A convergence of characters at the hunting club
The late Bubba Chaplin, old-school barber and devoted sportsman, once contrasted still-hunting for deer and deer hunting with dogs thusly: “Any S.O.B. can kill a deer while he’s standing still eating at a corn pile, but the real sport is shooting that deer while he’s running through the woods!”
Deer hunting with dogs has come under fire in recent years. The Old World tradition requires a committed group effort of hunters and canine care is expensive. Larger tracts of land — more and more difficult to secure — are required to accommodate the pastime. Trophy buck enthusiasts point out that shooting running deer prevents the sportsman from properly aging deer and considering his harvest. Others complain of trespassing dogs — and sometimes hunters.
My old friend, Kip Valentine, recently invited me on a dog-drive with the Palmetto Sportsman Club, of which he has been a member for the past few years; his wife Katherine and daughters Aurelia and MaryEmma are usually along, too. My son Ned and I met Kip and his sons Ben and Hammond for breakfast in Walterboro before heading to the club.
When we got to the camp, President Shane Douglas was loading dogs into his pickup. Shane and his brother Kurt raise and care for their dogs, which include July dogs, Lemon Tick beagles, Treeing Walker Coonhounds and American Foxhounds.
“As you can see, we’ve just about got more kids than adults!” Kurt laughs, describing the club’s composition. Indeed, the Palmetto Sportsman Club is a family affair, devoted to passing down the hunting tradition. On its expansive lands, the club pursues just about any wild Lowcountry quarry you can imagine: deer, turkeys, ducks, doves, raccoons, hogs, squirrels and rabbits. “I don’t shoot nothing I don’t eat,” Kurt continues. “These are good fellas; most of us have hunted together for years.”
Shane’s daughter, Olivia, shows off Briar, her yellow Labrador puppy she got from Kip. “I’ve missed a couple of deer this year, but my brother JD has already killed three; he got his first deer when he was four!” She boasts.
Kurt’s son Travis is the club’s huntmaster. Standing at 6’6”, Travis towers over the rest of us. With the confidence and strategic insight of a general, he contemplates and determines the location of blocks to be hunted and the assignment of individual hunters to their respective stands.
“I bet that young’un has killed two or three thousand deer,” Kurt gestures towards Travis. “I cut holes in a backpack and carried him coon hunting before he could even walk. Man, I could have made a million dollars if I had thought to sell the idea of that baby-carrier! Somebody else got all the credit — and money,” Kurt smiles.
“This is not your grandfather’s dog-driving,” declares Kip, speaking of the advanced technology that ensures the dogs’ safety as well as keeping them on their own property. “These dogs have got two GPS collars — just in case one of them fails.”
GPS tracking collars have been around for awhile, but in recent years, a hand-held device allows you to “tone” a dog, that is, issue a beep warning and a subsequent shock (if necessary) to prevent the hound from crossing property lines. “We used to worry about people stealing our dogs; now, they steal their collars,” Kurt says. “All of Shane’s dogs will stand right there is he tones them — even when a deer is running!”
Shane teases his older brother that these new collars would have come in handy for Kurt years ago. On one occasion in a neighboring Lowcountry county, Kurt’s overzealous dogs ran a buck through the middle of an outdoor wedding. “Yeah, I got in a little bit of trouble for that one,” the elder Douglas confesses with a smile, indicating that the bride’s father happened to be a local politician.
After a successful hunt, we head back to camp for a feast prepared by Mr. Harold Hunt and his son David. The men have prepared beef stew, chicken pilau and plain white rice. “I put the stew on top of my pilau!” Fun-loving Coleman Roberts laughs. Coleman may well have invented a new dish.
“Mr. Hunt is our honorary member,” Shane says. “He has been with this club since 1954; he was hunting here even before they built I-95.”
The social aspect of dog-hunting is what makes the experience so memorable. “I just love the fellowship aspect of it,” explains Coleman Roberts. “We are all friends. Travis and the rest of us go fishing together when hunting season is over. We just all have a lot of fun together!”
On my second adventure with the Palmetto Sportsman Club, I was able to experience this fellowship — not only among members and guests of the club but with other clubs and their friends, as well. We joined members of the Rose Hill Hunting Club in Branchville as visitors of the St. Helena Island Hunting Club.
The St. Helena Island Hunting Club is an African-American sporting club formed 35 years ago by Mr. Joe Holmes, the honorary lifetime president. Mr. Joe, now 75, had a stroke a few years back, but he still comes out and interacts with everybody. The epitome of a fine Southern gentleman, Mr. Joe sports a hat proclaiming “Hunting is not a sport. It is a way of life!”
After our morning drive on heirs property that had not yet been hunted this year, the multi-talented Kip volunteered to lead us in the blessing. Ravenous hunters broke cornbread together and shared in fried chicken, butter beans and potato salad.
Cleveland Walker is the activities manager of the St. Helena Island Hunting Club. The group distributes its own safety hats and monogrammed jackets. Hunters may earn patches for does and different-sized bucks. “When you get your jacket filled out with patches, you’ve got a good prize coming. The guy who kills the most deer at the end of the year gets a “Top Gun” trophy, but the trophy is only for members.
“We make sure we invite all of the neighborhood children to come hunting with us,” Cleveland points out. “We want them to experience this, too! What I love most about hunting with this club is the camaraderie.”
“We also need to begin a mentoring program,” adds Big Mike as he processes a deer under the skinning shed Mr. Joe Holmes built on the property.
Days before Thanksgiving, we experienced a bountiful harvest on St. Helena Island. Eighteen deer were taken from the island that day. Jon Michael Frost of the Rose Hill Hunt Club in Branchville shot a nice eight-point buck — the trophy of a fine Saturday effort. Emphasizing the community effort of the dog-drive, Jon Michael was quick to pay homage to his buddies Zachary Wilson and Chad Dunn, who helped make his harvest possible.
“This is a good group of fellas in this club,” Shane says of his island friends. “We’ve hunted with them several times before. Everybody down here is just so nice to you. The cops even stop their cars and talk to you. Everybody knows each other.”
“Come back and hunt with us again, anytime!” Cleveland tells me. “We love to have people come down and we’re going up to hunt with the Palmetto Sportsman Club in a couple of weeks.”
As we posed for a group photo, one of the island’s club members shouted. “All right, now! All the crackers need to kneel down in front!” The skinning shed erupted in laughter.
Assuming the role of peacemaker, Cleveland firmly responded: “All right! We aren’t going to get started on any of that!” Aware that his stern hand was unnecessary this fine night, he too succumbed to chuckling.
We departed from St. Helena Island with far more than venison for our freezers. I have long thought that our shared Southern cuisine transcends racial barriers — or should. Others often point to athletics as a great equalizer. But our day in the woods reminds us that the time-honored tradition of the Southern dog-drive for deer has been un-mending all sorts of walls for centuries.
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.