WHITE CITY — Carl Howard knows first-hand why the best pheasant hunting in Western Oregon is smack dab in the middle of the White City Industrial Park.

WHITE CITY — Carl Howard knows first-hand why the best pheasant hunting in Western Oregon is smack dab in the middle of the White City Industrial Park.

Because that's where the birds are.

They're planted there each evening within tracts of the state-owned Denman Wildlife Area in late September and early October so hunters like Howard can flush and shoot pheasants like they did here in the good ol' days.

"I've hunted there for years and I really enjoy it," says Howard, 77, of Medford, who hunts with his black lab, Jet.

"It's wonderful exercise for me and my dog. It's 15 minutes away, and I get one to two birds per trip.

"It's a no-brainer," he says.

Oregon's put-and-take pheasant hunt now going on at Denman and four state wildlife areas offer the last vestiges of pheasant hunting west of the Cascades, and those who ply Denman's fields are the top guns of the lot.

Hunters participating in the so-called "Western Oregon Fee Pheasant Hunts," which run Sept. 20 through Oct. 8 at Denman, bagged an average of .44 birds per trip, with the state average being .38 birds.

Considering that kids who grow up in Southern Oregon today will likely never see a wild pheasant, the Denman program offers an orchestrated throwback to the days when a boy and his dog could wander the neighbor's fields looking to flush and shoot birds for dinner.

"That's why I think it's so popular," says Dave Budeau, the upland game bird coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I think most people feel they have a good expectation that they'll get a bird."

The program began 20 years ago when Oregon's pheasant population crashed.

In the 1960s, biologists traveling census routes each late summer spied an average of 25 wild pheasants for every 10 miles, Budeau says.

Development of farmland and a wholesale shift from grain crops to grass seed in most of the Willamette Valley took away prime pheasant habitat up north. In the Rogue Valley, the old pheasant survey routes now snake through neighborhoods.

By the early 1990s, counts were down to one bird for every 20 miles of survey, Budeau says.

So wildlife managers took a page from the successful hatchery trout-stocking programs and gave it a feathery twist.

Oregon buys pheasants from an Idaho farm for release in Denman, as well as the wildlife areas on Sauvie Island near Portland, E.E. Wilson near Corvallis and Fern Ridge near Eugene.

The birds are held in pens, with fresh birds released each evening after shooting hours for the next day's visitors.

Hunters like Howard pay $17 for a card that allows them two pheasants.

To him, it's a steal.

"For less than what it would cost me in gas to drive to Klamath Falls to hunt pheasants, I can go to Denman," Howard says.

On most weekday mornings you can find Howard and Jet already onto their favorite haunts when shooting hours start 30 minutes before sunrise. Jet works in front of Howard, flushing pheasants that he retrieves should Howard's aim hold true.

"He does a good job of getting the birds up and finding them, too," Howard says.

Earlier this week, the key was hunting around the edges of Denman's marshes and ponds. After the weekend rains, the birds were heading out of thick cover to dry their wings, and that's where Howard and Jet found several birds.

"You got to think like a bird thinks to get them," Howard says.

In a way, Howard's actually doing a little double-dipping, and that might explain the success at Denman.

On the eve of the hunt, 500 pheasants are released at Denman for a special youth-only weekend hunt. Howard volunteers Jet's services to improve youngsters' success rates, which helps the young guns average about 1.2 birds apiece.

But they kill only about 200 birds. The survivors are fair game for fee-hunters beginning that first morning.

Add 400 birds over the course of the fee hunt and the fields are well-stocked.

"We led the state last year, and those bonus birds have got to be the reason," says Vince Oredson, a biologist at ODFW's Denman office.

Since its inception, hunters seem to have averaged about .4 birds per trip regardless of how many birds are released, Budeau says.

At Denman, 894 hunters took part in the hunt last year and logged 1,916 hours in the field, killing 396 pheasants in this hunters' oasis surrounded by an industrial area.

Fourteen of those had Howard's shot in them.

"The longer I've hunted out here, the better I've done," he says. "It's a learning process."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.