Off the Porch: Not into deer hunting? Try upland hunting at a game preserve
The rows of millet were about ten yards across interspersed with strips of grass about the same width. Almost a dozen hunters moved forward in a straight line with guns forward. Two hunters covered each row of grass with one hunter in the corresponding row of millet. Flushing dogs zigzagged through the millet, noses extended, looking to flush the next bird. The line progressed at a snail’s pace. My Lab, Larry, and I were working the last millet row on the right.
I was keeping Larry close, about twenty yards out. Sometimes he’d scent a bird in the row to our left and try to move over to that row and I had to correct him. “Stay in your row, Larry, that’s not your bird.” Now, he was looking birdy. He went into sneak mode and stopped in mid step, poised and looking down and to his right. The pheasant got nervous and flushed, cackling to indicate he was a rooster. The hunter to my right fired and he spun out of control in a cloud of feathers. Larry sprinted off and fetched him from the next row over, the pheasant’s brilliant feathers sparkling in the autumn light. No, we weren’t hunting in South Dakota, we were at Beaver Pond Sporting Club, just ten miles south of Burlington.
New figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006. Reasons given are the loss of hunting land to urbanization plus a perception by many families that they can't afford the time or costs hunting entails. In the last few years, the trend has reversed; we are now gaining hunters with increases in hunting licenses every year.
One of the reasons for this change is the popularity of upland game preserves. The number of private and commercial game preserves is rising and for a good reason. Game preserves are almost the only option for many upland hunters and they provide a quality hunting experience at an affordable cost. A wide variety of preserves accommodate almost any level of experience and budget. A few simple questions can help you choose the right one for you.
Choose a preserve that suits your needs. Game preserves can be upscale with five star lodging and food or as basic as a field and a place to park. If you’re using the preserve to work and train your dog, simple might work fine for you. If you’re planning an event to entertain clients, you might want something much more elaborate.
What are the fields like? Both natural and cultivated cover can provide a great hunting experience. Cultivated cover is usually easier to walk over so if you have health issues, ask. Natural cover works well but it needs to be thick enough to still hide birds late in the season when weather and use have beaten it down. The best preserves have a lot of acreage to work with and this keeps the cover in better shape. Many better preserves can provide you with easy or tough cover depending on your needs. Most can even provide hunts for handicapped hunters.
What’s furnished? Lower end preserves provide birds and a place to hunt. This is great if you need a place to train a dog or introduce a new hunter to the field. Better preserves furnish guides, dogs, and rental or loaner guns. Many have a pro shop where you can get ammunition or a cap or vest if you need one, and most can provide lodging and food. Many are designed to accommodate groups and events.
What about packages? Packages are usually the best deal with a night’s lodging, meals, the guide and dogs, cleaning and packaging of the birds, etc, included. Sometimes a round of clays is included. Simple hunting packages for a dozen birds and a guide can be as little as just over a hundred dollars while elaborate packages at the best lodges with gourmet food and wild birds might run several thousand dollars a day. Just because a place is cheap doesn’t mean the hunting is poor, the best preserve hunting I’ve ever experienced was $250 per day and included a place to sleep (I didn’t say a luxurious place). Many preserves offer memberships and this is often the best option if you plan to shoot there a lot.
What about the birds? Ultimately, the birds are what you’re paying for and it’s a good idea to ask about them. The better preserves use flight conditioned birds that are raised in an environment where they can fly. While no pen raised birds fly like wild birds, some are truly exceptional and most are quite good. Wet conditions usually cause pen raised birds to be lethargic so avoid hunting in the wet, if possible. Most preserves release the birds shortly before the hunt and the guide has some knowledge of where they are. Better hunts give the birds a little more time to acclimate themselves to the area. Some of the best locations pre-release birds. Often, these birds are released weeks or even months earlier. Pre-released birds generally make for a better hunt. Most preserves that pre-release also plant a few birds the morning of the hunt to assure some success.
Pheasants, Chukars, and Quail are all available at most North Carolina preserves. Many area preserves offer a mixed bag that offers all three species. Of the three species, I prefer chukars, a western game bird that’s smaller than a pheasant and substantially larger than a quail. I prefer them because they fly more aggressively and hold better for the dog. They also work better for novice hunters because they tend to start their flight higher than quail, presenting safer shots, and are less likely to run like pheasants often do.
In North Carolina, we have a rich heritage of upland bird hunting. While it’s difficult to hunt wild birds, game preserves offer a great alternative that works even better for novice and older hunters. If you’ve never walked a field behind a good bird dog, you’ve missed out on one of the most gratifying pleasures available to the outdoorsman. From now through the holidays is probably the best time of the year to hunt and many preserves offer gift certificates that make a wonderful and memorable Christmas present.
There are still holdouts who think preserve hunting isn’t real upland hunting. I’ll agree but in recent years game preserves have learned a lot about providing a great hunting experience. For new hunters, hunters with physical issues, and hunters with limited access and funds, preserves can be a better choice than a wild bird hunt. If you haven’t tried it, you may be missing a great outdoor experience.