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February 2008
Setting Sights on Outdoor Adventure
By Bruce Hensley

    Tucker and Taffy leap from the truck and sprint, noses down, scouring the ground relentlessly but methodically through the knee-high broom straw. Within minutes, Tucker slides to an abrupt halt, her feathery tail frozen skyward, nose twitching and body quivering. Within seconds, Taffy is a perfect mimic barely 20 feet away.

    “Tucker don’t lie, boys…and Taffy knows it,” proclaims Roddy. “Ready, Dodson? Ready, John? Here they come!”

    Suddenly, a covey of quail spring into furious flight from the grassy cover and head in three directions. Two quick blasts, two calculated shots, and four fast retrieves later,  Roddy proudly but calmly asserts, “Tucker and Taffy’ll make you look good.”

    “We are good!” chimed Dodson and John in unison.

    “Yes, sir, everything’s good here,” smiles Roddy, “Looky there, boys, we got another point. Remember, Tucker don’t lie.”

    Tucker and Taffy are two beautifully muscular and lithe English Setter hunting dogs. Roddy is South Carolina native Roddy McFalls, a knowledgeable, gentle, accommodating, and humorous hunting and fishing guide. Dodson and John are Dodson   Patterson and John Williams, owners and CEOs of Charlotte-based Patterson Heating and Air Conditioning and Metrolina Builders, respectively.

The location is The River Bend Sportsman’s Resort in Fingerville, South Carolina, just off  the Cherokee Scenic Highway about 30 miles north of Spartanburg and 90 miles southwest of Charlotte.

    Situated on 550 majestic, rolling acres in South Carolina’s upstate area, this multi-faceted upscale sporting resort has played host to countless national and international sportsmen and -women, and even youth, since its inception in 1985.

    In addition to eight perfectly prepared hunting fields that feature pheasant, chukar and quail, River Bend offers deer hunting via eight strategically placed Strong Built tripods, turkey hunting (in April only), and duck hunting. River Bend is one of only three facilities in South Carolina approved for released duck hunting, which means hunters pay for a specified amount of ducks to be released, which are then harvested accordingly.

    It also means that no duck stamps, bag limit or steel shot are required, and that both mallard hens and drakes can be released for the hunt. There are three blinds accommodating up to four hunters each; River Bend supplies dogs and dog handlers if needed. All harvested game is cleaned and frozen on site and sent home with hunters. Unclaimed game is used for an annual fund raiser, so all game from River Bend is consumed by someone.

 

Hunting Up a Resort

    River Bend is the vision and brainchild of Statesville, N.C., native Ralph Brendle. Brendle had always had a passion for the outdoors and outdoor activities. He graduated from Wofford College with a chemistry degree in 1974 and went to work for Millikin Chemicals in Spartanburg, where he helped develop, patent and sell various textile-related chemicals across the globe. Part of his job also involved customer entertainment.

    “Like any company, we found it necessary and usually enjoyable to entertain our customers,” explains Brendle, 56. “But when we hosted clients in the South Carolina upstate during the mid ’70s to mid ’80s, we didn’t have anywhere decent to hunt and shoot. So that got me thinking about finding some land and opening my own sporting resort. Besides, I was kind of burned out with world travel and chemical sales.”

So Brendle pieced together and purchased several contiguous plots of land, and opened   River Bend in 1985 featuring three hunting fields, a skeet range, six modest sleeping rooms, and a 2000-square-foot conference center with a small kitchen. At the time, River   Bend was only the second U.S. sporting facility to have a sporting clays course. A favorite of Europeans, sporting clays was new and relatively unknown in the U.S. until the mid-1980s. Brendle also had the support of his former Milliken associates and other regional corporate contacts in using the fledgling resort as often as possible.

    A couple of years later, Brendle began River Bend’s Youth Camp, a popular and highly acclaimed beginner and advanced camp for boys and girls aged 10 to 15. Taught by trained professionals, youngsters learn gun safety and shooting techniques including shotgun, rifle, and pistol safety and marksmanship; gun cleaning/maintenance; wildlife law enforcement, identification, and habitat management; hunting techniques; and game care and preparation. Other camp activities include paintball, swimming, fishing, golf, and volleyball.

    “The youth program is something I feel very strongly about,” emphasizes Brendle.   “There are lots of kids who need and want an opportunity to learn about fun, wholesome outdoor activities, and unfortunately, the times are such now that many kids don’t get the chance. I believe that our Youth Camp is an education in our heritage and an investment in our future.”

    Additionally, the youth program nurtures future customers, and the resort is now enjoying individual and corporate customers who were past Youth Camp attendees.

 

Flush With Expansion

    By 1996, Brendle’s business was flourishing, flush with textile, manufacturing, banking, and several other industries’ corporate entertainment business, as well as individual members. Having already added five more hunting fields in 1994, Brendle decided to take River Bend to the next level by building a stunning 6000-square-foot lodge with a massive stone fireplace, commercial kitchen, billiard room, bar, pro shop, gun storage/cleaning room, public and private dining rooms, men’s and women’s saunas, loft, administrative office, and a 1000-square-foot deck for cookouts. The lodge accommodates up to 125 for sit-down dinners, and the conference center can hold 135 in a theater-style setting.

    Brendle also added upscale accommodations with a cottage that features four private bedrooms and a great room with wet bar and four separate bedrooms—bringing the resort’s total sleeping rooms with private baths to 14.

    “It’s a wonderful place,” declares Dodson Patterson, “I feel like River Bend is my second home, and I come here as often as possible. I can be here from Charlotte in about 90 minutes, grab some lunch, take a lesson from any of the great instructors, shoot some sporting clays or skeet, and be home by dinner time.

    “But what I really enjoy,” Patterson continues, “is bringing my wife Lisa and/or some customers down for an overnight visit. We’ll meet here for lunch, maybe work with instructors for a while, shoot a round of sporting clays or skeet, then hit the lodge for cocktails and appetizers by the fireplace. Follow that with a great dinner by Chef Lee [Whitehurst], and top it off with a pool or poker game before bed.

    “The next morning we’ll enjoy an authentic country breakfast and a half-day bird hunt.  I just love it here—by myself, with my wife, with friends, or with customers. Ralph and his staff are so friendly and accommodating, and the whole resort is nice and professional.   The instructors have significantly improved my shooting skills, the rooms are comfortable, the food is great, and the staff have all become really good friends. I can’t say enough good things about River Bend,” Patterson concludes.

    John Williams elaborates, “This is a terrific way to entertain our clients and spend time with my son Matt, who works with me, at the same time. My wife has hunted deer, and she really wants to try bird hunting and sporting clays, not to mention the food. She’s heard about all the fun we have here.”

    David Adams, president of Curtiss-Wright Controls Inc. in Charlotte, adds, “River Bend is a very handsome facility, a secluded gem. It’s a true sporting paradise that’s great for entertaining and team building.”

    Al Waddell, president of Waddell Homes in Rock Hill, S.C., is a huge fan of River Bend and has been spotted there hosting actor Larry Hagman of TV’s Dallas and I Dream of Jeannie fame.

    “Ralph Brendle and his staff take excellent care of their guests,” explains Waddell. “Once while duck hunting at River Bend with Hagman and his good friend Mark Erwin of Charlotte, we realized we were shooting the wrong ammunition—slugs instead of shot.     Well, Ralph—after a good laugh at us—delivered the appropriate ammo with a smile on his face and a few well-deserved barbs. As soon as people walk into that lodge and meet     Ralph, they know they are going to have a great time.”

    “We have a huge contingency of corporate and individual members from the Charlotte area,” confirms Brendle. “That is a very important market for us.”

 

The Round of Activities

    Sporting clays is often described as “golf with a shotgun.” The sporting clays course at River Bend is actually two courses, intermediate and advanced, in one. Its twelve-station course meanders over dozens of acres encompassing both wooded and open areas, hilly and flat terrain. Several stations abut a bend in the Pacolet River (thus, the river and bend in the River Bend name). Each station incorporates two state-of-the art automatic trap machines that fling flying clay targets in varying trajectories, simulating different bird flights and rabbit hops.

    “Sporting clays is one of the fastest growing sports in America,” says Brendle, “and it’s especially popular here at River Bend for the scenery, diverse terrain, and ever-changing clay flight patterns. We can adjust the difficulty of the course to accommodate any group or tournament, and we change the course about every month to maintain a nice  variety.”

    There is also a covered, automated five-stand sporting clay course that is usually used as a warm-up to the larger course or during inclement weather. And, most certainly, there is a skeet course, certified as an official American Skeet Range by the National Skeet Shooting Association.

    The resort also offers a River Bend exclusive, a “dove and quail flurry.” This oscillating clay-shooting challenge simulates quail and dove flights from a 45-foot tower. It is operated like a five-stand course from five different positions.

    One of the most popular activities is a tower shoot, held throughout the October to March bird-hunting season, in which hunters wait in blinds surrounding a large field for pheasants to rocket past from a 90-foot tower. This is the perfect activity for groups of 15 to 30.

    Ancillary programs and activities at River Bend also include paintball, golf via a reciprocal relationship at each of the very popular The Cliffs courses, and lake and fly fishing as well as whitewater rafting via professional outfitters. The River Bend     Executive Leadership Institute, a hands-on, customized leadership program, can include team building, interactive presentations, leadership development, motivation, and a variety of light physical activities designed to augment each program.

 

Precision Personnel

    Like any popular resort, the place is only as good as the people who work there, and   Brendle has assembled a litany of professionals who keep guests coming back year after year.

    He enlists the services of retired U.S. Equestrian Team Executive Director Bob Standish as assistant resort manager, National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA) Level II instructor, and point man for River Bend’s Federal Firearms License, which means customers can buy and sell firearms at the resort.

    Other Level II NSCA instructors include retired IT executive Joe Smith, who also cleans guns for guests with his patented, biodegradable Bore Bright gun maintenance products; and Wally Schneider, a retired school teacher who is one of the few NSCA Level II female instructors in America.

    Also on site are Level II instructors Rick Smith and Mike Bates and Paragon School owner and NSCA Level III instructor Daniel Schindler. Loaner guns and instruction are readily available for beginners and shooters of all levels.

    Sometimes a guide can make a good hunt great. They know the dogs and how to handle them, see where birds fall or fly after they have been shot or flushed, keep safety as the top priority, and usually add a firm dose of subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) humor.  That is often the case at River Bend with several longtime guides on staff.

    In addition to the aforementioned Roddy McFalls, who is also one of South Carolina’s most renowned fishing guides, River Bend guides include Hank Rogers and Clarence May.

    Rogers, a former pro baseball player and high school teacher/coach, has been at River Bend since 1997. His guide services are highly sought after because of his personality and extraordinary bird dogs. Rogers raises, trains and sells about a dozen dogs annually, many to River Bend guests, with some dogs fetching as much as $5,000.

    May chose to join the staff at River Bend after spending decades at another popular South Carolina hunting lodge.

    Most guests are both thrilled and amazed at the quality of River Bend’s hunting dogs. The on-site kennel includes 20 purebred English Setters, English Pointers, and German Shorthairs. The dogs are wonderfully trained, cared for, and loved by all of the handlers. During hunting season, Spartanburg veterinarian and Iditarod race veteran Sonny King makes a River Bend kennel call at least every two weeks.

    Ralph Brendle’s goal in 1985 was to create a sporting resort that would provide a quality destination for private members, the general public, and corporate client entertainment. Twenty-three years later, he continues to exceed his customer’s expectations with River Bend Sportsman’s Resort, “Where Business Is Pleasure.”

Bruce Hensley is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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