To Winghaven Lodge for whiskey & bobwhites
Photographs by Benjamin Gettinger
In the 1700s, farmers in what is now Kentucky (then part of Virginia) were faced with a serious problem. The fertile valleys along the Ohio River produced an abundant corn crop, but transporting tons of corn over mountain roads to town was difficult and sometimes dangerous. As a result, some of the corn became the seed for the following year or feed for livestock, and some was turned into the region’s characteristic whiskey, which had a smoky flavor and distinctive brown color (both the result of aging in oak barrels). The primary location for the production of corn whiskey was Bourbon County, and since each barrel was stamped with the name of its county of origin, the boiled whiskey that made its way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to towns like Louisville, Paducah, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans came to be known simply as “bourbon.”
Those same fertile valleys in central and western Kentucky were also home to abundant game. Deer, bears and turkeys provided meat for the region’s first settlers, and there were plenty of bobwhite quail as well. Hunting became as much of a tradition as farming and making bourbon, and two centuries later it remains an important part of Kentucky’s heritage.
So does whiskey production. Today the Bourbon Trail, which winds its way from Lexington west to Elizabethtown, annually draws 2.5 million visitors, who come to tour the region’s famous distilleries and sample their products. The names are legendary among bourbon connoisseurs: Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and more. Today the Trail pays tribute to history as well as long-held traditions of yesteryear.
Not far from the Bourbon Trail is Winghaven Lodge, located near Marion, Kentucky. Comprised of several thousand acres of the same fertile bottomland that once grew corn for the frontiersmen, Winghaven is quickly becoming one of the South’s premier quail hunting destinations. What was originally a 54-acre weekend hunting getaway for Russell and Michelle Edwards developed into much more than that in 2002, when Russell decided to begin offering guided deer and turkey hunts on the property. In the years that followed, the hunting camp evolved into a wingshooting lodge, as Russell shifted his focus to hunting bobwhite quail and expanded his operation by leasing area farms to convert to quail habitat. The extent of the property varies by year, depending on the number of leases, but Winghaven currently has about 3,000 acres of prime quail habitat.
The 10,000-square-foot main lodge sits atop a hill among hickory and oak trees. When you walk into the lodge, your attention is drawn to rows of bourbon bottles lining the back of the bar. The bottles bear the labels of various distilleries and, to an expert like Russell, each brand has its own history and unique flavor.
“This is Blanton’s,” Russell said, pointing to a rotund bottle with a sculpted horse on top. Blanton’s is an award-winning single-barrel bourbon from Frankfort, I was told. “It’s good stuff.” Behind it was a one-of-a-kind bottle of Woodford Reserve Select commemorating the running of the Kentucky Derby, complete with a painted scene of horses churning through the sandy track at Churchill Downs on the label. Tucked behind the bottles in the center of the top shelf was an austere bottle sporting a picture of an aged Kentucky Colonel with a cigar in his mouth.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s Pappy Van Winkle,” Russell replied. “That’s the good stuff.” It turned out that the unassuming bottle with the graying, cigar-smoking gentleman was a 20-year-old Family Reserve single-barrel bourbon—a product of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, also of Frankfurt.
And there were others: Four Roses, Basil Hayden’s, Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig and dozens more from the surrounding area. As fascinating as it all was, however, we were hunting quail at daybreak, and I had to turn in for the night. So with a shot to warm the soul, I headed off to bed.
After a full breakfast (Kentuckians like to eat as much as they like to sip bourbon), we headed to one of Russell’s farms. In addition to the more than 1,500 acres Russell currently owns, he leases five farms that he manages for quail. An early release program sees birds introduced prior to the season, and these are supplemented by up to 25,000 birds throughout the year. The habitat at Winghaven is a mix of warm-season grasses and native plants, such as Illinois bundle flower and partridge pea, that provide optimum food and cover. In addition to quail, Russell also releases pheasants and chukar and offers mixed-bag hunts for all three species (although quail are the main focus).
Winghaven Lodge was created to celebrate Bluegrass traditions and culture, which it does by providing hard-flying quail, a kennel full of quality dogs and a fine selection of bourbon.
Winghaven has grown substantially since it opened, but Russell is most proud of the fact that many hunters return year after year to experience quail hunting Kentucky style. “We’re seeing a lot of repeat business,” he said, “which lets me know that hunters like what they’re seeing here.”
A short time later we were on a hill overlooking the hunting fields as the sun cast a coppery shine across the landscape. The sky was blue and the air was cold as a brace of pointers cast out into the grass. My breath rose in a curl of steam, and I thought of how another shot of bourbon would have helped fight the chill.
Not long after the dogs made a sweeping run down the parallel lanes of the field, Russell announced that we had a point. I rounded the curved row (cut purposely to prevent predators from cruising the field edges and spying feeding quail in the short grass) and saw the young male pointer standing at attention, his tail up and head low. It was going to be a tricky shot. The bird was in dense grass at the edge of the field and likely would flush into or along the treeline. Russell motioned me forward and, with my Ithaca Model 37 28-gauge at the ready, I started into the waist-high grass.
A pair of birds flushed about six feet ahead and set off at a sharp angle. As I tracked the one closest to the woods, I heard Russell fire. (Russell doesn’t normally carry a gun, but this day he was testing one I’d brought to review.) I kept swinging until I caught and passed “my” bird, and then proceeded to fire directly into the heart of a waist-thick ash. The untouched quail cupped its wings and dropped into a dense snarl of grapevines and thorns. Russell’s bird was down and quickly retrieved by one of the pointers.
Russell takes great pride in the quality of the quail at Winghaven, and I have to agree that they are some of the hardest-flying birds I’ve seen at a preserve. At least that was my excuse when I walked in on the next point and missed again . . . .
My luck improved with my next shot, as a quail fell, leaving several feathers floating in the air. A dog was on the bird in a moment and brought it to hand. As the morning progressed, we hunted the length of the field, moving one row at a time along the rolling slope and keeping tabs on the dogs as they coursed ahead.
The fields at Winghaven vary in size and type of terrain, and, as a result, hunters of different physical abilities can be accommodated. “We’ve had hunters come back two or three times and never hunt the same areas,” Russell said, “and we always try to show hunters different fields when possible.” In the three times I’ve hunted at Winghaven, I’ve never hunted the same field twice.
At midday we returned to the lodge for lunch, after which I was able to catch a nap before the afternoon hunt. I awoke when some of the other hunters in camp started passing through the main part of the lodge and gathering gear. Most of Winghaven’s six guest rooms are located at the back of the lodge, and it takes only a moment to change and gather in the main area. My gear was in the smaller lodge adjacent to the main building that has room for an additional four guests.
I stepped outside and saw Russell loading dogs into his truck down at the kennel. Winghaven’s kennel is home to about a dozen pointers, setters, Labs and shorthairs at any given time, but the lodge has space for guests’ dogs as well. Frankly, you would have to have a very good dog to outwork Winghaven’s charges.
Russell believes that experiencing good dogwork is an integral part of the wingshooting experience. “When I was a kid,” he said, “it seemed like everybody had a bird dog, and you really remembered hunting with the quality dogs. I’m trying to fill my kennel with that type.”
Early on, the afternoon’s hunt threatened to be a replay of the morning’s. Patty, a pointing Lab, went on point as we made our way across the field, and when the quail rose out of the grass, it turned toward the woods. My first shot was behind, but I worked the pump and pressed the trigger a second time, and the bird dropped before it made the treeline. A short time later we scored on another covey, and then we were surprised when a rooster pheasant erupted from the grass. Ben Gettinger, who was taking a break from shooting photos, dropped the cockbird with a single shot. By the time we finished our last push across the field, I’d taken several more birds, and Ben’s game bag was full as well.
At sunset we rendezvoused with the other hunters at the main lodge, and as the fat, white moon showed through the bare branches of the hickories and oaks, we sat on the porch sharing stories and toasting the end of another successful day with the warming wash of Bluegrass bourbon on ice.