Additionally, clubs that offer released birds can be great training grounds for young dogs, while offering veteran canines opportunities to stay fresh.
Increasingly, some shooting preserves — among them Wings North, Wild Wings, and the Horse and Hunt Club — also offer sporting clays or trap ranges.
And some are used by wildlife groups such as Pheasants Forever to offer mentored, daylong youth hunts, which might include gun and safety instruction, lessons in conservation and opportunities in the field to target a bird or two. Often a meal is also involved.
So in some ways shooting preserves help sustain wild bird hunters and wild bird hunting. And vice versa.
“Shooting preserves need hunters, and to sustain hunters, wild birds and wild-bird hunting are also needed,’’ Chad Hughes said.
By contrast, in Britain and throughout much of Europe, very little wild bird “hunting’’ exists as it’s commonly practiced here.
Instead, “shooting’’ on large, private estates — some as sprawling as 20,000 acres — is the way the sport is undertaken. Sometimes this involves “walk-ups’’ through row crops such as beet fields, often by a half-dozen guns or more. But the preferred method is driven bird shooting, in which men (“beaters’’) with spaniels and similar dogs push through a woods and drive birds over waiting shooters (“guns’’).
Whether large numbers of U.S. hunters could, or would, shift to something similar if wild birds declined significantly here is an open question.
Doubek, of Gold Meadows, worries less about the future of wild birds — they will always be around, he says — than about access to good hunting ground.
“The average guy gets frustrated when he goes to a wildlife management area and sees 20 trucks there,’’ he said. “That’s what helps our business. Everyone today has a fast-paced life, and when hunters come here, they and their dogs can head out knowing they’ll have the ground to themselves and that they’ll see birds.’’
As the economy has improved, phones at the state’s shooting preserves have rung more often, said Bette Bensch, who with her husband, Les, owns Viking Valley Hunt Club near Ashby, Minn.
“During the recession, we didn’t suffer as much as a lot of businesses did because hunters and fishermen will find a way to hunt and fish, no matter what,’’ Bensch said. “Still, we’re definitely seeing an uptick this year.’’
The increase might be due in part to the dramatic falloff of pheasants in South Dakota, where ringnecks were down 64 percent this year.
“We have clients come from all over the country,’’ Bensch said. “They stay for two or three days and get much the same experience they would in South Dakota.’’
Hughes, Doubek and Bensch say their immediate concern is the weather. Some snow is nice for their business, but not deep drifts of it. And they don’t want temperatures so low hunters choose to stay inside.
Such was not the case Tuesday, when Allie, Mick and I were happy enough in the elements, trudging through thick willows and stripped crops, looking for the 10 birds that had been released where we hunted.
A few hours passed. But we put all the pheasants to wing and took home a bag full.
Afterward, in the cozy confines of the comfortable Wings North Lodge, Hughes put a pheasant Alfredo pizza in the oven, and we talked birds and bird hunting — wild and otherwise.