Driven to Birds

Illustration by Gordon Allen

Illustration by Gordon Allen

By Tom Huggler

Recently I took my 12-year-old son, Daniel, hunting for wild pheasants in Michigan’s Thumb region. Driving through Reese, a small farming community in Saginaw County, I recalled how my love affair with pheasants began here 60 years earlier when I was Daniel’s age. Shortly after World War II my father began driving to Reese from our Detroit home to hunt pheasants, and I got to join Dad and a dozen uncles and older cousins. In those days pheasants were as thick as blackbirds, and the best tactic for bagging them was to line up across sugar-beet fields, turn loose the dogs and march to the other end. Within a couple of hours our gang would have limited out, but no one would know who shot what bird.

The art of driving game is as old as hunting itself. All of us have seen those TV documentaries where whales, lions and other predators team up to corner prey. As a bird hunter, I know that three or more Guns beg for the drive tactic.

Last fall while grouse and woodcock hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, five friends and I lined up to tackle a mile-long clearcut of 10-year-old aspen. We broke the cover into imaginary quadrants and spent an hour in each, our phalanx of five dogs in the vanguard. We flew 23 grouse and 37 woodcock for a flush ratio of 15 birds per hour! OK, so we shot only 12 of the 60 birds total, but the take-home number is not important. The methodical drive is what put so many birds in the air.

If you’ve ever experienced a driven shoot on the Continent, you know how successful and thrilling the strategy is. Years ago in central Spain, I finally found the sweet spot on the last of six drives and shot a dozen red-legged partridge after holding a cold gun for hours. I learned that driven birds, routed aloft by a small army of beaters, don’t always fly your way. But when they do, what fun!

When driven, even liberated birds can be unpredictable, whether you’re involved in a European-style shoot on a preserve in the US or shooting reared pheasants in Hungary. I remember these sports, but high on my to-do list is gunning a Scottish moor for red grouse and a British Isles estate for woodcock. I could do either—or perhaps both—if I cashed in Daniel’s college-savings plan.

Closer to home, nothing beats hunting Dakota plains grouse when you are part of a group trooping across the shortgrass prairie. You walk for miles into the wind, and then suddenly a flock of sharptails erupts, their queer kuk-kuk-kuk often heard before the birds are seen.

Or pheasants in the Midwest. If you’re a driver, make all the noise you want; if you’re a blocker, stay put and be quiet. I learned this lesson in Kansas while posting a big field of wild sunflowers. Running back and forth, I watched in frustration as pheasants flushed from the spot I had just left. That was when native Kansan Mike Cox explained the error of my ways. When it was my turn to drive, I loaned my gun to Cox. I got another lesson when he shot four ringnecks without moving his feet.

On that recent Thumb hunt, Daniel and I killed no pheasants after drives with a couple of friends. Ringnecks were scarce and the covers too huge for our small group. But Daniel did get a puppy limit: a 10-week-old shorthair from guide Paul Rheaume, who also breeds and trains bird dogs. It was worth the drive.

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