'52 Week Season' features foundation president Will Payne

Will Payne: Virginia Sportsmen's Foundation
By Patrick Ottenhoff — 52 Week Season

In a year of polarizing politics, Will Payne carries forward the Bull Moose tradition in Virginia, working across the aisle to promote and protect the Commonwealth’s rich sportsmen’s heritage. 

Will Payne after a '001 Outdoors' pheasant hunt

Will is a good, old friend and also President of the Virginia Sportsmen’s Foundation, which works to expand opportunities for hunting and fishing in Virginia and also hosts a number of educational and social events to elevate sportsmen’s issues among policymakers in Richmond. One of my favorite is their annual Wild Game Chili Cookoff hosted by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s office that always brings a cross-section of Virginia to feast in venison, fowl, and other kinds of chili.

I consider myself lucky to have met so many great people over the last decade who represent the very best of what hunting means — people who respect the laws on the books and are serious about Virginia’s traditions.

Besides his role with the Virginia Sportsmen’s Foundation, Will crisscrosses the state building political coalitions for his Bull Moose Strategies clients. He is a member of William & Mary’s Board of Visitors and recently published his first book, Mark Warner the Dealmaker: From Business Success to the Business of Governing, the first independent biography about a Virginia governor in 15 years.  

Through all of these jobs, Will has had the opportunity to hunt and fish all over Virginia on both public and private land from the marshes of Eastern Shore to the bird hunting in the Shenandoah foothills. 

I caught up with Will — which is no easy task with his schedule! — to hear more about the work he’s doing with the Virginia Sportsmen’s Foundation, about some of his favorite personal hunting and fishing traditions, and most important, about the best wild game chili in the mid-Atlantic.

Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers. 

What is the Virginia’s Sportsmen’s Foundation and its mission? 

The Virginia’s Sportsmen’s Foundation is a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization that promotes Virginia’s outdoor traditions, including hunting, fishing and natural resource conservation. Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle and I started this foundation in 2010 to give others the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. It’s really that simple. We feel that one of the most important hunting traditions — a responsibility in fact — is encouraging others to join in the fun and positive experience of being in the outdoors while learning about discipline and respect.

What are some of those traditions and events? 

A big one is the annual Hunter Skills Weekend hosted by 001 Outdoor Adventures in Albemarle County. It is designed to educate beginning hunters as well as introduce experienced hunters to new disciplines such as crossbow, archery and muzzleloader.

Over the years we’ve also hosted a number of events for law enforcement officers, including deer hunting trips in Chesapeake on property we manage, at James Madison’s Montpelier, and on the Eastern Shore. We also held a pheasant hunt for wounded warriors from Fort Belvoir as well as a fishing rodeo for veterans.

What are some of your personal favorite hunting/fishing traditions?

My favorite outings are based on the fun experiences I’ve had over the years with guides and friends. For me, it’s no so much about hunting as it is about the camaraderie. I’ve been lucky to have access to private land all over Virginia and to have been included on trips with political friends, such as sea duck hunting in Maine or wild boar hunting in South Carolina. Many people have helped me along the way become a more skilled hunter, so I’ve tried to pay that forward.

Eastern Shore buck down

In the winter, I join my brothers and others for a pheasant stand and clean up hunt with 001 Outdoor Adventures in Albemarle County. The owner, Ike Wright, his son Ike Jr., and the solid 001 team of guides and dogs run a first-class operation. While there’s never a guarantee with hunting, you can bet on coming home with enough meat for a feast.

A new tradition for me is hosting auction winners from William & Mary’s signature fundraising events benefiting athletic scholarships and the alumni association. Last year we went deer hunting on a farm in Exmore on the Eastern Shore with Sheriff Stolle — the place where I bagged my first deer. This year we’re going duck hunting in a blind on the Rappahannock River with guide Norm Kubala.

Rappahannock duck hunt

I consider myself lucky to have met so many great people over the last decade who represent the very best of what hunting means — people who respect the laws on the books and are serious about Virginia’s traditions. Most of these friendships stem from my involvement in politics on both sides of the aisle, so we share a common bond outside of hunting. While we may disagree sometimes on issues, we are definitely on the same page when it comes to hunting and enjoying the outdoors.

What are some of your favorite hunting experiences? 

My favorite hunting story has little to do with hunting. While on a sea duck trip in Maine in December 2009, I realized that my phone was missing when I returned one afternoon from rocks just off the coast. I assumed maybe I dropped it in the water but checked the ‘Find My iPhone’ app on my computer, which showed the phone was still on. Our guide was nice enough to offer to take me back out to search the rocks. The tide was going out pretty fast, so we had a short window of time before it was going to be dangerous to be in the water. It hit me on the boat ride that the phone was not important enough to risk our lives at low tide, but it was too late by then. Once we got to the rocks, I found my phone almost immediately. We got back in record time, and I’ve never been more terrified to be in a Boston Whaler in freezing water temperatures. The moral of this story is to leave technology behind when hunting so you can truly unplug and enjoy the day.

Five-time winners Ron Tillett and Harold Ellis

I’ve only competed in it once, but one of my favorite traditions it the chili cook-off. Do you have a favorite? What does it take to win? 

Aside from your NOVA Roadkill Chili of course, I have to go with Harold Ellis and Ron Tillett, whose recipe was featured in the January 2014 issue of Food Network Magazine. It doesn’t matter what meat they use — from elk to caribou to moose — because their recipe is gold. Tillett and Ellis hold the record with five straight victories. They voluntarily retired a couple of years ago to give others a chance and are now our chief judges.

Cooks have come and gone over the last 25 years. We’ve had some really good entries. The most exciting moment for me was this year when Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Carroll won first place — against all odds — having never placed in the past. Kevin makes a mean wild boar chili that leaves your mouth on fire.

This event is pretty unique. It’s one of the rare times when you can get legislators, government officials, lobbyists and staffers together just for fun. It’s a no-politics zone and frankly is, for many of the attendees, the only time of the year they get to try wild game.