Vanishing hunters

  • Michael Golick, right, of Ukiah, and Mike Sustos ready their guns as Angel, a German short hair hunting dog, flushes a pheasant at the Black Point Sports Club off Hwy 37 in southern Sonoma County.

    photo by John Burgess

Mike Sutsos walked through a field of wet sorghum, shotgun in hand, and stopped suddenly as his dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Angel, stood stone still, pointing at prey.

With a noisy fluttering of wings, the cornered pheasant took off, its slim neck stretched toward a protective fog bank over nearby San Pablo Bay.

Sutsos, who has hunted Sonoma County the better part of four decades, swung his barrel, squeezing off a round that shattered the early morning calm. The bird fell to earth in a swirl of blood and feathers.

"That bird's dead," Sutsos said. "Go get it, Angel."

Hunting season opened this month for pheasants, turkeys and pigs and last month for ducks, filling bay lands and farmland with hunters practicing a sport that has been part of the county's rural tradition for more than a century.

But the sport -- a mainstay back in a time of wide-open ranches and grazing land -- has been criticized lately by people who don't like the sound of guns near their homes, often built near choice wildlife areas, such as Laguna de Santa Rosa. And some environmental advocates view hunting as incompatible with keeping the land pristine.

The hunting tradition, in short, is rubbing up against urban living, reflected in the dwindling number of hunters on the North Coast and a significant drop across California.

Far fewer hunters

The state Fish and Game Department issued 301,655 hunting licenses statewide in 2006, compared with more than twice that -- 609,072 -- in 1974.

In Sonoma County, there were 4,323 licenses in 2006 compared with 6,924 in 1992. Mendocino County showed a decline as well, with 2,009 licenses in 2006, down from 3,473 in 1992. Lake County had 1,052 in 2006, down from 1,689 in 1992.

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