A pheasant hunting blast from the past
I first started hunting back in 1972, shortly after launching my 35-year teaching career at Kennett High School. For Chester County sportsmen, as well as those in Montgomery and Berks, the ringnecked pheasant represented the foremost reason we purchased our Pennsylvania hunting licenses back then. Our fields and meadows were jam packed with those raucous long-tailed birds, so much so, in fact, that I could go tromping through the fields that surrounded my grandparents’ home in West Goshen and flush half a dozen cackling cockbirds, even when unassisted by a bird dog.
The mounted memento of my very first pheasant still hangs above the doorway to our Northbrook home. While hunting with West Chester’s Ralph Haney, I downed that rooster with a borrowed 16-gauge Stevens double barrel on the second shot after badly missing the first bird we roused a few seconds before. That field along North New Street Road near the old American Legion post was among my favorite dove and pheasant haunts, but like so much Chester County open space, was long ago supplanted by a housing development.
My initiation to the sport was facilitated by my Kennett teaching colleagues, folks like George Starr, Jack Guessmyer, Greg Gundy, and Haney. Later I would also head afield with former students including Jeff Pannell, Mike Bazzano, Glenn Becker, and Ronnie Dickens. On a number of occasions another teacher, Tim Skiles, invited me to tag along with him and his burly black Labrador retriever, Linc, in chasing cockbirds all over the southern Chester County countryside. I was a hunting neophyte back in those days, infamously donning a pair of high-top sneakers to serve as my preferred footwear, a fashion faux pas that earned me the amused and lasting derision of those seasoned veterans who understood that hiking boots, not tennis shoes, were the order of the day.
Much has changed since those early days afield. I long since swapped out my high-top sneaks for a pair of L.L. Beans and now carry my own Browning Citori over and under twenty gauge afield. But, sadly, those ubiquitous cackling cockbirds mysteriously disap-
peared from the wild at about the same time the 1980s arrived. By then I had invested in a pair of English springer spaniels, but once the wild pheasants vanished, any bird hunting action would rely strictly upon the pheasant stocking efforts of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. In 1988 I joined the Brandywine Sporting Dogs Association (BSDA). For many years thereafter I took advantage of their Regulated Hunting Grounds, working my springers on stocked pheasants, quail, and Hungarian and chukar partridge.
But “progress” was relentlessly afoot throughout Chesco’s fields and forests. So when the BSDA lost most of their Regulated Hunting Grounds to development and my current bird dog became allergic to the sound of gunfire, I dropped out of the association and threw in the towel on pheasant hunting. But that all changed last week when my old hunting buddy, Tim Skiles, invited me along on a pheasant foray. Joining us for this reunion was former student Ronnie Dickens. The three of us had last headed afield together some forty years ago, busting woodcock coverts over Dickens’ frisky pair of Brittany spaniels.
On Thursday morning our destination was the Powderbourne hunting preserve in Montgomery County’s Upper Hanover Township. While other such preserves dot the Commonwealth, Powderbourne’s handy location in East Greenville. (an easy drive from both West Chester and Pottstown), 330 acres of prime pheasant habitat, and affordability, is hard to beat for bird dog enthusiasts here in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Powerbourne charges $225 for a three-hour hunt for ten freshly stocked pheasants, a mix of hens and roosters. A maximum of four hunters are permitted in each party and assigned to specific, designated fields. For a party of four hunters, the individual cost breaks down to a very reasonable $56 apiece. I suspect the majority of Powderbourne patrons, like us, enlist the preserve’s services as a welcome opportunity to introduce, practice, and train their dogs in the fine art of scenting, finding, flushing, and retrieving upland game. For patrons without dogs Powderbourne will provide a guide and dog for an additional $75. Bird cleaning is also available for $3.25 per pheasant.
We arrived at the hunting grounds well before our scheduled 11 a.m. starting time. After checking in and making payment, we reported to our assigned fields, numbers 1, 2, and 3, shortly after our ten stocked birds were scattered throughout the twenty acres of prime pheasant cover. Making things most challenging were blustery winds with gusts approaching fifty miles per hour. The winds would prove problematic in a number of ways, making it difficult for the dogs to pick up and follow scent, suppressing the birds’ willingness to flush and fly (more inclined to race away on foot instead) and finally, once airborne, the birds’ tailwind-aided flight would rocket them away like the proverbial bat outta’ Hell.
Despite the relentlessly brutal winds, we headed into the cover behind Ruth, Skiles’s 12-year-old veteran yellow Labrador retriever, and Grace, his young and inexperienced two-year-old silver Lab. A few opportunistic hawks cruised the skies above as Skiles directed the enthusiastic canine pair through the cover. Dickens and I flanked either side, waiting for the Labs to work their pheasant magic. And work their magic they did as we discovered these pen-raised pheasants were almost as hardy, wily, and as strong fliers as those wild birds we chased so many decades ago.
Within two of our three allotted hunting hours, we had scoured our designated cover with great success. Despite the gusty challenges, both pups performed admirably well, finding and flushing eight of the ten planted birds. Of those eight, with Dickens leading the way, we collectively managed to down six pheasants, giving both Ruth and Grace ample opportunities to polish their retrieving skills.
After the hunt we gave the dogs a well deserved tall drink of water and returned to the Powderbourne’s cozy restaurant for a hearty meal. The restaurant, open seven days a week, serves breakfast and lunch. There we spoke with Rich Kolb, the preserve’s cantankerously jovial owner and his congenial and extraordinarily patient wife Marianne. Kolb, age 75, and his wife purchased the property back in 1979. “The original Powderbourne began in 1943,” explained Marianne, “purely as a trap and skeet shooting facility.”
Under the proprietorship of the Kolbs, the pheasant hunting preserve was added along with a scenic Sporting Clays course featuring 25 shooting stations that’s open year-round, weather permitting. Powderbourne also offers skeet shooting and hosts hunter safety courses each year. But pheasants remain their bread and butter. “We breed and raise around 14,000 pheasants each year,” Kolb noted, “all of them used right here at the preserve.”
Our pheasant hunting adventure at Powderbourne proved a very satisfying and somewhat nostalgic blast from the past. Like a journey back in time to Pennsylvania’s pheasant hunting heyday, it was a reminder of the unparalleled upland game hunting we once took for granted back in the 1960s and 1970s, a time lost forever, now surviving only in faded photographs and distant memory.
For more information about Powderbourne, visit their website at www.powderbourne.com or give them a call at 215679-9860.
Ready to begin their dog training session at the Powderbourne Hunting Preserve are Kennett’s Ron Dickens (left) and West Chester’s Tim Skiles with eager labrador retrievers Grace and Ruth.
Powderbourne breeds and raises about 14,000 pheasants each year.