Upland bird hunters can be an odd lot, with ardent opinions on dog breeds, bird favorites or even choice of shotgun. We all pretty much agree that the golden age of upland hunting in the U.S. was in the middle of the 20th century, before modern farming practices and development, among other factors, cut bobwhite quail populations severely.
South Carolina’s Archibald Rutledge, who died in 1973, was a college professor, a plantation owner, the first poet laureate of South Carolina, a prolific outdoor writer and a bird hunter to the core. Rutledge was raised on Hampton Plantation in McClellanville, S.C., where he cut his teeth on quail hunting before spending much of his adult life teaching English at Mercersburg Academy in Lancaster, Pa., where he hunted quail, pheasant and ruffed grouse – which he held in the highest esteem.
Jim Casada, a retired Winthrop University professor and veteran outdoorsman and outdoor writer, does a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Rutledge’s prose for “Bird Dog Days, Wingshooting Ways,” the latest of five books he’s done on Rutledge’s work. The University of South Carolina Press has recently reissued an expanded edition. Other than what appears to be a springer spaniel sitting while on point in the cover photograph (springers aren’t a pointing breed and pointing breeds don’t sit when pointing), the collection of essays (and one poem) cast a bright light on upland hunting of the day, along with regional and cultural mores of the times. Much of his subject matter (and views) hold water today.
The collection is divided into two parts, one devoted to bobwhite quail and the second to ruffed grouse. Central to upland bird hunting are pointing breeds, which were primarily pointers and English setters in that time. In “The Friend of Man” (Forest & Stream; October 1923, reprinted in Pointing Dog Journal; January-February 1995), Rutledge opines on the two breeds: “… the pointer is all for business, is a slashing, tireless, bold, soldierly sort of a dog; the setter if far gentler, more easily handled, is sensitive, and is so anxious to please as to be positively obliging. As a matter of fact, the setter appears to be distinguished by having what we call good manners; the pointer is usually a rough-and-ready customer, milling through his work in arrogant style; the setter is deferential, dainty, and I think it is not too much to say that this grand breed of dogs has in it high artistic strain.”
Rutledge’s prose has a simple eloquence about it. In the book “Bolio and Other Dogs” (1930), Rutledge describes a deer spying a buck in a swamp. “Woodpeckers were hammering in assiduous fashion, calling stridently whenever they let up on their carpentering. Cicadas began to shrill, but not so aridly as they would later in the day.” Anybody who has sat in a tree stand or silently hiked a forest trail can recount that scene or one like it.
Part Two, dedicated to the ruffed grouse that Rutledge hunted in the hills of Pennsylvania and was his favorite game bird, starts with the only poetry included in the book. Titled “The Partridge,” (Field & Stream, November 1920), Casada prefaces it: “Sport is, after all, an ongoing romance with the natural world, and the literate, thinking hunter should appreciate how the essence of that love affair can be captured in poetry as well as prose.”
The first stanza:
With him the woodland wonders come;
Their beauties in his flight depart;
Or like music fading sweet
They linger in the listening heart;
For all that wanders and is wild,
With faerie charms remote and dim,
Luring like rich autumnal lights,
Seems gathered to the soul of him.
Times have changed greatly for the upland hunter. Shotguns have evolved. Continental (European) pointing breeds like the versatile German shorthaired pointer have become popular. The best upland hunting is now (mostly) a Midwest affair. But Rutledge takes one back to when a bird hunting meant bobwhites, bird dogs meant pointers or setters, and a proper shotgun had two barrels, and they were side-by-side.
“Bird Dog Days, Wingshooting Ways”
Archibald Rutledge’s Tales of Upland Hunting
Edited with a new introduction by Jim Casada
University of South Carolina Press, 200 pages