The Bird Hunting Report

Vol. 25, No. 4 April 2013

Dateline: Michigan

Side Trip to the Hills

  • Timetable: Aug. 15 through April 30
  • Accommodations: Local motels;

lodge available

  • Food: Local restaurants; some

available at lodge

  • Hunt: Moderate

The first thing you should know about Rolling Hills Preserve in Marcellus, Mich., is that it is tucked away in what is arguably the quietest region of the state. It’s in the extreme southwest corner between I-94 to the north and the Indiana state line to the south. The exact location of the preserve area is so inconspicuous that it if you type the mailing address into a GPS unit, you’ll end up even deeper in the middle of nowhere than you had intended to.

From Pork Chop’s Diner in Marcellus where my buddy and I had met for breakfast, it’s probably a 10-minute drive to Rolling Hills. In our case,after following the suggestions of our befuddled smart phones for 45 minutes,we decided to make the call to the headquarters. Had either one of us only double-checked the preserve’s website the night before, we would have been hunting long before we ever called.

“If you are using a GPS, use the same street address, but enter it for Cassopolis,MI NOT Marcellus, MI. Google and Map Quest do NOT recognize us in Marcellus,” reads the notice at the top of the “Location Map” page on the website.

Second, notice that we met for breakfast. For us this was a half-day hunt. Drive in. Hunt. Leave. As one of their programs, however, Owners Curt andPaula Johnson offer a “Dakota Special,” which, in addition to a half-day hunt includes “lodging for the night at a nearby lodge” and breakfast prior to the hunt. The lodge holds up to 16 people, and the Johnsons can customize for any size group, providing lunch and dinner if requested. Because we drove in for the hunt from our homes in different parts of the state, my buddy and I did not get a chance to visit the lodge or sample the food. We hit the farm headquarters, signed in, paid and headed to our field to hunt.

To find this spot on a map of Michigan, trace a diagonal line running northeast from South Bend, Ind., to Kalamazoo, Mich. About 50 miles out from South Bend or 30 miles before K-Zoo sits the town of Marcellus. A casual glance at a map of that area of Michigan will validate the earlier claim that this part of the state is “quiet.” There’s a lot of slow-paced farm country around here. This aspect of a trip there needs to be emphasized because it’s not likely that a person will be setting up in the region for a nice vacation. With that in mind, business travelers might consider Rolling Hills if they have an afternoon off or a day between meetings or even as an off-campus over-nighter for a “team building” experience. The preserve is convenient to anyone doing business in Lansing, Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids, Mich.; South Bend, Elkhart or Michigan City, Ind.; it’s even only a

few hours’ drive from Chicago. Hunters planning on a day-trip only will doubtlessly find more lodging and dining opportunities closer to the bigger towns from which they will set out from or return to. The nearest town with a selection of chain restaurants is Three Rivers, Mich., about 15 miles away.

The preserve is fairly condensed, with 600 acres of plotted land available for the hunts. What this means is hunters won’t have hundreds and hundreds of acres to roam over; rather, they are restricted to the “usual,” several smaller hunting fields from which to choose.

Fancying ourselves to be wily veterans of Michigan’s grouse and woodcock coverts, we asked Curt to put us in some territory made for tough walking. He obliged. We walked. We got tired. Hence the “moderate” rating for the difficulty of the hunt. It wasn’t until after the terrain had set our leg muscles afire that I double-checked the payee on my check: Rolling Hills! Those were, indeed, hills we were traipsing, if only 40 yards or so across their tops. One lap around the one field gave each of us plenty of ups, downs and sideways walking. And while the land was neither formidable nor forbidding, it proved to offer up conditions that made the hunt so challenging, it is difficult to believe we were chasing released birds.

Many hunting preserves keep the brush cut to no higher than the knees. And the patches of cover where the birds might be hiding are framed neatly by walking paths built for the comfort of the hunters, 10 or more feet across and with buzz cuts as far as the brush goes. Not so at Rolling Hills. First, the walking paths are less “path” and more “trails left by the quad vehicles when making their rounds.” In most cases they weren’t wide enough for hunters to walk side by side easily. And this is not a complaint but rather an observation.Hunting here is not like hunting in a place as freshly groomed as a golf course. In short, it’s definitely not a walk in the park. And knee-high cover? Forget it. While we did find a couple pheasants skulking about on the top of hills where the cover had been mowed, quite often we had to march into thick stuff over five feet tall.

And the hunters weren’t the only ones challenged. We used our own dogs, and they had a heck of a time finding birds. In one case, my buddy’s golden retriever dove into the thick stuff at one end only to have the pheasant shoot out at the other end. Luckily my buddy had that escape route covered and put a bird in the bag. My dog, an Irish red and white setter pup, got real birdy at the bottom of a long, narrow strip of cover. She worked and worked, got to the end where there was a break, crossed the opening, cut through the cover some more, doubled back, re-crossed the opening, and continued doing her best impersonation of a street cleaner. A combination of my using a new gun for the first time, and the fact that by then I had let my guard down prevented me from getting off a decent shot when that rooster finally did flush, about 10 seconds after Abbey had doubled back into the brush in front of me.

We took only two hunts on that single piece of property, and we were pooped. Part of it, of course, is that we were not in good shape for that kind of walking. But part of it, too, was the kind of walking we probably should have prepared ourselves for once we decided to head to a place with the term “rolling hills” in its name.

The other thing that appealed to us for the “just getting’ together hunt” we wanted was the cost of hunting at Rolling Hills, $70 for three pheasant or three chukar to be released, $80 for two of each, $80 for three roosters, and $100 for the “Hot Barrel Special” with three pheasants and three chukars. Guides with dogs are available for $30 per hunter. Throughout the year, Rolling Hills also offers specials, like the Dakota mentioned above, and specials for kids. The Johnsons can also set up European hunts for groups of 10 or more. Customized hunts can also be arranged. Reservations must be made for all hunts.

Contact: Rolling Hills Shooting Preserve, Ltd., Curt and Paula Johnson, 17025 McKenzie St., Marcellus, MI 49067; 269-646-9164;

Michigan hunting license info: Click on the “Buy a License” link on the right hand side.

Thomas Carney


South Bend Tribune

April 19. 2006 6:59AM

For birds and hunters

Special award given to Curt Johnson for creating habitat for pheasants

Tribune Correspondent

MARCELLUS — Curt Johnson was told to sit. Johnson, board president for the Cass County Conservation District, was about to begin making award presentations at the annual meeting.

He was surprised when fellow district board members stopped him.

Turns out, he was about to win an award himself — one he hadn’t known existed.

“I was so surprised,” he said. “Ag-Tourism. I didn’t know what that was.”

But it would be hard to think of anyone who is more deserving of the award, from the CCCD and Pheasants Forever.

Over the past 20 years, Johnson has re-converted 600 acres of his family farm into a shooting preserve for ring-necked pheasants and chukars.

Hunters from states as far away as Connecticut and Texas, and from Europe and Africa, have visited the preserve, which does not require a membership.

The preserve appeals to locals as well as tourists because the state pheasant season lasts just two weeks — unless you’re on a preserve. So, they’re able to hunt a longer season, from Aug. 15 to April 30.

About 1,500 hunters a year visit the preserve, he said.

That explains the tourism recognition — the preserve is now listed on the Michigan Department of Travel Web site — but the continuing re-conversion is also a project in conservation.

Johnson took over the cattle/hog/grain farm when his grandfather died in 1974. It was a bad time for raising cattle, and he knew erosion among his “rolling hills” would be a continuing issue for grain.

“I had a friend in the bird business, and I raised 200 birds for him,” he said. “The next year we raised more, and then more and more.”

This year he plans to raise 24,000 pheasant, for his own preserve and for sale.

It’s a natural fit. Johnson had been raising birds since he was a child, for fun and as part of the Cass County 4-H program.

He still farms and rents out about 1,800 acres, but at a time when “a lot of small farmers go out of business,” Johnson believes he would have done the same without creative use of the land.

Some years back, for example, he tried hogs.

“The price dropped to 10 cents a pound,” he said. “I was getting $25 for a 250-pound hog.

“Everybody was going broke, and I was selling three birds for $50 to $55. It didn’t take me too long to figure that out.”

Small family farms are in obvious danger. The large commercial farms, he said, are “really putting everybody out” by underselling small farmers.

“If you’re bigger, you get all the breaks — cheaper feed, everything. You can’t compete with just 3,000 or 4,000 acres.”

By re-converting some of his acreage, “I’m keeping the land in the family and still making a living,” he said.

He operates his farm with some secretarial help from his wife of seven years, Paula Johnson.

“I was raised in a town in a house with a yard,” said Paula, who loves the “gentle, compassionate man” she married but didn’t grow up around any kind of hunting.

Now, she said, she accepts and understands it but adds, “I have no desire ever to pick up a gun myself.”

Though driving is her main “sport of choice,” she does love to sit and watch the wildlife. It’s the perfect place for it.

Over the years, her husband has worked to undo the modern farm clearing needed for wide open fields in order to restore a more natural habitat.

That’s meant acres of switch grass to provide hiding places for the birds, as well as rows of pine trees — 500 to 1,000, he estimates.

Johnson said he believes the return to a more natural prairie setting is good for the hunter and for the environment.

The birds are raised in large outdoor pens filled with natural hiding places, as in the wild. It’s much more humane, he believes, than the way commercial chickens and other birds are raised, in thousands of stacked cages, “never seeing the light of day.”

When it comes time for the hunt, several are released. Hunters are successful about 80 percent of the time, so some pheasants escape and spend more time in the wild.

Since he’s restored the more natural environment, including the birds, however, many “little predators” have returned.

Hills once covered with hogs, cattle and grain fields now provide habitat for hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, squirrels, rabbit and deer.

“They seem to think this is a good place to eat — a smorgasbord,” said Johnson, who also plants food plots for the new wildlife visitors.

“By doing all this, everything has prospered,” he said. “All kinds of songbirds have also returned. The pines help them in nesting.

“It’s a win-win situation.”

Johnson was presented with the award by both the CCCD and the Cass County chapter of Pheasants Forever in recognition of his efforts in “promoting diversity in agriculture, sportsmanship, tourism and conservation.”