Duck hunting: A family tradition for the Burwells
The Burwell family, named in the article. According to Elizabeth, “We do clean up — occasionally.” Images provided.
By Ford Walpole
For Elizabeth and Ollie Burwell, duck hunting is a family affair. Elizabeth describes her own outdoor upbringing: “I grew up hunting doves on John’s Island with my dad [Dr. Tom Wooten], brother [Durrette Wooten] and our beloved labs. Truth be told, the dogs keep me in the hunt. We hunted deer in Jacksonboro with the Renkens and Speights and raccoons on Edisto with my dad and grandfather [Bill Howell].”
As a boy, Ollie hunted ducks with his friend Sandy Barton and Sandy’s father, Buddy. “I think he and Sandy spent more time in the duck blind than the classroom!” Elizabeth says. “Maxie Chaplin taught Ollie, Buddy and Sandy all there was to know about duck hunting.” With Butch Cooper, Parker Ford and Gregg Brown, Ollie hunted the rivers and creeks around Jehossee Island.
As a teenager and during college breaks, Ollie worked with Billy Brightwell at John’s Rod & Reel in South Windermere. When he graduated from Clemson in 1997, he and Sandy opened Barton & Burwell, an outdoor sports shop they ran for the next decade.
So when Elizabeth began dating Ollie in 2006, it is not surprising that their courtship occurred in the great outdoors. “Our first date was on a boat, but as soon as it got cold, Ollie took me to the duck blind. I will never forget our first hunt,” she recalls. “Ollie and I shared a blind with Kay and Buddy Barton. The ring-necks were all but hitting us in the face! I was instantly hooked! Today, duck hunting is my favorite family pastime — at least during the winter.”
When Elizabeth asks her husband which sport he most prefers, hunting or fishing, his reply remains constant: “It depends on the month!” Duck hunting proves a valuable respite for the Burwells, whose lives are now busy with family and careers. Ollie and his partner, Daniel LaRoche, own and operate Cherry Point Seafood, and Elizabeth is the Charleston area market president for First National Bank, PA. They have three sons who join in the outdoor adventures: Jack (13), Wooten (10) and Durrette (5).
Left to right: Ollie with Durrette (5); Jack (13) and Cruz; Wooten (10).
For the past 35 years, the Burwells have been fortunate enough to hunt on a family plantation in the Lowcountry. The place consists of several natural rice fields, upper corn impoundments and cypress bottoms. These diverse settings afford the opportunities to hunt from blinds, boats or on foot at the edge of the marsh.
Elizabeth, who especially enjoys hunting the timber, explains: “We always wear waders, because you never know when you might need to make a ‘power move.’” Typically, the Burwells harvest ring-necks, wood ducks, teal (green and blue wing), gadwalls and mallards. “On an exceptional day, we have also killed canvasbacks, widgeon, pintails, red heads and black ducks,” she says.
“Hunting has just always been part of the boys’ lives,” Elizabeth continues. “We started taking them with us as soon as they could walk. It looks different with the little ones; we divide and conquer. One of us gets to hunt seriously with the older boys (who now kill their own limits) while the other attends to the five-year-old blowing on the duck call. Jack and Wooten attend Camp Woodie and Camp Backwoods, and their ability to identify ducks on the horizon is impressive.”
Elizabeth relays the additional planning required to properly introduce children to duck hunting: “When the boys were really small, we put them in the pirogue and pushed them while we waded in. As soon as they are tall enough to wade, we make them walk. Using a gun has been different with each one, but obviously gun safety is our top priority. Typically, if the boys are hunting, we are doing more coaching than shooting. And if you have kids, invest in a Mr. Buddy heater to keep them warm,” she advises.
Elizabeth , Cruz and Ollie.
“We load the truck the night before. Each child is responsible for laying out his clothes, waders and boots,” Elizabeth says, detailing the ritual of a family hunt. “The coffee pot is set, and alarms go off at 4:00 a.m. We leave the house by 4:30, power bars and water bottles in hand. We listen to old-school country music while in the dark (my favorite part). The kids help with the decoy spread (Mom gets to sit this out). After the hunt, we always give the dogs some extra work, such as picking up cripples. And one of our favorite parts is eating a big breakfast at a local mom-and-pop diner.
“They love being outside; they love filling the strap, working the dogs and watching the sun rise,” Elizabeth remarks about her sons. Jack bagged a wood duck drake at age nine, and last year he killed his first banded bird, a feat about which Elizabeth doesn’t “know who was more excited!” This year in the rice field, Jack limited out on ring-necks and green-winged teal. Wooten recently harvested his first duck, a mallard drake, in the corn. “Durrette is still killing snacks and hot chocolates in the blind, but he loves to work the pintail and dog whistles!” she laughs.
The boys aren’t the only children involved in the family’s pursuit of waterfowl. Between them, Elizabeth and Ollie have raised at least a dozen dogs. She expands: “I grew up hunting doves with a three-legged black lab male named B.A., and he was just that — what a dog! Boss was the first dog I took to formal training; he’s the reason we train today. Ollie’s first blind mate was Decoy, a black male. They were the best of friends until he died in 2004 at age 14. Together, Ollie and I have buried three other labs: Hope, Teddy and Boone. The time we get with them is never long enough. The dogs are an integral part of our family, and they teach us so much. God truly works in our lives through these beautiful animals.”
Currently, the Burwells have five Labrador retrievers from the renowned Lone Duck Gun Outfitters, a gundog program with which Elizabeth is affiliated. She works with owner Bob Owens, who divides his time training and raising dogs between New York and Charleston. Buoy is a seven-year-old black lab male. Faith, four, is a female yellow, and Cruz is a five-year-old black female. Crown, a yellow male, recently made his first retrieve at only nine months old. Finally, there’s Jolene, a one-year-old black female — currently in Alabama training for field trials.
The family always enjoys duck hunting, regardless of how successful the hunt might prove. Ollie’s favorite aspects are the scenery, the dogs and the social nature of the hunt. Elizabeth considers what makes the experience so special to her: “I love the decoy spread and watching the ducks work as the sun comes up. The dogs are amazing! The fact that they can pick ducks out of the skyline is unreal!”
Jack and Buoy.
A passion for ducks has been the impetus for some memorable vacations. Ollie has hunted waterfowl in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Maryland, South Dakota and North Dakota. Elizabeth and Ollie go hunting together in Arkansas, and they hope to one day take the boys to Canada.
Almost every weekend during the season, the Burwells are fortunate to hunt with their boys, extended family and dear friends the Renkens and Rodelspergers. The couple does “still sneak a couple of date-hunts in every year — always opening day and our annual trip to Arkansas.” Elizabeth reflects on the impact duck hunting has had on her family: “The time we spend with the children outdoors is invaluable. They learn about teamwork, nature and hard work. When we hunt, we laugh, we fight and we celebrate. But most importantly, we are together!”
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.