Shortly after daylight broke Saturday over the Belts near Townsend, a pointer named Gus chaotically charged through knee-high grass until he abruptly froze in an unmistakable pose. A bird hid mere inches away.
“He’s on point, now get ready,” announced Mark Welker, Gus’ owner.
Young hunters Walter Evans and Mathias Patterson approached, and as the rooster flushed left, 13-year-old Evans swung his shotgun and fired, sending the bird tumbling from the sky. Gus raced after the downed pheasant, and Walter whirled around to his dad Tom in a shared mix of excitement and shock between father and son.
“He’s been so excited to get out and hunt,” Tom said.
Montana holds a special weekend youth hunt every year for pheasants and waterfowl, giving 12 to 15-year-olds first crack at birds for the season. To help the young hunters get their best chance at success, the Helena Chapter of Pheasants Forever coordinates a special youth hunt pairing first-time hunters with experienced dog handlers.
“It’s a great feeling to be on someone’s first hunt like that,” said Pat Howe, who brought his German Shorthair pointer to hunt with Leigh Anne Massengale.
Along with a steady drizzle leaving vegetation and hunters drenched, most of the 10 to 15 pheasants they encountered flushed in flocks. Even an experienced hunter would struggle to make an ethical shot, so Leigh Anne had to hold off most of the time, Howe said.
“She hunted really hard, and as bad as she wanted a bird, she stayed really safe,” he said. “It’s always tough when they don’t get one but she still seemed to enjoy it.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Leigh Anne said. “It was my first time bird hunting but it’s something I’d like to try again.”
Leigh Anne was joined in the field by her dad, Jeremy Bunnis, while her sister Jaqueline ventured off to another field to try her luck. The girls may have come up empty handed, but Howe offered to take them out again on a drier day, Bunnis said.
“We’re trying to get the girls into activities and into hunting,” he said. “If the girls stay interested we’re planning on getting a dog.”
The Pheasants Forever hunt started weeks ago for volunteers Randy Piearson and Terry Talcott. They recruited hunting dogs and handlers from their membership and the Helena Valley Gundog Club and the Headwaters Gundog Club, recruited kids and coordinated everything including guest speaker Adam Grove, a biologist with Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The weekend actually started on Thursday with some pre-hunt practice at the Helena Gun Club, where instructors donated their time and the kids got to shoot at clay targets.
The hunters then met in Townsend Saturday morning where Grove spoke about safety, rules and having fun, before the teams split up to different sections of the Canyon Ferry Wildlife Management Area to hunt.
All the preparation makes for the best and safest experience for all involved, Piearson said.
“A lot of these kids have never hunted before and some of their parents don’t even own a shotgun,” he said.
With only an email and word of mouth, the roster for the hunt filled up in just a few days.
“We signed up 12 in a snap,” Piearson said. “With everything we do, and others like I think Ducks Unlimited does a program, there’s just not enough to meet the demand.”
Pheasants Forever originally intended to keep the hunt at 10 kids with two alternates, but decided last minute to recruit two more dog handlers and send out the full dozen novice hunters. Signing up for the hunt also included a free membership to Pheasants Forever.
Billy Krug, 11, had accompanied his dad Tom on some hunts for big game, but they jumped at the chance to get the first-year hunter out with a trained bird dog, Tom said.
They did see a couple of birds flush out of range, but even with combating the weather and not getting a shot, it was still a great experience, Tom said.
“He was a trooper,” Tom said of his son. “And because it was tough conditions, our dog handler said that any time we wanted he’d take us again. We really did make a friend.”
Although he lamented the poor weather, a lot of young hunters received the same offer.
“That was one of the really special things about this that I didn’t anticipate, and saw a lot of the handlers and parents exchanging numbers and emails,” Piearson said. “There were some real friendships developed and those kids will get back out again.”