"Whoa there, take it easy, Roscoe," Garry Taylor said to his eager little Brittany spaniel.
Roscoe and his partner Elly, a beautiful English setter, had a pheasant pinned down in the brush right in front of them. Elly was long on experience and was pointing solid as a rock, but the younger Roscoe wanted to creep up on the bird. Garry moved forward to flush the bird, and just for a second I stepped back in my mind and surveyed the scene.
Two hunters with shotguns, two wide-eyed, tense bird dogs on point, and the anticipation before the flush seemed to almost crackle in the air. It was a scene that could take place almost anywhere in the country in the past hundred years; I realized we were living an old tradition.
We hunters are big on tradition. Traditions kept over time are indeed what keep most of us in the hunting world. At a time where it is increasingly more difficult to stay in a hunting lifestyle, the things you treasure related to your hunting experience are the traditions that will ultimately keep our hunting heritage alive. We remember when Dad and Uncle Bill took us on our first squirrel hunt, the thrill we got when you heard our first turkey gobble, and how excited we were to go to deer camp the first time.
Upland bird hunters, those who love to follow a muddy bird dog through the brush, are much the same. Many of these hunters feel that owning bird dogs — the raising, training, caring for and living with these hunting dogs — is more than a simple hobby: It's a lifestyle.
A lot of these bird dog fans will tell you that if they are not in the field with their canine buds, they are thinking about it. The pointer, setter, spaniel or Labrador they own is more than a just a dog they use to hunt with, they are really part of the family.
These dogs are more than just pets. They were born and bred to find game, and for some of us, here is where the problem starts. Over much of the country, game bird numbers are at an all-time low. Bobwhite quail have all but disappeared in much of the Southeast, and in the Appalachians, ruffed grouse seem to be going the same way. There are pockets of grouse, but nothing like we saw more than 30 years ago.
It takes game to make any hunting dog. The best bred bird dogs have the hunting instinct branded into their DNA, but there must be birds available to work them on. For many bird dog owners, a good answer for this is the shooting preserve.
Shooting preserves are usually small businesses that have adequate acreage to run dogs on and will use pen-raised game birds, usually ring-necked pheasant, quail or sometimes chukar partridge, a bird native to Asia. There is a fee for all of this, either by the day or half-day, or sometimes the hunter pays a fee per bird, but most feel this is all worth it because they get to hunt and train somewhere they are more or less guaranteed to find birds.
By filling this need, shooting preserves are "preserving the tradition" — the tradition of bird hunters raising and training quality bird dogs and promoting the different breeds. After several trips looking for wild birds, many bird dog owners long for a place where they can go and be assured they can get their dog into some birds. This can be for training purposes or the simple pleasure of spending a day in the field with their four-footed friend.
Hans Creek Outfitters is the shooting preserve I had the pleasure of visiting recently. Located near Greenville in beautiful Monroe County, West Virginia, Hans Creek is owned and operated by John White and his family. Like many shooting preserves, Hans Creek offers upland bird hunting for pheasants, quail and chukar. Hunters may bring their own dogs, but Hans Creek will supply bird dogs and a guide for a nominal fee. If you want to stay a few days, lodging is provided by Grandview Cottages, and these luxury cabins and their setting are, to say the least, beautiful.
Garry, his two bird dogs and I roamed around on the 1,000-plus acres Hans Creek has to offer hunters. Right in the middle of some great dog work by Roscoe and Elly, something else dawned on me. What better place to bring someone new to hunting than a shooting preserve?
In a more controlled setting, you introduce potential new hunters to the aspects of upland hunting without the possibility of wearing them out by doing hours of hiking and seeing little to no game. The new hunters will enjoy watching the dogs work, shooting opportunities can be monitored to be extremely safe, and they can be introduced to hunting by a great first experience. In this day and age of waning hunter numbers and the need to recruit new ones, taking those interested in hunting to a shooting preserve is a slam dunk.
Maybe you are a bird dog owner. Maybe you have been a little discouraged with your hunting success the past few years. Maybe you have also been a little discouraged with the progress of a certain bird dog that sleeps on your couch. Maybe you have a young dog you suspect is as wild as a buck. Maybe you have an older dog you would like to have a nice afternoon of shooting where you know you find some birds.
Shooting preserves can provide all of this, with birds for the dog to work and for you to get a little shooting in. A few minutes searching on the internet will most likely show a preserve near you. Remember, boys and girls, it takes birds to make a bird dog, usually lots of them.
Me? I'll be going back to Hans Creek with Roscoe and Elly.
Both of them promised they wouldn't say a word about all of my missed birds.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.