I’ve hunted pheasants in Colorado, South Dakota and here in Orangeburg.
You might ask how you hunt pheasants in Orangeburg. Well, years ago, Faber Binnicker had a hunting preserve called Orange Branch. On one occasion, he put out quail and pheasants and invited friends to come shoot. The birds had little chance as a wide circle of hunters would close in on the confused birds, and as they took flight, they had to cross over the rings of shotguns. It wasn’t very sporting, and I believe that was the only time Faber did that.
I went to Colorado to visit a friend 10 or so years ago. We went with a group of about 10 guys, and a man drove huge cornfields for wild birds. We needed more people. We had about five guys on one end of a mile-long cornfield and five on the other. One group moved toward the other. The moving group were called drivers; the stationary group were blockers. The birds would simply get up well out of range and fly away. We got no birds that day and must have walked 25 miles. It was too sporting.
I did get a chance to hunt the big birds in the cornfields of South Dakota with some great dogs. That was a lot of fun, and we had some success. It’s amazing how fast the big roosters can get up and turn in the wind and be gone. Up until recently, that was the limit of my pheasant hunting experiences.
Breta and I were having dinner with some friends (Gary and Carolyn Dietrich) last summer, and Gary offered to include us in his yearly hunt in Hungary. I hesitated at first, but the more Gary told us about the whole package, it sounded so interesting. We made the decision over a couple of glasses of wine, which is a little dangerous. The bonus to the trip was that the ladies would have a couple of days away to take in shopping and the sights in Vienna, Austria.
Now I normally wouldn’t drive out of the county much less fly overseas to hunt pheasants, but the combination of great friends, new sights, good food and hunting really appealed to me. It would be the week of our three-year wedding anniversary so I could “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak.
The flight into Paris was uneventful. I had decided to rent a shotgun while in Hungary rather than travel with mine. Those of you that have traveled through Paris or London with a firearm know how complicated that can be. God help you if your flight gets rerouted through a different country mid-travel.
Even getting back into the United States with a firearm puts you in the back of the line behind little old ladies and those of Scandinavian descent while Middle-Eastern men in their 20s are hurried through Customs with hardly a glance. I think it’s called “reverse profiling."
We were met at the airport by our outfitter Jack, Gary and Carolyn and our tour guide/interpreter Agnes Simonides. After an hour ride, we carted our luggage into a 16th century castle that was converted into guest rooms. The castle looked a lot like a mansion sitting on a hill with outbuildings.
When I did a little reading, I found that all of the buildings were originally inside of the castle walls. These walls were torn down when the Turks conquered the area in the 1750s. We hustled to have a late dinner before we turned in early for the morning hunt. The women would accompany us for the first day before departing for Vienna.
We traveled about 45 minutes to a huge farm. There we were met by members of a hunting club. Apparently, they rented the land to hunt boar and stag, but left the pheasants alone for visitors to hunt in order to cover the rent for the land.
There were also dog handlers with Labrador retrievers for each hunter and a “stuffer” or “loader,” depending on whether you have one shotgun (me) or a matched pair like Gary had. Local townspeople and some hunt club members were also drivers. It was quite an impressive ensemble to cater to a half dozen hunters.
Apparently, the local economy wasn’t great as the average person made about 500 euro per month ($600) if they had a job. By driving pheasant for Americans, they would each get about 20 euro and a brace (three) of pheasants to take home. It surprised me how many Hungarians spoke English.
When you think about it, though, there are only about 10 million people in Hungary. Younger folks are moving away because there are so few jobs. So if you want to get anywhere, you need to speak English. Only the rural folks that were the beaters and loaders didn’t speak English. Everyone in the city did.
Apparently, the club put out birds near spread piles of corn on field edges to attract local birds into large groups. They would then roost together on hilltops overlooking the fields in huge groups.
Once the hunters were in place, the beaters and drivers would start at the hilltops and flush the birds out of the woods downhill (and usually downwind) toward the fields and the guns. The shooting was fast and furious and was over in less than 10 minutes for most drives.
Then we would pack up in trucks and move to the next area. I was allowed to give Breta my gun for one drive, and she hit the first three of four birds before the lull came.
Carolyn, Polly, Breta, a driver and a tour guide left for Vienna the next morning. They were put up in a wonderful hotel in Vienna, went to a play and had a marvelous dinner. They had a very young and energetic city guide who stayed with them. I understand they did some fancy dancing in a bar and shut the place down. When I asked for more details, I was told, “What goes on in Vienna stays in Vienna," but Breta seemed very happy when we reunited so all is well that ends well.
We shot one more day in the area around the castle and then we drove several hours to the northwest near the Russian border, where we were treated to an incredible dinner and four wonderful drives in the snow-covered mountains before leaving to meet the ladies in Budapest on the fifth day.
The estate where we shot the final day belonged to one of the wealthiest men in Hungary who accumulated his wealth nefariously after the Russians were forced out of the country in the '80s. It was an impressive estate.
People in Europe take their hunting very seriously and honor the animals that are killed for sport or food. After each hunt, the townspeople and the hunters, along with the hunt master and a horn blower, gather around a circle. Inside of the circle is the game taken that day. The circle is ringed by evergreen branches symbolizing the circle of life. The man with the horn blows the tune of that particular locale. The hunt master makes a statement thanking the hunters for a safe shoot.
Regardless of our accuracy, we were praised on our shooting prowess. The animals were thanked for their sacrifice so that life for those benefiting from their death could go on. A fire is lit and the horn blows again, at which point we hunters would walk around the circle to thank the loaders, guides, dog handlers and beaters for their help.
This ceremony is called the “tableau." It is quite stirring and bonds you to the people who have hosted you for a day afield. A brace of birds goes to each participant. We would take ours back to the castle where they would be prepared for dinner with all of the trimmings. The remaining birds were sold to restaurants in the area and some were given to food banks for the poor. None went to waste.
We met the ladies back in Budapest (which is actually two separate cities -- Buda, meaning "hill," and Petsche, meaning "flat"). We stayed in Pest, which is the newer of the two and toured Buda and took in the Christmas festivals.
Strangely enough, with our hotel being next to the Christmas festival, we were treated to American rock 'n roll music 18 hours a day. There was no car traffic allowed on the streets and plenty of security around so walking and browsing the stores was comfortable. While I found items to be very expensive, stores were packed with European and American goods of all varieties.
We toured Buda and took in the Fortress, Parliament and bridges that cross the Danube to Pest. And, yes, the Danube is very blue. All of the bridges were bombed during WWII, so the existing ones are new.
When we went back to Pest, we walked the Square of Heroes that commemorated the founding of Budapest. The opera house in the middle of Pest is breathtaking, and we saw an operetta the second to the last night that was about a wealthy American flapper who bought a castle from a royal family in Europe. It was funny how the actors interpreted how Americans party and throw away money.
Agnes took us to her favorite local restaurants in the city as well as family places in the suburbs. The food was good everywhere and believe me, there must be 1,500 ways to cook goulash.
With me being a country boy, it was a little odd moving around in a large city, particularly one in a foreign country. But the people were so kind and warm that any uneasiness we felt soon disappeared.
I realize that our American dollars bought us comforts and privileges very few in Hungary can afford. Few people can hunt in any European country. It is considered a luxury and not a right. I came home with an appreciation for what I have and in general what we all have in America.
The company on the trip was great as was the food and lodging. Gary and Carolyn, though on their own vacation, really made sure we were taken care of. All things must end, and we all shook hands and went separate ways. Our trip home was delayed and rerouted due to a winter storm in the Southeastern United States and ice in Amsterdam, which closed the airport for our transatlantic flight.
It’s not often one can combine a hunting trip, incredible sights and food and the experience of a different culture as an adopted local into one vacation. It was an incredible time -- possibly a once-in-a-lifetime trip -- and it put us in a thoughtful frame of mind to come home to our loved ones to celebrate Christmas.