By Adam Cannon
Growing up in Eastern North Carolina, it is only natural that I developed a strong connection to the outdoors. Endless adventures awaited me just outside my doorstep throughout my childhood. The Croatan National Forest, Bogue Sound, barrier islands and countless other opportunities were always within walking distance. As a young man with a deep yearning to be outdoors, I was fortunate to be immersed in all that North Carolina had to offer. As early as the age of 8, I was given the freedom to wander the pocosins, swamps, hollers, pine savannas, sounds, and marshes we lived amongst, spending days at a time during the summers camping and boating on the cut-bank islands eating oysters, fish, ducks, and anything else I could find to sustain myself. Often I would bring nothing but a fishing pole and a sleeping bag, sleeping under the stars with a small glowing fire crackling over the sounds of light chop lapping over the scallop and oyster shells that littered the shoreline. I wouldn’t trade these memories for anything.
Fast forward to adulthood. Married life, a full-time job, and two wonderful children now took up most of my free time. The times spent scouting for deer or birds became much less frequent, as is the story for many outdoor enthusiasts waiting for a free weekend or holiday from work to spend in their favorite deer stand or fishing hole. I would often spend Saturdays with hunting buddies running deer hounds or rabbit beagles to get my fix of cool, crisp hunting days in the woods with good dogs and good friends. My wife was growing tired of my constant pleas to buy a pack of hounds of my own to train, run, and hunt. I was growing tired of not having dogs of my own to drop off the tailgate and hear them singing and screaming through the still fall mornings. Wilson Rawls’ description of the physical pain associated with a boy yearning to have a hunting companion is very real, and it consumed me.
Some years ago, I was on a camping and fishing trip with many of the other local men. The trip had become an annual tradition where we would limb-line catfish, cook, tell stories, sip a little moonshine, or a lot of it. As I sat around the fire, listening to the old-timers tell stories and pick bluegrass music, a wet nose suddenly greeted me. I reached down to pet this dog and realized it was not one of the usual yard dogs that parade around the campsites searching for a dropped hushpuppy or a kind person offering a nibble of whatever was being cooked at the time. This dog was gorgeous and had the sweetest temperament. I began to ask around, eventually locating the owner that informed me his dog was indeed a Brittany spaniel. As soon as I returned from my trip, I begin researching the breed and reading anything I could get my hands on that pertained to the breed. I am now convinced, I no longer want to live in a world where I do not own a Brittany.
I begin buttering up my wife, showing her puppy pictures and doing everything I could to get her to see why I absolutely needed a dog. It seemed to be working. She finally succumbed to my constant pleading and bargaining. She was hardly finished agreeing to my wishes before I was looking up breeders and comparing bloodlines. Over the next week, we looked at new and upcoming litters from most of the breeders in our state. I could barely contain my anticipation, staying up late thinking about puppies, training, and long walks in the woods. Several days later, as we were close to narrowing our search, my wife called and says a co-worker had a Brittany puppy. They cannot keep it. My first thoughts were, “Ok, what is wrong with this dog? Is it wild? Undisciplined?” I was mildly skeptical, but decided that sometimes the best dogs are the ones that fall into your life. That evening, the co-worker stoped by the house carrying a fuzzy bundle of Brittany. Before I can even get a good look at her, my daughters and wife took her up, smothering the poor pup with cuddles and kisses, and long cries of “Aaawwwww!” It looked as though we had a new addition to the family, and I had a new hunting partner. Her name was Ruby.
The summer was spent training and spending as much time in the woods as I could possibly afford. Ruby was getting her nose acquainted to new scents and learning how to navigate the thick pocosin that makes up most of the Croatan Forest. She began to love these sessions so much, she would cry when she saw me each day, yearning to be in the woods covering ground and searching for game. Now, I don’t know how many reading this are familiar with North Carolina’s gamelands, but those that are know quail and upland gamebirds are quite scarce, often causing hunters to go days at a time finding no coveys. As Ruby matured, I began taking her to preserves to get her experienced with live birds. She took to it beautifully. At this point, I have a well-trained hunting machine. Finally, quail season is upon us, and we are geared up and ready to go. We spent our first weeks hunting every ridge and briar thicket we could find. We racked up hours and hours of woods time only to find no birds. Ruby was doing her part well, covering ground, investigating all the best looking cover and hiding spots, but still no birds. Will she forget what she’s trained to do? Will she forget what we’re looking for on our hunts?
That December, about a week before Christmas, I decided to hunt a three year cut-down we had not been in yet. It had all the promising looking cover for quail I could ask for. I put Ruby’s bell and on her, grabbed my shotgun, and sent her out ahead to find us some quail. As soon as she entered the cover, all I heard was splashing and Ruby’s bell ringing frantically as she shook the cold water from her fur. Great, this place is half-flooded. Not where I would want to be if I was a quail. I decided to continue our hunt, because all woods time is good woods time. Ruby and I spent a couple of hours trudging through dense brush and cat briars searching for an elusive covey of quail. Once again, there were none to be found. We began to make our way through the dense vegetation back to the truck. I felt defeated again, but Ruby was still hunting hard, covering ground like she was bred to do. She circled around me and zoomed past me, running out ahead of me 75 yards or so. Suddenly, her bell stopped dead. As I approached her, I saw her in an intense point, nose pointed directly at a small bay bush surrounded by briars and damp leaf litter. I thought, “Ok Ruby, what are you onto now? Rabbit? Deer?” Those had been common occurrences on our walks. I approached the bush, and just before I could give it a good kick, a bird rocketed into flight in a fury of wing beats and whistles. Surprised and caught off guard, I shouldered my Browning BPS shotgun and sent a string of #8 shot toward the bird. I was shocked as the bird tumbles into a nearby thicket in an explosion of feathers. Ruby blew past me in a fit of excitement. All I could see was her hindquarter poking out of the thicket, tail wagging with pride and pleasure. She met me half way, delivering the bird to my hand. We had just harvested our first woodcock.
I had seen these birds before. On rare occasions, they would flush from under my feet as I walked through a branch or headed to my deer stand. Such a beautiful and mysterious bird, maybe there were more around, hiding in the thick creek bottoms and moist soil habitats of the Croatan. Woodcock became an obsession. We started focusing our hunts around more suitable habitat and spent the remainder of the season pursuing this unusual but sporty bird. By Ruby’s first birthday, she had put over 50 woodcock in my bag and pointed over 100. I spent the next summer in agony waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the woodcock to show back up in my area.
These days, woodcock are still our passion and I enjoy watching Ruby hunt and point them. I have become quite proficient at making quick shots through dense brush. I have put down the old BPS 12ga in place of a 28ga side-by-side shotgun. Light and short, it has become my go to gun for woodcock and other upland birds. The best thing about woodcock is no one thinks to hunt them here. I enjoy the silent solitude of creek bottoms and hollers where no one else tends to go. We often take time to sit on an old cypress log and take in the beauty of the land around us and enjoy a pipe or a bit of deer jerky. I look forward to seasons to come and will never forget that first flush that created the passion and gave me an opportunity to hunt upland game in Eastern North Carolina.
Adam Cannon 37, also known as Croatan Man of New Port, North Carolina is an avid outdoorsman, dog trainer, hunter of deer and all things upland. You can follow Adam and Ruby’s upland adventures @croatan_upland_man