By Tom Davis
One of the most important rules for being a good hunting partner is to not be a “claimer.” You know, the kind of guy who every time his gun goes off and a bird happens to fall immediately crows, “I got him!”—irrespective of whether anybody else shot. Once exposed as a claimer, you tend to find yourself hunting alone a lot.
But when a covey of bobwhite quail poured out of the broomsedge in front of a pair of stylish setters and my partner Ed Rader and I both swung on the same bird, I was pretty sure that it puffed at the bark of my Fox—which is to say, a split-second before the crack of Ed’s RBL. So, in the way of us graybeards who are long past the point of having anything to prove but still enjoy getting in a dig, I turned and said, “Ed, you’re shooting at dead birds again.”
“You may be right about that,” he replied, smiling. “But where I come from,” he added, bending down to accept the retrieved bird from Gus, his strapping all-white setter, “possession is still nine-tenths of the law.”
We were gunning the high field at a place called Chandler’s Farm, one of the many patches of quail hunting heaven that the folks at Wild Wing Lodge have quilted together to create 4,000 acres of some of the prettiest, birdiest, most soul-satisfying country a man can follow a brace of classy dogs through. Tucked back—way back—in the smoky hills and hollows near the Ohio River in western Kentucky, the barn-like lodge and adjacent kennels lie at the end of a one-lane road so remote that, as Rader quips, “The first time I drove it, I swear I heard banjos.”
But this lost-in-time quality cuts to the heart of what Wild Wing Lodge is all about: the preservation of a heritage and a tradition that have largely vanished from 21st Century America. When the late Ronnie Rich established Wild Wing in 2001, his aim was to replicate the kind of shoe-leather, small-field-and-brushy-fencerow quail hunting that those of us of a certain age recall with such fondness.
To be sure, Ronnie ramped things up in terms of the typical daily covey count, but why not? The way we remember it is always better than the way it really was (well, almost always), and for many guests a two- or three-day trip to Wild Wing Lodge replaces what used to be a two- or three-month season of wild quail hunting.
I visited Wild Wing for the first time in the winter of 2007, and I came away convinced that it was, indeed, a truly special place. So while I eagerly accepted Ed Rader’s invitation to join him there this past February, I had to wonder how it had held up following Ronnie’s unexpected death, in December, 2011.
I needn’t have worried. Under the direction of new owner-manager Tracey Lieske—a 25-year veteran of the dog-training/bird hunting business who’s worked at no fewer than seven Orvis-endorsed lodges—Wild Wing clearly hasn’t skipped a beat. The birds are just as plentiful and hard-flying, the cover is just as natural, and the country is just as picturesque.
There have been improvements too. The lodge itself has been spiffed up considerably—no more shared bathrooms, for one thing—and the guide staff, cherry-picked by Lieske, has been upgraded from a level I’d describe as above-average to a level that’s hard not to describe as world-class. These guides bring their own dogs to the party, including pointers, English setters, Drahthaars and German shorthairs. Wild Wing continues to breed and develop its own outstanding line of setters, as well, and to offer dog-training services to the public.
This brings me to chef and lodge majordomo Jeff Kingsbury. After careful consideration, however, I’m not going to say anything about Jeff. It would only go to his head—kind of like that Heaven Hill bourbon he nips on after his kitchen chores are finished.
So, if your fancy runs to pointing dogs and doubles, and if you value setting and solitude, and especially if you were raised a quail hunter, Wild Wing Lodge has your name written all over it. Just make sure you get good, explicit directions before you leave home. Take a wrong turn in them thar’ hills, and all bets are off. Is that a banjo I hear?
For more information, contact Wild Wing Lodge & Kennel, 810-813-1608.