Most people who hunt have wondered about game farms - places where game birds and animals are raised and kept in pens, then released to hunters who pursue them for a price.
I've hunted in the Washington area for a couple of years and had heard of only one nearby - Merrimac Farms in Nokesville, Va. I'd always meant to try it, on the recommendation of a few serious hunters. But Prince William County is a bit of a drive and I had never gotten around to it.
Then last week a couple of French restaurateurs told me about a place much closer to home - River Hill Farms in Clarkville, Md., just outside of Columbia. They said there was excellent duck, pheasant and partridge hunting a half hour's drive from home. It sounded to good to be true.
Dominique D'Ermo had been there a few years back. He remembered one superb day of wing-shooting ducks, which were released from a barn high on a hill. The ducks would fly down to a pond a quarter-mile away and the hunters tried to take them on the way.
River Hill changed hands recently, land the new manager, De Seelye, no longer offers duck hunting. His business is strictly pheasant and partridge, and even that takes a back seat to his top priority training hunting dogs.
We arranged to hunt pheasant and partridge one day last week. It turned out that hunting really wasn't the right word.
Seelye, a cheerful refugee from the great outdoors state of Maine, greeted us near the massive old stone farmhouse he's renovating in the middle of River Hill's 300 acres.
It was trouble from the start. We'd expected him to have the pen-raised birds already put out, hopefully the night before, so they'd at least be alert and moderately acclimated to the wild by the time we found them.
But the birds were still in the pens. It turns out Seelye has been burned by hunters who didn't show, and he wasn't going to let it happen again.
We asked what his normal procedure was for setting the game out.
"When I see the whites of (the hunters) eyes," he said.
So we rode with him in his van and stopped at spots around the fellow fields where he and his colleague, Dick Hurt, would remove birds from portable pens and plant them in the tall grass.
What we saw a shocker. Before the birds went on the ground, Hurt and Seelye would shake them vigorously for a minute or more to make them dizzy. "We tuck the head under the wing." Seelye said, demostrating. "By the time we put them down, they can't move." We watched him dig a little pit in the grass and plant an immobilized pheasant.
He put five partridges and four pheasants down that way, then turned the van and we headed for the hill. It was time to hunt. Hunt?
SSeelye drew out his favourite pair of hunting dogs, fast and muscular VIzslas, and whistled them into action. They found the first bird in minutes, lying right where it had been put.
As we three mightly hunters gathered round. Seelye moved into where the dog was pointing to scard the bird into flight. But the hen pheasant was still too dizzy. Finally, with a lunge of his rubber boot, Seelye kicked it into the sky, where it woke in a daze and flapped off.
D'Ermo, who had been designated the first shooter, was flabbergasted. He never fired a shot.The bird practically flew into his face, then set off downhill and handed 50 yards away.
"I couldn't shoot," D'Ermo said. "I would have blown it to bits."
No matter. The dog, which was supposed to hold its point until ordered off, was convinced the bird had been shot and took off in hot pursuit. Seelye howled at it to stop but the dog carried on. It tracked the pheasant down, lunged at it and killed it with one quick bite.
In fairness, the day improved from that low mark.
The longer we hunted, the less hopeless the birds' condition was, and by afternoon we had some birds actually getting up on their own.
But my over all view of this so-called sport is that its a bloody, vicious, X-rated Easter egg hunt for adults.
The saving grace of hunting is that it is a voyage into the world of other creatures, and the first thing a hunter must learn is what makes his quarry tick. He learns its feeding habits, its mating habits, its strengths of survival and its weakness.
I've shared many a successful hunt where no game was taken. The thrill was in the discovery of the way life works in the discovery of the way life works in the forest and field, and the fleeting glimpses of wildlife in its own domain.
To raise helpless birds just for the thrill of shooting them on your turf is a miscarriage of fairness and reason.
You want meat? Go to the supermarket.