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Shooting Preserves

by R. Michael DiLullo

Shooting preserves offer wingshooters and gundog owners many advantages; like the chance to pursue game birds well before and long after the regular gunning seasons. In heavily populated areas, they also allow hunters to escape the crowds, but their best benefit could be for your dog.

Unfortunately, it’s that between time again! Around the country the last of the upland and, with the exception of spring snow geese, waterfowl seasons have closed. There are still about six weeks to go until spring gobbler opens or fishing begins. But you still have that urge for a few more ventures afield with your dog before hanging-up your shotgun for the year. That dispirited feeling of cabin fever is beginning to creep up on you; you need to get out! So, what do you do? How about giving a shooting preserve a try?

I can hear the groans already, especially from those in the corn-belt regions, most of whom, unlike the rest of us, have never seen a “stocked” game bird. Unfortunately, with the exception of those fortunate enough to live in states with broad expanses of land, abundant populations of wild game birds and extended seasons, most gundog owners, especially in the eastern United States, are forced to pursue stocked pheasants, quail and chukar. Most of our time afield is usually spent chasing a few heavily pressured wild birds (primarily ruffed grouse, woodcock and quail) on public lands during seasons that could be longer or it is spent competing for stocked birds on crowded Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s). The sad fact is; there are quite a few “bird hunters” and gundogs for that matter, who have never seen, let alone flushed and shot at a wild bird afield.

Having guided at a few shooting preserves for several years, I am a proponent of the concept. I believe the shooting preserve experience can be a favorable one, especially for the new or novice hunter and a young or inexperienced dog. But, preserves can also offer some challenging hunting and shooting for every experience level. The preserve also allows the hunter without a dog to actually experience how the different breeds work in the field. I am proud to say that as a guide, I helped to convert quite a few pointing dog coinsurers over to the flushing/retriever dog world. As for myself, I got to spend a lot of time outdoors with my dogs away from the crowds and I meet some interesting people. My dogs spent a lot of time in birds, literally at the expense of others, and as everyone knows, the best way for your dog to gain experience is to be in birds.

I know the argument will be made that “pen-raised” birds can mess-up a dog when he is hunted on wild birds. My retort, not many of us train exclusively or at all for that matter on wild birds. Most of us do not have the accessibility or time to keep our dogs exclusively on wild birds and in many areas of the country it is illegal after the regular season closes. If their hypothesis is correct, then what does that say for all those field trials and hunting test titles? With the exception of the United Kingdom, all American tests and trials are conducted using “pen-raised” birds! So my question is: What’s the difference in hunting your dog on state stocked lands, at a private club, running in field trials and hunting tests, or patronizing a shooting preserve? The answer is nothing; you are hunting the same “pen-raised” birds! The only difference is the price you are paying for the birds. The only real difference between a private club, and a preserve besides the membership dues and the size of the lodge is the cost of the SUV’s in the parking lot and the shotguns in the racks. In fact, many preserves now offer discounted seasonal memberships, which are a great alternative to expensive private clubs with long waiting lists.

At a typical shooting preserve, hunters pay a fee to hunt “pen-raised” birds that are released on privately owned state-licensed properties just prior to the hunt. Unlike WMA’s and other state lands stocked with game birds, there are no limits on the number of birds a hunter or group of hunters may take at a commercial shooting preserve. As long as the preserve properly tags the harvested birds, a hunter may shoot as many birds as he or she is willing to pay for. Commercial shooting preserves in most eastern states may operate from September 1st through May 1st of each year, although, seasons vary from state to state.

Most shooting preserves open well before the state’s regular small game season, allowing both hunter and dog to get a head start on wingshooting.
Photo by: Author
Most preserves offer two four-hour hunts per day, although, other arrangements can usually be made ahead of time. Hunts usually feature a package of one variety of birds or a combination of pheasant, quail and chukar. In recent years, many preserves have begun experimenting with different strains of pheasants and quail in an effort to develop hardier birds. At most shooting preserves in the northeast, pheasants are the birds of choice, whereas, at the plantations of the south, “Mr. Bob” remains the king. Some preserves also offer “pen-raised” mallards, which are released “on the wing”, and fly to nearby ponds where hunters, set-up in blinds, call them in. Other preserves offer tower shoots featuring pigeons, pheasants or mallards. A tower shoot is similar to a round of skeet using real birds. Some of the more fashionable preserves use tower shoots to try to imitate a southern dove hunt (using pigeons) or a driven pheasant shoot at a European estate.

The level of difficulty of a preserve hunt depends on the experience and abilities of the hunter or dog. Hunts can be tailored to accommodate both the experienced and novice hunter and dog. How and where birds are planted makes a big difference, if a hunter or dog is relatively inexperienced, the preserve staff can plant the majority of the birds in fields. For tougher hunting the birds will be released in heavy cover or in hedgerows. As in all hunting there are no guarantees, you will see birds, but the rest depends on dog work and your shooting ability!
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