Ask most Michigan bird hunters about their sport and they’ll have two complaints: seasons start too late and end too early.
In reality, you wouldn’t want to get going much sooner; mid-September, when ruffed grouse season opens, seems to be about the right time to get afield for the fall, even a little early if you get a warming spell. And most guys don’t really want to go much past the January 1 close, when winter is upon us, either.
Still, there’s only three months—remember, bird seasons close for 16 days when firearms deer season arrives—to run your dogs.
Fortunately, hunters have an alternative: shooting preserves. Preserve season opens August 15 and runs through the end of April. That’s five full months of additional bird hunting for those guys who just can’t get enough.
I opened my bird season in the waning days of August this year at Haymarsh Hunt Club, a facility I’ve frequented on and off for about two decades now. My goal was simple; I wanted to get my dog some work before the official bird season opened and I wanted to do it where I knew he’d find some birds.
I met up with Tim Somerville, who’s been running the operation since his father-in-law—Bud Gummer, who founded the club in 1989—passed away in 2007. Somerville put three birds out for us and I asked him to tag along (with his shotgun) as I was manning the camera and wanted to concentrate more on shooting pixels than pellets.
Haymarsh is a big club—1,300 acres—spread over largely unimproved fields in Mecosta County, northeast of Grand Rapids. Unlike many of these shooting facilities, Haymarsh is not interspersed with small grain fields to concentrate birds. It is wild southern Michigan countryside, a mixture of grasses and forbs and wild flowers. Three of Haymarsh’s fields are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and another one is a Wetland Reserve Program field. The bulk of Haymarsh’s 27 numbered fields are 40 acres, though a couple are half that size and a couple are bigger.
The field Somerville chose for us had been improved, albeit accidentally; about a decade ago, it caught fire and about 35 acres of the 40 we were in burned, Somerville said. Otherwise, it looks very like an ordinary fallow field—goldenrod, milkweed, ragweed and even some cattails in a low-lying area.
Rub, my goofy English setter, went right to work and locked solid on a bird on the edge of the cattails. Somerville stepped in, flushed a rooster, and shot him.
We moved along to a more upland site that had a few autumn olives sprinkled in with the prairie grass—just like you see anywhere in southern Michigan. Rub again found the bird and did his job. And Somerville did his, too.
So, with a couple of photos already made and another bird out in the field, Somerville suggested I trade a Nikon for a Browning and he’d take over camera duties. Fair enough. But—wouldn’t you know?—we never did find that last bird. It had warmed up significantly that morning, into the mid 80s by 10 a.m., and the dew had completely evaporated, making scenting conditions tough. So much for the idea that shooting preserves are nothing more than simple killing fields, eh?
“You can see why we don’t do a lot of hunting in August,” Somerville said.
When we arrived back at the club house, I casually mentioned to Somerville that the wild goldenrod field reminded me of the kind of fields I hunted for pheasants when I was lad. Somerville smiled and tossed me a flyer for the hunt club, the cover of which read:
I want bird hunting to be like it was when I was a boy.
I guess ol’ Bud had gotten his wish.
“We hear a lot of that,” Somerville said. “The demographic that we’re looking for is Joe Average, who enjoys hunting.
“And we’re all dog people now,” he continued. “We used to have people come out here who had no concept of hunting with a dog, but now almost all of our members own dogs that they hunt over.”
Because of its size, Haymarsh can often accommodate large parties or groups who make a rather spur of the moment decision to do some shooting, Somerville said, though advanced planning is always preferred.
“Occasionally, the week between Christmas and New Year, when a whole lot of people are out of work, can get pretty crowded,” Somerville said. “And we have a lot of people come out on Martin Luther King Day—when guys have the day off work and it’s getting later in the season. But other than that it’s usually not crowded, though that year the Lions were 0-16 we had a lot of people coming out on Sundays.”
Like many other shooting preserves, Haymarsh has a sporting clays course, and has nice facilities for European-style shoots. If you’re looking for gourmet dining as part of the experience, Haymarsh isn’t that kind of club. But if you’re seeking a place to work your dog in a natural setting that mimics traditional southern Michigan pheasant hunting, Haymarsh fits the bill. You can reach Somerville at (989) 352-7050.
Images by Bob Gwizdz