Pheasant Season is open. Those four words seem to have a way of turning some normally staid and reserved adults into something more akin to a child who's been handed 50 bucks and let loose at a carnival. After I was given the opportunity to participate in my first pheasant hunt with several members of the Los Baños Sportsmen's Club, I can see why.
The Los Baños area is quite well known as a fantastic place for bird hunting. The history of the area reveals that Los Baños was not solely a place of business for cattle and water barons, but there was also a very viable "market hunting" industry in years now long past. Though the business of market hunting is no longer practiced here, bird hunting still remains a source of income as recreational hunters descend on Los Baños during the various hunting seasons.
One of the groups that help to keep this heritage alive is the Los Baños Sportsmen's Club. Last Saturday I was invited out to the club's pheasant hunting range, an area that is comprised of about 250 acres. About half of the property is an alfalfa field and the other half is dense with sagebrush, switch grass and pucker brush.
It is into this outstanding pheasant habitat the Sportsmen's Club releases a large number of birds every year. Releasing pheasants in this manner is akin to stocking a lake with trout for anglers. These pheasants are purchased from gamebird farms and then released on the property so that club members as well as the general public can participate in this fantastic sport. In addition to the hundreds of male birds planted during hunting season, the Sportsmen's Club purchases a number of hens (female pheasant) and releases them in the same area after the hunting season is over. In this way an indigenous population of these birds can expand and flourish.
I was allowed to tag along with Sportsmen's club members, Taylor and Bobby Darnell, Ron Ingram, Robert Huff, and Mason Hurley as they showed me how it is done.
Beginning early in the morning, hours before any hunters arrive, members of the club haul loads of pheasant pens out to the field. Here they release (they call it planting) about 80 birds into the brush each week during pheasant season. The birds scatter into the fields and quickly become quite a challenge to locate. The natural plumage of the pheasant makes outstanding camouflage and instinctively the birds seem to know just how to embrace even the smallest bit of foliage for cover. It is fairly common for a hunter to look directly at a pheasant and walk right by having never registered that he was seeing the object of his pursuit.
At about 7 a.m. people start arriving at the gate where they sign in. Members of the Sportsmen's club who have paid for a membership that includes hunting privileges are already covered, but people that wish to hunt for a single day (be they members of the club or general public) must pay $50 to use the facility. All hunting laws apply and all hunters are required to have a current California hunting license with an upland game birds stamp. After signing in, impatient hunters talk about their dogs, past hunts, politics, and whatnot while waiting for the sun to come up and for the hands on their wristwatches to slowly move to the magic number - 8 a.m.
Just before the appointed time, the hunters gathered at the road stop chit-chatting, get back into their trucks, and drive a short way to the field where they ready their dogs and chat a little more. There is a lot of clock watching going on and at precisely eight o'clock a small wave of people with shotguns and hunting dogs crawl through the barbed wire fences into the sagebrush or bound over a small ditch and head for the alfalfa field.
Because pheasants are decent sized birds that have fairly large patches of brightly colored feathers and long tails you might think hunting them to be an easy task. That is not necessarily the case, especially if you do not have a dog. I was told that a hunter would have to cover about ten miles on foot without a dog for every pheasant he might get a shot at. Therefore, dogs usually play a major role in this sport.
In fact, part of the beauty pheasant hunting is watching these animals work. I watched in fascination as the three dogs in our hunting party worked the thick sagebrush. Sam, a Brittney Spaniel was an energetic animal that would dart back and forth in almost a grid like search pattern as her handler Mason Hurley directed her with a whistle. Magnum, a chocolate Labrador retriever, was being run by Robert Huff and did an outstanding job of retrieving downed birds for him. And then there was Ron Ingram's, Ruby the golden Labrador, who (being much older) was not quite so energetic. She, however, used her nose and years of experience in the field to do her job and she did not fail to disappoint as she flushed enough birds for Ingram to get his limit.
The first hunter to bag a pheasant was Taylor Darnell. Taylor and his father Bobby were, it seems, having a good time sharing the day and putting dinner on the table. In fact, in walking around with these guys I got the feeling that sometimes it was more about the fellowship, watching the dogs, and enjoying the outdoors than it was about knocking birds out of the sky, though that was the goal and the thing that apparently made them all the most happy.
When asked later why he enjoyed Pheasant hunting so much Ingram responded he liked it because it was a "gentleman's sport" where he could stroll along in a leisurely way and enjoy a nice day. He gently poked a bit of fun at duck hunters joking that he liked pheasant hunting better because he "(doesn't) have to wade over a hundred yards of marsh, and crawl into a dark wet hole in the ground in order to hunt pheasant like you do when duck hunting."
As the morning ended, I watched the hunters slowly leave the field; most had bagged their limit and were pretty darn happy. The dogs of course were thrilled to be out doing what they live to do and all in all it was a pleasant experience. I do plan to go back out again myself, shotgun in hand, and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to get a couple birds of my own one of these weekends.
Los Baños Sportsmen's Club pheasant hunting will be available until Dec. 7. This date may be extended if any of the weekends are rained out. If you are interested in hunting on the Los Baños Sportsmen's facilities, you may contact Ingram at 209-564-1430. There is no requirement that a club member accompany non-member hunters, but if you are new to the sport it would be a good idea to let Ingram know this. I bet that with even the slightest amount of prodding you'll be given some outstanding advice about a sport that still puts food on the table and Los Baños on the map for some people every pheasant season.