TIME article on game preserves


Frank Bergin, 26, of Pelham, N.Y., unloaded his rucksack and propped his .30/06 rifle against a tree. He had driven half the night, hiked five miles through the wilderness from the highway. Now for a snooze, and then on with the great bear hunt. A year before, in the same remote Adirondack clearing, he had come across black bear tracks, marked the spot carefully on a map. Came the dawn. Bergin yawned, stretched, looked around—to see twelve equally expectant faces peering curiously at him from behind the trees. Without a word, he rolled up his sleeping bag, hiked the five miles to the highway, drove half the day back to Pelham. "Where's the bear?" asked his wife. Bergin just growled. "What got into you?" she said.

The same thing that gets into most U.S. hunters. There is no shortage of game—just a superabundance of hunters (15 million this year) and a paucity of places to hunt. Wary farmers post NO TRESPASSING signs; creeping asphalt and urban sprawl gobble up more land each year. What open land remains is often overcrowded. Last week in northern Michigan's Ogemaw County, the deer hunter population was 100 per sq. mi. In the East, it is worth a man's life to venture into the woods. "I don't know which is safer," says one hunter. "Wearing a Day-Glo coat or hanging a pair of antlers on my head." So what does today's hunter do if he wants to bag his game and live to eat it? He heads for a private shooting preserve.

Boars on Horseback. Preserves are nothing new. New Hampshire's 25,000-acre Blue Mountain Forest Inc. was stocked in 1890 with deer, antelope, moose, elk, caribou, and Himalayan mountain goats. Railroad Magnate Austin Corbin chased boars there on horse back with javelins. Today, there are nearly 2,000 preserves in the U.S.—most of them open to anybody with a box of shells and a handful of greenbacks. Some are nothing more than dusty, played-out farms, stocked with a few pheasants and partridges. Others cater to the whims of an affluent society.

At Michigan's Metamora Shoot (members: Henry Ford II, American Motors' Roy Chapin), the "in" uniform is a pair of torn khaki trousers patched with adhesive tape, and the "in" gun is a $1,000 Winchester 21 double shotgun. A few preserves even have their own aircraft landing strips ("Taxi Right Up to the Clubhouse," boasts California's Hidden Valley Club, favorite retreat of Lawrence Welk and Oilman Earl Gilmore). Wisconsin's Rainbow Springs stocks pheasant, quail, partridge and ducks, offers a 41-room clubhouse, skeet and trap ranges, a swimming pool, ice-skating, and an 18-hole golf course.

Most preserves are too small—and too close to big cities—to stock anything but birds; the next-door neighbor might complain if a high-velocity rifle bullet smacked through his picture window. But at Hunter's Haven, 30 miles from Knoxville, Tenn., nimrods can turn a day away from the office into a full-fledged safari. The Haven's 3,500 unfenced acres border on Great Smoky Mountains National Park and teem with native game: wild turkeys, bobcats, deer, black bears, ferocious Russian boars that can rip a man open with one slash of their 6-in. tusks. And that is not all: Owner "Wolfie" Wolfenbarger, a retired Knoxville restaurateur, has stocked the Haven with big-horned aoudad (wild sheep) from North Africa, mouflons from Corsica, elk from Canada, sika deer from Japan and red stags from Bavaria. In two days of casual shooting at the Haven last week, three hunters bagged four wild turkeys (average weight: 22 Ibs.), three huge boars, a 425-lb. black bear and two aoudads—one with 29-in. horns. Grinned one of the happy trio: "I feel like the last of the Habsburgs."

Rocks & Towers. Purists scoff at preserve hunting ("Like shooting in the city zoo," says a Colorado gunner), and Natty Bumppo would shudder at the way some owners operate. Most preserves bill hunters only for birds and animals actually shot (from $3.50 for a pheasant, up to $600 for a European red stag)—so the more killed, the merrier. To accommodate lazy patrons, owners will "rock" pheasants and chukars, tucking their heads under their wings and spinning them around until they are too dizzy to fly properly; some birds are so groggy that hunters have to kick them into the air. At the Fin and Feather Club outside Kansas City, the newest fad is a "tower shoot"; hunters form a circle around a 30-ft. tower and pheasants are released, one at a time, from the tower. Some of the birds are banded in different colors, and the hunters contribute to a Calcutta-type pool. Everybody blasts away; a gold band wins 50% of the pool, red gets 30% , blue 20% —black buys the drinks. Other owners let hunters shoot animals from moving jeeps or set out salt licks to lure deer within easy range.

But at preserves like Tennessee's Hunter's Haven, the sport is still the thing. Hunters are warned not to shoot females or small, "nontrophy" animals. Baits are never used, and "still hunting" (stalking) is encouraged. When it comes to pulling the trigger—even against a charging boar—the hunter is strictly on his own: guides carry no weapons except skinning knives and shinny up the nearest tree at the first hint of danger. "We'll help you find your animal," says Owner Wolfenbarger. "But you have to shoot it yourself."


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