Game Preserves Fill a Void

Outdoors with Forda Birds—By John Andreoni

I grew up hunting rabbits and pheasants not by choice but by circumstances. Although never a pheasant hunting hotspot like some of our adjoining counties, there were always enough birds in Auglaize County to guarantee a flush or two during a day afield. Also, to be fair, I’m sure the quality of the pheasant hunting increased greatly with the addition of a good bird dog. Even a mutt with a good nose and the drive to hunt was better than nothing. I started hunting with such a dog and watched it flush pheasants that my father and I would have walked by. There was no cover too thick for that dog to tackle. The dog had no training, just pure hunting instinct. It was fun to watch.

The glory years of Ohio pheasant hunting were just a little before my hunting years began.  In the 1940s, Ohio’s pheasant population was estimated at five million and hunters annually bagged about 750,000 birds a year during a very short season. By the early 1960s, various factors were blamed for the decline of pheasants across the state ranging from urban sprawl, farming practices, to increased use of pesticides and herbicides. The decline has been steady for decades, and today, wild pheasant hunting in Ohio is barely significant. For example, statistics show that in 2018, there were roughly 10,000 pheasant hunters in Ohio who chased wild birds. During the very liberal season, they averaged 4.4 days in the field, produced 1.2 flushes a day, and bagged 0.8 of a bird for their efforts. It’s estimated that the number of wild birds bagged in Ohio last year was roughly 8500. It’s hard to get excited about pheasant hunting with conditions like that.

Of course, there are a few programs across Ohio that attempt to supplement the wild pheasant population. The state releases wild birds at various times during the season on public hunting lands. The land has good habitat that provides some natural reproduction, but the 14,000 that are usually planted are put-and-take birds. Public lands help replace private lands lost to hunting, but hunting pressure tends to negate any real benefits. For example, releasing pheasants the day before Thanksgiving will concentrate hunters usually making the experience less than satisfactory.

To me, there is nothing more exciting than busting a big rooster pheasant from the brush. The bird always appears to be bigger than it really is and louder than expected. Letting a good bird dog go through its paces adds even more to the hunt. Being able to find that experience is relatively limited. First, finding a place to hunt wild birds in Ohio, much less finding wild birds is next to impossible. That leaves two other options with any viability, making a trip to a state where pheasant hunting is prime and hunting access is available, or taking advantage of an area shooting preserve. Both have their pros and cons, but in the long run, I tend to prefer preserve hunting.

A hunting safari to the Dakotas or a trip to a preserve can be expensive in the grand scheme of things. If you want to pheasant hunt, flush birds, and put a couple in your game bag, be prepared to pay for it. Budget for the hunt or hunts and in the long run one should be able to see a pattern of costs versus benefits. I’m partial to game preserves because I don’t like the travel and the time associated with interstate travel. I’ve found that I can have multiple smaller hunts throughout the season rather than one major one for the same cost. Having your own bird dog also affects the choice. I would never have taken my Springers to the Dakotas where pheasants ran in flocks. Experiencing that scent shock would have them flushing every bird within a mile before hunters got out of their vehicles. A shooting preserve offers hunters the benefits of well-trained bird dogs if needed. That factor alone is worth a lot of money.

There are numerous Ohio hunting preserves within reasonable distance of my house. Each has its own rules and protocols, packages and prices. Hunting a preserve more than once also provides the opportunity to tailor hunting to your needs and specifications. When I had my bird dogs, I hunted weekly and was able to go after scratch birds on occasion. On my bucket-list final pheasant hunt at Shoot’em Game Birds a couple of years ago, I was able to enjoy watching some excellent German Shorthairs do their thing. The birds were top quality, the hunt was well planned, and the people friendly. The facility was top drawer and the experience memorable. Also, it was just a 20 minute drive.

Don’t look for the good old days of pheasant hunting to return to Ohio. If you want the experience, get ready to spend a few bucks. If not, read about it in the history books. Times change.