Keeping Tradition Alive

By Brenda Shafer 

Photography by Rich Smith & Emily Long

 

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The sun is high above the trees by the time everyone is gathered in front of Silver Shoe Ranch’s lodge. All ages are represented, from eager boyish curls to silver-haired vets. Old friends are laughing together, new friends are meeting, and everyone is excited to be there. This gathering marks the fifth annual Pheasant Shoot, organized by Chattanoogan Jason Farmer.
“It’s a great way to start the season,” he says.

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Gary Patton, fourth-generation owner of the upland hunting preserve, has just finished instructing the dog handlers on where to station their retrievers during the shoot. “This is nirvana for working your lab,” Gary remarks, as he sends them off to the field. Three labs, Cache, Kaleb, and Freedom, are on their first shoot and still being trained. “We’ll see how she handles gunshots today,” Freedom’s owner, Blake Elrod says. Ace, Alex, Axle, and Birch, all veteran retrievers, are calm but keen to begin.

Gary quiets the laughter and conversation to explain how the pheasant shoot works. 250 pheasants would be released. 12 with ribbons–if you bag one with a ribbon, your name is entered into the drawing for the prizes Jason provided. “I won’t decide who bags what,” Gary says. “You decide that on the field.”

The pheasant shoot draws its roots from English driven shoots, Gary explains, where beaters (men employed to beat sticks together) would walk through fields and woods to drive upland birds into the air towards a line of 8-10 guns, spread 50-60 meters apart. Today’s pheasant shoot replicates that English tradition by releasing pheasants from a stand in the middle of a field. Whichever direction the bird flies, there will be a ready gun nearby, as the shooters are stationed in a wide circle around the stand. After 60 or so pheasants are released, everyone unloads their shotgun and rotates clockwise to the next station. Rotating helps everyone get a decent chance, just in case the birds decide to all fly one direction.

After receiving a stern warning from Gary about gun etiquette, the shooters pair up and hike down to their stations, 12 hay bales encircling the stand. A loud bell announces the first pheasant release. Several shots ring out, and birds begin to fall.

“This is a good group of shooters,” Gary says. “They bag more than most groups.” Last year, this group bagged 190 pheasants out of 250. “We try to keep it sporting and keep it close to what it was in England,” he explains, “and these birds are good flyers.” Higher quality birds fly faster, so that makes for good sporting. As for the pheasants that do escape, Gary says they continue to live on the preserve. “These birds were raised in outside pens, so they have a better chance of surviving in the wild.”

This is Silver Shoe Ranch’s 17th season, but Gary’s family has been hunting wild birds on this land for generations. His guided quail hunts and pheasant shoots are based on that family heritage. He is proud of the land and the history it carries. Gary points to an old Confederate railroad bed that lies on the property, where part of the Civil War’s Great Locomotive Chase occurred. On April 12, 1962, Union Army Volunteers commandeered a train outside of Atlanta and rode it northward to Chattanooga, doing as much damage as possible to the Western and Atlantic Railroad, a vital supply line for the Confederates. Their aim was to close the supply line and isolate Chattanooga, to aid the Union Army’s attack on the city. Closely pursued by Confederates, the raiders had to abandon the train just before they reached Chattanooga. Gary hopes this land, with its storied history and hunting traditions, will be preserved for many generations after him.

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After the first rotation, Gary hops on his cart and drives around, gathering up the birds the dogs have collected. Gary proudly showcases the pheasants’ long tails and beautiful colors, all indicative of strong, healthy birds. Several men request a couple of tail feathers to attach to their fly fishing lures. Gary obliges and then takes the birds to get cleaned. By the end of the shoot, all the birds will be cleaned and packed in a cooler ready to be taken home – a nice perk for the shooters.

Midway through the shoot, several retrievers are switched out, giving the veteran retrievers a rest and allowing the rookies a shot. Kiran Patterson, Ace’s owner, moves her chair into the shade where Ace has already found a place. He has been doing well, especially considering the weather, which is unusually hot for a fall day. “Those six milers I’ve been taking him on have paid off,” Kiran remarks. Surprisingly, Kiran didn’t grow up in a hunting family. She decided to start hunting a couple of years ago, and her husband bought her Ace, who’s turned into a great hunter.

“Watching the dogs work is really cool,” Tyler Pilkington adds. “Some of these dogs are just fantastic to watch.”  Gary eagerly watches the new trainees as he had a hand in training several of them. “This dog is young and rambunctious to say the least,” Gary says, pointing to Kaleb, a chocolate lab, who is running after a pheasant. “But once he has been to one, he’ll just get better and better.”

At the conclusion of the shoot, lunch, consisting of smoked chicken, ribs, and plenty of mouth-watering pound cake, is served in the lodge. Prizes, ranging from YETI coolers to fishing rods, are given out to those who bagged ribbon birds. “Even a blind hog finds an acorn,” Jim Willingham says when complimented on his superb shooting. “Jason puts on a good shoot. It’s done well,” he says. “And it’s lots of fun.” “It’s a great time to fraternize with folks,” Andy McDaniel adds. “And it’s good competition.”

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