By Connie Lechleitner, OCJ field reporter
What started as a family activity nearly 10 years ago has turned into the full-time operation known as Bullseye Pheasant Preserve, located in eastern Tuscarawas County in Northeast Ohio.
“We used to have a family pheasant hunt on Thanksgiving every year, and more and more people showed up,” said Matt Peters, who owns the business. “One year someone said ‘you should just do this for the public.’ So we did.”
Since starting Bullseye Pheasant Preserve nine years ago, Peters, his wife Kim and sons Tysen, Taylor, Tanner and Tucker have grown the preserve from a harvest of 900 birds to an expected 10,000 birds in the 2012-2013 season. Bullseye is one of 33 preserves registered in Ohio.
Peters went into the business knowing it would mean hard work and a big learning curve.
“We learned as we went,” he said. “When we first got started, I thought we could raise pheasants like you do chickens. But I was wrong. I learned a lot from my suppliers. Now we work at continual improvement in everything we do.”
After purchasing “flight ready” birds for his first hunts, Peters and his family eventually began raising some of their own birds. This year, they raised 2,600 of their own pheasants, about a quarter of the total needed.
“We have a 500-egg incubator,” Peters said.
Pheasant eggs are incubated for 10 days, at which time they are collected, washed and disinfected and placed in a 61-degree environment.
“We’ve learned that if you let them hatch at room temperature, the embryo dies, but at 61 degrees, we have a much high success rate,” he said.
Once hatched, the pheasants eat 32% protein turkey starter for six weeks. The birds are placed in a pen with a raised wire floor, lessening the chance of disease. Inoculations are placed into the birds’ water. At five weeks of age, the Peters family catches the chicks to put blinders on them.
“If we don’t put blinders on them, they start to pick at each other,” Peters said.
At six weeks old, they graduate to a 20% wild game bird pelleted feed and the chicks go outside for the first time. But timing, as they say, is everything.
“We need three days with no rain for the birds to produce a water-resistant oil on their feathers. So it’s a lot like baling hay, waiting for just the right time to set the birds out,” he said. “We’ve learned that the most important thing in raising the birds is that we have enough square footage per bird, and to have multiple feeders around. For the first two weeks, they need one square foot per bird. By 15 weeks, they need 15 square foot per bird.”
As they become more mature, the birds move to larger pens, which are all located under netting.
“We have 30,000 square feet of enclosures for the birds, in 50 by 150 pens. Each pen can hold 500 birds,” Peters said.
Predators, including everything from hawks, to raccoons, to possum, skunk and mink are a concern, and Peters developed a special protection for the perimeter of his pens.
“We made angled sheet metal that stands about two and a half feet tall on the fence and is angled one and a half feet out at the bottom. The ‘lip’ is buried into the ground,” he said. “It keeps predators from digging under the fence and getting into the pens.”
Although a deterrent, the special fencing did not save the preserve from losing 200 pheasants one night last summer from a mink attack.
“Every morning I do an inspection of the pens. We lose about 4 to 6% of our birds due to predators each year,” he said.
Peters said the drought of 2012 was also a challenge.
“I would run my well dry every day last summer, between watering pheasants and the 600 mallard ducks we raised. They would drink 180 gallons of water a day,” he said.
However raising the birds is only half of the work. Once hunting season begins, the Peters family is busy catching and releasing birds for hunts as well as maintaining the hunting property, and preparing the dogs for hunting season.
“We’re pretty much full every weekend from April until September, up to four or five hunts per day, and quite a few weekday hunts also. We have everyone from once a year hunters, to members who come out several times each season to corporate outings that might entertain clients two or three times per year,” he said.
Hunters have visited the preserve from all over the world including such countries as England, Poland and Lebanon as well as the Yukon territory, and from across the United States.
Out-of-state hunters do not need a license to hunt on the preserve, while Ohio hunters must have a valid hunting license. All hunters sign a waiver, and the preserve is subject to two inspections each year at which its paperwork may be inspected by the game warden.
“Our goal is to have a successful hunt, and we strive for a 90% success rate on our hunts. We know that if the hunter doesn’t have fun, they won’t be back. We can accommodate up to 24 hunters at one time, and a maximum of six hunters per group,” he said.
During the hunt, the hunting dog checks the air for the bird’s scent, and once found, stands motionless on point to locate the bird. The dog wears a signaling collar that produces a signal when the dog is standing on point. Peters uses a secondary “flush” dog to flush out the bird for the hunter. He spends several months training the dogs for guided hunts.
The Peters family took formerly marshy, wooded ground and turned it into habitat for their hunting preserve.
“It was a nightmare when we started,” Peters said. “We dug up stumps and built ditches to guide the water. It took a lot of hard work, but we had a lot of great help from our family and friends.”
Today the preserve uses 101 acres of Peters’ own land and another 150 acres of rented ground. Hunters have the option of the farm’s hunting hilly terrain or bottom ground.
Once hunting season ends in April, the cycle will begin again with the arrival of eggs and chicks to the preserve. Peters expressed a sentiment that many farmers might relate to.
“I can’t think of a better way to make a living,” he said. “I go out my back door and I’m at work.”
Bullseye offers pheasant, chucker, quail and mallard duck hunting between April and September each year. All hunters receive homemade cookies and coffee, and the preserve also has a cabin for lodging. For additional information, visit www.bullseyepheasant.com.