Brays Island: A sporting way of life
In the 1950s, my father and grandfather traveled from John’s Island to Brays Island to purchase calves from the historic agricultural sea island near Beaufort. Shortly thereafter, Sumner Pingree was exiled from Cuba by Castro; the farmer, sportsman and conservationist sought asylum on Brays Island — a sanctuary to be sure.
In the 1980s, Pingree collaborated with visionary landscape architect Robert Marvin. The duo established a plan that included 60 miles of roads and trails and 325 one-acre homesites on the pristine 5,500-acre island. Marvin’s partner, Howell Beach reflects on the spirit of the plan: “Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a project using circular lots. We chose them so the homes relate to the land instead of each other. In contrast to a normal subdivision, each home focuses on the best view and isn’t tethered to a street or adjacent property line. New homes should disappear into the natural landscape. Screening also relates to the very definition of ‘plantation’ where buildings are secondary to the land.”
General Manager Kevin Rhatigan describes the end result: “With conservation as a founding principle of Brays Island, we’re proud to have preserved 94 percent of the land for outdoor pursuits, creating a sportsman's paradise. A shared passion for the sporting lifestyle continues to unite our owners across generations, genders and experience levels.”
On April 20-22, Brays Island Plantation held their 14th Annual Outdoor & Shooting Exposition. Besides good food, the event offered a number of challenges for the shotgun-wielding enthusiast: The Huntsman Flurry, sporting clays, skeet/trap shooting, a partner 5-stand competition and a co-ed Sadie Hawkins 5-stand. Renowned fly fisherman Bob Clouser also held a seminar on flycasting in the Lowcountry.
Tyla and Scott Kuhn of SunSage Sporting Dogs showed off the skills of their English cocker spaniels, German shorthaired pointers and English pointers. Vendors included Circle Seven Outfitters, Over Under Clothing, Rivers Glen Trading Company and many artisans and purveyors of sporting gear. Those looking to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on a shotgun were also in luck. The expo afforded the outside world a glimpse into Brays Island experience ordinarily limited to owners and guests.
Since Brays Island was designed as an exclusive sporting community for outdoor enthusiasts to live and play, the plantation logo and mascot is, appropriately, a bobwhite quail. Owners may enjoy endless activities — hunting, fishing, fitness, shooting sports, golf, hiking, horseback riding, tennis, boating, swimming and walks guided by the staff naturalist. Hank Gulbrandsen is a homeowner, resident and Director of Real Estate for Brays Island Plantation. He considers the lifestyle. “What this is an adult camp. If you can’t find something to do here, there’s something wrong with you!”
Quail hunting is a popular pastime on the island. Huntmaster and Lowcountry native Marion Gohagan has enhanced the upland bird hunt: “About four years ago, we started introducing English cockers. All animals have a flight instinct and it’s like the quail think that cocker is a natural predator, like a fox. The guide brings in the cocker at a heel and when the guide releases the dog with the flush command, those birds explode out of there! It makes a lot better hunt than just having a guide kick up the birds. And, the pointer stays on point until the cocker retrieves the bird; you have to tap the pointer on his head to get him to move!”
Marion’s staff consists of seven hunting guides, one full-time bird-man, a part-time bird-man, a groomer and three kennel technicians. Marion and the guides train dogs, plan and guide hunts and maintain the hunt units. The plantation maintains 35 pointers and eight English cockers. It’s all for the birds and “the bird-man has a thankless job. We might have 2000 birds at a time in the flight pens. A lot of days, we put 700-800 birds out in a day and he has to catch birds and load 16 to a box/crate. Last year, we put out about 45,000 quail, 4,000 pheasant, 2,000 chuckar partridge and 700-800 Hungarian partridge.”
Pursuers of big game also find healthy deer and turkey populations on the island and neighboring Oak Grove Plantation, of which Brays leases an additional 1,000 acres.
Gohagan has noticed an improvement in deer quality since putting out Antler Boost protein pellets. “It has really made a difference on the mass of the racks. Two years ago, we had three bucks with field scores of 140; those racks were monstrous. Last year, we killed 120 does and 40 bucks, but we didn’t even put a dent in the population.”
For the past 20 years, Captain Bryan Freeman of the Fishing & Boating Department has worked on the island in several capacities. Bryan grew up in nearby Hampton and his Brays Island roots run as deep as the island’s grand live oaks. His grandfather Vincent Dean worked on the cattle plantation for Sumner Pingree and two of his uncles lived on the island. “About 35 years ago, my grandparents were shrimping in the creek and my granddaddy found a shark tooth that’s a hair over five inches. I still help owners look for shark teeth and we find plenty of big ones.”
Captain Bryan reflects on a career that he initially intended only to be short term. “It was a pretty good fit for me. I got comfortable with the members and I spent a lot of time on the island and on the water with my grandfather.”
He reminds us that angling is about more than the catch. “We have fun being on the water and cutting up and joking. And it’s a huge deal for me to catch fish, but I don’t tell people we will catch fish. I tell them I’ll give them the best opportunity. If we don’t, I won’t lose much sleep over it.”
Opportunities abound for Brays Island anglers. Freshwater ponds are replete with largemouth bass, bluegill, hybrid stripers. The island also boasts saltwater impoundments with healthy populations of spottail bass, trout and black drum. Perched on a poling platform on a 14-foot Carolina Skiff, Captain Bryan guides fishers throughout the ponds.
Inshore fishing around Brays is ideal for redfish, trout and flounder. Cobia are here now and until about July, at which point they’ll give way to tarpon. Bryan hunts fish from the poling platform, but he is passionate about another approach. “I like to wade the flats on the high tides, where the fish are after fiddlers. I’m a big fan of getting out of the boat and in the water with the fish.”
Captain Bryan recalls fishing with owner and friend Wally Carucci, who passed away several years ago. “We were chasing 25-inch redfish in one foot of water when a big lightning storm came up. Here it is thundering and lightning, Wally is knee-deep in pluff mud and he looks at me and says: ‘Bryan, It just doesn’t get any better than this! There’s no place in the world I would rather be!’”
Repeatedly, Captain Bryan reminds us that “Brays Island is a pretty special place,” and he points out a unique opportunity. Owners can catch fish or shoot quail or deer, staff members will clean or process the quarry and send it to the chef, who then prepares the game especially for them.
My personal tour guide at Brays Island was Hank Gulbrandsen. Upon his first visit, Hank and his wife Steph knew Brays Island was for them. “I never even hunted before I got here. Now, I have bird dogs and Steph has a horse.” Hank describes the exhilaration of the quail hunt: “I don’t think there’s anything more fun than watching something do what it was born to do.”
A frequent guest and prospective owner remarks: “We’re here for the weekend in a lovely guest house. Every single person has been amazing and welcoming! My husband and I have heard over and over that at Brays, egos are left at the door.”
Another owner agrees. “My husband and I have been here over a year and no one has asked us what we do; they could care less. If they did ask, we would say: ‘We hunt; we fish; we ride!’”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.