By Ralph P. Stuart
The cover was classic Eastern second growth, and the setter was working it perfectly. Head high and quartering, the dog seemed to float through the understory, sifting scent from the breeze as he moved among the maples and popple. Rounding the end of a deadfall, the dog turned sharply, his pace slowing to a crawl. Several sure-footed steps later he locked up.
“Point!” I yelled to guide Mike Clarke as I moved toward the dog.
“Go ahead and take it,” Mike yelled back from somewhere to my left.
I strode in confidently, gun at port arms, watching my footing while trying to scan for the flush. Everything had the look and feel of my familiar New England coverts, and with each step I readied for the twittering rise of a woodcock or the thundering explosion of grouse.
The next thing I knew the air was all wings and color and cackling, and I was set back on my heels, trying to register the commotion. It wasn’t until the long tail was well into the treetops that I remembered that this was what I was here for, and I shouldered my gun, swung through the leaves, and brought down the cock pheasant with a shot as challenging as any I’ve made on grouse.
The reason for my hesitation was that I was in northern Nova Scotia—an area not known for harboring pheasants. Grouse, woodcock and black ducks, yes, but ringnecks? Not usually the first bird that comes to mind. It’s amazing, though, how quickly you become used to something through repetition, and last fall at the end of two days hunting at Fox Harb’r Resort, I was dropping roosters with nary a hiccup.
For most wingshooters, Fox Harb’r is not a household name. The resort, which is owned by Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shops, is located in the town of Wallace, on the shores of Northumberland Strait. Joyce was born just up the coast in Tatamagouche (pronounced “Tat-a-ma-goosh”), and he began developing the property as a golf course in an effort to give something back to the area. After building the golf course and clubhouse, however, Joyce realized that there was little around in terms of infrastructure, so he built a private runway and airplane hangar; a variety of accommodations, including guest suites, townhouses and individual homes; and later a health spa. Joyce also has a passion for shooting, so it made sense to round out the amenities by adding a shooting facility and bird hunting fields.
Mike Clarke has been the director of sport shooting for seven years, and it has been his goal to make Fox Harb’r the premier shooting facility in Atlantic Canada. His efforts so far have been impressive. Almost 400 acres of fields and woods comprise the hunting area—all easily accessible and full of birds. Mike oversaw the creation of the habitat: the clearing of the land and the planting of millet, sorghum, Timothy grass and clover. Amongst the fields are strips of mixed growth, creating edge and giving the grounds the feel of abandoned farmland. There is an early release program for pheasants, and bird numbers are supplemented throughout the season. The Nova Scotia government prohibits the release of chukar, but it allows the liberation of Hungarian partridge. Mike has taken advantage of this, and several large coveys roam the property.
The clay-shooting facilities are first rate as well. They are set up in a wooded area and offer something for everyone. In addition to a skeet field and 5 Stand setup, there is a 15-acre sporting clays course that wends its way along manicured trails and offers shots ranging from flushing grouse to settling ducks to racing rabbits. There is also a FITASC layout, a flurry stand and even a “pheasant walk,” where shooters walk gravel paths and traps are programmed to randomly release targets.
The fun & gun opportunities at Fox Harb’r make the resort a perfect retreat for shooters and non-shooters alike. Which is the main reason my wife, Barbara, and I booked a couple of days there last fall. Barbara is not—or was not—a shooter, and we had been looking for a getaway where we both could relax and recharge our batteries. The hunting for me and spa for her seemed custom made to fill our needs.
Fall is also a wonderful time to travel in Maritime Canada. By then most of the tourists have gone, and the region has settled back into its quiet quaintness. We took our time driving up from our home in Maine, overnighting with friends in New Brunswick and then picking our way into Nova Scotia, enjoying the scenic trip through lush farm country and along the province’s rugged north coast.
When you arrive at Fox Harb’r, you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but you soon find that you want for nothing. We settled into one of the resort’s 12 manor-style guesthouses, our suite overlooking the golf course and water, with views to Prince Edward Island.
Dinner that evening was at the resort’s five-star restaurant, The Great Room, where we met fellow shooters Bill and Kath Troubridge, owners of Excalibur Crossbow, in Ontario; and Thomas Pigeon (pronounced “Pea-Jone”), host of the television show “Canada in the Rough.” We learned that Thomas had visited Fox Harb’r to tape several TV shows and had fallen in love with the place—so much so that he had begun consulting with the resort on marketing matters. It was quite an endorsement from a sportsman who has traveled extensively throughout North America.
The following morning we had breakfast and headed to the clays range. Though Barbara was on “vacation,” I had talked her into trying some clay shooting. We met at The Sporting Lodge, a post-and-beam structure that serves as the clubhouse for the shooting operation, and Mike Clarke set up Barbara with a Browning 20-gauge from the pro shop. Then we headed to the FITASC layout for instruction.
Thankfully, Mike is an excellent teacher. After quickly assessing Barbara’s eye-dominance issues, he made some adjustments and soon had her breaking targets. The smile on her face when she busted her first bird made the whole trip worthwhile.
The sporting clays course was right next door, so we shot several stations to get a feel for it. Last year Englishman Ben Husthwaite, who won the 2010 World Sporting Clays Championship, redesigned the course, and it offers something for shooters of all levels. Ben’s feeling is that targets don’t have to be high to be challenging, so he focused on using the terrain and varying target angles in offering two presentations—an easier “Harb’r” and a more difficult “Fox”—at each of 12 stations. The well-thought-out shots served as great warm-ups for the bird fields.
The rest of the day, save a short break for lunch, was spent hunting. Fox Harb’r is blessed with a kennel full of talented dogs, and our group was lucky to draw Gunsmoke and Bandit—a tag-team pair of English setters with extensive field-trialing experience. Both are “cover dogs” that focus on grouse and woodcock when they aren’t on the preserve, and their speed and bird-finding abilities were impressive.
Over the next several hours the dogs put on a show: tracking and pinning runners or simply outmaneuvering birds that they panicked into holding. The Guns were on as well, and by day’s end, between our group of three and the other of two, the bag stood at several dozen pheasants and four Huns.
That evening we returned to The Great Room, where we again dined with Thomas, Kath and Bill. (Hint: Order the scallop and shrimp pasta with pesto cream sauce, and if you’re extra nice the chef may fold in some lobster meat.) In discussing the hunting, Thomas expressed concern that my visit may have been premature, as there were plans to add several more bird fields and expand the Hun program. I assured him that any wingshooter would have enjoyed the day we’d had, especially considering the great dogwork and hard-flying birds.
I did agree that 400 acres is limited in terms of being able to pound it day after day, but visitors must realize that Fox Harb’r is more of an “us” destination, with the emphasis just as much on the golf, the spa, the pool and all of the non-shooting activities. Gunners can enjoy plenty of shooting and down time with their significant others.
For truly hard-charging sportsmen, the resort can serve as a home base from which to make day trips for myriad activities. Depending on the time of year, imagine choosing from an a la carte menu that includes upland hunting for grouse and woodcock; waterfowling for puddle ducks, geese or sea ducks; fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon; and big-game hunting for deer and bear. The weekend before we arrived, Thomas had traveled across to Prince Edward Island, where he had chartered a boat and on hook and line caught and released a thousand-pound Bluefin tuna.
There is no shortage of opportunities for those who want to pursue them.
The second morning I returned to the field while Barbara took time out for the spa. Our group found the birds much warier this day, as the pheasants ran and skulked and seemed reluctant to flush. But the new team of dogs—Thomas’s black Lab, Ricky, and his young springer, Abby—was having none of it. They were relentless, running down every track and forcing birds out of thick cover. Thomas frequently had them sit to the whistle on longer tracks, and this allowed us to catch up and put more birds in the bag.
After lunch Thomas volunteered to escort the ladies on a bike ride and then a tour of a local winery (another opportunity for non-shooting guests). But some of us couldn’t resist taking one last crack at the birds.
In all honesty, I was hoping for another chance at the Huns. To that point we had come across three coveys, but I had never been in position for a shot. The birds that had been taken had been beautiful, and you could tell by the way Mike handled them that he felt they were special.
That afternoon Gunsmoke put on another clinic—tracking, pinning and holding pheasant after pheasant. At one point we were working an edge where a grassy field abutted mature spruce woods, and his demeanor changed completely. With ratcheted-up intensity, he zeroed in on a tangle of raspberry cane and locked up near an old apple tree. In an ironic twist to my first encounter, I was thinking pheasant when the grouse blew out. This time I didn’t recover quickly enough to score.
As the sun neared the horizon we were making our way back toward the vehicles when someone shouted, “There go some Huns!” About 80 yards away a covey of maybe 10 birds was scurrying through sparse grass on a hillside. Gunsmoke struck ground scent at the same time, and as he moved forward I picked up the pace, trying not to look too anxious.
Upon reaching the crest of the hill, I slowed, took a deep breath and deliberately stepped over the top.
The Huns blew out 60 yards away.
Mike had come up quickly too, and we watched the birds hammering across the grass in the golden light. At that moment I could have been in Montana, or Saskatchewan or anywhere that seasoned Huns typically elude hunters.
Mike shook his head and patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I wish we could have gotten up on them.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I replied. “Birds like that are a good thing.”
And with that we headed for the clubhouse, where awaited my wife, a glass of wine and a lobster with my name on it.
Author’s Note: For more information on Nova Scotia bird hunting, contact Fox Harb’r Resort, 902-257-1801; www.foxharbr.com.
Ralph Stuart is Shooting Sportsman’s Editor in Chief.