny kept a log in a spiral notebook stored in his breast pocket. Ann has it still. Each page held four columns, headed “Joe-Denny-Tom-Others.” Down the left axis were the dates. The story told is a joyous and sad one—a history of our fun and of quails’ decline. By the time of Joe’s death, we were down to three coveys a day. At the start we’d usually find more than a dozen.

What changed? More and less. More chemicals used in row crops and forestry. More clean farming, more fields without weedy edges or hedgerows. More bushogs, more concrete and asphalt, more doublewides and subdivisions and shopping centers. More fescue and cattle. More hawks. More possums and skunks and raccoons. More turkeys and deer. Less lespedeza. Less weeds. Less varmint trapping. Less oaks and thus acorns. Less weedy fencerows and hedgerows and fence corners, less burned but unsprayed cutovers. Less things left alone. Less birds.

What made bird hunting so much fun? Foremost, the dogs. Some poor, some mediocre, a few outstanding. The poor and mediocre didn’t last long. Watching the good young ones discover themselves was the best part. Because they hunted so much, Joe and Denny had good dogs, some truly outstanding. Exposure to birds was the key. On a good day, they might work ten to twenty coveys. That’s how I want to remember it.

At the end of the day, we’d return to Joe’s house dead tired. At the kitchen table with a drink we’d recount the day—the good shots and the misses. We’d marvel at the long trailings and the roadings, the stabs of coveys in mid-stride. That night we’d relive the day’s hunt in our dreams, jumping at the dream-flushes.
On the drive back to Joe’s house, we’d take our birds to Margaret to clean. Her grandsons would run out of her cabin with a bucket to collect them. The rabbits were for her stewpot.

Now the birds are gone—all but a few holdout coveys deep in the woods—only deer hunters see them. Joe and Denny are dead, Margaret too.
Bird hunting today is mostly as phony as Hollywood. Put and take places. Tower shoots and driven shoots. Jet trips to a few exotic wild-bird places available to the very rich. They tote high-priced double guns, celebrated in a quarterly magazine as expensive as a book. Phony birdhunters.

Gone are the days when any man or woman with the urge and a JC Higgins shotgun from Sears could be a birdhunter. A barber, a farmer, a carpenter, even a starting lawyer like me. Now bird hunting is mostly for the Wall Street types and corporate executives who frequent the Manhattan Beretta and Holland & Holland stores. The slick hunting magazines are filled with “destination” articles ending with “If you choose to go . . .” followed by booking instructions. In the good old days, if you asked me where I’d bird hunted Saturday, the answer would be, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

When I began hunting with Joe and Denny back in 1973, their dogs were all pointers descended from Lucky, a pup Joe acquired from Mr. Perkins at Zion’s Cross Roads. “If he turns out, you can send me $50,” Mr. Perkins had said of the scrawny pup. Lucky got his name for surviving many “Lessons No. 9.” He survived to be a legend, the dog against which all that followed were measured.

On my first hunt with Joe, he turned loose an ancient 80-pound white-and-black pointer named King, the last surviving son of the original Lucky. King was then seventeen. No telling how many quail he had pointed and retrieved. With the dignity of a bishop, he pointed a honeysuckle covey three minutes out of the truck.
The registration papers of Joe’s kennel inmates had long since lapsed into irretrievable confusion. Like the kennels of most Virginia farmer-bird hunters of the day, they were “cold blood” entirely. The tails of Lucky’s descendants were level or less. But their noses were choke bore, their composure on game the equal of surgeons, their backing automatic. Released at a fifty-acre bean field, they circled the edge without command, picking their direction for wind advantage. If they didn’t point on the edge, they’d go into surrounding piney woods thirty yards and circle again. Like as not, they’d point a covey (or two or three) before operations moved on to the next bean field.

In the years that followed, I slowly replaced the Lucky descendants with registered gift pups, pointers and setters. Only a few made it past Joe and Denny’s culling process—let them run loose for six months, put them in the fall string, if they learned enough fast enough, they made the team, if not they disappeared, given away to distant birdhunters who had standing orders for Joe’s culls, the same folks who had standing orders for Joe’s famous smoked hams. Joe loved to raise pups, and after several failed attempts, he found a setter nick—Flash Prince ex Stony Creek Pat. Joe raised a dozen litters, and their descendants are still in the kennels of many Virginia and North Carolina bird-dog fanciers. (Flash came from Judge Bill Anderson of Danville, Pat from Neal Smith of Mebane, North Carolina.)
On the morning of my second hunt with Joe, he taught me a great lesson. “No matter what happens today, I don’t want you to say a word to your dogs. Don’t call, don’t blow your whistle, don’t say woah,” Joe ordered. To my amazement, my dogs behaved much better when left to their instincts and without my voice to break their concentration.

Although I’d always been a setter man, Joe and Denny’s pointers intrigued me. They had incredible bird sense, the byproduct of much experience. They were calm as undertakers—let out of the truck’s box, they sensed the wind’s direction and set out in a lope to find birds. And find birds they did.
Among the grandkids of the original Lucky in Joe’s kennel was a hulking eighty-pound behemoth called Spot, named for a large liver patch on his right side. Spot seemed incredibly lazy. Let out of the box at a harvested field, he’d walk at Joe’s heels as his mates circled the edge. He simply would not hunt over ground that didn’t seem to him likely to produce birds. But then he’d strike out in a straight line across the barren field and into the breeze, destination a distant patch of cover on the edge. When he reached his target, he pointed, level tailed, nose outstretched. Inevitably, a covey would be hovering in the briars on the edge. We often debated whether Spot smelled birds at incredible distances or just had unfailing instincts for where birds would be. Either way, Spot understood the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. Once Spot’s covey was shot on the rise, he’d resume his post at Joe’s heels.

In response to my growing admiration for the Stony Creek pointers, I bought a two-year-old pointer named Ben from an elderly gentleman of Warsaw, Virginia, named Lee Rhodes. Lee raised a litter each year from a Wariel line-bred pair, sold the pups at a year, well started or country broke. Ben had been brought back to Lee by his original purchaser who had gunshyed him at a shooting preserve by too much shooting. Lee spent a year getting Ben over the gun-shyness and polishing his manners. I fell in love with Ben when he found and retrieved a bandanna hidden under a bush in Lee’s backyard. Ben had liver markings around his eyes that gave him the appearance of wearing large sunglasses. He was a joy to hunt, naturally forward and responsive, willing to circle the largest bean field. Joe fell in love with him too, and so the following spring, I brought Joe a weanling pup that was Ben’s full brother. Joe named him Lucky, after his kennel-founding pointer.
The new Lucky was allowed to run loose through the summer and early fall. He spent those days hunting for himself and learning the ways of quail. How he avoided being hit by an auto or by a train is a miracle. (Joe’s house lay beside CSX’s main north-south line.) On opening day, nine-month-old Lucky was caught when he came to Joe’s house to get food and taken by us for a tryout.He proved a natural—pointing and backing that day like an old hand. Through long lives, Lucky and his older brother Ben made a handsome pair for the PP&W Club. Lucky sired many pups that lifted the tail elevation of the Stony Creek pointers.
Lucky would often be found on point and flagging. Joe knew this meant his birds had walked away, and Joe would whistle him on. Like a rocket, Lucky would stab the run-off covey, never futzing around in his relocation. While Ben was a dependable retriever, Lucky viewed retrieving as beneath his dignity. He’d find downed birds, but as soon as he was sure the shooter knew where the downed bird was, he’d drop it and go search for a new covey. Ben’s specialty was roading coveys to roost. When Ben got the scent of a roost-bound covey, he’d throw his head up and prance in pursuit, never putting his nose down. Point, road, point, road, point—thus Ben would follow the roost-bound covey into the swamp. Sometimes the birds would be pinned, and give us a shot. Often they would reach water’s edge and pitch silently across to a moated hummock to safety as darkness fell. While Ben followed in hot pursuit, he never once flushed running birds—he knew just how close he could follow without causing that. On point he quivered with intensity, much to Joe’s delight.

Joe and Denny were crack shots, seldom missing even the most difficult birds. They carried 12-gauge Remington Sportsman Model 58’s, the safeties fitted with a custom-welded flange of Joe’s design. They shot high-brass #9s, which made our hunts sound like artillery practice. I shot a 20-guage Ithica O&U and later switched to a 16-guage Browning Citori, which I still shoot. I was a poor shot early and have only advanced to mediocre. Joe and Denny were competitive. In the early years, Joe’s season’s bird score far exceeded Denny’s, reflecting more hours afield. With the passage of the years, Denny’s scores began to creep up on Joe’s, reflecting more days afield for both and the impact of aging on Joe. (From years of hard farm work, Joe’s joints were wearing out, eventually requiring two hip replacements. Before his accidental death at 72, Joe was racked with arthritis.)

In the year when Denny caught up with Joe, the last day of the season brought a showdown. We were hunting in the southeast quadrant, and as sunset neared, we headed for Joe’s house along a gravel road. Then we approached a bean field with a five-acre island wood in the middle. It was almost dark, but we knew a covey roosted in the wood. Joe stopped and put out Flash, his best ever setter.  Joe and Denny went to the leeward side of the island, and Flash entered the wood. I elected to stay in the bean field, knowing a shoot out was unfolding. Joe and Denny’s scores for the season, recorded in Denny’s spiral notebook, had Denny one bird ahead.
In a few minutes, the wood was quiet. Then I heard Denny whisper “Point.” I braced for the barrage, which came quickly, streaks of fire belching from the Remingtons.

“I got two,” Denny said, pride in his voice.
“I got four,” Joe said,
“You’re a lying son-of-a-bitch,” Denny said, much louder.
“Dead, Flash, dead,” Joe yelled. Denny walked out, two quail in hand. Then in five minutes, Joe and Flash came out, and Joe pulled from his vest and dropped on the tailgate two hens and two cock birds. He had shot twice, killing two quail with each shot.
Not a word was said till we reached Joe’s kitchen, having dropped off the day’s bag for cleaning at Margaret’s, including two rabbits for Margaret’s pot.
“You lucky son of a bitch,” said Denny after pouring each of us a generous serving of Johnnie Walker Red, from my traditional end-of-the-season gift to my betters in the PP&W Club.

How Joe and Denny managed to be best friends is proof that opposites attract. Joe was hot tempered, impatient, opinionated. Denny was calm, kind, and tolerant. They both loved quail hunting and bird dogs, their bond of friendship. And they both loved Denny’s wife Ann, who looked after them as the children they both were at heart. With dogs Joe’s training method was simply exposure. Put pups in the box with the old dogs and let them hunt if they chose to, as most did. The pups learned from their instincts and by observing their elders. Denny was more methodical, yard working his pups for obedience from a young age and loving them up at feeding time. He also believed in giving an apparently worthless pup a long time to develop. One example was Priss, a daughter of his Champ, a grandson of The Original Lucky. For a full season, Priss followed in Denny's’ footsteps, never once hunting independently or pointing a bird. “Why doesn’t Denny give up on Priss?” I asked Joe. “He knows her bloodline,” Joe replied. Sure enough, the next season Priss became the PP&W outfit’s best dog. “Lots of old Lucky’s descendants are slow starters,” Joe explained.

In Stony Creek, a village of maybe one hundred, Denny and Ann lived a half mile from Joe. Once or twice a week, Ann had Joe over for supper. She also cut Joe’s hair in her beauty parlor after hours. “The best day’s work Denny Poole ever did was marrying Ann,” Joe often said to me out of Denny’s hearing.
When I first met Joe and Denny, Joe was prospering with his farming. He was forty-four and physically in his prime with boundless energy. Peanut and soybean prices had been good. Joe was frugal and a bachelor and thus able to save. Part of one of his farms had just been taken by condemnation for I-95. The hearing to set the condemnation award had been postponed several times, to Joe’s consternation.

“Joe, the longer it gets postponed, the better off you’re going to be,” I told Joe. (I was not handling the case.) But Joe’s impatient nature kept him ranting against his lawyer, the State, and the judge for the delay.
“The important thing will be who sits as commissioners to set your award,” I kept telling Joe. This led Joe to study the panels in other cases. He shrewdly set about to befriend potential commissioners. By the time his case was finally heard, he’d succeeded, and he got a generous award.

A few times a year, Joe signaled I might bring a friend to hunt with the PP&W Club. Some of the invitees became favorites of Joe’s, among them John Bassett, Fred Leggett, Bill Anderson, and Bill Moore, devoted bird hunters and good shots all. They in turn were fascinated by Joe and his dogs. Bill Anderson gave Joe his best dog and sire of my era, the setter Flash Prince. Bill Moore bought a daughter of Flash from Joe that he named Gussie, and she was as good as they get with a special nose and a world of bottom. 

A test of friendships came for me when John Bassett asked if I could find him a grouse dog, and I recommended Sugar, a daughter of Flash that was No. 2 (after Flash) in Joe’s lineup at the time. Then both Joe and John asked me to price her. I swallowed hard and said $1,000, more then John had ever paid or Joe had ever received for a dog. John drove to Stony Creek on a Sunday to see Sugar, bringing his wife Pat to keep him company. “How about $500?” John said. “I may have been born in Stony Creek, but it wasn’t yesterday,” Joe replied. John wrote the check for $1,000. A week later John called me. Sugar was homesick, wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t come out of her box. John was afraid she would die. “Oh my,” I said, unsure what to do. “I’ll buy her for $1,000 if you don’t want her,” I told John. It was the only way I could save two friendships, but I’d have to borrow the thousand. “I’ll keep trying a little longer,” John said. Finally, Sugar got over her homesickness and became John’s second best-ever grouse dog (after the legendary Jill). Of all Joe’s dislikes, back hunters were foremost. If he caught a hunting guest coming back into his territory, woe unto him. The back hunter could find his vehicle’s tires flat. Joe also disliked liars, laggards, and hard-mouth birddogs.

About the time of Joe’s fatal accident (1997), Denny Poole detected a loss of balance as he walked. The problem at first escaped diagnosis, but grew worse. Finally, it was diagnosed as organic brain syndrome, a condition of unknown origin with the same symptoms as Lew Gehrig’s disease. Through a long decline, Denny remained uncomplaining, and Ann cared for him lovingly at home, a tremendous travail for her. She had the support of her two daughters and young grandchildren, but the stress was terrific. Denny died on October 28, 2005, and with him an era.

When I read the destination pieces in outdoors magazines, I realize today’s bird hunters have no idea what they missed. Our bird hunting was to today’s what Margaret’s biscuits were to canned ones. Yes, luck has filled my life, and I’m grateful.