Virtural Reality

Hunting preserves are surging in popularity in Louisiana because they attract young and old hunters for very different reasons.

It’s Friday night — sons are home from college for the weekend. At 1:30 a.m., the old man gets up to answer nature’s call. The light is on in two bedrooms down the hallway. The old man hears voices coming from both sons’ computers of other gamers.It’s 4:30 a.m. Up again, awakened by Lab. This time, she has to answer nature’s call. The lights are still on in two bedrooms down the hall. “Why didn’t they let her out?” The same voices are still coming from the other gamers.

“Those games are worse than crack,” I mutter to myself. “War crack!”

It’s 6 a.m. Up for good this time heading for hunting preserve. There are no lights on down the hallway now.

It’s 6:15 a.m. I’m out the door to make the one-hour-and-10-minute drive to Bayou Teche Hunting Preserve.

It’s 8 a.m. I introduce myself to three young hunters — all brothers, all close to the same age as my three sons. They introduce themselves as Clay, Dale and Neal Martin, all from Lafitte.

“Are you guys gamers?” I ask. “You guys are the same age as my boys, and they were online until 4:30 this morning playing. I was just wondering what brings three guys your age to a preserve to hunt. On their own, this isn’t something my sons would do. I’ve brought them on guided hunts before, but they haven’t gone by themselves yet.”

With a smile, Dale Martin, the most affable of the three, replies, “I was a hunter before I was a gamer. Me, I got hooked in the eye fishing when I was 6. The first thing my daddy asked the doctor was, ‘Will he be able to shoot a gun?’ But, yeah, I only play war games. I brought my X-Box with me, and played ‘Gears of War’ last night.”

Times change, and with every generation, it seems hunter numbers continue to thin out. It’s possible hunting preserves could fill or offer an option to some of the virtual idiosyncratic niche that today’s young video gamers seem to need.

Growing up in Michigan, I cut my hunting teeth chasing upland birds, particularly pheasants, along railroad tracks, farm-field fencerows and grassy semi-wooded wetland cutovers between agricultural fields.

The enchanting sparkle of a frost-covered goldenrod, cattail and canary grass field that suddenly erupts with the cackling cries of a gaudy rooster pheasant, rising into the morning blue sky, can only be likened to the cupped wings of a greenhead descending into your decoy spread here in Louisiana. I was hooked forever.

Today, the landscape in Louisiana, much like Michigan, has changed since those glorious years. No longer do boys take to the field after school to earn their manhood.

There was a time when Louisiana sported premier nesting cover for southern bobwhite quail.

“Louisiana once had approximately 2.5 million acres of Gulf Coastal tall grass prairie and other isolated grasslands, and basically all that’s left is a couple hundred acres scattered in small remnants — less than one tenth of a percent,” said National Resources Conservation Services biologist John Pitre. “It’s no wonder grassland wildlife species are declining.”

Though difficult to imagine, Pitre says grazing species of animals once dotted Louisiana’s plains. Moreover, it was the presence of those grazers and other natural conditions that enhanced the prairies.

“Grazing by bison and elk, drought, fire and high rainfall, all were manipulations that removed plant litter, kept out woody vegetation and encouraged seed production,” Pitre said. “These manipulations, combined with the diverse herbaceous plant species, created excellent habitat for many grassland species including Attwater’s prairie chicken, now extirpated from Louisiana, northern bobwhite quail, eastern meadowlark, loggerhead shrike and others.”

According to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Upland Game Program Leader Fred Kimmel, hunting preserves have been around prior to the time they became regulated in the late 1950s.

“Preserves have been around for a while,” he said. “I’ve been with the Wildlife and Fisheries 21 years, and I know that preserves have been around since before that. The statutes we are using today were first added in 1958, and it does seem they’ve increased in numbers and popularity the last five to 10 years. In a large part, that has a lot to do with the decline in wild-bird resources.”

Licensed preserves are required to have a minimum of 100 acres of land, and post marked boundaries to clearly define where that activity is taking place.

Other restrictions deal with bird health. Birds released on preserves are required to be National Poultry Improvement Plan (NFPI) certified. The NFPI is a disease-testing program that assures birds meet minimum standards, thus reducing the potential for disease being introduced into the wild that has an impact on wildlife.

Of greatest concern is a disease known as blackhead that can infect wild turkey populations. Blackhead is caused by a protozoan parasite carried by a cecal worm. Pheasants can be carriers of the parasite without being impacted, whereas turkeys have a high mortality when infected.

“We’ve invested so much in our turkey restoration, we don’t want to put the birds at risk by turning pheasants that may be carriers,” Kimmel said. “In some areas, we don’t allow pheasants, and in other areas, we’ve restricted where they can be released to try to minimize the potential interaction between turkeys and pheasants.”

An added benefit hunting preserves offer is habitat restoration. Vernon Fuselier is a 59-year-old farmer in the Eunice area who was looking for ways to diversify income on his farm. He looked into establishing a hunting preserve as one of the means to do just that.

As owner and operator of Shallow Lake Hunting Preserve, Fuselier says his preserve is a little over 600 acres in size, and has impacted habitat.

“I went to a seminar at Texas A&M University, and they said game preserves offer some of the best habitat in the nation,” Fuselier said. “Here at Shallow Lake, the grass is getting taller because we keep the cattle out, and we’re restoring prairie grass so we are reestablishing habitat. We’re starting to see rabbits and deer there. So we’re doing a great deal toward habitat if you really think about it.”

There are a number of reasons people are turning to preserves for upland hunting action. According to Kimmel preserves offer the guarantee of birds.

“You know people have bird dogs and have turned to preserves as a place where they can dependently find birds to shoot,” he said. “But also a lot of people grew up bird hunting, and may not have a bird dog anymore and like to make a trip or two. So they go out to preserves where they can do that. They’re sure to find birds, and usually someone is there who has good dogs. Common sense will tell you that if there were wild birds out there, people aren’t going to go pay money to shoot pen-raised birds.”

Hunting preserves also are great for all age groups. For young hunters, they are great places to learn proper gun handling and safety. Additionally, the guarantee of birds allows enough opportunities for young hunter’s to gain confidence. Youths tend to forget the misses and remember the birds they do bag.

Some preserves cut roads between grassy strips that hold birds, making it easier for older, well-seasoned hunters to walk in less rigorous terrain typically found in more traditional upland bird settings.

The shooting preserve season generally runs from October through April each year. Mike Guillory of Bayou Teche Hunting Preserve says the early season is toughest on dogs.

“I try to make it as easy as possible for the dogs to smell a bird so I cut roads between grasses,” he said. “After a rain especially — first thing in the morning — the dew and moisture really pushes down the scent. Once it starts to evaporate and it is carried off in the breeze, it makes things ideal for the dogs.

“In the early season, the grass is green and thick, making it hard for the scent to disperse. As weather changes and the grass dies, it makes things easier.”

Hunting preserves offer something for everybody. There are anywhere from 26 to 35 licensed preserves that operate in the state of Louisiana. They vary in size, packages and accommodations that they offer. Most offer day hunts for fathers and sons, small business groups and corporate arrangements. Others are full-service affairs for the discriminating hunter who is looking for red-carpet treatment and ambiance.

When one of my video gaming sons heard enough of my Michigan pheasant hunting escapades, he mentioned he’d like to go on a pheasant hunt. With the ball now in my court, I turned to Mike Guillory.

Young gamers want action and instant gratification from that action in the form of kills. I believe hunters go through similar phases if their hunting career lasts enough decades. During the early years, there is first squirrel, first rabbit, first duck and so on, with emphasis and positive reinforcement given for bringing home the bacon. As hunters age, it is less about the kill and more about the doing.

I wanted my son to have a good shoot with cackling rooster pheasants busting out of the brush in front of good points. I also wanted to expose him to a little variety; therefore, I selected a package that included a mix of chukars and quail. An excellent wing shot for his age, he wasn’t disappointed.

Young gamers also enjoy the virtual reality story line that video games provide. I don’t care what size the crowd is, if there are two or more hunters amongst the people, they’ll find each other. And when they do the hunting stories will be flying.

I’ve listened to my own sons talking to their buddies about the various hunts they’ve been on, and that’s the reality of action that preserve hunting offers for these young gamers. Between my son and me, we shot a mix of 30 birds on our morning preserve hunt. The action was quick, exciting and gratifying when excellent shots were made.

Martin is an AutoCAD draftsman, and described his typical offseason routing as going to the gym and playing video war games.

“Come hunting season, I change,” he said. “During hunting season, I’ll play games until 4 a.m., but I’m going hunting too. Where we come from, we mostly hunt squirrel and deer — it’s a 600-yard walk through the swamp to the stand. I’ve fell into holes where the only thing that stopped you was the gun in your hand. It’s a lot easier not to hunt — it’s too much work. If I don’t build the blind to duck hunt, my friends won’t hunt.”

The future looks bright for hunting preserves. The new generation of gamers who hunt won’t need to be concerned with joining a lease, working that lease or training a dog. The virtual reality of preserves only requires them to show up.

For the older generation of hunters seeking the nostalgia of yesterday, preserves offer stylish points from working dogs, walks through frost-covered fields that sparkle with droplets of dew as the temperature warms and the recalcitrant raucous cackles of rooster pheasants.