Bryan Pennington tosses a bird wing attached to a fishing rod into a pile of leaves. His English Setter Tam running nearby freezes, nose pointed to the wing, tail slightly quivering.
The two are training for a hunt in New Brunswick that may unwind next fall. They’ll be in pursuit of ruffled grouse and woodcocks hunkered down in thickets and hard-walking cover.
That is a long way to travel when Pennington’s home in Alamance County is surrounded by acres of woods that appear suitable for hunting. As a boy he lugged a shotgun many a mile behind an English Pointer. Before the day ended he’d bag a limit of wild quail.
Not so today; it would be a fruitless jaunt. Few wild birds remain. They’ve gone the wayside of predators, shopping centers, housing developments and new farming practices that leave little cover and food for Bob White.
Pennington and Tam could hunt one of the many game preserves in North Carolina. One exists not 15 minutes from his home, but he’ll have nothing to do with pen-raised birds released at these preserves.
“They’re horrible,” he said. “I’m not subjecting myself or my dog to birds that have to be kicked up and may be caught by the dog before they fly. There are some preserves that are suppose to be good but they might cost you $800 or more for half day’s hunt.”
Instead this man and dog team will travel north to Canada where they stand to see 50 to 70 wild birds per day. It’s a hard pill for Pennington to swallow when he remembers the heyday of wild bird hunting all over North Carolina.
“When I was 14 we had several garden spots here on our family land, where Daddy grew corn, peas and beans. There was always a covey around,” he said.
Pennington, 60, is among the hardcore purists who occasionally hunt wild birds in eastern North Carolina., but it’s hard going trudging in cutovers, thickets, swamps and drainage ditches.
Tom Bobo, a resident of southern Guilford County, has hunted all the North American species of quail and grouse. He views these adventures as almost addictive, “as a spiritual sort of thing.” To him it’s the total experience that matters. It’s far more than bagging a few birds.
Listen to Bobo describe the hunt: “At the core is teaming up with, and hiking all day with, a couple of bird dogs who know what they’re doing and focus on nothing else … feeling your heart rate increase at least slightly every time a dog hesitates and lifts his nose. Getting birdy, pointing, hearing then seeing the birds thunder off. The smell of burnt powder. The retrieve. … And every day of every hunt is always different, which you know it will be when you get up in the morning. You can never get enough of it.”
Bobo thinks the preserve hunter “must seriously use his imagination.” He credits preserves as a good venue for beginners to learn gun safety and discover what it’s like to shoot in field conditions.
“Also, they provide an alternative for the aging and those who just want to get away for the afternoon. … All in all, I find that companionship with a hunting partner to be one of the primary reasons I put my boots on and head out. This can certainly be done in a local preserve as well as on the Montana prairie,” he said.
Bob Cook, who has managed a preserve in Davie County for 16 years, recounts how he has a weekly conversation with a friend who is a wild bird hunter in Northeastern North Carolina.
“He killed 50 wild birds last season, but it was hard hunting,” Cook said.
He has witnessed a steady decline in the quail population during the past 40 years. He mentioned the Ames Plantation in Tennessee where the national birddog championship is held.
“They’ve been farming Ames for 100 years and used to have plenty of wild birds,” Cook said. “Now they have to supplement the field trials with pen-raised birds to have enough.”
Cook sees a bright future for his business.
“We’re almost the only show in town,” he said. “My main concern is I don’t see many young people being introduced to the sport by their fathers and grandfather as (there) used to be.”
The North Carolina Wildlife Commission has been regulating controlled hunting preserves for many years.
It defines a CHP as “an area on which domestically raised game birds other than wild turkeys are taken.” That includes quail, pheasants, chukars and mallard ducks (one generation removed from the wild).
There are no limits to the number of birds that can be harvested and the season runs two months longer than the wild game season, which has a bag limit of six per day.
CHPs cover thousands of acres in North Carolina but are not found in every county. Most tend to be in the Piedmont and the southeast. Hunters spend up to several thousand dollars a year to be a member of a private preserve. This entitles them to shoot a fixed number of birds, maybe 125, and to enjoy such amenities as a clay target range and a lodge with meals and overnight accommodations. These extras may add to the cost.
At public preserves the amenities vary. Hunters pay per bird. A half day hunt could cost several hundred dollars for 30 quail. Pheasants , chukars and ducks fetch more.
A directory of hunting destinations in North Carolina is available on the web. It includes CHPs and state owned gamelands.
Bobby Glenn Kimbrell, a retired wildlife commission biologist, has a unique take on hunting. He owns and manages a 200-acre sportsman’s club in the northeastern corner of Alamance County which draws its 15 members from Raleigh to Winston-Salem. He provides only wild game hunting for quail, doves, rabbits, turkey, deer and ducks. He knows of only one other, near Grenville, that is managed for wild game.
“Habitat is where it’s at,” Kimbrell said.