Bird hunting can be found well into the winter, even if you have to search for it.
Each hunting season finds fewer and fewer hunters who warmly recall the fun and fast-paced activity that went on each fall some 20 to 30 years ago, when flocks of pheasants seemed to be nesting in open fields and thickets everywhere in Western New York.
Sporting clays do a great job of simulating some aspects of bird hunting, but for those who seek live action, most shooters must go south. Some bird hunters head that way for preserve hunting for winter chukar or quail -- upland birds that pointing and retrieving dogs can work. Some look for dove shooting, which continues well into the winter in many southern states. Others even head to Alabama or Mississippi for some crow shooting.
A much closer live-bird hunt can be found throughout the winter at Bill Keppler's Forrestel Farm Hunting Preserve on Water Works Road in Medina. Keppler maintains 580 acres of prime bird-hunting land, which includes orchards, swamps, crop grass, hedge rows and switch grass.
"People usually associate switch grass with buffalo herds on western plains," Keppler said, "but the area's Indians (Senecas) used to cultivate it and burn it in the spring, knowing it would thrive and choke out other weeds and provide good cover for all wildlife -- not just birds."
This grass will remain up as pheasant protection throughout the winter.
"A good midwinter thaw will lift switch grass stems, even under four feet of snow, to provide good pheasant cover," he said.
First-time preserve hunters might think this is another version of the canned hunt, with birds put asleep and set out in visible, open areas for easy shooting. Not at Forrestal Farm.
On a recent hunt, John Anthon, president of GATCO Tools, invited outdoor writer Fred Bonner of Garner, N.C., for a variety of pheasant and chukar hunting. Bonner, no stranger to Western New York fishing and hunting, took favorably to this kind of hunting immediately. The challenge is there.
Hunters can bring their own dogs (pointers, retrievers, etc.) or buddy up with either of Keppler's friendly retrievers, 9-year-old Butch and Duke. Butch worked the morning hunt and Duke, his brother, went out for the afternoon hunt.
Keppler puts out pheasants, the main draw for most hunters, along with some chukar, which he added to the hunt two years ago. Both Anthon and Bonner found few birds on the first two circles of low, swamp land, despite the thorough coverage Butch made of the tall brush and grass mats. The action picked up when they headed up the hillsides that surround a now-dry reservoir which once supplied water to Medina.
Butch found pheasants, but they flushed from cover, using hedge rows and drops in the terrain, similar to partridge flights. Birds would find cover behind hunters on a drive and would often reappear in field areas that were hunted less than an hour earlier.
"This was the closest I've ever come to an actual field hunt on a preserve," Bonner said at the end of the afternoon leg of the hunt.
Keppler keeps a stock of about 5,000 pheasants, but for winter hunts he puts out partridge and quail, along with chukar, which do well late in the season. "These birds hold closer in open (snow) cover while the pheasants just keep running," he said.
At the end of the hunt, successful shooters -- even those who have hunted at Forrestal before -- watch in amazement as Keppler field dresses birds with a sharp set of pruning shears. In less than a minute, not counting set-up and clean-up time, he can remove the edible meat from the entrails, skin and feathers. Hunters go home with fully cleaned pheasants individually plastic wrapped and ready for all kinds of gourmet preparation.
Department of Environmental Conservation regulations allow for preserve hunting until March 31 but the DEC may extend it to April 14 because of snow cover, according to Keppler. For more details on these upland bird hunts, as well as preserve duck hunting and Canada Goose hunts (during the state season), call Keppler at 798-9110 or 798-0222.