Unlimited bobwhites at Winghaven Lodge
On my gun bench used to sit an old wooden box full of leftover 20-gauge shells. Filling it had become a bad and lazy habit, akin to leaving dirty dishes in the sink while a perfectly good (and largely empty) dishwasher sat waiting feet away. After a hunting trip or session at the range, I simply would empty my vest pockets into the box. For years I watched the inventory of orphans grow, making me feel like I had money in the bank.
It took the recent ammunition shortage and a heart-racing couple of hours of quail hunting at Kentucky’s Winghaven Lodge to drain my bank account of AAs, STSs, RSTs, Eleys and who knows what else. By 11:30 AM on that cool late-February morning I had seen and shot at more than three dozen quail—often in pairs and trios—and had a bulging game pouch to show for it.
This, I quickly came to learn, is the rapid rhythm of quail hunting at Winghaven. Point, flush, shoot, retrieve, repeat. With bird after hard-flying bird, a hunter who allows himself to can enter something like a wingshooting flow state. Focused on the steady current of opportunities produced by world-class dogwork, hunters subconsciously glide across the lodge’s 3,000 carefully tended acres. So attuned do they become to the pursuit of quail that they feel a rare and remarkably grounded sense of exhilaration.
According to Russell Edwards, the justifiably proud owner of Winghaven, “We work our tails off to make this promise: A pair of hunters will flush some one hundred birds per day. Folks come here to hunt quail, be comfortable and have fun. I didn’t want to build a place that was about sport coats or putting on airs. This is down-home hunting. It’s Kentucky hunting.”
Russell had made this promise to me before I loaded my truck in upstate New York and began the 15-hour drive to western Kentucky. A year earlier, in the heady days before Covid struck, I’d flown to southern Arizona to chase the desert trio of Mearns, Gambel’s and scaled quail (see “Where the Wild Quail Are,” Sept/Oct ’20). This time, leery of air travel and feeling cooped up after a year’s worth of pandemic, I wanted something drivable and different.
Against the backdrop of a hunkered-down America, I slowly rambled cross-country in my brown RAM truck. I drove past the broad vistas of central Pennsylvania, across the icy Cumberland Narrows (the dividing line between the Appalachians and the Ohio River Valley), through the knobs and hollers of eastern Kentucky—where I’d spent my youth in the 1980s—and along the fence-lined byways of Bluegrass-covered horse country before finally entering the rolling hills, thick woods and expansive fields of row crops that frame western Kentucky. All told it was 1,000 miles spent traversing varied landscapes that are utterly and completely America.
Stepping outside of my pickup on the inviting grounds of Winghaven Lodge, I could feel my body relax. Frigid New York air had been replaced with the smells of early spring, even though temperatures dipping into the single digits had hit the area just days before. Winghaven’s grounds are an expression of pride, and the lodge is the perfectly modern and comprehensive definition of a mom-and-pop operation. That’s not to say “sleepy”—quite the contrary. Winghaven is a well-oiled machine that runs deep on customer satisfaction, attention to detail and modern practices.
“That was the original lodge over there,” said Michele Edwards, Russell’s wife and surely one of the hardest-working people I’ve met. “And here’s the newer one. And the kennels are down the road.” Up before sunrise, Michele makes breakfast at the lodge and starts laying out lunch and dinner before heading into town, where she heads up the tourism office in nearby Marion. After work she returns to make dinner before doing it all over again the following day—all without complaint or any noticeable sign of fatigue. No wonder, though, that when the season ends, on March 31, Russell and Michele head to the Gulf and the not-so-guilty pleasure of boat living. “The first 10 days or so we just decompress,” Russell said. “And then we start thinking about what’s next.” It turns out that the continual cycle of growth, improvement, change and renewal is the Winghaven way.
Kentucky’s Winghaven Lodge is the quintessential wingshooting retreat—offering well-managed cover, a kennel full of talented dogs and plenty of birds. A pair of hunters will flush 100 quail a day. Photographs courtesy Amy Musia / artofthehuntingdog.com
Before retiring to my room that first night, I took a quick tour inside the lodge. The great room—a sprawling space surrounded by trophy mounts—is easily big enough for 20 to 30 people and features a bar with one of the finest Kentucky bourbon collections west of Louisville and a sound stage nestled in the corner. (We are, after all, only a two-hour drive from Nashville, and country music rules here, with Russell himself often taking the mic.) From there you pass through a well-stocked pro shop, a large dining room with seats for 24, and finally eight guest rooms with room for 18. (Extra bunkbeds in the spacious rooms boost overnight capacity to 24, and there are two separate cabins for those who prefer a bit more privacy.) It is a 13,500-square-foot roost that annually hosts wingshooters from 30 or more states and a handful of countries. For me, the crown jewel of the building is the gunroom, filled with gun racks, cabinets, benches and counters to get primed and ready. It even features my favorite, way-too-often-overlooked amenities: multiple boot driers always running.
Lucky for me, it also included a stash of leftover shells to get me through my two days of hunting.
My first morning in the field was filled with fast and furious shooting. I had asked Russell, ever the proud and knowledgeable host, to be my hunting partner on this trip, and we were guided by Shane Board, who was working German shorthairs Tank and Banjo along with a pointing black Lab, Jep, who handled the flushing. The walking and hunting were relaxed and low-pressure—except, that is, for the competitive juices that started flowing as I watched Russell wield his lithe CZ Ringneck .410. Like brandishing a small whip, he was on the birds almost instantaneously, politely and definitively knocking down his share of quail—sometimes at 40-plus yards. He was absolutely deadly with that 5-pound 3-ounce side-by-side, always giving me the time to strike first.
The lodge’s comfortable and inviting great room—complete with an impressive bourbon collection. Photographs courtesy Winghaven Lodge and Tom Sternal.
The terrain made for a very walkable hunt. Large, ever-expanding fields are brush hogged in a crisscross pattern, leaving thigh-high patches of native, warm-season grasses to hold birds. By the time I was there in late February, snow, cold temperatures and a hectic season had resulted in a lot of the tallest cover having been compressed a bit. Hunters rarely need to veer from the groomed paths, except when there is the occasional opportunity to head into the woods after escaping birds. Throughout the hunt, the dogs performed flawlessly, with Tank and Banjo snapping into points as Jep waited patiently for the signal to pounce.
After a couple of hours—and with Shane’s hunting vest overflowing—we hopped back into the UTV and made the 10-minute trip to the lodge. Along the way I peered into the rapidly flowing waters of the Tradewater River, a scenic tributary of the mighty Ohio River that meanders quietly through the lodge’s property, to see if any ducks had decided to wait out the winter there.
A 20-gauge shotgun is more than ample, and be prepared for lots of shooting!
The afternoon brought new friends and new experiences. Nick and John Stratman, the father-and-son importers of Bettinsoli shotguns, had made the trip from Evansville, Indiana. Once again Shane was our guide, and as we ambled over well-traveled and well-tended fields and occasionally into the neighboring woods, talk drifted between guns, dogs and birds. We quickly bonded over shared interests and a deep appreciation for keeping America’s wingshooting traditions alive.
Point after point, bird after bird, we each had dozens of shot opportunities—with the Stratmans even bagging a jumbo-jet-size pheasant. (While Winghaven is famous for its quail hunting, the lodge also nurtures a good population of chukars and pheasants, with flighted-mallard shooting offered as well.) After a few action-filled hours Nick, John and I retired to the lodge for drinks and a wonderful steak prepared by Michele. Our time together was to be short, as they needed to get back to Evansville.
The next morning was my last before driving east—work and life beckoning me home. I had just finished enjoying my second homemade biscuit when Russell emerged with a dandy little A. Conyers 28-gauge hammergun. The petite English side-by-side was a perfect throwback gun and made my CSMC A-10 20-gauge over/under feel like a goose gun. I doubt the Conyers weighed much more than 4¾ pounds, and in the field Russell again proved deadly with it. Over several hours we hunted a totally different section of the property—this time within eyeshot of the lodge. Once again we were hunting with Shane, who this time had English pointers Samson and Bell and a wise and careful pointing Lab named Reggie. In all, Winghaven has more than 40 dogs in its kennel, including an interesting mix of shorthairs, pointers, English setters, Brittanys and Labs.
That morning, in addition to another shooting clinic, Russell offered me insight into what it takes to be a successful lodge operator. It turns out that in 2008 he left his job as an electrical engineer to start the lodge. “We really bootstrapped our way,” he said. “Nobody gave us anything. We saw an opportunity, and we worked our tails off. We’re the first quail hunting operation when you cross the Ohio River. We’re six hours from Chicago, three hours from St. Louis, two-and-a-half from Louisville, four from Cincinnati. I could keep going . . . .”
And with that, Russell, having noticed a stray section of barbed-wire fence, motioned Shane over and they begin making a punch list of things to do once the season ended.
It appears that Winghaven never rests; it just keeps getting better and better.
For more information on Winghaven Lodge, visit winghavenlodge.com.