Writer CC Parker heads to the Beaufort Hotel for a weekend celebrating sporting life in North Carolina.
by CC Parker / photography by Justin Kase Conder
Last February, just weeks before 2020’s “great pause,” I escaped Raleigh for a weekend of celebrating the sporting life. My husband’s gun dog business, Wildrose Kennels Carolinas, was participating in the inaugural Beaufort Game Faire, hosted at the new Beaufort Hotel in— you guessed it — Beaufort. Located just down the road from bustling downtown, Beaufort Hotel was built on an old menhaden plant site. It’s got a gorgeous marina, expansive hotel facilities, and rental cottages on the property. Sweeping porches offer a view of Carrot Island and Taylor Creek, and their bar makes the best cocktails in town.
The Beaufort Game Faire was conceived in 2019 by a few enterprising locals as an attractive stop along the way to the SEWE (Southeastern Wildlife Expo) in Charleston, South Carolina. In a typical year, thousands of people make their annual pilgrimage to SEWE to enjoy the pleasures associated with the sporting lifestyle, including great food, music, and swag.
This concept of an event celebrating hunting and fishing is not totally new (Washington, N.C., has hosted its popular annual Wildlife Arts Festival for over 20 years). But these local events are invaluable for communities like Beaufort, which is better known as a small boating town than a sporting destination, as the visiting tourists fill local hotel rooms and restaurants in an otherwise quiet time of year.
For its first year, the Beaufort Game Faire committee assembled an extensive and noteworthy group of artisans and businesses for the weekend, from knife makers to hunting dog trainers.
The event ran from Thursday evening to Sunday brunch. The drone of bagpipes notified guests that the opening festivities had begun, ushering the crowd to a barbecue dinner and cigar/bourbon tasting on the hotel porch. The fun was just starting.
Friday morning came early for us Thursday partygoers (that North Carolina small-batch bourbon was particularly smooth the night before). But the Blessing of the Hounds — a time-honored hunting ritual for foxhunters, hounds, and horses — was worth the early wake-up call.
In full Episcopalian vestments, Rector Tammy Lee of Beaufort’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church led the crowd in a spirited observance. With the lobby fire crackling in the background and coffee in hand, we sang a few hymns and Rev. Lee said a few nice prayers. All was calm (in spite of the ten dogs who were part of the ceremony) as Rev. Lee’s lovely blessing sent us out into the blustery Friday morning.
Neither the labs nor the spaniels ap- peared perturbed that no hounds were in attendance for their blessing. We watched as George, Brows, and Sage — agile, gorgeous, silky- haired beasts — stood riveted, awaiting their owner’s instruction.
Over the next two days, the Faire assembled an impressive offering of vendors and exhibitors from all over the Southeast within the hotel. Among them was renowned bird call craftsman Ralph Jensen, of Wilmington, known for his cheeky motto: “For a call with class, go with the ‘stache.” Jensen — immediately identifiable by his white handlebar mustache— held court at his table by the fireplace where he whittled and chatted and chided guests to toot and trill his calls.
Adjoining Jensen’s fireside workspace sat Jerry Talton, who crafts handmade Core Sound decoys in Carteret Coun- ty. Talton laughed at Jensen’s jokes and answered customer questions while he carved.
I touched my first elephant hide at Al Ange Leather’s booth, a leather goods producer out of Newport News, Virginia. They offer all sorts of fine handmade shooting pouches, shell carriers, belts, bags, and other accessories. Each of their animal hides comes with its own serial number for tracking the country of origin and the date the hide was harvested.
Over the course of the weekend, dog demonstrations were conducted on the hotel’s front lawn. These shows are fan favorites, as the dogs demonstrate their skills in the field — as well as antics that no one can predict.
Wildrose Carolinas Labrador retrievers, under the charismatic command of founder Mike Stewart, entertained the crowd. The high-octane British labs leapt, sprinted, “stayed in place,” and retrieved all manner of bumpers. Stewart knows his audience: He got the crowd laughing as the dogs retrieved beer cans sent adrift by simulated kayak mishaps. These gorgeous dogs are natural performers that wooed the audience just by being their wagging, affable selves. The South’s “First Lady of Fishing,” Wanda Taylor — the first female master of certified casting — taught fly casting in the pool.
In addition to the Wildrose retrievers, Ryglen English spaniels from Illinois were also part of the dog demonstrations. A field cocker’s function in the hunting field is to flush birds from the long grass for quail hunting; we watched as George, Brows, and Sage — agile, gorgeous, silky- haired beasts — stood riveted, awaiting their owner’s instruction. I happen to own an English cocker, but my distraction techniques (frantic hand gestures and crooning calls) were completely ignored. Those spaniels were good, focused on their owner and field capabilities. Game Faire activities extended far beyond the hotel grounds, however.
A red trolley shuttled guests down the road to activities housed at the Beau Coast Community Clubhouse. There, the South’s “First Lady of Fishing,” Wanda Taylor — the first female master of certified casting — taught fly casting in the pool. Guests lined up for their individual sessions.
Fly tying classes, along with continuous jokes and stories, were spun next door by volunteers of the local Healing Waters Raleigh chapter, a group committed to the rehabilitation of disabled military service personnel through fly fishing, education, and outings.
Next stop was a few miles down Highway 70 at the Simpson Farm. I drove my Buick Enclave into the staging area — and quickly understood this was best for pick- up trucks.
At Simpson Farm, hunters were engaged in simulated driven grouse and rough hunting using rabbit targets and springing woodcock. While I am not a hunter — my husband suggested we go turkey hunting on our second date in 1990, but withdrew the offer when I expressed displeasure at the 4:30 a.m. call time and has never invited me again — I ventured out to see the Faire’s hunting offerings as a voyeur.
The North River Gun Club, another ten- mile drive toward Harkers Island, hosted multiple shotgun clinics throughout the weekend. Saturday afternoon’s Carolina Conservation Cup 5-Stand Championship — shooters at five stations aim for various combinations of clay birds — drew a big crowd. Shooting or not, the club was a companionable setting as people mingled around barrel fires, warming their hands.
Dinner at the hotel was a different theme each evening, but was always made with local fare, grown and caught nearby: Thursday was the previously mentioned bourbon and barbecue dinner; Friday was a low-country boil with shucked oysters on the porch; Saturday featured a deli- cious wild game banquet. Needless to say, guests did not go to bed hungry.
My friend David Cozart, a long-time Beaufort homeowner, says the town is always sunny on the last day of a stay — and Sunday was no exception. We spent a beautiful morning on the hotel lawn, bel- linis in hand, as the Game Faire wrapped up with the final dog demonstration. The Wildrose labs seemed to enjoy the spot- light, as the field cockers had departed the night before for a private hunt in Georgia.
At the conclusion of the Wildrose show, the hotel’s lot emptied of license plates from states near and far. Taking in the water and hotel, it occurred to me that while the Beaufort Game Faire was a great stop on the SEWE pilgrimage, it was also a perfect destination all on its own.