A day afield at Wycamp Lake Club in Harbor Springs.
Looking west toward Lake Michigan from this ridge at the Wycamp Lake Club’s 120-acre northeast parcel, the land dips and rises with the memory of glaciers, its hillsides blazing red, gold and orange in fall’s fiery chromatics. At this moment, however, the glorious autumn panoramas go unnoticed as all eyes are on the dogs. A team of pointing Labrador retrievers suddenly slows their quartering through the field. Ears lie back, tails twitch erratically. With a “whoa” the dog stands stock still. Quivering. Waiting for her signal. The shooters move into position, a line of blaze orange and blue steel. Safety switches click off.
This word turns a silent, frozen moment into a scene of chaos. The dogs creep forward, the switchgrass rustles then explodes into a rooster pheasant rocketing skyward in a mad whoosh of wings answered with a deafening volley of shotgun blasts. The pheasant goes down as quickly as it came up. Bella, the lead dog, hears “fetch” and runs in for the retrieve, returning to David Lloyd, her handler, with a mouthful of feathers and a distinctly pleased expression.
From the season opener in August until the snow piles too deep for man and dog to stalk the fields and wood lines, some version of this upland hunt plays out daily at Wycamp Lake Club’s 1,000 sprawling acres of ancient apple orchards, aspen stands and switchgrass meadows. “This is real diverse country,” says Wycamp Lake Club proprietor Dirk Shorter, “some of Northern Michigan’s prettiest.” The hub of the property is “the lodge,” a sturdy wooden farmhouse that’s home to Shorter and appointed with a great room and stone hearth where hunters gather to tell stories of the chase. Built in the early 1900s, the house’s timber beams and deep root-cellar anchored the Shorter family to these wild lands along the shore of Wycamp Lake, 15 miles, as the crow flies, north of Harbor Springs.
Over the generations, the Shorters settled in Petoskey, and the property progressed from farmstead to hunting camp, its varied habitat supporting wild pheasant, woodcock and grouse, migrating ducks and geese and a healthy deer herd, whose lineage of giant bucks now decorates the lodge walls. In 1983, Dirk Shorter and his father converted the land into a hunting preserve as a means of protecting it. Since that day the Wycamp Lake Club has been a destination for wing-shooting enthusiasts, offering sporting clays, guided or DIY hunts and pheasant drives to visiting guests as well as duck blinds and stocked trout ponds for club members.
“Get in, I’ll show you the rest,” Dirk Shorter promises as we pile into the cab of his Silverado, its interior strewn with tools, canvas gaiters, flannel shirts and spent shell casings. Wiry and deeply tanned from a life spent outdoors, Dirk is the quiet, capable force that drives every aspect of the club. Pulling out from the lodge’s gravel lot we pass the bird-cleaning station where a huge, dispatched beaver lies on a cement slab waiting to be skinned. “I caught him this morning wreaking havoc on my trout ponds,” Shorter says as we turn onto a winding two-track toward the bird pens.
Tracker, trapper, farmer, handyman and master of the hunt, Dirk is a one-man army pitted against beaver, otter, raccoons, fox and marauding goshawk in his tireless efforts to balance optimal hunting habitat against the encroaching wild. “After this whole area was logged and converted to farm fields it was great habitat for pheasants, but as the woods come back so do the hawks, and that’s bad news if you’re a ground bird.” Unlike ruffed grouse, who prefer the thick cover of juvenile aspen stands or dense pines, the larger, slower pheasants thrive in tall grasses and field crops, which makes them easy targets for avian predators like hawks, eagles and osprey. The lack of such habitat means there is no shootable population of wild pheasants in Northwest Michigan, so preserves like Wycamp Lake Club rely on farm-raised birds to provide consistent action for their hunters.
As we bounce down the trail dividing cleared hardwoods from a dense lowland cedar swamp bordering the lake, Dirk’s bird pens come into view. Within several large fenced enclosures, hundreds of pheasants, quail and chukars, a European partridge, strut, shuffle and peck for bits of grain and bugs. Dirk releases upward of 4,000 pheasants every year for his stocked hunts, and while most of them fall to a well-swung 20-gauge or a lightning-fast wild goshawk, a small percentage escape to make up a savvy semi-wild population. “When these birds are on the move, our hunt becomes a game of point and move, point and move. That makes for a great chase,” Dirk tells me.
And while their penned cousins may look passive enough, languidly shuffling in their pens, Shorter is quick to point out that they are by no means as good as dead once planted in the field. “It doesn’t take long for their instincts to kick in,” Dirk says. “These birds can get up quick and fly in any direction. You gotta be ready.”
A team of hunters walking the field behind a good dog should be able to cover most angles the birds might take, but the ultimate challenge comes during Wycamp Lake Club’s European-style pheasant drives, where stationary shooters are challenged with fast, high flying birds driven over ridges or pines by a team of “beaters.” Think of those scenes from Downton Abbey, where country gentlemen in woolen knee socks are furiously firing skyward before sitting down to a luxe picnic.
Though lacking in knee socks, Dirk’s pheasant drives are largely similar. “We’re really known for these hunts and they’re an all-day affair,” he says as we pull up to a line of pegged shooting stations on the east property. “We stock 15 birds per gun, and during the drive the shooters take up position at these pegs. The birds usually come in groups of two to four, high and from right to left or left to right or both at once.” Following the drive, hunters stop at the lodge for a catered lunch and then embark on a clean-up hunt where shooters and dogs patrol the fields for pheasants that escaped the drive.
For driven or flushed birds, coastal weather patterns lend an extra variable to the mêlée. “If those birds catch a Lake Michigan breeze, they come screamin’ through, sometimes 30 or 40 yards straight overhead,” Dirk chuckles. “You better have a hot shell and good swing when that happens.”
The hot shells in question are usually 12- or 20-gauge loads, carrying 1 or 1 1/8 ounces of No. 6 shot, a larger load needed to puncture the pheasant’s tough skin and make for a quick humane kill. “These are tough birds,” Dirk relates, “the smaller shot will down a grouse instantly but these pheasants will keep flying. We always want to avoid injured birds.”
The shooters on today’s hunt are carrying almost exclusively traditional double-barreled upland guns in either side-by-side or the popular over/under configuration. Fine shotguns are revered in the world of wing shooting, beautiful and precise tools of steel and walnut from generational craftsmen in Europe or the Eastern United States that can feature intricate engravings and run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Dirk, however, stresses that you needn’t be an aristocrat to take up the sport. “Buy the best gun you can afford. An over/under will run you more money up front but a good one will last beyond your lifetime. For someone who wants to shoot ducks and upland birds with the same gun or have the option of a third shell there are a lot of well-made pump shotguns on the market for less than $500.”
Even the finest heirloom shotguns, however, will not point themselves, and professional instruction from someone like Dirk teaches shooters the correct stance, eye alignment and follow through to break clays or put game birds on the table. “Whenever we’re hosting big groups or novice shooters, we always start with a round of 50 sporting clays,” Dirk says as we pass a pair of automated launchers that throw clay targets meant to simulate birds insight, “I like to make sure everybody knows the difference between the safety and the trigger. Clays get shooters warmed up on the motions before the hunt and let us know who might need a little extra attention in the field.”
With the confidence that comes with a few shot-shattered clays, the shooting party will then take up positions at pegged frames. The hunters wait for the driven birds to come racing past or else split into groups of two or four with a guide and stalk the fields for a conventional walk-up hunt, whereby shooters follow a bird dog who quarters back and forth in front of the party sniffing and listening for a stashed rooster. “The country here is beautiful, and there’s a lot of excitement when a bird gets up, but, to me, nothing is prettier than a dog on point.” Dirk says. We turn a corner and head for the kennels, where a box-nosed German wirehaired pointer, an statuesque English pointer and an excited springer spaniel stand at attention hoping it’s time to hunt.
Soon we are looping past the kennels and back toward the lodge. Two hunting parties are returning from the field, their respective bird dogs—an English cocker and a black Lab still shaking off the excitement—sniff each other cautiously. The shooters unload pheasants from bulging game pouches, and Dirk heads for the bird cleaning station, where he quickly runs a thin-bladed filet knife along a sharpening steel. With quick, surgical precision, Dirk cuts the breasts and legs quarters from the birds, speedily rinsing and bagging all seven while ribbing the shooters. “Did you have to shoot this one twice?” he teases, tossing aside a breast pocked with what seems like a hundred bb’s.
With birds cleaned and bagged, the hunters load dogs and guns into their pick-ups and head home toward what will undoubtedly be a dinner of sautéed pheasant breast. “I like mine pan fried with apples, rosemary and just a hint of garlic,” Dirk says, handing me some fresh pheasant breasts and a bag full of tail feathers for this winter’s fly-tying.
As the October suns slips into its last hour of shooting light, Dirk consults tomorrow’s hunt schedule, carefully planning the beats for each group, cross-checking who’s guiding and how many birds he’ll need to plant. There are dogs to feed, shells to reload and trucks to fix on a long to-do list that would daunt less ambitious men. For Dirk Shorter though, this is life, and when the last shots echo off the pines and the last trucks pull out of the driveway he’ll still be here, with his pointer dogs, listening to loons calling back and forth across the still surface of Wycamp Lake.
This article was originally featured in the October 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Watch Chef Darren Hawley prepare smoked pheasant and morel galantine with pickled beet and goat cheese gateau in this MyNorth Media video. Then try the recipe at home!
Wycamp Lake Club is located at 5484 Pleasantview Rd.
Harbor Springs, MI.
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