“Justin, go ahead and take the outside, in case any birds run out ahead of the dogs and cross that path to your left."
Troy's instruction made sense. Moments earlier, we had seen a ringneck in that same brush-hogged path as we parked the trucks, and the path served as a potential break-out point for any birds fleeing the pursuit of Troy's German shorthairs.
We hadn't gone more than 50 yards when Gracie, a beautiful brown-and-white shorthair, stopped in her tracks and stared intently into the thick cover.
“Gracie's on point," Troy called out.
He quickly moved in to flush the bird, and with a cackle a rooster erupted from the cover and flew hard to my left, just as I had envisioned.
I instinctively shouldered my 12 gauge and swung the gun through the bird to get ahead of it and pulled the trigger. The pheasant fell neatly from the overcast sky, and the first bird of the morning was in the bag.
Passing It On After lunch, we headed out for the afternoon hunt. We broke into three groups, just as we had that morning. I was paired with Frank and Janelle Bleier, a father-daughter pair that came to Nebraska by way of Long Island.
This was Janelle's first hunting experience, although at age 15 she's already an avid outdoorswoman. She has gone fluke fishing with her dad in New York's Great South Bay. She has climbed 10 of the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks and hopes to eventually complete all 46, a distinction that would earn her a place in the prestigious Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club. At age nine, she completed a 15-hour climb up 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York. And she's shot .22s with her dad and tagged along once on a grouse hunt.
But she'd never actually hunted.
“I wanted to ease her into hunting," said Frank, an NYPD narcotics detective. “Grouse hunting in New York, you might see one bird in three days. I knew she would get a lot of action here. I want to spark her interest in hunting and keep her interested.
“It's rare to see a girl her age hunting on Long Island."
In preparation for their adventure together, Frank bought Janelle a 20-gauge Remington 870 compact in Mossy Oak pink camouflage. They shot together for a month leading up to the hunt, and dad was impressed with her shooting.
“She shoots better than me," said Frank, flashing a proud smile.
The first morning Janelle got plenty of shooting in but no birds to call her own. The afternoon session played out much in the same fashion.
Janelle had such a great attitude and never let the misses get her down, although you could see on her face how badly she wanted to get that first bird under her belt.
I did not hunt with Frank and Janelle our final morning in Nebraska, but as she walked back to the lodge-seemingly on air-the huge smile on her face said it all.
“I got three birds this morning, and they were all my own," she said, beaming with youthful enthusiasm and pride.
“The whole trip has been great," Frank said. “That was just the cherry on top. Everyone made us feel so welcome.
“I'm happy for her. I hope this keeps her coming back. It's important to keep this tradition alive. I might try waterfowl hunting with her on Long Island next. Then, who knows? Maybe she'll want to go whitetail hunting with me.
“We are one bad election away from all of this being a thing of the past," he added. “I want her to embrace this tradition and hopefully pass it on to her own family someday."
All for the Members At lunchtime we headed back to the lodge, a magnificent, well-appointed log structure that was the home of the facility's original owner-but now serves as lodging quarters for Pheasant Bonanza's overnight guests.
Fittingly, we sat down to a lunch of fresh pheasant breasts over wild rice, and everyone ate and shared stories from the morning's action. There were 14 of us in all, including 11 NRA members from Arkansas, California, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Hawaii.
Also in attendance was Benelli exhibition shooter Tim Bradley, who treated everyone to one of his shooting shows at the end of the hunt, and Greg Ray, president of NRA's newest member benefit, NRA Outdoors.
“The point of this trip was to give members from all over the country the opportunity to come together for a common interest and share a weekend of good camaraderie and good fellowship," Greg said.
“Our goal is to have multiple hosted trips with NRA Outdoors staff attending," he added. “I can't thank Benelli and Federal Premium Ammunition enough for their support of this event. This is all for the members."
To find out about future NRA Outdoors-hosted trips, “like" them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NRAOutdoors or sign up for their newsletter at http://blog.nraoutdoors.com/.
NRA Outdoors is a free service that gives NRA members access to detailed information on more than 300 pre-approved hunting and fishing outfits across the globe. Every destination has been thoroughly vetted through a rigorous inspection process, so you can be sure that any hunting or fishing trip booked through NRA Outdoors is of the highest caliber.
“We actually go to every one of our outfitters," said Greg. “The main thing we do is make sure that the outfitter is what he says he is."
Once you have an idea of what you want to hunt, NRA Outdoors, which was developed in partnership with the outdoor travel agency Outdoor Connection, will give you information on various outfitters based on the criteria you designate-things like trophy expectations, lodging expectations, budget, hunting style and the physicality of the hunt. A member of Greg's team helps with everything from booking the trip and making travel arrangements, to gear lists, itineraries, references, travel insurance and regulations. Members can also purchase discounted gear through NRA Outdoors.
This service is available free of charge, and the cost of booking a hunt through NRA Outdoors is the same as booking the trip directly with the outfitter. There is no mark-up whatsoever. As an added benefit, each time an NRA member books a trip through NRA Outdoors, a portion of the proceeds helps NRA defend the Second Amendment.
Pheasant Bonanza is naturally one of the outfitters on NRA Outdoors' list, and it has received consistently high marks over the years from Outdoor Connection's evaluators for the quality and value of its hunts. It's easy to see why.
Pheasant Bonanza operates as a controlled shooting area, meaning it is licensed for extended hunting and increased bag limits. They also offer sporting clays, skeet, trap and 5-stand shooting.
If you have any preconceived notions, however, as to what a “preserve" hunt is like, throw them out the window. They don't apply to Pheasant Bonanza.
The birds are a mix of stocked and wild, but they all fly like wild birds-hard and fast. All of the hunting is done over dogs with some of the most knowledgeable, friendly, hard-working guides you'll ever meet.
As is Pheasant Bonanza's custom, 17,000 pheasants were released about six weeks prior to our mid-October hunt to complement the wild population already on the ground. Releasing the birds weeks in advance gives them ample time to get acclimated to their new surroundings and improves the hunting experience. Over the years, the birds that have made it through hunting season have reproduced, creating a sizeable population of wild pheasants.
“We had a nice hatch of wild birds again this year," noted Trent Leichleiter, Pheasant Bonanza's general manager.
The food is first-rate and there's plenty of it, all prepared on site by the operation's own chef. The lodge is modern, with high vaulted ceilings, and can comfortably sleep upwards of 20 hunters. They also have a pro shop where you can purchase guns and ammunition, and they even train and sell gun dogs.