Upland bird hunting season is short in Michigan. It begins on Sept. 15, when grouse season opens, picks up steam as pheasant and quail season open (Oct. 20 in the Lower Peninsula), takes a 16-day break in November for firearms deer season, and comes to a screeching halt on Jan. 1.
And that’s simply not enough for many bird hunters.
Fortunately, upland bird hunting enthusiasts have another option: shooting preserves.
Shooting preserves “give us the opportunity to offer hunters a longer season,” says Jim Trinklein, president of the Michigan Game Bird Breeders and Hunting Preserve Association.“It’s a good opportunity for folks to go out and tune up their dogs most any time of year,” he adds. “Dog owners and trainers can go out and know they get their dogs on birds.”
Shooting preserves come in all flavors. Some are high-dollar, membership-only clubs that feature cloth napkins and gourmet meals on fine china as part of the experience. Others are simple—fallow farm fields that allow anyone with a few free hours and a few dollars a chance to go chase pheasants or quail around the countryside.
Most shooting preserve operators will tell you they have three kinds of clients: casual hunters or beginners—many of whom don’t own a dog, but want to enjoy the hunting experience or just see what it’s all about; corporate clients who take their customers to the preserves for entertainment purposes; and hard-core bird hunters who want to keep their dogs sharp and extend their seasons.
“It’s really about folks enjoying their dogs,” explains Tim Somerville, who runs Haymarsh Hunt Club near Morley, a 1,400-acre facility of set-aside grasslands, farmlands and woods. “What we do is offer people the opportunity to come out and see what their dog can do—what it was born and trained to do. They can enjoy their ‘best friend,’ and enjoy what that best friend does best.”
Shooting preserves typically stock ring-necked pheasants and bobwhite quail. Hunters pay for as many birds as they want planted, then get after them. Membership clubs, like Haymarsh, often allow members to hunt for “scratch birds”—those that haven’t been harvested by the parties that bought them—whenever the fields are not in use by paying clients.
Most shooting preserves have a mixture of grasslands and crop fields—usually sorghum and corn—that mimic typical hunting conditions.
“We try to make it as natural as possible, but still offer high expectations of the hunt being fruitful,” Somerville says.
The standard shooting preserve operates from Aug. 15 until April 30, which allows hunters to work and condition their dogs before bird season opens and continue after it closes. A number of preserves operate year-round, but they are only allowed to offer shooting for birds that are not available in the wild in Michigan during the off-season—chukar partridge, Tennessee red quail, and exotic pheasants. The off-season hunters are invariably dog enthusiasts, either owners or trainers, who want to work their canines all year long.
But shooting preserves offer additional opportunities that are not available elsewhere. For instance, the Preserve Association recently worked with the state Legislature to allow non-ambulatory hunters to hunt from off-road vehicles. Generally, a preserve guide will follow the dogs in an ORV and when the dog goes on point, instructs the hunter to load the shotgun. The guide then gets out of the ORV and flushes the bird for the hunter to shoot. That’s been a boon to business, Trinklein says, as many people with handicaps are taking advantage of this opportunity.
Shooting preserves are most common in southern Michigan, where most residents live, but there are facilities spread across the state. Many preserves offer other amenities, such as sporting-class ranges or skeet fields where hunters can sharpen their shooting skills when the prize is not on the line. And, most facilities offer bird cleaning and packaging so their clients can go home without those chores ahead of them.
As wild pheasant and quail habitats have taken a big hit in the wake of high commodity prices in recent years, many hunters are joining a club simply to have a place to work with their dogs and still have the expectation of finding some birds.