Bird-hunting season went out at the end of last month not with a whimper, but a bang. Lots of bangs, in fact, as I was twice invited to top-flight shooting preserves where stringent daily bag limits that apply to wild game do not exist. You could shoot birds till your arms wore out.
That's because the birds weren't wild. They were raised, fed and protected by preserve owners to provide sport for gunners. Government wildlife managers apparently figure if people want to raise their own birds, they can do what they want with them.
New Mexico Sen. Peter Domenici, right, and guide Sean Moore work a flock of ducks at Bob Pascal's waterfowl preserve in Dorchester County.
(Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
Many ducks, pheasants, quail, partridges and pigeons are hatched, reared, put out and shot this way for the purpose of training hunting dogs. In addition, a handful of shooting clubs exist where busy executives, government bigwigs and professionals who lack the time or interest to muck around in woods or fields all day for a bird or two can get a whole season's worth of shooting in one outing.
Those are the sort of places I visited last week, one a storied spot in the Western Maryland mountains whose identity I'm not to reveal (as it's a private place closed to the public) and the other a waterfowl preserve on the marshy Eastern Shore owned by Bob Pascal, the former Anne Arundel county executive and longtime appointments secretary to ex-governor William Donald Schaefer.
I was flattered by both invitations, and the experiences were eye-opening. Both lodges were first-rate and well managed, the food was great, the company was impressive. At Pascal's place, I spent the day with Pascal, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and his top aide, Steve Bell, as well as with Maryland's deputy secretary for wildlife and parks, Mike Slattery. In Western Maryland the company was a mix of wealthy businessmen and farmers.
The 18 guests in Western Maryland bagged hundreds of pheasants and dozens of turkeys and broke countless clay pigeons for target practice. Live birds were released in a variety of ways to simulate hunting. Some were launched from wooded hilltops, presenting challenging passing shots through the trees; others flew past a gantlet of gunners in an open pasture; still others were tucked away under brush in fields, then sniffed out by pointing dogs and taken on the rise.
At Pascal's farm, mallards by the thousands flew free around a series of ponds surrounded by unharvested corn. The ponds are kept from icing in the winter by electric pumps. Five of us hunting over two ponds bagged 50-odd ducks in the afternoon after taking our two-bird limits of wild Canada geese apiece in the morning, hunting in a cornfield.
It was a way to stack the freezer at the end of hunting season and to sharpen the shooting eye. But the bottom line for me, having now experienced two of the top shooting preserves in the region: I still don't get it.
Some readers may recall that a year ago I took Vice President Cheney to task for shooting a reported 70-plus pheasants at a Pennsylvania game preserve one day. Now here I am doing the same thing, albeit to a lesser degree. What gives?
Blame it on wishful thinking. Every shooting preserve comes wrapped in assurances that the experience so closely mirrors the real thing, you'll barely know the difference. It's never been true, in my experience, and having now seen the best, I expect it never will be.
It's just too easy. At Pascal's place in Dorchester County, the senator and I were driven the 150 yards from the lodge to a little standup blind next to a muddy pond by our guide, Sean Moore. A dozen decoys were randomly scattered around the pump, which kept things ice-free by sending geysers of water skyward. Ducks already were flying and kept coming in waves as long as we stayed.
A slave to tradition, I ducked down to hide as one would when hunting wild birds, but Moore and Domenici simply stood tall, guns ready, and the ducks never wavered. Both proved good shots. Mallards rained down as I popped up between them to add to the chaos.
The ducks we shot were plump and healthy. Moore pointed out several that were three or four years old, holdovers from previous hatches, and others that had flown in from other preserves nearby, as well as a few wild ones. With open water, plenty of corn to eat and protection most of the time, these ducks were as close to a sure thing as waterfowl hunting will ever get.
The only remaining question was: How much is enough? With dead ducks piling up in one corner of the blind and spent shells piling up in another, we called it quits after an hour and a half and left them flying. Moore tossed 36 birds into the four-wheeler for the short ride back to the lodge, where Pascal and Bell tossed in about half as many more.
What to do with all these birds? "We send them out to the picker's," said Pascal. I guess the idea of a U.S. senator plucking birds on his front porch on Capitol Hill is unthinkable, but there I drew the line.
I took four ducks and two geese home to clean and pluck myself -- and to cook for friends and family. It's a point of honor that keeps me honest. If you clean the fish and game you take, from little bluegills up to whitetail deer, you'll always stop yourself before you take home more than you need.
It's a good rule to follow, I suppose, even if it means regretfully declining the next invitation to some fancy shooting preserve and spending the day instead freezing in a canoe in some remote public marsh, only to come back home empty-handed.