WHITE CITY — Young guns will flock to the Denman Wildlife Area again next weekend to take part in a pheasant hunt that is set aside just for them and remains as safe as tying your shoe.
Five hundred pen-raised pheasants will be released into the fields of two Denman hunting tracts for the 18th annual special youth-only hunt meant to whet the appetite of the next generation of upland game-bird hunters.
The popular hunt, based out of the wildlife area office at 1395 E. Gregory Road, Medford, runs Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 18-19, and this year's crop of participants will have some pretty big shoes to fill.
Last year's event resulted in a record success rate of 1.2 birds killed per hunter in a hunt where the success rate normally hovers just under one bird per kid.
In fact, fewer kids fired fewer shots last year, yet managed to bag more birds than the 2008 crowd.
"I don't know why, but maybe they were better shots," wildlife area manager Clayton Barber says. "Those guys were ringers.
"You'd think that more shots would translate into more birds, but apparently not," he says.
The most likely reason, however, is that more volunteer dog-handlers and their pheasant-flushing partners helped more kids in the field last year than in previous hunts, Clayton says.
"We know that people who hunt with dogs get more pheasants," he says. "That's why people hunt with dogs."
The program has enjoyed great popularity at Denman, as well as throughout Oregon. Young hunters get their upland bird-hunting appetites charged in perhaps the best opportunity they'll get in an area where wild pheasant populations have plummeted amid decades of development, Barber says.
"People just enjoy a day in the field," he says. "What could be better than spending a day chasing pheasants?"
The event has enjoyed a spotless safety record, with no weapons-related incidents or injuries reported in nearly two decades of activity at Denman.
Denman officials have begun taking reservations for hunting spaces, with a maximum of 85 kids allowed afield at any given time. That is one of several rules enacted to ensure Denman continues its perfect safety record.
Kids without reservations can join the hunt on a standby basis as other kids leave the field, Barber says. That usually helps get participation levels to between 150 to 175 kids, he says.
On hand will be members of a local retriever club to take kids into the Hall and Military Slough tracts to flush birds. Oregon Hunters Association members also will be on hand to run a shotgun-skills clinic and ensure that participants get a positive exposure to upland game-bird hunting.
Members of the United Hunters and Sportsmen's Association will cook free breakfast and lunch for participants both mornings.
As with similar youth hunts at wildlife areas across Oregon, the Denman hunt is open for kids 17 years and younger who bring their hunter-education cards and sign a safety pledge.
To reserve a spot, call the wildlife area at 541-826-8774 during regular business hours.
On both days, walk-up registration for spaces not filled through the preregistration process will begin at 6:30 a.m. Shooting hours run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
As with last year, 350 pen-raised birds purchased for this hunt will be released on the wildlife area Friday evening, and the remaining 150 will be released Saturday evening to restock the fields for Sunday.
The OHA's Rogue Valley Chapter bought 200 of the pheasants, with the ODFW purchasing the other 300, Barber says. The birds cost $16.25 apiece and come from an Idaho game farm, he says.
Last year's crop of youth hunters did extremely well, Barber says. Not only were they accident-free, the 151 kids logged 401 hours afield, firing 650 shots and killing 182 pheasants.
Adults can supervise just one hunter at a time in the field, and they both must read and sign a safety review card and participate in a safety orientation. Participants must wear blaze-orange vests, blaze-orange hats and shooting glasses.
Only nontoxic shot is allowed on the wildlife area.
Regardless of whether visitors participate in the pheasant hunt, kids can join the shotgun-skills clinic that runs both days.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.