A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that private shooting clubs are the current rage around New York, and that gunning is becoming the game of choice for wealthy social climbers there. A dentist told the Journal, "It really impresses clients to invite them to a shoot."
My favorite way to impress clients still is to offer them a chew of Levi Garrett tobacco, but it never hurts to expand your horizons. Accordingly, last week I drove 70 miles to Kearneysville, W.Va., near Harper's Ferry, to spend the day working Gene Abelow's fields at the Foxy Pheasant Hunting Preserve.
Word of the trend toward upscale gunning clubs evidently hasn't reached Kearneysville. There were no silver BMWs parked in front of the pink stucco farmhouse Abelow shares with his parents, just his dusty old Datsun with the sprung trunk lid. Around back of the house, two fellows were standing by the corn crib working on a busted tractor, one a boy of about 11, his lower lip puffy with snuff.
"That's Gene comin' now," said the son of the hired hand, pointing to my guide plodding up the hill in worn coveralls.
Over coffee, Abelow said the big-time shooting clubs up north, where members spend $25,000 a year and more to blast away at pen-reared birds, were news to him.
He said he'd like to develop a membership program for his operation, which is in its first year, and some day build a clubhouse. Like anyone, he said he'd love to get rich, but his first priority is to make hunting on the farm as close to hunting in the wild as he can get it.
Four hours later, footsore and weary, my face bloody from greenbrier attacks and my ego shattered by wild quail that unfailingly dodged my shots during what Abelow called a typical hunt, I'd say he is in no immediate danger of being overrun by urban dentists in stylish tweeds.
Abelow and his German shorthair pointer, Jenny, led me over about half of his 457 acres of woods, fields and thickets in the Shenandoah Valley.
The day before, Abelow had released four pheasants for which I was paying $65. Everything else we stumbled across was either left over from earlier stockings or was wild game, and there was plenty of it.
We flushed three large coveys of quail and several singles, half a dozen rabbits and seven or eight pheasants. Game kept popping up where you least expected it.
At one point, Jenny was racing through some honeysuckle off the edge of a cornfield when she scented bird and locked up on point. I'd missed so many quail, I handed the gun to Abelow. As he walked in to flush up the prey, a wild rabbit shot out and ran practically between my legs.
Then the bird moved -- a cock pheasant, trying to slink away from the dog without flying. Abelow stomped a foot to scare it aloft and a whitetail doe leaped from its bed 10 feet away and thundered off down a woods trail, the dog barking wildly in pursuit. Just about then, the pheasant flushed like a winged cinderblock.
Judging by the Journal article, unexpected stuff like that doesn't happen much in New York's version of a hunting preserve. At the Dutchess Valley Rod and Gun Club, where members carry $50,000 matched-pair, double-barrel shotguns, the article reported that pheasants and ducks are released from a tower and gunners stand in prearranged clearings to shoot as the birds whir by.
"They're trying to simulate the European 'driven' shoot, rather than our 'rough' hunting," said Dean McDowell, whose venerable Merrimac Farms Hunting Preserve in Nokesville, Va., operates along the same lines as Abelow's farm.
In Britain, McDowell said, bands of "beaters" are hired to thrash the woods, forcing hundreds and even thousands of pen-reared birds to fly out over fields, where gentleman gunners wait to shoot them in flight.
But McDowell said that despite their wealthy membership, the New York and Connecticut shooting clubs can't afford the land for a British-style hunt or the labor expenses of hiring beaters, so they use tower releases, instead.
Personally, I never settle for second-best. I'll take the greenbriers, the rabbits and dog.
Anyone care for a chew?
Because they use pen-raised game, hunting preserves are permitted to stay open until the end of March, giving bird-hunters a place to go after regular seasons are closed.
Abelow charges $65 per man for a morning or afternoon hunt, which includes release of four pheasant or eight quail. Use of a guide and a dog is an additional $50. McDowell also charges $65 a man, with no additional charge for a guide and dog.