REMINGTON, VA. -- Saddle up, podners, and let's ride back in time.
Neil Selby and George Cornwell recall days not so long ago when wild quail were so plentiful they could take their dogs and horses out and hunt all day just by asking permission.
"I could show you 100 coveys of quail in Fauquier County alone," said Cornwell. But those times are gone.
Wild birds, good land and friendly farmers grew so scarce, Cornwell quit hunting quail a few years ago. Selby, who relinquished a good job running maintenance operations at Georgetown University to devote full time to training bird dogs, hung on.
Now his persistence has paid off and the old bird-hunting partners are back in business. Selby recently leased 500 acres of abandoned pasture here and turned it into Shady Grove Kennels and Shooting Preserve, a showcase for what he and others consider the future of bird hunting in these pressurized parts.
"We couldn't go out and hunt wild quail anymore," said Cornwell, who takes time off from work at the power company to help in the new enterprise, "so we brought the birds to us."
Selby thus is the latest convert to shooting preserves, which are expanding rapidly in Washington's outer suburbs as hunting habitat gets gobbled by land developers.
While some of his competitors suffer from cramped space and docile birds, Selby remembers how it used to be and works hard to approximate the old days. His operation is distinguished by surprisingly lively birds and spacious surroundings.
"How far does your land go?" I asked from my perch atop Belle, one of his well-behaved Tennessee Walkers, as we finished a half-day hunt on horseback last week.
"Just about as far as you can see," he replied, gesturing across a sun-splashed half-mile of amber fields of sorghum waving in the autumn breeze.
With that much land to cover, the horses were a nice touch. For an extra $45, you ride in equine splendor while the dogs prowl for bird scent. When the pooch goes on point, you dismount, pull your gun from its leather scabbard like the Marlboro Man himself, and step in to flush up the game.
Selby said his goal at Shady Grove is to approximate for a reasonable fee the sort of tony bird-shooting folks pay dearly for on big plantations farther South. He admits 500 acres can't match a 6,000-acre Carolina plantation, but it's a lot closer to home, and he has enough open territory to make riding a horse or bouncing around in one of his ancient Jeeps reasonable.
Still, I remained skeptical on the hour-long drive out I-66. Every year or so I try some new game preserve on the assurance the hunting is going to be "just like the real thing," but it never is.
Instead, you kick at hapless, pen-raised birds to get them to fly and they flap off 20 or 30 yards and collapse, exhausted. Some make for their old pens and try to get back in; others march boldly out of the bushes and beg for a scrap to eat.
It's pathetic, and I remind myself afterwards that I'd rather spend all day kicking around real country after wild birds and not fire a shot than blast two boxes of shells at tame game.
But shooting preserves continue to thrive, so somebody out there likes them. And from the looks of Shady Grove, things are finally improving. At times on Selby's farm, I plumb forgot it wasn't the real thing.
The credit goes to his quail, which eat a high-protein diet and are kept secluded in cavernous pens lest they get too accustomed to people and dogs.
As a result, the birds fly well. Several he'd planted for our hunt "got up wild," as the expression goes, careening off into the woods when dogs and horses drew near. You had to go in after them, which is how real bird hunting goes, and a few even got up wild again in the deep woods and left for parts unknown, not to be seen again. Good for them!
Selby's pheasants flew spiritedly too, though they're so big they're far easier targets.
All in all, it made for an interesting, attractive day in rich, diverse bird cover, and a far cry from the sort of predictable slaughter on the open plains that gives game farms a bad name.
"If the management practices help produce game with wild characteristics," said Gary Taylor, director of wildlife for Maryland's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, "if you don't just get handed a limit, it increases the appeal to sportsmen."
Taylor said more and more preserves are popping up in his state, where 100 are now licensed -- 20 open to the public and 80 private clubs -- a big increase in the last five years.
Likewise in Virginia the trend is up. The state took 11 applications for new shooting preserves this year alone, said Game and Inland Fisheries spokesman Jack Randolph. That brings the total to 55, just under half of them open to the public.
Virginia even has a Game Breeders and Hunting Preserve Association designed to foster improvements. Founder Dean McDowell, who runs Merrimac Farms in booming Prince William County, said preserves are becoming "gardens of Eden in the ecological desert" of suburbia.
"We're the only oases left where game can survive," he said, making preserves the only option for some hunters with limited time. "We're preserving the art and sport of hunting birds with dogs," said McDowell, adding, "There's just no land left" for the real thing anymore.
The six-month shooting preserve season runs through March 31 in Maryland and Virginia. For a list of public facilities, write Maryland's Forest, Parks and Wildlife Service at 580 Taylor Ave., Annapolis, Md. 21401, (301-974-3195); or Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, P.O. Box 21104, Richmond, Va. 23230 (804-367-1000).
For rates on hunting and sporting clays shooting at Shady Grove, call Selby at 703-439-2683; at Merrimac Farms call McDowell at 703-594-2276.