BIRD'S-EYE VIEW

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 148-year-old adobe hacienda, under heavy oak shade, is the first sight one sees on the quarter-mile drive off California Highway 138.

That is, except for a handful of gray California valley quail. And that is a very good sign.

The High Desert Hunt Club is all about birds, a high-end excursion for those looking to bag a legal limit of quail, chukar or pheasant.

It's probably the last place one would expect to see a gym rat. But here's Lisa McNamee, putting her hunting dog through its paces.

Most years, McNamee would be preparing for the basketball season. In 1993, she coached Costa Mesa High to a girls' basketball state championship game, and in 1997, she was chosen conference women's coach of the year in her second season at Irvine Valley College.

She is one of five partners with a stake in the hunt club, located in the upper west side of the Antelope Valley, 60 miles from downtown Los Angeles and 35 miles north of Magic Mountain. It is one of four hunt clubs in Southern California, ranging from Lone Pine to Norco to Lancaster.

"We're in the entertainment business," said McNamee, who left her walk-on coaching job at Irvine Valley to help run the club. During the hunt club's first full season last year, McNamee's work schedule was demanding. She would leave her Costa Mesa home for the club at 4 a.m., return to Orange County and run basketball practice from 5-7 p.m., then take care of recruiting calls and other administrative coaching tasks, returning home at 10 p.m.

"When I got the IVC job, I knew if [the club] totally went, I might have to quit," McNamee said. "I held on as long as I could."

She says those she knows in basketball and real estate circles (her other job) are more fascinated than critical of her involvement in a hunt club.

"They were more surprised I was leaving coaching than what I was leaving for," McNamee said. "I don't ever have to convince them about what I'm doing. I just want [people] to understand the other side. My great-great-grandfather survived on hunting. We eat all the game that we harvest. We don't just run around and shoot up fence posts.

"The kill is such a small part of hunting. That's what people need to understand."

McNamee spent early autumn mornings as a child hunting with her father, Phil, who is a partner in the club.

Phil McNamee, of Corona del Mar, was born and reared in the Antelope Valley and grew up hunting its open areas.

Other partners are Lisa McNamee's cousins, Jeff Lee of Huntington Beach and Mike Campeau of Gorman, and Quartz Hill dog trainer Sigbot "Bodo" Winterhelt, who has raised more than 200,000 game birds for hunting clubs.

"My relationship with my dad would have been a lot different if I had not been a hunter," McNamee said. "I wouldn't have spent the quality time with him that I did.

"People say you work to vacation. It was my hobby. Now, I get to work in my passion."

The whistle that hangs around her neck these days is not to alert sweaty basketball players, but for her dog, Lacy, a pudelpointer, who is among the 80 or so dogs that can point and retrieve birds for the hunters.

The land is quiet and picturesque with elevation ranging from 3,300 to 3,727 feet. The sound of a natural spring dances across the pond next to the adobe. But the real treat for hunters is the diverse topography of the 35 fields available to hunt. The fields range from 150-200 acres and only three hunters and a dog handler are sent out at a time, which means a group can hunt all day and never see another soul.

"We want to duplicate what it was like to shoot game back in the 1800s," McNamee said.

The difference is that two hours after the 8 a.m. hunt starts, and again at noon, a club member will swing by the field and take the harvested birds back to the ranch house to be cleaned and prepared.

There are several packages available for hunters, ranging from a mixed bag hunt (about $375 per hunter) to a European pheasant shoot that caters to at least 20 shooters (about $395).

The mixed bag includes 10 bobwhite quail, six chukar and three pheasants. The birds are individually planted at daylight, and McNamee's description makes it sound as though hunting them is akin to playing a video game.

The chukar "is fast-flying and aggressive"; the bobwhite "will come out and dart low to the ground and is hard to hit"; and the pheasant "will come out explosive, like a B-52 bomber."

Like different levels of video-game play, the fields create whole new experiences. The club, for future reference, tracks the fields each hunter explores. Some prefer the same field, others like new fields on successive visits.

The diversity is amazing, from the marshy grass and willows that simulate the Maine or New Hampshire woods, to the open scrub and sage brush that is more reminiscent of North Dakota. Oak trees are the property's dominant feature.

Fields have different names, and the kill percentage on one field--Circular Drive--is clearly higher than in all other fields. McNamee doesn't know why. And, in some spots at the club, coveys of more than 200 native California valley quail have risen out of the brush.

"When we go into the field at 8 a.m., we have 19 birds out there for the hunter," McNamee said. "Whether he shoots them all depends on his marksmanship. But we like to say he contacted at least 90% of his birds."

There is no limit on shooting planted birds. Since the property abuts Angeles National Forest, a bird that escapes the buckshot may well be home free should it fly off the property. Birds that remain on the club's 8,000 acres are fair game; a proficient hunter could bring back 25 or more birds instead of the 19 planted.

McNamee said the club has already mapped out a sporting clays course that will eventually be built, and is in the process of enlisting a designer for a 12-station course that simulates varying game (i.e., rabbits, ducks, grouse, dove, a rising covey of quail).

Other excursions could become part of the club's repertoire, such as mountain bike rides, hikes and cattle drives.

But for now, McNamee concentrates on the hunt club, making sure the bear on the property doesn't destroy all the off-season feeders, and that the dogs she has trained remain sharp enough to sniff out a California quail and point an anxious hunter at the loot.

She is, after all, in the entertainment business.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Hunt Club

WHAT: High Desert Hunt Club, seven miles east of Interstate 5 on Highway 138 near Gorman.

OPEN: Daily except Monday, Sept. 1 through April 30.

HUNTS: Full-, half- and multiple-day hunting packages available.

GAME: Native California valley quail as well as bobwhite quail, chukar and pheasant.

COSTS: Mixed bag hunt, which includes 10 bobwhite quail, six chukar and three pheasants, is $375 per hunter. European pheasant shoots and two-day valley quail-chukar hunts also available.

AVAILABLE ON SITE: Hunting license with upland game stamp (required), dogs and handlers, complete bird processing (included) and shotgun rounds.

INFORMATION: High Desert Hunt Club (888) 425-4868.

SAFETY CLASSES: To locate nearby hunter safety courses (required before first-time purchase of hunting license), Department of Fish and Game, (562) 590-5670 or (562) 590-5132.

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