Searching for pheasants on the Outer Banks

CorrespondentOctober 9, 2013 

Rusty Huffines and his dog Bo trek through the wilds much as they did last winter in search of wild pheasant. Bo, a treeing Walker hound, is an unlikely dog for such work, which is normally performed by a pointer or retriever.

JIM LASLEY

Wild pheasant hunting in North Carolina? On the Outer Banks?

Nonsense. Hunters travel to the Dakotas, where millions of wild pheasants exist. Not here ... no way.

Trying to find wild pheasant hunters in the Tar Heel state is like going on the proverbial wild goose chase.

Yet there it is on page 57 of the “2013-14 NC Inland, Fishing, Hunting and Trapping Regulations Digest” – “wild pheasant season open Nov. 16-Feb.1 (male pheasants only), daily limit 3, possession 6, season 30.”

Last winter, Rusty Huffines, a veterinarian drug salesman from Burlington, trekked across dunes, sand and water near Cape Lookout along with his dog Bo, a 4-year-old treeing Walker hound, scampering through sea oats and rushes, sniffing out whatever was ahead.

The two found wild pheasants, which poses a mystery today for several veteran staff members of the Wildlife Commission. They say pursuing wild pheasant is a “rarity and oddity this day and time.”

“I haven’t run into any pheasant hunters in years” was the recent reaction from Brad Gunn, an assistant management chief with the Commission.

Huffines admits he is unaware of anyone who religiously hunts wild pheasants, but he has no doubt that pheasants exist from Cape Lookout to Portsmouth Island. On his most recent outing with Bo, he scared up two pheasants but did not take a shot.

“I’m absolutely without a question knowing there is a reproductive population of pheasant out there,” he said last week. “I’m going again as soon as the season opens and take my Chessie this time.”

Huffines believes most hunters seek pheasants as a secondary harvest while duck or rabbit hunting.

“It’s usually duck hunters going mid-day after the morning duck hunt and before the evening shoot,” he said.

Robbie Norville, who supervises wildlife biologists on the coast, says that during his 31-year career with the commission, he has rarely encountered wild pheasant hunters, but he knows first-hand that birds exist on the Outer Banks.

“They have languished along,” he said. “Most have been wiped out by storms. The agency does nothing to monitor the population, what little is left.”

While in college, Norville did a summer study of wild pheasants for the late Dr. Thomas Clay. Results were turned over to the State Museum of Natural History.

“We did nest searches on the Outer Banks and walked dykes and dunes in a flush count,” Norville said. “We found a few. Five in one day was considered a good day.

Other than his work, Norville is unaware of “any solid studies or paperwork” done in recent times on wild pheasants.

An article in the December 2005 edition of Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine describes a hunter seeing 30 hens and 10 cocks on a half-day hunt.

Records show the wildlife commission attempted to establish a pheasant population in the coastal region when it released 5,000 birds between 1928-1931. Other attempts also were undertaken by hunting clubs such as the Core Banks club. An attempt to establish pheasants in the North Carolina mountains in the 1940s and ’50s also was unsuccessful.

David Cobb, a commission management chief, said he questioned why a pheasant season existed when he joined the agency 15 years ago.

“My understanding from verbal history is the season existed because at some point pheasants were released on the Outer Banks,” he said. “Today there is an extremely rare opportunity to hunt wild pheasants.”

Pen-raised pheasants hunted on controlled game preserves sometimes escape into the wild and can be harvested because of the authorized season.

Jeff Byrnett, a surgeon in Alamance County and a veteran pheasant hunter in the Dakotas, remembers hunting pheasants on Portsmouth Island 10 years ago.

“We didn’t have any dogs and saw only one pheasant,” he said.

Pheasants, a native of China, were imported into the United States in the late 1800s. Now millions exist and are considered the most popular upland game bird in the central and northern regions. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent annually to maintain pheasant habitats that produce a variety of grains.

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