A hunter's paradise in Vermont

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2004

TINMOUTH, Vt. -- Sometime after the 1991 Gulf War, when General Norman Schwarzkopf was at the peak of his popularity, a rumor went around that he had gone hunting at an exclusive preserve in the wilds of Tinmouth.

Vermont was a logical place. Hunting is so big here that only Alaska does more of it per capita.

Tinmouth is at the end of a winding country road. With a population of 600, there's not much to it. I counted eight houses, a few municipal buildings, and a little white church. Beyond it, dairy farms, forests, and meadows stretch for miles in every direction. There were no signs of people, but a cluster of wild turkeys bobbed and strutted in a field next to the road. I marveled at their fearlessness until I learned that turkey hunting season starts in May. They were still off limits and seemed to know it.

The preserve is two miles north of the village. In a clearing is a trim log house the color of moose hide. It is the weekend retreat of the owner of the preserve, Joseph Palombo, and posh it is not. Hunters check in at what is essentially an attached garage. Rick Fallar greeted me at the door and ushered me into a thoroughly male domain: dark-stained wood everywhere, an aging sofa, a wagon wheel chandelier, a couple of mounted pheasants, snapshots of grinning guys posing with antlers. In the center, an old black woodstove cranks out heat.

Fallar has managed the place for 20 years. Peak season is September through December, he said, so business is slow now. It was a sunny spring morning, and the air smelled wet and earthy. A few minutes later, a car pulled into the driveway. It was Brett Wright, a contractor, and his girlfriend, Sandy Predom, a loan officer at a Vermont bank. Next to arrive was Paul Schnitman, a dentist from Wellesley Hills, Mass. They had come not for the birds, but for the sporting clays, saucer-shaped discs that are hurled into the air for target practice.

''The clays are like a round of golf, but much more exciting," Schnitman said. ''The good thing about them is you don't have to kill anything."

He could frequent the many gun clubs in Massachusetts, even in Wellesley, he said, but this place is different.

''Where can you get a view like the one here?" he asked. ''You're in the country. The air is fresh. It's like you're in the wild. It's like watching the birds coming out."

Four of them started the trek up a still snow-covered trail into the clay-shooting course. A local, Steve LaFond, would be their trapper, releasing the clays. There are 14 stations, each of varying difficulty. The clays zoom up at various angles; incomers, outgoers, and crossovers. Shooters stand in a boarded-up enclosure called a butt, and when they're ready, they shout ''Pole!" or ''Bird!" and the trapper releases the disc from a spring-loaded machine set up at a distance in the trees.

Palombo, an avid hunter, said he bought the 800 acres in the early 1970s. Now, Tinmouth is one of five hunting preserves in Vermont. He recalled the day it hooked him. He had come to hunt deer with his brother.

''I was sitting up in the mountains, looking down," he said, ''and I didn't even hunt, it was so beautiful."

Now, he stocks upland game birds. Hunts for bigger game like deer are rare, and the grounds are available for canoeing, hiking, and cross-country skiing. Most of his clients, he said, are affluent enough to be unaffected by economic downturns.

Fallar led me up to the course. We were trudging up the hill, when we heard the loud popping of the guns.

Fallar hatches about 5,000 birds each year between May and mid-July. He raises them under heat lamps for the first few weeks, then houses them in a net-covered tent away from the shooting area. At the moment, 400 pheasants, partridges, and quail were cooing in their nests, awaiting the day when they would be flung from a tower or released on a hill for the waiting shotguns.

''It's a different kind of hunting," said Betty Jacquay, a business owner who lives a few miles away. It's ''shooting fish in a barrel. Most people go out in the woods to hunt; this is very controlled."

The Humane Society of the United States has a word for it: canned. Fallar disagrees.

''There's no can here," he insisted. ''Once you release the bird, it goes where it wants to. You got a three-hour hunt, and you got to hope that they'll be here. They could fly out of the county if they want."

Peter Sheil, however, an experienced hunter from South Burlington, said such ''driven" hunts are too easy to be a challenge.

''It's not like sitting in a duck blind where ducks are coming over at 100 miles per hour, whipping in, whipping in," he said. ''But then there's days you might get nothing, days you get one or two."

Michael Pratico agrees. Owner of a hunting gear shop in Rutland, a town about 10 miles north, he has been to the Tinmouth preserve and says it caters to a specific clientele.

''All hunting preserves are set up for the convenience of the sportsmen, for people who have little time," he said. ''They can go, pay a fee, and get some productive shooting in. The managers produce game for you, they have dogs if you don't have one, and they will walk the course with you. You can be very productive in a very short time. Otherwise, there are no guarantees."

Fallar says most of his customers fit that description. They tend to be urban, professional, 53 or older, in a high-stress job. Many work in finance.

''It seems like people that deal with money like to shoot," he said.

Increasingly, they are also women. When we caught up with Predom, she had just scored some hits.

''It's fun," she said. ''There are a lot of people who don't hunt who like to shoot, and what they shoot is clays."

Back at the house, Fallar held a pheasant by the legs. It was a beauty, with a scarlet head and iridescent feathers in a complex weave of russet and gray. It struggled, beating its wings. Downy tufts floated onto the snow.

Admiring it, I was just as glad not to be around for its demise. As it is not a species native to Vermont, I wondered how long it could survive even if it got away. Maybe the cold would do it in. Fallar, though, said its biggest threat was predation. If humans didn't get it, the animals would, either bobcats, hawks, owls, or coyotes, which have become so plentiful that the state has declared an open season on them.

I asked Fallar about Schwarzkopf. It turns out he had come to preside at a benefit, and had stayed at The Equinox, an upscale Manchester resort. How many birds did he kill? None, Fallar said. He shot clays.

''He was a good shot."

Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt.

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