Early morning skies are thick with pheasants, shotgun fire; Foreigners flock to Pelee Island for a little bit of hunter heaven

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 18

PELEE ISLAND, Ont. – When a few hundred Americans with rifles invaded Pelee Island in 1838, they weren’t welcome.

An American mob, 300 strong, wanted Ontario to declare its independence from British rule. To support the cause, they gathered up some guns and walked across frozen Lake Erie to the island, ready to fight.

The Canadian militia didn’t have much trouble fending them off. It was the last time Americans invaded their northern neighbor intending to shoot Canadians.

Now, they want to shoot pheasants.

Last week was the second of three pheasant hunts the Pelee Island government holds every year. Almost 700 hunters, most American, invade Pelee for each two-day hunt, partly to see the island’s beauty, partly because it’s one of the easiest hunts in North America. Think of it – 7,000 pheasants released during the week before they arrive, on an island not four miles wide.

The birds are released each Monday through Wednesday for the Thursday and Friday hunts.

For these three weeks, it’s difficult to find anyone on the island whose life isn’t wrapped up in the hunt, tending pheasants, ducking from shotgun fire, or accommodating a few hunters in the room above the attic.

Pelee Island does just about everything it can to make the hunt as easy as possible for its visitors.

The pheasant release points are all carefully plotted on a map distributed to every hunter. Eleven birds are released for each hunter before the hunt, and the pheasants are thick on the ground, in some places, when the hunt starts. For a decent hunter, it’s not hard to bag 10 birds in a short time here.

Hunters come from across the globe for the easy pickings. Last year, a man from Australia flew in just for the hunt, and European visitors aren’t uncommon. About 80 per cent are from the states, though, and most of those are from Michigan.

“If you’ve got a dog and you’re a decent shot, you shouldn’t have any problem reaching your limit,” said Shane Stankov, a local resident who tends the pheasants through the year and releases them before the hunt.

“A lot of guys get their limit on the first morning,” said Bill Krestel, reeve (mayor) of the island. “Then they help out the other guys.”

To make it even easier, the island opens up almost all of its land to hunters. There are no restrictions against hunting on people’s front yards, next to the runway at the airport, or right outside city hall, making the island a sea of men in bright orange vests, forever pointing guns in the air. The island’s wildlife preserve is off-limits.

Islanders don’t seem to mind that their birds don’t stand much of a chance against the foreigners’ firepower. Events like this are a buyer’s market, and if hunters want to slap down a couple hundred bucks for target practice, that’s fine with the locals.

As long as they keep coming back.

Sales of hunting licenses this year haven’t been as brisk as locals would like, and they need to snag every last armed man, woman, and child they can get.

Pelee natives can count the island’s good-paying, full-time jobs on their hands and toes, so most people have to work several seasonal or part-time jobs to make ends meet. Mr. Stankov’s a perfect example – he’s spending his days tending the pheasants and working at the trap shooting range, and by night he tends bar at one of the island’s restaurants. (The island has seven liquor licenses. However, there’s no place to buy milk or eggs.)

On a chilly Wednesday morning, Mr. Stankov is releasing pheasants all across the island, in batches of one hundred. The birds are kept in an enormous complex of wire and netting on Pelee’s south end. There are about 21,000 birds here before the hunts start, each purchased by the island for $1.10 as a 1-day-old chick. They’re raised for about 20 weeks, eating up 10 tons of pheasant feed a week at their peak.

To release the birds, Mr. Stankov has to run them through a maze of pens, pushing them from a space half an acre in size to a two-foot-high crate in the back of his pickup. As soon as one hundred birds are loaded into the crate, Mr. Stankov drives off, as the pheasants strut and fret in the back, trying every few seconds to launch themselves through the crate wire covering.

When the truck arrives at the release spot, Mr. Stankov opens the small wooden gate on the crate’s end, but even though this is where they came in, the pheasants don’t seem to realize it’s their chance for escape. A few of the brighter birds edge out and take off, but most stick around until he swings open the two large plywood doors on top.

Driving back to the farm, Mr. Stankov checks his rear-view mirror a few times. “On some releases, you’ll look back and there’ll be the hunters, following you around, looking to see where you released the birds.”

Lawrence Beckett is cooking up caribou sausage. It’s his prize from his last hunt, above the Arctic Circle. It’s 5 a.m. on the first morning of the hunt.

He and four friends are getting ready for the hunt, and they’re much more worried about outsmarting other hunters than outsmarting the birds. Pelee isn’t a big place, and there are only so many places hunters can station themselves. The competition can be fierce.

By 6 a.m., Mr. Beckett is on the road, heading toward a hedgerow on Homeward Road that he heard had 100 pheasants in it last night. The hunt doesn’t officially start until 8 a.m., but by the time he arrives, there are five other trucks and vans parked along the road.

It’s a beautiful morning, the sun breaking through white wispy lines of clouds as it rises. There’s a chill in the air. The men chat, tell jokes, and wait for the OK to begin firing. Hershey, a 4-year-old brown lab dog, rumbles around the back of the van, ready to hunt.

The only hunting talk is about positioning around the other hunters. By 7:30 a.m., there are 20 hunters within sight, all fighting for the same spots.

As happens every year, a few risktakers take an early shot or two, the first around 7:35. But then all is quiet until 7:50, when the number of shots ringing through the air reaches a critical mass and everyone lets loose.

“It sounds like Vietnam over here,” Mr. Beckett says.

Everywhere, there are dogs – labs, pointers, spaniels, and others – rooting around in bushes and undergrowth, trying to rouse a pheasant into the air. And they are successful – shot after shot, hunters hit their targets, and birds fall to the ground.

After an hour, Mr. Beckett’s team is a bit disappointed with their haul. They have 14 birds, each thrown bloody into the back of their van.

These three hunts – the final one will be Thursday and Friday – fatten Pelee’s economy.

In six days, about 2,000 hunters will bring about $1 million Canadian into the economy.

“This hunt is tremendously important,” said Mr. Krestel, the mayor.

It’s important to him because it puts about $140,000 Canadian into the island’s general fund in a good year. The money comes from the $175 licenses that hunters must buy and the $50 fee all foreigners must pay on top of that.

This won’t qualify as a good year, though, because of that most-hated of poachers, the raccoon. Coons broke into the pheasant farm, carting off or killing 2,000 birds.

“Evidently, they climbed up the wire sides and ripped open the netting on top, then down they went,” Mr. Krestel said, shaking his head. The pilfered fowl cost $4 each to replace.

That extra investment was a blow, because not much else seems to be going well for the island these days.

There’s been talk back and forth with the provincial government about cutting the subsidies that support the Jiimaan, the ferry that takes islanders to the mainland for groceries, health care, and the occasional Big Mac. A cut could mean the fare each way would double, which would cost a family of four shipping off to the mainland every weekend about $150 a month.

Next year, the boards of education in Essex County and the city of Windsor will merge. Pelee’s tiny three-room schoolhouse is run by Essex County admininistrators on the mainland, and locals fear the 35 students and three teachers on the island will become an even more distant concern to a consolidated district.

And a new Canadian firearms law set to take affect next year will require Americans bringing a gun across the border to pay $50 to register it each year. That can only discourage American hunters.

But the news isn’t all negative. The government is removing a 20 per cent tax on Americans buying Canadian land to encourage Pelee as a location for summer cottages, and developers are planning a condo community on the island’s southern tip.

And Pelee is still a popular destination for summer vacationers trying to get away from big-city bustle. The population soars to about 1,000 in the summer.

“I think the island will survive, no matter what,” Mr. Krestel says. “We’ve always been a survivor.”