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Pheasant season brings back 'flush' of memories

Max, a feisty 6-year-old golden retriever, started to work the grassy fields at Joseph Davis State Park almost immediately. As soon as he saw his caretaker/man-friend (Joel Spring of Ransomville) put on his khaki hunting pants, the dog was like a child on Christmas morning. He really couldn’t be any more excited. The funny thing was, it had been less than 24 hours since his last pheasant hunt. This dog loves to chase upland birds.

We didn’t know what this particular day would hold for us. As we pulled into the park, a rooster ran across the road into a “no hunting” area. Was it a bad omen? We also noticed a couple of other hunters had beaten us into the fields. And before we made it very far into this ringneck realm, a shot rang out from the far side of this chosen territory. Were they successful?

We were not disappointed … yet. Max was a good bird dog. The park offered up 388 acres of real estate and a large portion of that was open to bird hunting. The state stocks this park with pheasants, too. A total of 140 birds will be released during the season. There’s plenty of cover here for the birds and we thought we could scare up one or two with the help of Max. At the very least, bag enough for a pheasant dinner.

Western New York  once offered a dynamic ringneck pheasant population, especially in the fertile lands along the Lake Plains. Those cackling birds were everywhere, or so it seemed. I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of those glory years as a teenager. After these Asian birds were initially stocked in 1892 at Gardiner’s Island (East Hampton) and in 1903 at the Wadsworth estate in Geneseo, the birds caught on quickly. They flourished, reaching a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, since 1970, population numbers have declined by 90 percent.

I remember my first legal hunt, joining my Dad (Bill, Sr.) and the late Hans Treutel of Sanborn on our property in Cambria. “Uncle Hans” had a pair of German shorthair pointers and I remember one in particular named Blitz. Treutel worked his dogs like a drill sergeant. As we hunted the fields, kicking up several birds along the way (and putting a few in our game bags) we lost Blitz. We decided to head home and grab a quick lunch. There was still no Blitz. We headed back out to where we left off and eventually found Blitz – still on point in a thicket adjacent to an old railroad right of way. We shot that bird and made Blitz a happy dog.

Joel Spring and Max take a break. Warmer temperatures have made bird hunting a bit more difficult. (Bill Hilts, Jr. photo)

We could find birds in just about any grassy field in the towns of Lewiston, Cambria, Wilson, Newfane or Somerset. Getting permission at the time was easy. Opening day was on a Monday and it was an automatic “day off” from school. I wasn’t the only one in school with a bonus hunting day off either. Many of my friends were also hunters, a socially acceptable activity back then.

When I was old enough to hunt alone, I can remember walking out behind the house after school to connect with a couple of birds and have time to clean them so that my mom (Sylvia) could cook them up for dinner. Memories of past hunts are still vivid. Mom turned 85 years old last week and Dad will hit 86 in December. They remember, too, and it brings a smile to their faces. It helps slow time down as they reflect … if just for a moment.

What ever happened to the banner days of pheasant hunting? I don’t think you can point a finger at one particular cause. It was a number of reasons, all working in concert with one another. At the top of the list was a loss of habitat, a lack of fallow grasslands for nesting and taking care of the brood. Many places I used to hunt are now housing developments. This coincided with a change in agricultural practices. Use of pesticides was a big one, affecting natural reproduction of the birds. There has also been an increase in predators – raptors, fox, coyote and more. Birds were forced to reside in smaller and smaller areas. I think you can figure it out.

Joel Spring keeps an eye on Max as he goes on alert for a possible pheasant. (Bill Hilts, Jr. Photo)

Junior and millennium class hunters today will never know how good the pheasant hunting was in Western New York. However, there are still opportunities to enjoy some dynamic upland bird hunting in a minimum of 17 different stocked areas in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Region 9 that includes Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara and Wyoming counties.

In addition to Joe Davis, Wilson-Tuscarora and Golden Hill state parks in Niagara County also offer hunting. However, permits are needed for the first three Saturdays of the season and the lottery has already taken place. You can still hunt on Sunday or during the week. Private areas are also available in Somerset and Newfane, but you do have to ask for permission. The Tonawanda State Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Royalton and Alabama also receives birds. All told there are nearly 900 birds up for grabs.

A proud Max stands over a bird he flushed at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park.

In Wyoming County, Carlton Hill Multiple Use Area and Sulphur Springs Fish and Wildlife Management Act Cooperative Hunting Area (all in Middlebury) receive over 700 birds. Erie County stocking sites are Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area in Collins (330 birds) and a private area in Brant that is by permission only (161 birds). Alder Bottom WMA in Sherman, Chautauqua County, received 224 birds and Allegany County receives 335 pheasants at Hanging Bog WMA and 147 at the Keeney Swamp WMA. Cattaraugus County is the recipient of over 1,100 birds: Conewango Swamp WMA, Allegany State Park, Harwood Lake Multiple Use Area and the Allegheny Reservoir WMA. All of these stocked birds come from Reynolds Game Farm near Ithaca, stocking more than 25,000 pheasants across the state. For a complete list of stocking locations, check out the DEC website at

Spring took Max out for an afternoon run (or was it the other way around) that same day at Wilson-Tuscarora and they teamed to take one cock bird. Dinner will be served. There’s still plenty of hunting left this fall for pheasants. The season in the northern section of WNY is open through Dec. 31. The Southern Tier season ends on Feb. 28. Take a walk and reflect on our history of pheasant hunting.


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