Flushing pheasant at Dunkeld
Trevor Stow takes us to the river flats at the foot of the Grampians near Dunkeld for a test of skill and stamina in pursuit of pheasant, and while it isn’t the cheapest bird hunting around, he reckons the experience is worth it.
For the past few years a small group of us have taken out a weekend booking at Victoria Range Reserve to shoot pheasants.
Rob Walton runs the range on a 32 ha property at Dunkeld in South West Victoria at the foothills of the Grampians.
The range is a mix of terrain: some of the river flats are lightly timbered but predominately it is grass and tussocks, together with native bush with bracken fern growing under the canopy of trees.
These two distinct areas provide a contrast of hunting terrain, from the open grassland to hunting between the sticks.
Following a 600 km drive, we arrive at the range mid-afternoon on Friday. The range has a well-appointed hut erected on the property that is available free of charge for the hunters to stay in. The hut is well set up with bunk beds that sleep four adults. It also has a Weber barbecue, Honda generator, TV, running water and a big pot belly heater. There are six in our group so we bring two swags, which sit snugly under the shelter of the veranda. This arrangement is actually a bonus for the veranda dwellers, who are shielded from the snoring.
The hut is an easy walking distance to the hunting area.
Following a hearty breakfast we assemble at 8.30 am, ready for a 9 am start. Earlier in the morning Rob put out the birds. Due to the weather conditions, which are windy and cold, most of the birds are placed in the tussocks and long grass on the river flats. Rob picks us up in his ute, which has seating for six in the tray on the rear of the vehicle.
We elected to bring our own dogs for this hunt. Rob has a pair of german shorthaired pointers (GSP) at his
>> disposal, however, Arthur owns a young GSP, Skye, that knows its way around a paddock and I own a very good two-yearold labrador, Georgie.
The plan is for Rob to use his dog to assist ours later in the day if they are getting tired.
The morning commences with a hunt along the banks of the creek. We assemble the hunters in a line and move forward with Skye and Georgie quartering in front of the line. It is tough going for the dogs as the tussocks and grass are well above their heads. Working into the wind, Skye soon locates a hen, which flushes ahead of the dog and away from the shooters. A quick shot by Jeff sees the bird escape past a couple of trees and fly towards the nearby bush. She will have to wait until later in the day when we hunt that area.
Shortly after, Georgie flushes a pretty cock bird. Neil is right on to him and affects a clean kill. The dog marks the bird in the tussocks and soon returns with our prize. We continue working this section of tussocks without further success so, at the end of the section, we take a well-earned break.
The dogs need plenty of water working this heavy cover and appreciate a short rest, but not as much as this bunch of 60 to 80-year-old hunters. It also gives us a chance to review our tactics and perhaps refine our approach to the next stage of the hunt.
One thing we noticed was that the birds were not sitting tight when approached by the guns and the dogs. We witnessed them running through the tussocks ahead of the dogs and they moved quite quickly. The GSP was pointing birds but then moving forward and pointing repeatedly. With the labrador, she was following the scent trail and usually found and flushed the birds quite quickly. The result of this was that we needed to be on top of the dogs, particularly the labrador, or the birds would be out of range when flushed.
After our break we hunt further along the creek, in the heavy tussocks. When we reach the end of the property, we move in a southerly direction and hunt back in a parallel line to our previous drive. These two drives bag us another five birds. Another break and then off again, and so the morning continues until we complete this section of the river flats. It is now noon and a good time to return to the hut for lunch and a cuppa with 16 birds to hand.
There is nothing like a good hearty lunch, a cup of your favourite brew and a relax on a comfortable chair to revive a weary hunter. The Dunkeld area has received good rainfall over the past six months, resulting in plenty of cover for the birds. It also produced hard going for the hunters and especially the dogs, which often had to stand on their back legs to see where the handlers were.
Sixteen birds was acceptable for a morning’s work but our return on birds this year was down on previous years. This was mainly due to the heavy cover and, we suspect, to the birds being a bit more flighty in the windy conditions after they were put out.
Rob picks us up in the ‘bus’ after lunch and we head back into the river flats. We hunt this section of flats in a similar manner to the morning. Neil and I miss a nice cock pheasant that flushes a little further away from us that we like. We note where it comes down, a few hundred metres away. Calling Georgie, we head over to the area, confident we will bag the bird. We hunt the area thoroughly but can find no trace of it. Possibly it landed and then ran off before we got there. Georgie has a good nose but she cannot find any scent. There is a small creek nearby and perhaps the bird departed down the creek bed.
At the end of this hunt we have another six birds bagged so our tally is starting to creep upwards.
It was now mid-afternoon and having completely covered the river flats, we decide to head to the bush. No birds were released in the bush but we did lose the odd one in there and we suspect a few relocated after they were put out or before the shoot began.
The bush is a different beast: a lot of trees but well-spaced and we can get a good view of the birds and a clear shot most of the time. There is plenty of cover in the form of bracken ferns for the birds. We do two sweeps of this country but only manage to locate and take two pheasants. By the end of the day, we had shot 24 birds from 42 released. The previous year we shot 39 out of 40.
We suspect the group who followed us the following day would have a ball if our birds could be located together with what they put out. Anyhow, good luck to them.
We like the way Rob Walters does business at Victoria Range. The facilities are good, the birds are in great condition, and the terrain gives both the birds and the hunters a fair chance.
At the end of the day a couple of enterprising locals turn up and pluck and clean the birds for the hunters. This is an additional cost of $7 per bird but after nine hours of hunting, the last thing we want to do is to pluck a whole lot of pheasants. The birds return in pristine condition, individually bagged in plastic. We then put them away in our fridge and drink a toast to the hunt.
Pheasant shooting is not cheap. For an average day of, say, six people and 40 birds, including plucking, think in the vicinity of $450 each. However, this stacks up well against other pheasant operators. In addition, you have the free accommodation thrown in for two nights.
Our group likes to do a special trip once a year. In the past, we have done Cape Barren geese, New Zealand duck opening, and several other little adventures. As a once-a-year treat we find this shoot to be great fun and we now look forward to it each year.
Pheasants are a good game bird and a very good table bird. As they are raised in pens and hand-fed, they are not a ‘gamey’ flesh but rather a white flesh, similar to domestic poultry. We have found they can be dry when cooked, particularly the breast, but we have tried numerous recipes and found one that produces excellent results.
It’s hard work for a dog, this hunting. A happy crew following a successful day in the field. L-R; Hardy Fandrich, Neil Hutchinson, Rob Walton and Georgie discuss tactics during a break.