When I booked my trip to Big K for the rifle class, the opportunity to hunt Blacktail presented itself, and I was very excited to fulfill a desire several years in the making. The guided pheasant hunt was sort of an afterthought… I was going to be there, they offered pheasant hunts, so why not? What a mistake passing it up would have been!
I’ve met several folks who extolled the virtues of upland game hunting, but I never really got a) what it was b) why it’s so fun. Well, I clarified both those issues today. Upland game hunting is a specific kind of bird hunting where the bird is quail, pheasant, partridge, or a few others. Typically the birds are hiding in brush or grain crops, so the hunter employs a “gun dog” who helps roust the bird, enabling the hunter to hit it in the air as it pops out to fly away. Here’s a video of someone pheasant hunting:
Okay you got me, that’s actually “Duck Hunt” for the NES, but it’s fairly similar, the dog stirs the bird, you shoot it with a shotgun, and the dog fetches the bird. There are differences with the video game, namely upland game hunting is much more exciting and you get to eat the end result.
The property we hunted is a bird preserve owned by the Big K. They have planted hundreds of acres of sorghum, japanese millet, corn, and other food sources and shelter for game species like Pheasant, Quail, and Chukar. While the ranch lets people bring their own gun dog, as I knew nothing about pheasant and even less about dog handling, I called in a professional: Steve Waller. This guy eats, sleeps, and breathes dogs. He’s one of the only “Pudelpointer” breeders/trainers in the pacific northwest. The Pudlepointer is a 125 year old cross between the english pointer and german poodle (pudle). In Steve’s words, it’s got the excellent hunting instincts of the pointer and the intelligence of a poodle. As if to emphasize the importance of the dog to Steve, after I was handed the loaded Mossberg 500 and we were walking with Keeper (our gun dog) down to the hunting area, he said quite earnestly, “I wouldn’t take 10 grand for that dog.” The time and energy he puts into training and breeding the dogs was quite remarkable.
Steve did an excellent job explaining what the dog was doing at any given moment and what I should be doing to help it do it’s job. The jist of hunting pheasant on a preserve is the fairly understandable. The guide and I would walk down one of the many “lanes” of brush while Keeper would briskly run in front of us smelling the air all around us for pheasant scent. Eventually, when she caught a sent she would slow way down and creep towards the source of the scent. If the bird hadn’t already been startled into flight, the dog would get close and just point with her forepaw. It’s basically the coolest thing you’ve seen. Then you’d creep forward with the gun at port arms ready to shoot the pheasant. The first pheasant was a rush. It popped up, I mounted the shotgun, and BLAM, the bird fell out of the sky. Keeper immediately set after him and grabbed him by the neck. After dropping the bird at Steve’s feet, Steve wrung its neck and I realized that I killed my first animal for the sake of good eats:
Steve and Keeper with my first bird:
This routine continued pretty fast and furious. I shot the six of the first seven roosters we flushed. For a first-time hunter, and non-shotgun person, I was VERY pleased. The one I let get away, I forgot to to disengage the safety, doh!
Keeper was running flat out about half the time so from time to time she would hop in some water to get a drink and take a bath:
As we shot more roosters, Steve gave me some good pointers. I jumped a bird, and immediately mounted the gun and drilled him from about 7 yards with a full load of #7 steel shot. The wound cavity was about a silver dollar-sized hole. He didn’t live long. After that, Steve recommended I let the birds get a bit further to avoid wrecking so much meat. Good thinking, Steve.
After the first six we took a break to unload the birds.
Six beautiful ringneck roosters:
At that point I totally “got” why folks are so enthusiastic about upland game hunting. It’s exciting, fun, and the best part is you get to eat the product of your labor. Gary Williamson, one of the folks responsible for creating the bird preserve at the Big K, as well as my Blacktail guide tomorrow came down. He said, “So, what do you think?”, I replied, “Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me About This Sooner!” which put a smile on their faces.
Look at how proud Keeper looks in this photo:
After a few more birds, Steve invited Gary W to join us. Hunting birds with multiple people is interesting, the goal of course is not to shoot each other. Although Gary and I were never in danger, I “get” how Cheney shot someone while Quail hunting. Basically, you and your hunting partner are sometimes separated by 20-30 yards, often with intervening brush. You have your fields of fire, and need to trust your partner not to make a crossing shot at a so called “low flyer.” With Gary along for the ride we killed a few more pheasants for a total of eleven.
Gary and Steve:
Finally, the obligatory marketing pose:
After we finished the hunt, Gary offered to clean the birds, I refused saying I wanted to learn how to do it. Gary showed me how to “field strip” a rooster. I didn’t get pics, but here is the youtube version:
The method is great for dealing with a lot of birds, but it sacrifices the thighs, which are good eats. So we took the remaining birds into a cleaning area, and Steve showed me how to make an incision at the breast bone, skin the bird, cut off the feet, dislocate and remove the thighs and finally fillet the breasts. If you’ve ever worked with a roaster chicken this is similar in concept, but it’s weird because the bird is hot and covered in feathers. Certainly not a job for people who cringe at the sight of blood and/or guts. After converting the roosters into a pile of breasts and thighs, we rinsed off the feathers and blood, taking special care to remove most of the steel shot. (NB: We will have a pheasant feast at my apartment next week, I did my best to remove the shot, but be careful, I won’t pay for replacement crowns if I missed any!)
I didn’t bother to weigh the resulting meat but my guess is, that out of 11 roosters, we got about 4 pounds of meat. It’s now in a cooler. Tomorrow night, Kathie will be cooking some up, using an old Kesterson family recipe. I’m excited.