For me, Thanksgiving will feature a lot of family members, a lot of food and a lot of bickering. That happens just about every holiday, but with most of my family – dad, sisters, uncles – being huge San Francisco 49ers fans, my love for the Seahawks will make me the villain as the teams play each other. But that’s OK, I love going against the grain. And getting together back in the Bay Area will mean a great deal to me, as it does for so many families. I wanted to share a story by our correspondent, Tim Hovey, that’s running in our November issue of California Sportsman. Tim, a fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is an avid angler and hunter, and his daughters, Alyssa and Jessica, are about as crazy about the outdoors as their dad. That’s how we’d all like to be, right?
Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving, be safe and here’s Tim’s piece on pheasant hunting (with an appearance by Alyssa Hovey!).
By Tim E. Hovey
The German shorthaired pointer stood stone still, nose pointing at a small bush no larger than a basketball. His stubby tail was still, but quivering. His left paw was off the ground and slightly curled. His head did not move in the slightest.
For a brief moment, I pushed aside the hunt and admired the scene. This dog was the definition of “on-point,” and it was truly an amazing sight to see.
The dog’s handler stood to my left and nodded to me, letting me know that his dog had located a bird. The dog whined, waiting for the command, quivering briefly and then composing itself. Every muscle in that dog was coiled to react, and it was clear to me that he wasn’t going to wait much longer.
The handler approached the small bush and kicked at it gently. The small plant exploded in a cloud of dust, feathers and the cackling sound only a flushing pheasant can make. The bird peeled to the right and started gaining altitude.
I followed its path, lead it and fired. The bird’s right wing folded and it fell to the ground with a thump. The dog was on it within seconds, carefully grabbing it and proudly retrieving it for his owner. My first pheasant was in the bag.
A passion for birds
That hunt occurred over a decade ago and I still remember everything about it. Not because that was my first pheasant, but because it was the first time I was able to hunt over a well-trained dog.
My most vivid memory of that day was the amazing interaction and coordination between the dog and the handler. Before that hunt I figured that a hunting dog was let loose to search for birds, and the handler was there to make sure the dog just didn’t run off like a wild mutt. After participating in this team event, I discovered that the handler’s dog was far more trained than I was.
I’ve always enjoyed watching hunting dogs work. I think spending the time to train one animal to assist in the pursuit of another is fascinating. There has to be such a complete trust between handler and dog – especially if the handler is going to override the instinct for one animal to just chase and grab the other. To me, it demonstrates amazing dedication.
The tradition of hunting over a meticulously trained bird dog is something every hunter should experience. Observing the close coordination between dog and handler during a hunt is a true privilege. I’ve had the honor of watching and hunting with superior bird dogs over the years, and the entire event itself just adds so much more to the experience of hunting.
Despite being well established in states in the Rocky Mountain, the Midwest and the Plains, it may surprise most to know that pheasant are not native to this country.
Ring-necked pheasant were introduced into Oregon from China in the 1880s. From there they were introduced into other Western states. In areas where quality habitat existed, pheasant did well and readily expanded their numbers. This ease of adaptability has given sportsmen all over the country a well-established and carefully managed species of game birds to hunt.
Male pheasant are large birds, weighing in at about 2 to 3 pounds, making them the largest flushing bird hunters can pursue. Just because it’s a bigger bird doesn’t mean it’s easier to hit.
Almost immediately after a flush, escaping birds reach top speed and, despite their larger size, can be tough to bring down. Successful wing-shooters give the flushing bird a healthy lead before the shot is taken.
As far as shot size, leave the small dove loads at home. Bigger birds require more shot energy to knock down. I’ve had good luck with high-base shells with a shot size of 4 or 6.
And as far as taste, you can’t beat pheasant. Of all the game birds I hunt, I believe pheasant tastes the best. Just like most game birds that spend more time on the ground than in the air, pheasant meat is lighter in color and absolutely delicious.
Planting for the future
Since that first successful hunt, I’ve hunted pheasant in the lowlands of El Centro in Imperial Flatland, in the flatlands of Montana and at state-run events on ecological reserves. I’ve also participated in family or junior hunts using planted birds geared towards getting young and new hunters into the activity of hunting. Participating in these planted pheasant hunts allows new and junior hunters the opportunity to not only hunt but interact with experienced hunters and dog handlers in a somewhat controlled hunting environment. All involved are happy and eager to answer any questions young hunters may have.
A few years back, my daughter, Alyssa, and I got the opportunity to assist on a hunt for newly licensed California junior hunters. We had hunted the event once before, but this time Alyssa wanted to help out instead of hunt.
We were designated as the planters; about an hour before the hunt began, we jumped into the bed of a truck already loaded with caged pheasant. We traveled the hunting area, placing birds in assigned fields. A total of three birds per field were released in preparation for the junior hunt.
The birds aren’t just released in hopes they’ll stay within the boundaries of the field. Pheasant are gallinaceous birds, which mean they’re similar to chickens. A certain amount of manipulation is required to adequately place the birds into the hunting fields.
Holding a pheasant firmly by the legs – in an upright position – the head is gently guided and placed under one of the wings. Once the head is pinned, the entire bird is then glided through a series of figure eights in the air for about 20 seconds while being held. The pheasant is then placed in cover, resting on the wing holding the head. The disoriented bird will usually sit for awhile under the brush, gathering its bearings.
The close proximity to handlers, dogs and other hunters allows new hunters to practice and reinforce gun safety. And make no mistake: every member of this pheasant team is watching for how these young hunters handle their firearms. Flushing birds or not, the priority is to make sure everyone has a safe and enjoyable time.
In these tight hunting situations, positive reinforcement is just as important as corrective statements. Last year, I was taking photographs of a state-run hunt and decided to follow one young hunter out to the field. Halfway across his assigned hunting area, the bird dog located a bird and was on point.
The handler kicked the brush and the pheasant exploded in a cloud of dust and feathers. Instead of flushing straight away, the bird banked left and started flying back near other hunters.
The young hunter followed the bird with his shotgun and then instantly disengaged when he saw the other hunters. Two accompanying adults and the handler all went over and gave the hunter praise for making a safe choice.
The young boy’s smile was ear to ear as he received the accolades. After the hunt, I made a point of getting a few photos of him and his birds and letting him know that his attention to safety was admirable.
Keeping traditions alive
There is a long and strong tradition in hunting pheasant. The choreography between handler and dog adds a special experience to the hunt. The explosive and sudden flush of an adult bird will leave even experienced hunters startled and excited.
New hunters will find guidance, excitement and plenty of advice during a well-organized pheasant hunt. And you don’t need to be a hunter to enjoy the event.
I heard it best described by one of the dog handlers at a state-sponsored hunt last year. I don’t think I could have said it any better.
“I haven’t shot a pheasant in over 20 years,” the handler admitted. “I get more joy watching new hunters experience the entire scene.”