Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Hunters and dogs at dog training session © Jerry Davis

Dog trainer Craig Steinbach, far right, describes equipment and techniques for training hunting dogs.
© Jerry Davis

August 2012

Sharing a passion for upland birds and bird dogs

Friends of Wisconsin pheasant hunting find a home at the Poynette Game Farm.

Bob Nack and Vic Connors

In 2011, a group of dedicated conservationists with a passion for bird dogs, youth and novice hunting programs, and pheasant hunting came together to form the Friends of Poynette Game Farm (FPGF).

FPGF has an application pending for approval as a 501c(3) nonprofit dedicated to providing upland bird hunting opportunities and promoting hunting as a family activity.

The group formed to support the Department of Natural Resources' mission for the State Game Farm in Poynette. The Poynette game farm has raised and released ring-necked pheasants on public hunting grounds for nearly 80 years. Over the years, the pheasant stocking program has contributed significantly to the strong heritage of hunting game birds in the state. FPGF wants to see this hunting heritage continue by providing hunting opportunities and recruiting new hunters to the field.

FPGF organizers are passionate about all aspects of upland bird hunting and want future generations to experience everything upland bird hunting has to offer.

Harvesting a bird is only a small part of the overall hunting experience. Upland bird hunters enjoy time spent with family and friends; frosty fall mornings; companionship of a bird dog; the distinct smell of field clothes; preparing game for table fare; and safe, ethical and responsible behavior in the field. They love it all and want to share these experiences with others!

FPGF has identified three areas to support the future of pheasant hunting in Wisconsin:

  • Hunting and outdoor skills programs, including mentored youth and novice hunter programs.
  • Hunting opportunities on private and public lands through fundraising and developing support for game bird stocking.
  • Educational programming for wildlife conservation and stewardship, including: habitat management, safe and ethical hunting practices, gun safety, use of well-trained hunting dogs, and preparing wild game for consumption.

In 2011, FPGF used donations from the Swanson Pheasant Farm, Cabela's, Pheasants Forever – Columbia County Chapter, and the Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs to provide two Learn to Hunt (LTH) pheasant programs at the 250-acre MacKenzie Environmental Education Center (MEEC) in Poynette.

These two-day events with on-site, overnight lodging were provided at no charge to participants.

Participants received classroom instruction on pheasant biology, firearm safety, hunting dog breeds and ethical behavior in the field. The outdoor field component consisted of a dog handling demonstration, tour of the State Game Farm and clay target shooting. The event culminated with a mentored pheasant hunt behind well-trained bird dogs. Harvested birds were treated with respect and properly prepared for consumption at a later date.

According to Conservation Warden Heather Gottschalk, "Participation in LTH events is an excellent way for novice hunters of all ages to get hands-on hunting experience and learn from experienced mentors."

The 2011 LTH participants included young and adult novice hunters, families and DNR employees. The FPGF LTH programs provide a non-intimidating, open learning environment. This flagship LTH program is a template for a Wisconsin outreach program, encouraging attendees, mentors or dog handlers to initiate a program in their respective Wisconsin communities. FPGF provides technical advice and financial support for these events.

FPGF plans to provide the following four free Learn to Hunt programs at MacKenzie this year:

  • Sept. 8-9 – Open to women with no pheasant hunting experience.
  • Sept. 15-16 – Open to any individual with no pheasant hunting experience. Parents or legal guardians are encouraged to participate.
  • Sept. 22-23 – Open to individuals 18 years or older with no pheasant hunting experience. Bring a friend.
  • Dec. 1-2 – Open to any individual with no pheasant hunting experience. Parents or legal guardians are encouraged to participate.

Heather Peart, of Verona, and her two sons, Alex and Gabe, participated in one of the 2011 LTH programs. With the help of a good bird dog and a knowledgeable mentor, Peart harvested her first pheasant. The fact that she was hunting the field with one of her sons, who was a witness to the harvest, made this hunt even more special. After the hunt, it was difficult to tell who was more excited – mother or son. They took pictures and carefully prepared the pheasant for later serving at the dinner table.

Photo of mother and son in front of sign © Jerry Davis
Heather Peart and her son show off pheasants harvested during an LTH event.
© Jerry Davis

Peart says, "We had a great time. This mentored hunting experience is something I will definitely recommend to others."

Since then, Peart has acquired a young springer spaniel and is seeking expertise on preparing the dog for hunting this fall.

Arick and Molloy Groth of Wauwatosa had no hunting experience prior to attending an FPGF LTH pheasant program last fall. They are now expecting their first child. In addition to shopping for a baby crib, they are shopping for their first shotgun and plan to raise their children on the wild game they harvest.

Stocking program provides essential opportunities

In 2011 the Department of Natural Resources released 51,000 pheasants from the Poynette game farm on 71 public hunting grounds across the state. Stocked pheasants provide the only pheasant hunting opportunities for most Wisconsin pheasant hunters, especially in years of poor wild pheasant reproduction.

FPGF recognizes the importance of the stocking program to the average pheasant hunter, local economies and to recruiting and retaining pheasant hunters.

"We believe that increasing the number of pheasants released will increase interest in pheasant management, pheasant hunting, well-trained bird dogs and hunting as a family activity," says Vic Connors, President of FPGF. "This group represents the interests of the average pheasant hunter in Wisconsin."

Individual donations and corporate sponsorships will help to accomplish the following goals over the next five years:

  • Provide four LTH programs at MacKenzie annually. These programs will serve as the model for others to follow.
  • Develop and train LTH program leaders who will provide youth and novice hunting events in their local communities. Our goal is to support 25 events statewide by 2016.
  • Ensure pheasant production stability at the Poynette game farm and then strive to increase stocked bird production from 54,000 to 75,000 over the next five years.
  • Support capital improvements at the Poynette game farm to secure the long-term future of the facility and the pheasant stocking program.

FPGF financial and in-kind support has come from individual donations, Swanson Pheasant Farm, Cabela's, Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs, and the Dane County Conservation League.

FPGF achieved a historic milestone at a critical time in its development with the ground-breaking first $1,000 life donor, Mark LaBarbera of Hazel Green, through the Outdoor Heritage Education Center organization he founded in 1988.

LaBarbera, who has a history of supporting hunter education and mentored youth outings, learned about FPGF at a Future Hunter Search Conference in March 2012.

For more information

More information on FPGF and donation or sponsor forms can be found at Friends of Poynette Game Farm or by email. Information on the State Game Farm can be found at State Game Farm or visit Wisconsin DNR and search "Poynette game farm."

The nationally known conservationist and outdoor industry executive said, "When I saw what Bob Nack and the team put together in our home state, it was clear that they had the vision and infrastructure to create a steady stream of new hunters, but the critical missing link was sufficient cash. So we pulled the trigger on the first donation. We hope many others will follow."

LaBarbera said that the key to success is to go beyond the one-day events and to help prospective new hunters discover outdoor programs that provide on-going mentored hunt opportunities. Research and participation in national outdoor education summits, he said, has led to best practices for recruiting and retaining hunters, as well as creating the next generation of environmental stewards.

"The ultimate goal is to connect people to nature and identify themselves as hunters who care about the environment and understand the important role of hunters as conservationists," LaBarbera said. "I'm pleased to point out the people at Poynette are sharply perceptive. They understand what it takes to make a difference. It's up to all of us to pitch in now."

Bob Nack is director of the State Game Farm and Poynette Area Wildlife Supervisor. Vic Connors is president of the Friends of the Poynette Game Farm.