KEARNEYSVILLE, W.VA. -- The latest L.L. Bean catalog just came in the mail, sporting an evocative outdoor scene on the cover.
It's the sort of picture that would appeal to anyone who hunts -- a shotgunner and his setter traipsing along a dirt farm road through stands of fiery birches, orange maples and yellow grass.
That's what bird-hunting is all about: Clear eyes, clear skies, cool air, comfortable old boots and a familiar patch of natural, game-rich land to work.
But if you believe the fellows behind Prospect Hall Shooting Club here, the picture is an anachronism, a relic of a fast-disappearing past.
According to Bob Jantzen, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and co-founder of Prospect Hall, the present is bleak and the future even bleaker for urban Easterners who want to hunt quail, grouse or other wild birds on private land.
He blames the press of civilization, as farms and forests are gobbled up by housing developers and the remaining land increasingly is put off limits to hunters.
Jantzen and three partners think they've found an answer with Prospect Hall, one of the Washington area's first private shooting clubs.
Here, on a 400-acre patch of a large farm 90 minutes from Washington, gunners can take a day off work, don their hunting togs and tramp the fields, assured of plenty of pen-raised quail, partridge and pheasant to shoot at and good dogs to work over.
Shooting clubs already abound around New York, according to a story a couple of years ago in The Wall Street Journal. Now the trend is moving south.
Prospect Hall is looking for 30 or 40 members to join the 14 already enrolled. For $1,000 initiation, $750 per year dues and a hefty use fee each time they come out, club members are guaranteed a "hunting experience" with plenty of game, as Jantzen's partner, Steve Boynton, put it.
Recently, Boynton organized a bus trip from Washington for a dozen prospective members, who were treated to sweet corn and barbecued chicken at the club's elegant, 200-year-old farmhouse. Later, they shot box after box of shells on skeet, trap and other shooting ranges. They also toured the hunting fields, though no live game was released because game-farm season doesn't open until Oct. 1.
These were gentleman gunners, just the sort Boynton and Jantzen hoped to attract: Lawyers, real-estate developers, government officials and well-fixed retirees.
But almost to a man they expressed reservations over the shooting club concept. "This is very hard for me," said real estate man John Willey, who grew up hunting wild quail on farms around Memphis.
"I love to hunt, and I'd like to hunt the way we did it as a boy, but I don't know if it's possible anymore. This might be the next-best thing."
He and lawyer John Stinson were locked in deep conversation on the bus ride here, discussing the merits of pen-raised birds versus the real thing. Stinson said pen-raised birds don't fly right. "You have your 10-foot-high birds, that only fly as high as the pen they were kept in," he said. Other birds grow so tame they won't fly at all, he said.
One prospective member recollected a game-farm shoot for ducks in which a released mallard was winged and slipped off into thick cover. When the gunners were walking back to the clubhouse, they were startled to find the injured duck walking up the hill alongside them, heading for the barn and its evening meal, he said.
Boynton and other club organizers were attentive to these stories. They intend to run a high-class operation where the birds act wild and the experience more closely approximates the real thing.
They've hired three full-time hands to run the club, and have been touring corporate shooting clubs around the country to catch up on the latest game-farm philosophies. Top-flight bird dogs are being trained, and every hunt will be overseen by a guide.
In the year since the idea was hatched, the Prospect Hall fields have been planted in game-holding grain crops and clay-pigeon "shooting-game" courses have been built, including a quail walk where clay pigeons shoot off through the trees as the gunner tramps a woods trail.
It's all very much like hunting, as much like hunting as you probably can get without actually hunting. But is it good enough?
Boynton cited three justifications for shooting clubs: Loss of wild habitat; reluctance of landowners to permit hunting because of bad experiences with "slob" hunters; and time pressures on the modern urban professional, which sounds like the real clincher.
"Let's face it," he said, "a lot of guys won't walk in the rain or cold all day to get one or two shots. We're into a luxury society and this is a luxury hunting experience.
"People are pressed for time," he said. At a place like Prospect Hall, he said, they can go out for a couple of hours and get guaranteed shooting. There's no driving around, talking to farmers, getting permission, training dogs, finding the good cover . . .
In short, plenty of shooting without all that messy hunting.
There are a few public game preserves around Washington where gunners can pay on a daily basis to hunt pen-reared game, but Prospect Hall is the first private shooting club of any size, Jantzen said.
For information on membership, write Prospect Hall Shooting Club, Rte. 1, Box 370, Kearneysville, W.Va. 25430.