Ian's Challenge - September - Hunting Grounds
Hunting Grounds is a watercolor I painted shortly after a day of pheasant hunting in an area near the Flatbrook we referred to as “the killing fields”.
It was named in part because of the unusual hunting practices that were adopted there.
To get a better understand of the “killing fields” you have to visualize two to three adjacent cornfields, each about the size of a high school football field, that were separated by a six to eight-foot wide hedgerow. They were distributed between access and secondary roads throughout the wildlife management area. The fact that you had to be fifty feet from a road significantly reduced the hunting area. What made it more terrifying was that it was also legal to shoot a bird on the ground. Almost all of the rules were never adhered to.
Unlike deer hunting where the hunter is staged in a tree stand above the ground firing down at his target, pheasant hunting almost always entails a sweeping motion of the firearm from the ground up. In addition, the bird can flush from any direction depending on the flight path it takes.
In a perfect setting, the hunters walk abreast down and across the field from one end to the other. This makes it much safer because the bird will most likely be flushed in front of the line and up into the air making it difficult to shoot the person next to you.
What we witnessed in the “killing fields” was quite different. Here, hunters would walk in from all four sides. That’s quite mad if you think about it. We referred to anyone who participated in this kind of engagement as a “meat-eater.” Their only mission was to bag their limit for the day and head home.
All the horror storiesI had heard were ealized on my first hunt there.
The official star time was at 8:00 am. At exactly 8:00 am the first illegal shot rang out. A hunter had spotted a bird sitting in a tree right above where he was parked. The bird was dead and in his bag within seconds of the start. My friend John just looked at me and said, “What did I tell you!”
We held back and waited until the first armanda went through. The clock had not moved its arm but by a few ticks and a barrage of shots sounded out. Each louder and closer until a bird had been hit. This happened with each flush of a bird, and often followed by the shouts of, “Hey, that’s my bird.” Followed by “Hell no. I shot that bird.” John and I would just look at each other and shake are heads.
We continued to walk down the road. Creeping along the hedgerow, we spotted a couple of birds in the middle of the hedges. In a near silent whisper we discussed forcing the birds into the cornfield and then flushing the birds to get a clean and legal shot at them. No sooner did we work our way into the hedgerow, a hunter stuck his head and gun in and shot the birds at our feet. We were no more than six feet apart. We stood there in shock, unable to move wondering about what had just happened. It seemed like minutes went by before either of us said anything.
Outraged and still in disbelief we made our way back to the car slowly coming back to our senses. By noon, new witnesses were retelling familiar tales. A hunter had shot his own dog because he had shot at a noise rustling in the brush. Another dog, that wasn’t trained to hunt properly, ran off and got hit by a car while crossing the road to get from one field to another. People were shooting from roads and parking areas. It was a free for all.
After that day, we would wait out the gang-bang and take our chances once the majority of the meat-eaters had had their fill and left. The possibility of even seeing a bird was almost nil, it did however make for a much more personal and enjoyable experience. We even bagged a few birds now and again.
Later in the day we would work our way into the wooded hillsides looking for birds that might have been pushed up by the barking hounds. This painting is of one of those areas. It was late morning early afternoon. The ground was covered with leaves still damp from the morning dew. It quelled the sound of our steps. Encompassed by the smell of decaying leaves we would sit with our backs against a tree. Straddling our guns on our lap, with eyes closed looking up at the sky, we listen to the stillness of the trees.