Upland bird hunting was much more (mentally) challenging than I ever thought.
Fields of Fescue, Sorghum, wheat, and rye stretch out in nearly every direction. The grasses—which have turned golden and umber with fall’s arrival in the North Fork Valley—create the perfect cover for Colorado’s upland birds, or nonwaterfowl game birds, to roost. Which is why I find myself gripping a 28-gauge Beretta shotgun and listening to the instructions of a weathered, 50-year-old hunting guide named Matt Owens. In his teeth, Owens holds tight to a whistle, which he’s intermittently using to signal our hunting partners.
“Floyd’s gettin’ real birdy over here,” Owens hollers to me across the field, nodding his head in Floyd’s direction. Floyd is not a hunting buddy—at least, not of the two-legged variety. Floyd is a liver-and-white English springer spaniel who’s hopping and jumping frantically just 20 feet from where we’re walking. Owens picks up the pace, leaps over a ditch, and reaches his hand out to me. “Come on,” he says, “you’re going to kill this bird.”
My heartbeat quickens, and the muscles in my arms tense. I grip the shotgun—dubbed the Silver Pigeon—with my right hand and give Owens my left. My jump misses the lip of the ditch, and my ankle sinks deep into the mud, which runs over the top of my hiking boot. But I pull it free and keep moving. Floyd has locked on to the scent of a bird, and it’s time to do the one thing I’ve been avoiding all day: make my first kill.
Hunting is not in my blood. I grew up along the coast of Rhode Island, where sport hunting was as foreign to me as skiing in July. But after moving to the Colorado mountains almost 20 years ago, things that once seemed like alien ventures have become a part of my life’s fabric. I embraced, and now cherish, the activities that are consistent with being a Coloradan: hiking, mountain biking, fly-fishing, skiing.
For those living in Denver, the fact that hunting is woven into the cultural tapestry of Colorado is sometimes obscured by big-city living. Yet hunting is the second most popular outdoor-tourism attraction (skiing is number one) in the state, according to the Colorado Department of Wildlife. Approximately 550,000 Colorado hunting licenses are sold each year—a majority of which are dispensed for hunting big-game animals, such as elk. “Welcome Hunters” signs grace many mountain-town businesses, and fluorescent orange becomes the new black come fall. Over the years, many of my Colorado friends—both natives and transplants—have adopted hunting as their off-season pursuit, luring me in with talks of long hikes and extended camping trips in the wilderness.
I still couldn’t do it. The idea of taking down a large animal, then quartering it in the backcountry, was beyond my comfort zone. However, when I was invited to give upland bird hunting a try with Aspen Outfitting, curiosity overcame my apprehension. Aspen Outfitting, located at the St. Regis Aspen Resort, is owned by Jon and Jarrod Hollinger, a father-and-son team that has been guiding fishing and hunting trips around Aspen since 1969. Their experience—and kid gloves with newbies—gave me the confidence I needed to try something new.
“I’ve never shot a gun before,” I said to Karl Page, who’s been Aspen Outfitting’s lead guide for the past 15 years. The truth was I’d never even held a gun before—and I was intimidated. Page calmed my nerves and assured me it was fine to be a novice. That’s why I had started my hunting trip with a lesson at the Basalt Shooting Range. Page checked that my earplugs were secure and my eyewear was properly adjusted. “Just remember—shrug, face, focus, fire,” he said, parroting a phrase that would become my cheat sheet for proper positioning of the firearm.
I brought the shotgun to my shoulder (the “shrug” part), took a breath, and stared down the target, which was already riddled with hundreds of small holes from previous shooters. Shrug, face, focus, fire, I reminded myself, lining the bead at the end of the barrel with the center of the target. I pulled the trigger and screamed, shocked by the blast and kickback of the gun, before emptying the chamber, lowering the gun, and exhaling in relief.
“That happens a lot with first-timers,” Page said, chuckling. “Before long, you’ll be hitting every clay on the range.” His words were prescient. After a short time, moving from a target to clay pigeons, I became accustomed to the weight of the weapon and trajectories of the clays—and proved to be a decent shot. Now it was on to the real thing.
The last of the autumn gold hangs precariously from the aspens as we drive over McClure Pass into the fertile North Fork Valley. Our destination: the North Rim Hunt Club in Hotchkiss, one of three venues Aspen Outfitting partners with for upland bird hunting trips. There, on 6,600 private acres of rolling grasses bordered by the West Elk Mountain Range, is where I would be initiated.
Predator & Prey: A pheasant is flushed from the grass; this 28-gauge Beretta shotgun is often called the Silver Pigeon.
It’s an overcast but dry, windless day—perfect weather for bird hunting, Page tells me. “Rain kills the scent,” he says. So too does wind, making it more challenging for the dogs to locate the chukar partridges and ring-necked pheasants we’ll be after. It might seem trivial, but weather often dictates upland bird hunting, which typically runs from September to late March. During these months, the birds nestle deep in the thick tangles of row crops to feast; there they can also hide from predators such as coyotes, hawks, and humans.
The birds our group is hunting are mostly “put and takes”—farm-raised birds from the breeding facility at the North Rim Hunt Club. They were placed in this field in early August in a graduated release program, giving them time to live like wild birds might. But whether they’re wild or released, they all hide in the cover. “I’ve almost stepped on birds,” says Page, explaining the animals would rather hide than fly. “Unless they have to, they won’t move. If it flies, it dies.”
If it flies, it dies. I say the phrase silently to myself and then think: Can I take the life of an animal? With a gun in hand, I realize it’s a bit late to be having a crisis of conscience and remind myself that all of the birds “harvested” during Aspen Outfitting hunting trips are cleaned, deboned, vacuum-sealed, and then shipped directly to guests’ homes so they can prepare them to be eaten. As an advocate of local food, knowing the birds I take will make it onto the plates of my family provides me with a purpose in the hunt.
We meet with guide Matt Owens and his three dogs: Bill, Bob, and Floyd, who serves as a flusher. “The key to this is to keep your eyes on the dogs,” says Owens, who’s mellow and soft-spoken—until the hunt starts. Then he takes charge, not only controlling the dogs with his calls and whistle, but also governing the situation around us. He’s keenly aware of where every dog and hunter is positioned and, more important, where their guns are. Having donned an oversized vest with pockets loaded with buckshot, placed my earplugs, and taken my gun in hand, I watch as Owens releases Bill and Bob. The dogs are muscular, fast, and determined. We follow them through the fields at a quick clip. Except for the crunch of grass underfoot and the sound of Owens’ commands, the world around us is quiet. The chill of fall cools us as we trace the pointers’ moves.
Bill catches a scent as he zigzags with his nose to the ground. The dog stops and lifts his paw. We look at one another to assess our positions; Owens gestures toward the ground where Bill is indicating that a bird is hiding in the brush. “I’ll flush him,” Owens says to my hunting partner and me. “You’ll raise your guns and fire. On my count: three, two, one.” The guide steps forward and nudges the bird with his boot, prompting the colorful pheasant to fly from the grass. The bird squeaks the sound of a frightened animal. My partner raises his rifle and shoots twice; the second shot connects with the bird, which plummets to the earth. The dog sprints toward it. I realize that I, too, had raised my weapon but only shot once into the air, nowhere near the bird. My eyes had been closed.
After an hour of successful hunting by the members of my party—they bagged a dozen birds—I still hadn’t shot a thing, even when a whole family of chukars was flushed from its hiding spot. We break for lunch at the North Rim Hunt Club lodge and are served, not surprisingly, a delicious dish of smoked pheasant sausage in cream sauce over spaghetti. As I raise a forkful of pasta to my mouth, I realize I need to pull the trigger or just go home.
I do not go home. Instead, I find myself pulling my foot from the mud while Owens drags me out of the ditch. I’m nearly running behind my guide when Floyd pounces. A rooster pheasant—bright red and blue with a long golden tail—flies toward the sky. Owens directs me to take the shot. There is no more stalling. I raise the gun to my shoulder, press my face to the steel, line up the bead on the barrel with the bird, and squeeze the trigger. It’s immediate. The bird, its wings still flapping, falls tail-first from the sky, and within seconds Floyd has it in his mouth. His tail is wagging. His job is done.
I can’t look closely at my first kill—or my second, or third. I ultimately take down six birds, but my handiwork nags at me. I’m aware I’m learning a new skill, gaining life experience, and furthering my understanding of the hunting tradition in Colorado. And, for the most part, I am enjoying the camaraderie, the scenery, and the adrenaline rush. At the end of our day, though, I’m relieved when I shoulder the Silver Pigeon for the final time.
As we make our way toward the car, Floyd is still circling, searching for his next bird, when I come upon a fat, healthy chukar sitting motionless in the grass. She looks up at me. I consider alerting my guide but hesitate. If it flies, it dies, I remind myself. I keep my gun on my shoulder, my mouth closed, and my hiking boots moving.
—Inset photos courtesy of iStock; Amiee White Beazley