My grandfather Scott Hudgens was the bird hunter in the family. He hosted annual quail hunts for friends and business associates on his retired dairy farm in Georgia. The man and his guests smoked cigars and shot guns as setters and pointers flushed birds in the field. To this day, my father recalls the sound of stray shots that peppered the tin roof of their house.
I remember my grandfather and his guests, toting Benelli over-under shotguns and donning their finest orange vests and briar britches. They were sportsmen and gentlemen. I remember them celebrating the tradition with cigars, whiskey and banter after each hunt.
Despite my grandfather’s love for upland game, the rest of the family steered clear of bird hunting. Some family members hunted deer and waterfowl. I focused on fishing.
Although I preferred rods to guns and fresh waters to upland habitat, I was always curious about bird hunting because of my grandfather. The thought of slinking through fields and patches of timber with well-trained hunting dogs that receive better treatment than humans appealed to me. But the idea of starting from scratch and buying and training a dog for something I’d never done was intimidating. Training my own dogs was not an option; the mutts are only good for barking at squirrels in the yard.
Lady luck, it turned out, was on my side. During a late-summer fishing trip with my friend and guide Wes Hodges, I’d mentioned the memories of my grandfather and my eagerness to follow in his footsteps as a bird hunter. Hodges happily invited me to go hunting with him in the fall.
Naturally, I didn’t expect to emerge from the woods with a vest full of woodcock and grouse when I went to hunt with Hodges. And my experience with firearms began and ended with skeet and trap shooting. Two or three outings each year resulted in me hitting (at best) half my targets. I never learned proper technique; my friends and I enjoyed blowing up the brittle orange “Frisbees” using inexpensive, pump shotguns. So, I was pretty excited for the experience of learning something new.
When we arrived at the first location, Hodges’ two dogs began hopping around in their boxes in the back of his pick-up truck. First, he released a chocolate lab—a wily veteran named Cooper. The lab gave me a quick look and then glanced back at Hodges as if to say, “Who the hell is this guy?” Despite my apprehension, Cooper allowed me to give him a quick head scratch before he trotted away to sit near the edge of the woods to wait for us.
Duke, a Llewelyn setter, was Hodges’ young gun. The dog ran on diesel fuel and moved like a bottle rocket. On command, Duke darted into the woods, sprinting 20-yard circles around us. Then he ran up on his first bird, just 50 feet away from the truck. A woodcock took flight as Duke jumped and nipped at his feathers. The bird quickly gained altitude. Hodges swung to the right and fired.
“Duke will calm down in a minute,” Hodges chuckled, after a clean miss. “He needs to burn off some energy first. He’s not supposed to actually go after the bird. Soon, you’ll see him stop and point at the bird. Then either you, me or Cooper will flush it out.”
I nodded and took a deep breath to regain my composure. Even though I didn’t take a shot, I felt the rush that comes with flushing a bird and shouldering a shotgun. My heart pounded.
Hodges lined up to the right of me and we continued to walk. Duke was tireless, even after running for at least 30 straight minutes. I heard Duke crash through fallen leaves, but then the sound stopped. I looked up and saw his head locked in, and his body was still as stone. Hodges instructed me to move closer behind Duke. He also explained that a flush to the left was my bird, and the one to the right was his.
Cooper went in and flushed the bird out. Another woodcock flew into the air, away from me and right of Hodges. He squared up and took the shot.
The boom of his Benelli 12-gauge shotgun bounced off the mountains around us. The woodcock zig-zagged between trees and disappeared into thick rhododendron above a rocky outcrop. It was another miss. The dogs eagerly held their positions, awaiting their next command. Hodges gave the order and Cooper was back at our sides while Duke took the lead in search of more birds.
I didn’t expect my first outing with Hodges to be easy, but I was truly unprepared for the difficulty of the sport. My hands and arms were bloody after navigating through thick briar patches and eye-level pine needles. The action slowed after those first 30 minutes. Duke and Cooper did not find any other birds. The few times Duke went on point were in areas where birds had fed but moved on.
I had fun watching the dogs. I also enjoyed taking the offensive and being proactive in the hunt. Being out in the mountains and working through hilly, prickly terrain, is something I plan on doing again next season.
I am not going to invest in a bird dog any time soon, but I might pull the trigger on a quality over-under shotgun and frequent the shooting range. I will be ready the next time I put on my briar britches.
Book a hunting or fishing trip with Wesley Hodges at wesleyhodgesflyfishing.com.
Dallas Hudgens discovered his passion for fishing on Virginia’s suburban public lakes. In his youth he pursued bass with a baitcaster. Today he lives in the heart of the Blue Ridge and enjoys fly fishing for brook trout in the mountain streams of his home state.
Photos by Mike Rennie