Clovis News: Sports

Wheelchair-bound get to enjoy pheasant hunting

Craig Garrett enjoys the reaction he always gets after telling people he recently bagged a deer.

That in itself doesn't make Garrett any different from thousands of other California hunters who do the same every year.

Except for one thing: Garrett is in a wheelchair. Has been his entire life.

"I'll hunt anything that's legal," Garrett says.

Hunting and wheelchairs wouldn't seem like a great mix, but they were Saturday on an alfalfa field loaded with planted pheasants about eight miles southwest of Chowchilla.

That's where 10 mobility-impaired hunters from across the state, plus some 35 volunteers and Department of Fish and Game personnel, gathered to help blend this seemingly odd combination.

Because hunters in wheelchairs can't get far without some help, each gets a support crew: a hunting dog for pointing and flushing the birds; a handler for controlling the dog; and a "pusher" (including members of the Chowchilla High football team) to provide locomotion across the bumpy field.

Earlier that morning, Ben Lewis, the Game Bird Heritage coordinator for Region 4, planted 45 farm-raised male pheasants in the recently harvested field. (He put out 30 more in the afternoon.)

Before anyone sets out, Lewis and dog handler Bryce Mann of Tollhouse point out the boundaries and issue safety instructions.

"If you don't see blue sky, don't shoot," Mann tells the hunters, explaining that pheasants tend to "pop" 10 or 15 feet in the air when rousted.

At 11:15, the group spreads out across the field to begin the hunt. Before long, the air is filled with shotgun blasts, dog whistles and the boisterous commands of dog handlers.

"Scout, here!"

"Crow! Crow!"

Rosalio Pina finds himself right in the middle of the action. The Sanger man, with assistance from friend Ty Bunma of Fresno, is the first hunter to get off a shot.

Pina doesn't miss. Nor does he miss the second time. In fact, Pina already gets three birds -- the day's limit -- before we're halfway across the field.

Crow, an English pointer owned by Doug and Brett Richesin of Clovis, retrieves one of the fallen pheasants and dumps it in front of Pina's wheelchair.

"This is so much fun," Pina says. "But I wouldn't be able to do it without the pushers or the dog handlers."

Not every hunter is as fortunate. Jeff Berry of Fresno goes the entire morning without getting off a shot. But since it's Berry's 10th year at this hunt, he doesn't seem to mind.

"It's fun just to come out here, be outside and work the dogs," says Berry, whose motorized wheelchair handles most of the bumps. "Getting a bird is just a bonus."

Of the 75 birds placed by Lewis, 26 get taken home. The rest escape to a neighboring almond orchard, where they'll likely end up coyote food.

Most of the hunt's costs, including nearly $1,110 for the pheasants, are paid for by fines resulting from Department of Fish and Game violations in Madera County.

"Seeing other guys in chairs hunting, you don't feel like the oddball out here," says Tyler Douglass of Lafayette.

Like Douglass, Garrett finishes the morning empty-handed. But Garrett makes up for it with a tale of his successful deer hunt in September near Lake Almanor.

Garrett was driving his truck along a forest road when he noticed a legal buck about 40 yards from his passenger window. The Merced County man first had to slide over on the seat before executing a left-handed shot. (He has a special license allowing him to shoot from a vehicle.)

All alone, but unwilling to let someone else vulture his kill, Garrett backed up his truck as far as he could before proceeding to crawl 35 yards on his belly. Once he got to the carcass, he wrapped a rope around its antlers and dragged it back to the truck.

"I love the look on people's faces when I tell them that," Garrett says.

But he loves hunting even more.