Pheasant Hunting With a Bow – Part 2: The Early Hunts

I first met Ron at the Bowhunters Unlimited (BHU) range in November, 2012. He had been organizing a pheasant hunt for a group of re-curve and stick-bow shooters and was tossing aerial targets for them. He convinced me to try it out and I liked it. We exchanged contact information with the intent of doing a pheasant hunt together sometime.

A couple of weeks later, an opportunity arose. Russ, from BHU, and I headed north through the Bay Area traffic to meet Ron at Hastings Island Hunting Preserve (HIHP.) I was looking forward to seeing some archery bird hunting first hand.

I had just joined HIHP that fall. It offers pheasant hunting for an extended six month season and the facilities and fields are available for dog training for most of the rest of the year. It is located near Rio Vista, CA in the heart of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers’ delta. That puts it about a two-hour drive from anywhere in the South Bay Area and even less from San Francisco or Sacramento.

This early December day was overcast but there was no rain in the forecast. It would be a perfect winter day for hunting in Northern California, cool for the dogs and dry for the birds. There would be a slight breeze to create good scent cones but calm enough that the birds would flush. In a word, conditions would be perfect.

Ron’s Britney Ripley on point.

Our plan was to use Ripley, Ron’s energetic and experienced Britney, to point up the birds. Then Ron and Russ, both experienced and capable archers, would step up behind the dog and take the first and best shots. Hopefully I’d witness them taking down some roosters with their archery gear. In the (according to Ron) unlikely chance that a pheasant might fly on, I would then take the clean up shot with my 12 gauge.

I didn’t really care if I got to shoot or not. It was a beautiful day and I was just grateful for the chance to be out hunting. I didn’t have Patty yet back in 2012 and I was looking forward to hunting with Ripley and to watching some arrows fly.

We headed out into one of the old rice fields and Ripley started working in the tall grass and weeds along the canals.

Russ was a pleasure to watch in the field. He was all eager excitement and nervous energy. His big grey beard didn’t spoil the impression I was getting of a kid on his first hunt. When Ripley went on point, Russ was not averse to a 40 yard dash to get into position for a shot. Not something I’d be doing on that uneven ground with a shotgun, but it was fun to watch a grown man with a bow do it.

I was also discovering that Ron was a pleasure to hunt with. He was a sportsman. He cared about his dog and his hunting partners. He was more interested in getting Russ opportunities than he was in launching arrows of his own.  And he was always the optimist.

“That was so close.” It wasn’t really.

“Russ, I think you touched that one.” He hadn’t.

“I can’t believe that one didn’t come down.” Why would it when they’d both missed by a mile?

And when I missed an easy cleanup he offered, “That was a really tough shot Dale,” as the big rooster lumbered away.

Despite Ron’s cheery optimism, and the five birds that ended up in the vest, I still hadn’t seen one dropped with a bow. I got to see some good dog work. I got to see some arrows launched too. But pellets, not field points, had downed each of the bagged birds. We agreed to try again soon.

Pellets, not field points downed these roosters on my first hunt out with archers.  Left to Right; Dale, Russ and Ron

In the coming weeks, we were fortunate enough to get out another handful of times. Different friends and family might join us but the recipe remained the same; a couple of archers would be first up and a shotgunner served as backup. The other consistent ingredient was Ron’s constant optimism and willingness to less others take the best opportunities.

“Brett, you nailed that one!” My son, on his first pheasant hunt, had just missed a tough crossing shot.

“Penny is an awesome dog!” Our couch-potato lab had never been hunting before and was running around excitedly. She loved every minute but clearly had no idea what she was doing.

“Oh man, you smoked him!” Mike had just grazed a pheasant that flew on undamaged.

Morning fog in the fields at HIHP.

One morning a thick fog hung over the hunting fields. At a club like Hastings Island that meant that we couldn’t head out into the fields. So while the gun hunting members stayed inside the clubhouse eating big breakfasts and complaining about the delayed start, we were out on the trap range tossing Ron’s milk jugs again.

His regular hunting partner Evan had joined us on that day.  He was a lefty and he let me shoot his re-curve a few times. This time I got a little closer and even managed to graze a few of the flying gallon jugs. Ron was obviously pleased and let me know it.

“You crushed that one!”

“Wow! You’re already better than me!”

“Evan, we better look out, he’s hitting every one!”

The truth was obviously different but still, the fever burned a little hotter in me. Could this stunt actually be possible? The seed planted a month before was stirring.

After the fog lifted, during the hunting day, Ron grazed a pheasant, flu-flu feathers brushing the big bird on the way by. Then he bounced one harmlessly off of a rooster’s back. Those were two close calls but if he was counting on this tactic to provide meat for the pot, I thought, he’d still be going hungry tonight.

But then it happened. The two close misses weren’t foreshadowing an empty pan but were an omen of a hunter getting into the grove. Ron finally made good on his claim.

We had just crossed one of the many canals and found Ripley pointing into a thick patch of brambles. Evan was the closest hunter to the dog. I was a few yards to his right and Ron was a little behind us and further to the right. The situation was developing quickly. It seemed the bird might be on the move. Evan was the primary shooter in this situation. He stepped in but the pheasant had other ideas. The flurry of the flush came right between Evan and I so neither of us had a safe shot. In what seemed like only a picosecond, he had passed over my head. Ron raised his bow and drew while spinning away from me. He released the arrow and dropped the rooster at a range of maybe five yards.

My jaw dropped. Even Ron was speechless for just a second. Then Ripley was fetching it up and we burst into a chorus of whoops, cheers and congratulations.

“You crushed it”

“Great shot Ron!” This time the superlatives were not just wild optimism.

For good measure Ron shot another bird that day. As if it wasn’t hard enough to hit a lunker pheasant, he dropped a chukar that popped up from underfoot too! It had taken off right at his feet and it came down just a few yards away. It seemed that the element of surprise pushed Ron into a completely intuitive mode that was working!

Ron connects with a chukar!

When I left the field that day the seed of an idea planted almost a month earlier had not only germinated but had sprouted. Now that I’d seen it done, twice, I had to give it a try myself.

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