Despite ongoing wildlife and habitat management programs in most states, a common complaint I often hear from hunters is that it‘s getting tougher for them to locate good upland bird hunting. This seems to ring especially true of the Eastern half of the nation, where deer and turkey have become many state agencies‘ top-seeded game species, while upland game birds get a lower priority.
October Memories--Pheasants by David A. Maass For ordering information, please visit www.WildWings.com Image from home page: Out With The Boys by Rollie Brandt.
For those hunters who are either old enough to recall it or have heard older hunters talk about it, the glory days of 1940s and ’50s upland bird hunting seem a distant memory now—those days of abundant pheasant, quail, grouse and woodcock, where hunters enjoyed sufficient numbers to take their limits, if they chose to do so, and when bird dogs never lacked for field action and finding birds.
Certainly we can blame some of this on changes in agriculture, habitat, hunting priorities, fewer birds being stocked, increased predation, and several other factors. But the fact remains that there just aren‘t the upland game bird numbers and prime habitat available that there once were. Plus, the majority of hunters no longer have as much free time as they once did, as has been validated by numerous polls and studies. Many must now prioritize the precious hunting time they do have—and that often means primarily going after deer and/or turkey.
Enter the increasingly vital role of today‘s upland hunting preserves.Time was, privately owned hunting preserves were looked on by some as the exclusive domain of the wealthier hunters. This notion was, I think, made easier by the fact that game birds were relatively abundant on both public and private lands back then, and the average hunter enjoyed modestly good upland hunting at little or no cost. Also, many hunting preserves required annual membership dues, and these fees perpetuated the idea that they were primarily for the rich and affluent.
Winter Rendezvous--Pheasants by Rosemary Millette For ordering information, please visit www.WildWings.com
The pivotal change, in not only how preserves were looked upon but also how preserve attitudes and hunting changed, started in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Due to very selective logging philosophies on much smaller scales than had previously occurred, forests matured and sun-blocking canopies prohibited ground-level rejuvenation. Seedling-sapling forests declined by more than half during the last three decades of the twentieth century. Essentially, these infant forests are what constitute excellent grouse and woodcock habitat while maturing forests constitute excellent wild turkey habitat.
This was also a period that saw increasingly more family-run farms—land that produced much of our pheasant habitat--going the way of the dodo bird. Low prices paid for crops, coupled with ever-increasing land taxes and farm equipment prices, forced many farm owners to make a decision: either sell out or use the land for another purpose. While most did the former, some opted for the latter, and found that they could actually make a living by transforming their acreage into prime hunting habitat, particularly upland game bird habitat. Charlie and Jane Buisch are a good example.
On The Edge On The Cornfield by Robert K. Abbett For ordering information, please visit www.WildWings.com
The Buisch family‘s once prospering dairy farms near Geneva, NY were progressively yielding less profit with each passing year, and when Charlie‘s dad was killed in an accident, the farming prospects grew even bleaker. In 1984, the Buisches made a monumental decision—transform their operating farms into a hunting preserve, which they named Whispering Pines Hideaway (http://www.whisperingpineshideaway.com). Now in its 18th year, subsequent purchases and leases have expanded the preserve to more than 3,000 acres of outstanding upland and wetland habitat, offering hunting for pheasant, chukars, Hungarian partridge and quail as well as in-season hunting for deer, waterfowl, wild turkey.
The success of the Buisch‘s hunting preserve and others like it not only reflects their entrepreneurial and habitat management skills but also a change in the needs and wants of American hunters.
About the same time that many of the operating farms began disappearing and were being transformed into cluster developments, retirement getaways and rural suburbs, the abundant free time that Americans had enjoyed throughout the 1960s and ’70s gradually began disappearing as well. By the 1980s and ’90s, major employers began moving their operations to the outskirts of big population centers, increasingly farther from rural environs and game habitat. As such, many avid hunters were forced to endure employment relocation that took them farther from their hunting opportunities.
The hunting quality on many well-managed preserves is first rate. The author (above) can attest to that for certain!
Slipping out for a half-day‘s hunting was no longer an option for many of them, since the one-way drive to reach good hunting areas often took that long. So planning hunting trips became more like planning mini-vacations that required an entire weekend or more. Distance and time were not the only hurdles they had to contend with—locating good hunting destinations was becoming increasingly more difficult as private lands became posted and public lands became too crowded with users and game became less abundant. Work priorities and family responsibilities being what they are, many hunters started looking for alternatives. Privately owned hunting preserves, where the limited and valuable hunting time they had would be best served, seemed to be the logical answer.
The decision by upland hunters to sample preserve hunting proved to be a door-opener of sorts—for both hunters and preserve owners. Hunters were elated at the quality of hunting they enjoyed at preserves, while preserve owners, recognizing that the bulk of their business would come from these middle-class income hunters, came up with various hunting packages whose prices were geared toward the average hunter‘s budget.
For example, on many preserves four hunters can now enjoy a day‘s outing and take up to 20 birds, and the cost per hunter will be well under $100. Many preserves also offer reasonably priced season passes for those who want to return on a regular basis. Considering that preserve hunters will often see more birds in a single day than they probably would hunting non-preserve habitat for an entire season, it‘s a deal by any standard.
A state-by-state listing of hunting preserves can be found in Black‘s 2002 Wing & Clay (To order, contact firstname.lastname@example.org).