Hunt clubs continue proud tradition

Published 8:09 pm Saturday, February 13, 2010

During colonial times, hunters foraged through the woods and fields of Virginia in search of fantastic creatures to harvest for both food and sport, and brought with them from England the tradition of hunting in small groups, or clubs.

Today, the proud tradition of hunt clubs continues with 21st Century responsibilities: taking care of the land, taking care of the animals, and taking care to respect citizens’ property rights.

Lewis Hughes, vice president of the Sebrell Hunt Club, said people who are interested in hunting in our region should consider joining a hunt club.

“In our area almost all of the land is covered,” Hughes said. “It’s either being leased by a hunt club, or it belongs to a landowner-oriented hunt club. Almost everything is out of the system as far as public hunting. So the best opportunities in the southeastern counties of Virginia are to be in a club.”

The Sebrell Hunt Club — which Hughes said has 40 regular members and five associate members — is just one of more than a dozen that operate in Southampton County. Other hunt clubs include Adams Grove, B&J, Black Creek, Brandy Pond, Grizzard, Handsom, Little Texas, Newsoms, Pine Tree, Round Hill, S&S, Sedley, Seven Pines, Shiloh, United and Vicksville.

“The hunt clubs are good stewards of the land,” said Richard Grizzard, who runs the Grizzard Hunt Club. “They take care of what they have.”

Hughes said his club hunts primarily for deer and small game during both the bow and gun seasons on about 7,000 acres within the state’s Deer Management Assistance Program, or DMAP.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, DMAP, in effect since 1988, is a site-specific deer management program that grants landowners or hunt clubs more management options by allowing a more liberal kill of antlerless deer than county regulations.

“We start off with bow hunting in the bow season, and most of that is done either from portable stands or club stands,” Hughes said. “We have club stands on almost every bit of property that we have. Part of our agreements with our landowners is that we manage their paths, keep everything clean and keep the stands up. We also cover them with liability insurance.”

Some hunt clubs cater to sportsmen who don’t live in the region. Others are all local residents. And still others are a mix of both.

“We have some local and some not,” Hughes said. “Some are landowners and are honorary members, they don’t pay dues.”

Grizzard said his club — which primarily hunts for deer and uses beagles for gun season — has about six or seven members, most of whom hail from other parts of Virginia. The club members hunt on approximately 500 acres and use a clubhouse and a farm between Boykins and Branchville.

“Dog hunting is deeply ingrained in the Virginia culture,” Hughes said. “It was the first colony that started hunting foxes with hounds. Virginia has some laws on the books that are probably unique to any other state, in that they have a ‘right-to-retrieve law’ where you can trespass on somebody else’s land to get your dog back.”

Right-to-retrieve has caused some consternation recently from property owners, who fear having hunting dogs on their land and believe that the law violates their property rights. Hunters are not permitted to come onto private property with weapons.

Technology is helping hunters find and retrieve their hunting dogs.

“We don’t have a problem locally with our general area,” Hughes said. “We hunt with beagles and we hunt with radio collars on our beagles. We retrieve them quickly so they’re not out on the highways or on someone’s property. It’s not been such a problem for us.”

In Virginia, bow season usually begins the second week of October. It precedes gun season, which ends the first Saturday of January.

Hughes said that when gun season starts, the Sebrell Hunt Club — which began in 1952 as the Wagon Wheel Social Club — has organized hunts for the entire first and last weeks of the season, and also hunts on Tuesdays and Saturdays in between.

“We hunt small tracts of land from tree stands,” Hughes said. “We have very little use of trucks or pickups. Our stands are situated around each piece of property and we hunt it very cooperatively. We’re one the older clubs up there that basically started with people from outside the county. Now we’ve got more involved with people from within the county.”

Grizzard said the weather was detrimental to hunting this season.

“We had a slow season, just like everybody else,” Grizzard said. “There’s so much water in the woods, and it’s hard to keep the deer moving.”

Hunting still remains popular, but the number of hunters is in decline nationally. Hughes said the national average number of hunting licenses sold is going down.

“That’s evident everywhere, but in the South it’s been less of a trend than in some other places,” Hughes said. “But one startling fact is that the sale of hunting licenses to women has increased dramatically. Currently, women are getting involved in hunting more in the bow hunting ranks than in the gun hunting ranks, but more than men are by about 2.5-to-1 ratio.”

Asked why women were being drawn to hunting, Hughes said he didn’t know.

“But we welcome it,” Hughes said. “The more people there are involved, the more people understand it. Nowadays the climate is that people sit in front of their television sets and they’re not very connected with the outdoors or their surrounding environment. The more people get connected with the outdoors, the more they are tolerant of hunters.”