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The Dog Men’s Deer Season Tradition

Clare with the results of a Pheasant Fest. Photo by Dave Mull

Clare with the results of a Pheasant Fest. Photo by Dave Mull

Deer hunting is a lot of fun, and most Michiganders avidly anticipate to the traditional November 15 start of the firearms season. But some friends and I have another tradition we partake in for a day during the last two weeks of November.

We’re dog men, and like to take our pooches hunting on a Michigan shooting preserve.

The tradition started when pal Tom Carney, editor of Upland Almanac and The Bird Hunting Report, invited members of our regular October bird camp to hunt quail at the impressive Farmland Pheasants operation near Brown City on the east side of the state. Pretty soon the annual event became known as “Carney’s Quail Quest,” and noted dog trainer Preston Mann, Jr. of Farmland Pheasants, always put out some hot-flying quail for us.

The first time I attended, I left my barely trained golden retriever Coach at home and we hunted with just Lucy, Tom’s great English setter. In subsequent years I did bring the hard-charging Coach, and dogs and men all had a good time, even the year we attempted what became known as “The Coursing Retriever Experiment.”

The coursing retriever scenario requires at least two dogs, a pointer and a retriever. The pointer finds the bird and points, while the retriever remains at heel until the handler sends it in to flush the bird that the pointer has pointed.

Author with a preserve rooster, the experienced Clare and then-rookie Gabe. Photo by Dave Mills

Sounds simple and it is, although to be doable, you must have a pointer that will stay steady on the bird, and a retriever that heels. And while Lucy was a stellar pointer, exemplary of her breed, Coach was a hot-blooded field-trial stock in the hands of someone (me) who didn’t know the first thing about training a dog. Heeling was not his forte.

But it still sounded like a good idea, so Tom brought Lucy and we met at Preston’s place with several other friends of Tom’s, and headed to our quail-filled field. I had Coach on a leash, and he came very near to separating my shoulder while he tore up big clods of turf while watching Lucy run free. We weren’t the field for five minutes when she slammed on point, and Huntmaster Tom rallied the hunters in a semi-circle around the steady white dog. Coach meanwhile continued moving earth and straining my rotator cuff. Finally, the moment of truth arrived.

“Send in the flusher!” commanded Carney.

I gratefully dropped the leash and Coach, who had the best nose of any dog I owned before or since, charged in front of Lucy, sniffed and snorted in the clump of and then made an audible “Ulp!” as he grabbed the poor little quail that made the mistake of not flying.

Thus ended the coursing retriever experiment.

When Preston’s source of quail dried up, Carney’s Quail Quest became Carney’s Pheasant Fest, and the fun continued through the years, although for various reasons the tradition stopped about seven years ago.

Carney and I are looking forward to renewing it next week when we take Tom’s new setter pup Abbey and my five-year-old (and much better trained) golden Gabe out to Rolling Hills Shooting Preserve near Marcellus.

Clare flushes a covey of quail as the hunters take aim at Farmland Pheasants. Photo by Tom Carney

While it would be nice to be able to hunt wild pheasants, those are few these days in the Great Lakes state. The alternatives are hunt clubs or preserves where pheasants are raised under high nets and are released the day of the hunt. With few exceptions, they act pretty much like inexperienced wild birds. While wild roosters are adept at taking to the air 40 or 50 yards in front of hunters, preserve birds usually get in the air a lot closer. Preserves can be the only choice for dog men who want to work and train their canine companions with live birds without making a trip to the Dakotas.

My grandfather once gave me some sage advice about beer brands when he said “They’re all good and some are better,” and that’s pretty true of hunting preserves, too. Rolling Hills, (http://www.rollinghillshunting.com/ 269-646-9164) where I’ve been several times, is a better one in that the birds are strong and the landscape is hilly enough to be challenging, but not brutally so for older fellows such as myself. The cover is also varied with plenty of places for birds to hide in native flora. The same is true of Farmland Pheasants (http://www.farmlandpheasant.com/ 810-346-3672), which encompasses several farms with fields set aside for wild plants to grow. Some hunting preserves I’ve experienced set pheasants out in picked-over bean fields and it’s not unlike hunting in an unkempt parking lot. Still fun, just not as challenging—or as much exercise for the dogs and hunters.

For a list of hunting preserves in Michigan, check out www.michiganhuntingpreserves.com.

For more information on Michigan hunting go to michigan.org.

First photo by Dave Mull, second photo by Dave Mills, third photo by Tom Carney

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