DENTON, MD. -- I thought I was done with hunting for the season, having capped it with two memorable days of waterfowling around Currituck Sound in North Carolina. But when Tom Hardesty called to say he'd found a guaranteed hotspot for quail and pheasant, well, it's hard to say no to a guarantee.
Hardesty's find was the Talbot County Shooting Preserve, a 25-year-old public gunning club that for reasons too complex to worry about lies not in Talbot but here in Caroline County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, 25 miles from the Bay Bridge.
Hardesty, a District policeman, was all aflutter over the performance of the preserve's English setters, over which he'd hunted the week before. More accustomed to rabbit hunting over beagles, he was amazed at the manners and field smarts of good pointing dogs.
Our success was guaranteed, he said, because the preserve raises its own pheasant, quail, partridge and mallard ducks and puts them out the day of the hunt to assure clients a busy shoot. I've been on these hunts before and always went away feeling disappointed, but hope springs eternal. You never know when someone will come up with a preserve that more closely approximates the excitement and unpredictability of hunting in the wild.
There's plenty of incentive. Preserves are probably the fastest-growing sector in the hunting business hereabouts. In Virginia, the number has jumped from 22 to 48 over the last five years, and in Maryland the total is up to nearly 60, according to Gary Taylor of the Department of Natural Resources.
Game managers say private preserves are much in demand with corporations as places to entertain clients, and the public ones have an increasing appeal to individual bird hunters in these times of decreasing opportunities in the wild. Plus, game preserve season runs from Oct. 1 to March 31, adding a couple months to the gunner's year.
Tom Swann, who started the public Talbot County operation back in the 1960s, has watched the current boom with interest, but said it hasn't changed his business. More people are interested, he said, but he's got more competition, too.
Which is not to complain. Swann raises race horses, hunting dogs and small grain on his 400-plus acres of gently rolling fields, and business appears good on all counts. Drive into the neat compound of barns and farm structures off Route 328 and you're greeted by the howls of 40-odd setters and the clatter of hundreds of game birds in their pens.
So, he asked, what do you want to hunt?
We wondered what was flying best and he said his current crop of quail were, but he wanted us to see the rest of the operation, so he had his son Donny, our guide, put out a mix of 20 quail, four partridge and four pheasant.
Donny had seven dogs loaded in the truck and ready, so we followed him down a sandy farm road to the hunting fields, where he turned four of the dogs loose.
Hardesty was right -- these dogs were pure joy to watch as they bounded through swaths of milo wheat, sniffing frantically for a scent of birds. In the wild, these are magical moments, because the decisions you make on where to run the dogs are based on your knowledge of where the birds should be and what the dogs' strengths are, and when the first dog locks up on point it's both a satisfaction and a fascinating mystery what might be lurking there.
But there are no mysteries at a shooting preserve, and when the first of Donny's charges locked up and the other three handsomely honored the point by locking up, too, Hardesty and I waded in and got what we expected, a frightened, solitary quail which scampered out of the cover and, with a little foot-stomping on Hardesty's part, took wing.
Much shooting followed, but this quail escaped.
Our shooting got better as the morning wore on, and there were a few moments when a pheasant or a pair of quail came clattering out of the brush with enough noise and energy that you forgot for a moment these birds slept in a pen last night.
But when it was over, I found myself wishing I'd just left the season's end where it lay, off in the wild marshes of Currituck somewhere, and not tried to stretch it out with something less.
Most shooting preserves are private, but about a half-dozen in Maryland and 15 in Virginia are open to the public. Prices for a half-day hunt range from about $50 a person to well over $100, depending on what game birds you want released and how many.
For a list of Virginia public shooting preserves, write Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, attn. Game Division, P.O. Box 11104, Richmond, Va., 23230-1104. For Maryland's list, write Forest, Parks and Wildlife Service, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Annapolis, Md. 21401.