By Tom Paulu / The Daily News
Joe Schierscher’s Labrador, Dash, flushed a pheasant hiding in roadside brush.
A couple of quick pops from Schierscher’s shotgun brought down the bird, and man and dog braved the Woodland Bottoms thicket to retrieve it.
For such opportunities, hunters can thank the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s pheasant farm, which raises 45,000 birds every year, and a flock of volunteers who distribute the birds to hunting sites.
Game Farm Busy During Hunting Season
Though pheasants reproduce naturally in Eastern Washington, the springs are too wet west of the Cascades for the chicks to survive.
Pheasants for hunters west of the mountains are raised at the Bob Oke Game Farm, a 220-acre spread a few blocks from Centralia High School.
The facility, named for a late state senator, is the WDFW’s only pheasant hatchery in the state.
This time of year, it’s a feathered flurry of activity, with about 4,500 birds getting trucked to release sites every week.
“I only have to raise 40,000 birds to release,” game farm manager Chris White said with a sense of resignation.
For broodstock, White keeps about 2,000 birds, representing a cross between ring-necked and Manchurian pheasants.
The chicks hatch from March to early June. Workers pick up the eggs twice a day, “to get them cleaned up and set right,” White said.
Hens can lay anywhere from 30 to 60 eggs per season, depending on their nutrition and how much natural light there is. The eggs spend three weeks in squat hatchery buildings, which are heated to 100 degrees F.
More than 90 percent of the eggs hatch successfully, White said. When the chicks are strong enough, they’re allowed to run outside.
Unlike huge industrial barns that mass-produce chickens and turkeys, “our birds are always outside,” he added.
The pheasants fatten up in 100-by-600-foot netted areas, where they can eat to their little beaks’ content. “They’re never allowed to run out of food,” White said. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are wheat with no chemicals or antibiotics added. “It’s natural — all organic.”
Six hundred pheasants peck and strut in each of the 54 pens. On a recent rainy afternoon, the birds were agitated. “They can feel the weather changing,” White said. “They’re active and dancing around.”
The intruding human visitors sent the pheasants flapping to the other end of one pen.
However, a red-tailed hawk that landed atop a net and looked hungrily at the feast of birds had to leave with empty talons.
Nets at the farm enclose 36 acres of pens. A perimeter fence keeps out neighborhood cats, dogs and coyotes. “We protect the pheasants about as well as you can,” White said.
The pheasants spend about 24 weeks in the pens, eating, growing fat and putting on feathers. Then their life of leisure is over.
On distribution days, farm workers holding sections of fence herd the birds into a dark enclosure. Like cats, pheasants aren’t easily herded — they have to be scooped up by hand and stuck in plastic kennels.
As many as 2,000 birds are trucked out in a day.
“It all depends on weather and whether I can count right or not,” White said. “People think counting pheasants is easy but when you get 2,000 of them little buggers in one spot …”
“The pheasant farm has a huge volunteer base,” White said.
About 50 members of the Vancouver Wildlife League take turns for the twice-a-week transporting of birds to the Woodland Bottoms and two release sites near Vancouver.
When the birds are released, “for the most part, they look like, ‘Where in the hell am I?’” said Larry Snyder, president of the Vancouver Wildlife League.
At Woodland, the larger release each week is close to 240 birds on Fridays, Snyder said. About 1,200 birds will be released at Woodland this season.
“We always have a big release the day before Thanksgiving,” Snyder said. “That’s the last day we release birds.”
Only One Release Site in Cowlitz County
On Wednesday, Schierscher, who lives in Longview, was one of a dozen hunters at the Woodland Bottoms site.
After he shot a pheasant, he and Dash spent several minutes crashing through a thicket along the railroad tracks.
“Find him! Dead bird!” Schierscher called. Finally, he praised Dash with “Good! Good!” and Schierscher emerged from the thicket covered with sweat and scratches.
“I should have limited today,” he said. “We put up three birds.”
“It’s fun,” Schierscher said, though he hunts pheasants locally mostly to give his dogs a workout. “I’d much rather go east of the mountains for chukar,” he said.
Another hunter who didn’t give his name said the Bottoms hunting area can be dangerous because hunters approach from both sides of a field.
“You just have to be safety-conscious,” the hunter said.
White estimated that 40 hunters tried their luck at the Woodland Bottoms on opening day.
At 270 acres, it’s one of the smaller release sites in the state, said WDFW upland game manager Mick Cope.
Though hunters get most of the birds released, some of them fly up the nearby Lewis River, White said. “There are birds all over there,” he said.
Until around 2000, pheasants were released at two sites near Silver Lake, but Weyerhaeuser closed access to the land.
White said the WDFW is looking for another release site in Cowlitz County, to spread out hunting pressure.
“Part of the big picture of the pheasant program is you can raise all the birds you want, but if you don’t have sites, you have issues,” he said.