November 5, 2004
Spencer, Ohio – A generation ago, men and boys carrying shotguns would line the roads of the Spencer Lake Wildlife Area, most wearing a splash of hunter orange clothing. It would be the first stop of an exciting day for sportsmen on the opening morning of the small game season.
That excitement is still alive as the small game season opens today in Ohio.
Spencer Lake Wildlife Area lured a crowd of Cleveland-area sportsmen a couple of decades ago with crates of ring-necked pheasants released on the morning of the small game season. The chunky, pen-raised birds would scatter in the weedy fields, and birds and bunnies would hide in the nasty thickets of thorny multi-flora rose that proliferated on the 618-acre wildlife area.
The wildlife area attracted crowds because, while nestled in farm country, it was a short drive from Cleveland and Akron. For some, it would be the only hunting day of the year, an excuse to buy a box of shot shells and pull an old pump shotgun from the case for a morning in the fields.
Some hunters were serious, bringing bird dogs or buddies to force a pheasant or two to fly. Most were sometime hunters, a reason flushed pheasants could noisily fly a couple of hundred yards through a hail of No. 6 lead shot without losing a feather.
A couple of wildlife officers would gather at the small wildlife area office for a cup of coffee with manager Leonard Porter and divvy up the territory before the annual ritual of checking hunter’s licenses. Back then, the hunting day was from sunrise to sunset on private land, but not on public wildlife areas. At Spencer, the stocked pheasants were safe until the opening bell at 9 a.m.
Porter would tour the parking areas and perimeter roads. He liked to count cars, figuring that for every pickup truck, station wagon or sedan there would be a couple of hunters walking the fields he nurtured for wildlife. With such crowds, there wouldn’t be enough pheasants to go around, but most everyone would get at least a shot at a bird or a bunny, hear the cackle of a male pheasant or see a bunny bounding through the thickets of multiflora rose.
It seemed like a hunting circus as the clock ticked off the final few minutes to 9 a.m. and sportsmen scurried into fields for the first chance at bagging a bird. Shotgun fire would ring out all around the area, hunters would be bellowing to their buddies about birds on the run or frantically yelling to get a wild-eyed bird dog under control in the middle of the melee.
No matter how many hunters tramped the fields on opening day, the only injuries would be a pulled muscle or laryngitis from yelling for a lost dog. There would be a few citations, mostly for hunting too early or without a license. One year, a man followed the tractor towing a wagon filled with boxes of pheasants just after dawn. He gunned a few birds only moments after they were released and hours before shooting time to earn his citation.
By lunch time, the crowds would be gone. Tired legs, surprisingly wily pheasants, the tangles of thorn bush or a rare limit of pheasants would send them on their way.
Times have changed, most likely for the better.
Young sportsmen have two preseason weekends of special youth small game hunting at the wildlife areas, including pheasant stockings. Adults must join them but are not allowed to carry a firearm, making sure the youngsters get attention.
The crowds this morning at Spencer, or the Grand River and Berlin wildlife areas where the bulk of the birds will be released, will be smaller than in the old days. Small game hunting ruled back then, a time when just seeing a wild turkey or white-tailed deer in Northern Ohio was special. Wild pheasants and bobwhite quail are impossible to find these days, rabbit and squirrel hunting has declined and big game is at the top of the list for most Buckeye hunters.
Those hunters will miss the explosion as a ring-necked pheasant takes wing almost under a hunter’s feet, cackling sharply to let the world know of its existence. Hit or miss, it is an experience that will always signal the arrival of the hunting seasons.
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