"Hunt close in here now, Missy. Close to me."
Dean McDowell, retired career Marine, black belt in karate, former boxer and still hard as a sledgehammer as he nears 60, had an exuberant recruit on his hands.
Missy, a Brittany spaniel in the prime of her youth, was ranging fast and deep through the prickers and briars on McDowell's 550 acres of Virginia flatland, hotly pursuing a pheasant on the run.
She was burdened with encumbrances designed to keep her in check.A cowbell hanging from her collar jingled as she ran. Behind her an eight-foot length of half-inch braided Manila rope danced like a hyperactive snake.
The bell rattled and the rope snagged in the brambles but Missy never eased up.
"She's trailing now," said McDowell, clearly pleased. "See how her tail's going? It must be an old cockbird she's after. Those roosters will run you to death. They'll go 15 miles an hour along the ground. We've trailed them for half an hour in here before, and sometimes you never catch up to them."
Missy's brown-spotted white coat danced in and out of standing corn rows, then back into a thicket of fading honeysuckle, then over to the fence-row and down through some cedar trees.
Suddenly the jingling stopped. She was out of sight.
"She's got him now," said McDowell, who could see her no better than I could. "Where is she?"
He headed off along a rutted woods road, ducked behind some young cedars and found her in the prettiest dog pose there is -- on point, stock still and quivering, her nose aimed straight into a tangled web of felled trees grown over with briars and brambles.
"Oh, boy," said McDowell, shaking his head. "I don't know how we're gonna get him out of there. You move over there on the left and I'll go in from this side. We'll just hope he flies for the woods."
McDowell's theory was to put Missy and him on one side of the cover and me on the other. With all three advancing on the rooster pheasant's lair, the wise old cockbird would likely take the sensible way out, flying to my less populated side. I, the only one armed, was to dispatch the bird with a single round from the old 12-gauge pump, the script read.
But sometimes (most times?) the bird wins, and this pheasant hadn't read the scenario. At the first sound of crunching brush he was up with a thundering whoosh, airborne and heading straight out over the fields, straight away from my gun, which was fired once on principle to no avail.
If this sounds a lot like pheasant hunting, that's because it is a lot like pheasant hunting.
There's only one significant, difference. That pheasant got away but there were a lot more left, and if those got away, too, there were 1,000 or so more in pens in the woods to replace them.
McDowell runs a game preserve.
There are bound to be some diehard hunters who will stop reading right there, on grounds that game farms are abominations of sport, pay-for-slaughter houses that defame hunting's already tarnished name.
McDowell, who has seen plenty of bad game farms, tries hard to get as far away from that stigma as he can.
He specifically calls his Merrimac Farms here a "hunting preserve," not a "shooting preserve," and manages it with an eye to keeping as close to genuine hunting in the wild as a game farm can get.
McDowell acknowledges that there are plenty of bad apples in the game preserve business -- operators whose sole aim is to fill their clients' game bags with meat in the shortest time possible.
"I try to sell hunting," he said, "not just bagging birds. Hell, if you just want birds, you can go down to the meat market."
McDowell figures there are three factors to a good game farm: birds that act wild and are weather conditioned so they don't die in the first frost; good cover to protect the birds; good dogs to find them.
He does a decent job of providing all three.
But why are game farms needed at all?
"I have a lot of people come to me and say they simply can't find native birds anymore. Good places to hunt and to work with their dogs just aren't available to the average hunter."
The way McDowell's game farm system works is this: A hunter makes an appointment to hunt a morning or afternoon session of about four hours.
Each hunter pays $35. In return, McDowell releases either three pheasants, four chukar partridge or eight quail, depending on what the client wants to hunt. The releasing is done several hours before the hunt begins and McDowell claims only a general idea of where the birds are.
Each hunter is entitled to kill and keep the number of birds he paid for. Anything over that number or any birds of other species he takes are charged off at $9 per pheasant, $7 per partridge or $4 per quail.
Payment is by the honor system. McDowell takes the hunter's word on what he's killed, and he says he gets burned only occasionally.
For the hunter who lacks his own dog, McDowell provides a guide and dog for about $7 per person, per hunt, which means the guides are generally working for the fun of it. Obviously, it's not the money.
The biggest complaint most serious hunters have about game farms is that the birds are tame and the hunting is too easy.
At McDowell's place last week the birds didn't act tame, and some clearly weren't. He had released three pheasants that morning but we managed to find close to 10.
The only obvious difference between McDowell's farm and one that isn't stocked is that the place is crawling with game. It's a little hard to find fault with that.