Sporting Life // 5 min Read

Hospitality in the Flatwoods

Written by Jay Walea

Apr 21, 2020

It was a long, sleepless night filled with the anticipation of the day to come, knowing I was going hunting at Palmetto Bluff for the first time in my life.

I was only 10 years old but had been hunting with my dad since I was old enough to walk. Sox Calder, CEO of Union Camp, had a father-son hunt every year in December where he would invite his executive staff and their sons on a day-long dog drive at Palmetto Bluff. My dad was head of accounting, and that was what opened the door for me to the most beautiful place on Earth. For years, we participated in Sox’s annual hunt, but once I got into middle school, my dad and I were able to come hunt with Anton Witherington, head of the land resources division and one of Dad’s best friends. That meant that I actually got to stay at the Lodge for three days and participate in every hunt (still hunting and dog hunting).

These early years hunting at the Bluff gave me the ultimate lifelong goal of one day working there and becoming one of the famous guides that I looked up to and on whose teachings I built my hunting skills and tactics. Famous names like Charlie Bales, Woodrow Scott, Wild Bill Mixon, Carl Woods, Ricky Crosby, and Richard Levant quickly became my heroes. Every time I was with them, I observed an amazing work ethic more intensive than anything I’d ever seen. No matter what day or what hour, those guys were game—ready to tackle the next task while always wearing a smile. These men were masters of their fields in everything from forestry management, wildlife management, food plots, animal behavior, and trapping skills to woodsmanship.

In 1991, my lifelong goal of working at Palmetto Bluff became a reality. It wasn’t until then that I got the full understanding of what it took to become one of those famous guides who were the heroes from my childhood. Hired as an intern, I worked my entire college career at the Bluff, coming home every weekend and working every holiday and break. It was during these years that I learned everything that went into running a first-class hunting operation and the hospitality that went along with it. Most of my time was consumed by skinning shed detail, hog trapping, and filling feeders, but I took every chance I got to learn from the guides and absorbed each of the lessons like a sponge. I did get to interact with the guests quite a bit; little did I know that Charlie Bales was molding me into his interpretation of a guide. My full-time career started in 1994 when Charlie Bales and Anton Witherington brought me on as a full-time guide with Union Camp.

I had always been amazed at how the guests put the guides on a pedestal (like I had done when I was a child). They were larger than life. Each guest had his or her favorite, and our names were, and still are, known worldwide. During my career, I have guided former presidents of the United States, Japanese royalty, governors, senators, and former head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs Vince Dooley. I learned to treat each person just as I did the last—teasing them when they missed but always treating them like “one of the guys.” Most of these people were big executives in their day-to-day life who weren’t spoken to like that, and they loved it.

For the thousands of guests who visited Palmetto Bluff, there was one common consensus: they loved the hospitality, the hunting, the fishing, and the amazing Lodge and staff, and they couldn’t wait to come back. A true home away from home, the Lodge was something to behold. When guests would arrive, they were greeted at the door by James the Bartender, smiling as he handed them one of his famous Bloody Marys. A gentleman by the name of Tiny would show them to their rooms while cutting up with them as if they were family. Mrs. Bessy, God love her, would be in the kitchen preparing the best fried chicken on the planet with her daughter, Big Carol, by her side. We, the guides, would then arrive after lunch to load up the hunters and head out into the wilds of Palmetto Bluff for an adventure that the guests had been looking forward to all year. After the hunt, it was tradition to bring all the game to the front door of the Lodge for photos and tall tales of how the game was taken. Mrs. Bessy would have hors d’oeuvres ready and waiting. (My favorite was her blue crab balls.)

The guides would soon retire to the skinning shed while the guests were served supper, which could be anything from local seafood to monster rib eyes. Many a moonlit night I came back across the pond dam to the Lodge to see the glowing embers of cigars being enjoyed by guests on the back porch, as they recounted the day’s happenings and eagerly anticipated the new day to come, too excited to go to sleep.

Palmetto Bluff has always been a special place filled with Southern hospitality and the allure of vast forests and fields—a true hunter’s paradise. And while some of the people may be gone—Mrs. Bessy, Big Carol, and James the bartender—the allure is still there, not only for hunters and sportsmen and women but now for families.

What was once a hunting camp with tall tales told around cigar circles has now evolved into a place where connections are made and stories are shared on front porches, in tree houses, or in parks—with nature and hospitality still taking center stage.