An Upland Life Preserve Profile:
Southbound Sporting Preserve
South Hill, Virginia
Clinking his way back to the kitchen space with a fistful of coffee mugs, chef
Craig Kennah was making sure we had everything we needed, and bidding us a good
morning's hunt. His focus on presenting a hearty sunrise breakfast hadn't eclipsed
his obvious interest in what the day promised for Southbound's guests. Glancing
out the wall of windows to the corner of a gently rolling field, he watched an
all-terrain vehicle purring its way back to the barns through the pink light,
returning minus its cargo of quail and pheasant. His slightly wistful observation:
"You're in for some fun this morning." As the four-wheeler rolled up near
the kennels, a choir of bird dogs sang their anxious agreement. The well-fed guests
fanned out to their rooms to grab Boots, Blaze, Browning, and Benelli.
Fuel for a morning in the field.
Gathering on the tidy lawn below the club house's hot tub deck, we were met by
Southbound's owner, Rene Thibault, and Pat Casey, his partner and the preserve's
veteran manager. After a quick chat about the morning's prospects and some safety
reminders, two hunters hopped aboard the crew's larger ATV, driven by Pat, who was
also hauling a pair of Pointers in crates. The rest of us preferred a warm-up stroll,
and took to a footpath with Rene (it's pronounced like "rainy"). The close of
September in southern Virginia means thick, still-green, dewy cover, and made the
property's seemingly endless cut paths most welcome. No area on the grounds is without
neat, crisscrossing lanes that make for an easy-going, two-abreast walk in good
range of dogs working the varying vegetation. The preserve prefers only two guns
in a field, and well-separated parties if more are out. We stuck to this pattern,
and Pat quickly caught up to us after dropping off the other two hunters and one
dog in a removed field past a hardwood-lined rise.
Gathering in the morning light, and separating into two-gun parties.
To their clear dismay, our own dogs (which were very welcome by the preserve -
they're delighted by guests with personal gun dogs, even green ones) were sitting out
this first round. Instead, we had a chance to walk along with Pat Casey and watch him
work with an 18-month-old Pointer in his training program. As the morning progressed,
A Pointer on birds is a joy to behold.
another hand would swing by to rotate relief dogs into our increasingly sunny, warming
fields. Those dogs in Pat's personal care and regimen were all being prepped for field
trialing, and had the challenge of working close to hunters on foot, rather than their
accustomed horseback style. We saw a parade of hard working, steady, and supremely
fit animals. Visitors coming from a more suburban existence will surely notice the
characteristic look of trialing dogs, but soon learn that the lean, hard quality is
what allows their physical capacity to match their perpetual hunting enthusiasm and
eagerness to keep taking their handler's direction, even after extended work in thick cover.
Stamina and drive.
Soon enough, a solid point from young Molly had Pat directing those
with shotguns into position. Encouraging the gunners to move parallel to him, he abruptly
stomped his imposing frame into the waist-high cover. His indelicate style produced the
intended result, and a flashy rooster powered out of the grass towards the trees. Two
barks from the fairer half of the party's 20-gauge, and the pheasant tumbled. Though
still early in the arc of her career, Molly stood like a stone, watching the rooster fall
like one. Pat understood our slightly quizzical glances, and told us, in his rich Yankee
accent, "Just mahk your bird - we'll get over theah!" Then, rather than asking
for a retrieve, he sent Molly out to "hunt dead." If that sounds like she wasn't
ready to pull her weight for real hunting, it's more that she was doing just what was
expected. Pat explained the need to keep her focused on finding, and not yet physically
picking up birds, lest she lose some of her hard-won steadiness. The Pointer moved with
us the twenty yards to the grass row where the bird went down, and with a little work was
soon showing us the dead ringneck's location and anxious to move on to the next find (a
very jumpy Bob White).
The morning's successes, and a chance to take in Pat's bird and dog sensibilities, made
us comfortable enough to run out our less experienced Shorthair. A second pass through one
of the larger fields, and we rustled up some of the still-hunkered birds that had been
missed in the fairly still, warm scenting conditions. Our slightly damp and pollen-dusted,
but very content trio of hunters and dog left a few crafty birds in the field, and headed
back to the club house's waiting lunch of just-grilled chicken sandwiches.
A guest and her personal German Shorthair work quail in a sunflower stripe, and he retrieves her shot bird from a nearby treeline.
We'd packed up the promise of just such a morning along with rest of our gear as we made
the previous morning's 200-mile drive from the DC area to South Hill, Virginia. In arranging
the visit, our hosts' calls and correspondence described a stay that we frankly considered
a little improbable. Not so much in the too-good-to-be-true sense, but more in the
"Hey, if we could put together the talent, resources, time and good fortune, that
sounds just like what we'd do ourselves" sense - and there's plenty that can come up
short with that many moving parts. The current incarnation of the preserve (operated
previously by Pat Casey in his own venture as Dry Creek Preserve) was just swinging into
action in its inaugural season as we visited, and we expected to see some rough edges that
early in the operation's life - but we truly didn't think we'd find the central theme
of Rene's vision springing so immediately to life. "My hope," he told us,
"is to have maybe three hunting buddies, or a couple of long-time friendly couples,
seeing the place as theirs while they're with us. Their club house, their fields to wander
all day, and a team to make the time out with the dogs and birds a no-stress day." We were
experiencing precisely that, and more.
With a refreshing dose of candor, Rene stressed a specific aspect of the more intimate
use that he hopes the preserve will see: no strangers in the field, or across the dinner
table. To be sure, getting to know someone new (with whom you know you have at least one
passion in common) can be enriching - but to the extent that the preserve exists to let
people with an upland inclination decompress and disappear from daily life for a bit,
they're hoping you'll book the place for a close group. A long weekend or mid-week stay
is too short to spend your first hour in the field assessing a new acquaintance's gun
manners or scratching your head about what language their dog speaks. If you'll be
spending your Southbound time getting to know someone, they're hoping it's someone you
brought along for that very purpose. If the personalities are a good fit, the setting
truly does rival (and if you're into this sort of thing, surpass) a resort golf destination
as a deal-making venue. Since Rene has a background in the corporate world, he personally
understands what it takes to provide a get-away that professionals can use in shaping a
business relationship. Who needs golf when there's a pond full of fish, an ATV to hop
on, glorious Tennessee Walkers available for a ride, and well-appointed accommodations,
right down to the poker table? Surfing the satellite service for a ballgame to watch on
the big screen while resting tired muscles on an inviting leather couch may not be why you'd
come, but it's part of the texture of the place.
Comfortable, inviting spots are both upstairs and down.
All the more noticeable then, is the intersection between Southbound's clubby escape
atmosphere and the other half of the operation. The professional upland bird dog training
and hunting operation is completely infused with the blood, sweat, and personality of
manager Pat Casey. On meeting Pat (in our case, as he rolled up on an ATV), our first
thought was, "Now there is the Real Deal." He exudes experience in the sport,
and his time is divided between the preserve operations and his role as trainer/handler
in the field trialing world. For those unfamiliar with that sport, that means that his
skills extend well beyond the specifics of training and handling dogs in a competitive
environment. Traveling that circuit involves transporting perhaps a dozen dogs, several
horses, and a mountain of related gear, tack, supplies, and vehicles. It's a demanding
enterprise, and one can see how the more laid-back days spent with guests on the preserve,
no matter how challenging for the guests, are a back-home pleasure for Pat, who also has
his residence on the grounds.
Pat Casey eyes the gunners approaching a Setter on point. Below, saddling up a Tennessee Walker.
And the grounds... no matter what else momentarily soothes, distracts, fascinates or amuses
about the place, the grounds will be the magnet that re-attracts regular visitors truly
into the dog work. The years-long effort of cultivating and grooming the cover and field
borders really shows. Designated working areas are set up as a sprawling series of alleys,
pockets, and hill-crowning fields bounded by tree lines and the occasional creek bed. A
resident of the eastern seaboard would naturally expect walls of angry briars and creeping,
ropy ground cover webbed between every tree. And so the magnitude of Pat's labor manifests
itself: brush pants might still be nice in the whippier grass, but we saw scarcely a
denim-hostile thorn or gunner-tripping vine in hours on foot. We did see the occasional
deer scat and print, so perhaps Pat has a little help keeping the the tree lines more
A rolling Southbound field, and a closer working sorghum patch.
Because of the cozy patchwork layout, working our dogs in the tracks of grains and grasses
meant that birds usually flushed towards long-established islands of trees or bands of taller
nearby cover. With dogs happy to dive into wooded areas to relocate a bird, the challenge
of getting gunners safely into place always comes up. Unlike so many other impenetrable
mid-Atlantic spots, the interior of Southbound's field-dividing tree lines frequently feature
a down-the-center trail perfect for getting opposite a dog pointing amid the trees, getting
an inside-out shot, and still avoiding the traditional stick in the eye. But even more
delightful for dog owners is the utter lack of relic barbwire, land mines of rusty old
farm equipment, broken bottles, and the like. With those worries minimized, someone new
to the grounds can concentrate more on the hunting or training and less on inventorying
potential sources of vet bills.
Two shooters walk a flushing line into the cover as Pat kneels to steady a younger dog on point.
That such great fields are just a comfortable stroll out the back door of the club house,
will be scattered with flighty birds, and are your own private upland playground during your stay -
well, it makes sense that Southbound is orienting their business around inspiring repeat customers.
Once you've experienced their unique setting and thorough approach, it's hard to imagine only
enjoying it once.
The club house has three bedrooms - one upstairs with a queen-sized bed, and two downstairs,
with two single beds in each. All three rooms are airy and comfortable, and each
has its own private bathroom with shower. The common area in the
lower part of the house sports the larger flat-screen, more comfortable leather furnishings,
and just the right setting for a round of darts, poker, or a tall-tale contest. Be sure
to ask about the history of the bulky wooden worktable that dominates the entrance to that space.
Upstairs, the main area features the wide-open professional kitchen, bar, dining table, and
another zone of great game-watching comfort. It's a natural gathering spot before and after
the excellent meals. Through the double doors is a large enclosed veranda that can be open
to the fresh air when it suits, and is the appropriate spot to put up your feet and have a smoke
(the rest of the club house is smoke free, and does come across as very fresh and clean).
That porch is also the perfect spot to nurse a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise over
the property's pond. If you're an angler, you may feel the call to wander down the hill for a
little exploratory casting - the pond is home to a healthy population of crappie and bass, both
smallmouth and large.
The sun rises over the pond, and over coffee on the veranda.
A stroll around the rest of the grounds will take you past the kennels, stables, horse pastures,
barn, bird house and other working spots. It can be a busy place, but all of that bustle is set
away enough from the club house to settle into the background. Visiting guests will be
distantly aware of the sporadic moments of activity, but the upland charm would be
diminished without the occasional, peripheral canine music.
There really is one simple yardstick by which to measure the entire experience of going
Southbound. Would we take good friends and their dogs back for a visit? In a New York
minute. But as the road through South Hill to the property turns from asphalt to gravel,
those New York minutes shift into leisurely hours and days, and that altering of your
perspective is ever so slightly permanent. You can't spend time or money better than that.
A back-porch review of the day's hunting, on Southbound time.
For Price Range:
5 Shells Out Of 5
Spacious, well-appointed accommodations and
personal service are wrapped around a first-rate
licensed preserve hunting and training operation. The club
house is directly on the expertly-managed grounds, and the
theme is clear throughout: it's your place while you're
To keep in mind:
Southbound has a lot to offer, and much for you to
talk with them about when you consider booking. They
can take care of everything, or not so much, depending
on what you want. Follow directions carefully when
working your way to the property - the country road
doglegs can get you a little turned around.
Southbound Sporting Preserve
att: Rene Thibault
1077 Dry Creek Road
South Hill, Virginia 23970
On the web:
More Info and FAQs
Exploring Southbound is part of the fun, but we can still provide
a little more feel for the place. Below are some more images
from our stay, and some brief information to help you
decide on a visit.
Chef Craig Kennah skillfully prepares a delicious evening meal.
The comfortable rooms each have their own bathrooms (toilets/sinks/showers).
Downstairs entertainment area with football-friendly big screen.
The fields really do start right out the club house's back door.
Transportation, whether 4X4 or four-hooved, is a big part of life at Southbound.
Some More To Know:
South Hill is a small town, but a short drive from the preserve will get
you to quality veterinary practices, a Wal-Mart, fuel, and most anything else
You'll need to make a 25% deposit when you make your reservations. Credit
cards and cash are fine, but personal checks are only accepted from regular
Guests are expected to bring their own shotguns. Most will want to bring
their own shells, but the preserve will have some available for purchase. While
there are no specific limitations on ammo type, there will be more of that
quail left for dinner if you're not shooting high-brass powerhouse rounds. This
isn't South Dakota, so when you're on a pheasant it won't be in high winds at
longer ranges - we found that an ounce of #7-1/2 shot (12 or 20) through an improved
cylinder choke was just right for the mix of birds and conditions... but to
each their own shooting style.
The preserve's fees include cleaning and packaging of your birds, and they'll
provide ice for your cooler as you leave.
Guests must sign a traditional preserve waiver before they can hunt. A regular
Virginia hunting license is fine, or you can purchase an inexpensive short-term preserve
license online when you arrive, and print it on the spot (but you can and probably should
do that before you leave home - just visit the easy-to-use
Virginia Dept. of Game & Inland Fisheries web site and you'll be done in minutes).
For that purchase, hunters must assert their previous holding of a license or past hunter safety
Don't forget some eye protection and your gear. Forget your blaze? The preserve
will have their own branded items for sale on the spot - good for safety and
a nice momento, too.
Dog accommodations? New guest kennels will be available for the next season (autumn
of 2007), but you can talk with the management about more immediate use of their
existing training kennels, or use crates in your own SUV. Be sure to talk this issue
over, as they're flexible.
Food? You'll be well taken care of during your stay. Be sure to spell out in
advance any unusual dietary requirements. Of course, if you're a vegetarian hunter, we'd like
to write a special article about you.
Gratuities? The team is dedicated to you being delighted during your stay. They expect
that, when you experience what we did, you'll very much want to tip your guide
Want to know more about the surroundings? Nothing beats a
Google map of the location for feeling it out.
Just over the border from North Carolina, the town of South Hill is about a 90 mile drive from Richmond, VA
and its accessible airport, or about 80 miles up from the Raleigh/Durham airport in NC. Norfolk, on the coast
of Virginia, is about 130 miles, and DC-area residents are in for about 200 miles (3 to 4 hours with
typical traffic). The drive through that part of Virginia is quite pleasant and easy going once you're free
of the immediate clutches of suburban Richmond or Raleigh. Enjoy the piney stretches and the warm