North Fork Outdoors: DEC opens opportunity for young hunters

A notice from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation appeared in my mail the other day and brought back fond memories. It seems that the state is giving Long Island youth hunters a new recreational opportunity by opening a special two-day pheasant season this weekend on the Rocky Point Natural Resources Area and on the Otis Pike Preserve. (The regular small game season opens two days later.)

Parents and legal guardians with appropriate hunting licenses can accompany a licensed junior hunter 12 to 15 years of age afield with a good chance of finding birds released prior to the hunt. According to the state release, the accompanying adult may assist the youth hunter but may not carry a firearm.

Incidentally, to hunt Rocky Point or Riverhead DEC properties, a seasonal access permit, found at, is required, and a permission form for the licensed hunter (parent or guardian) is available in the current 2011-2012 Hunting Guide, or online at More information is available from Aphrodite Montalvo at Stony Brook, Region 1, (631) 444-0350 and (631) 444-0249.

Released pheasants have always been used for traditional early season hunts, and, when properly handled, released a day or more before the hunt, simulate “wild birds” in the field. To be sure, these birds won’t run as much, jump as quickly, or take to wing as fast as birds born in the wild. Still, pheasants adapt quicker to their surroundings than any other game bird, and, indeed, after a couple of weeks of freedom, the pheasants that survive local predators (dogs, cats, hawks, etc.) are hard to distinguish from naturally reproduced birds.

Because all first-time New York hunters must complete a Hunter Safety course taught by certified instructors (I taught in such a course for years as a former member of the Mattituck Gun Club), one assumes they will have some basic firearm handling instruction, including the critical mantra that gets drummed in: 1) You assume every gun is loaded, so you never point its muzzle at anything other than an intended target; 2) You keep the gun on “safe” and your finger off the trigger until ready to fire; 3) You must be absolutely sure of your target, its background, and the safe field of fire around it; and 4) You wear plenty of hunter orange to stand out in the field.

As we suggested at the beginning, the thought of a first pheasant hunt takes me back almost a half-century to the Iroquois Preserve south of Chicago where I had my first experience chasing roosters (we couldn’t shoot hens because natural propagation was part of the program) with Janet, who later became my wife, and her father, Roy Wendel. Roy had hunted with Janet for years, but I had to be inducted into the society.

There were then no courses required for beginners, but I had two months of rigid weekend instruction, learning to follow a pointing dog (yes, a Brittany) afield and learning to handle a Winchester Model 12 pump gun safely. Hitting clay targets, first thrown by hand, then on a trap range, was a formal requirement, and detailed instructions on how to prepare birds for the table was an important part of the drill as well. I can still remember the moment just after dawn when we walked in over the dog’s point after he had pinned down a running cock bird and the pheasant took to the air. I vaguely remember a long shot after I got a grip on things and the bird coming down solidly almost 50 yards out. For the first time I now had to reconcile the elation of a shot well executed with the sadness of viewing a dead creature brought to hand by the dog.

It was the completion of the tasks, the tortuous plucking of the bird (Roy Wendel held fast to American farm traditions; you dined on a whole bird after the hunt, skin intact to hold juices, so you wound up carefully dipping the pheasant in very hot water, softening the delicate skin while plucking) that brought the hunting lesson home. One kills to dine well, not for the sake of shooting “targets.”

I would go on from there to other game. There were wild pheasants, plenty of them, in the corn country around Champaign-Urbana, where Jan and I were at school, along with cottontails, easier marks for beginning hunters. Hunting skitterish, hard-to-bring-down wild roosters would challenge me early on, but “Old John Rooster” would prepare me for a long love affair with upland birds like bobwhites on Long Island and ruffed grouse upstate.

Learning to love the “upland life” is a worthwhile thing, though it has gotten harder and harder to do on the Forks. Open land now gone, too many folks and predators, etc., but the tradition persists nevertheless. Hopefully the DEC can continue it a while longer for a few lucky newcomers!