The Upland Bird Hunt
Into the brush for one of Oregon's oldest traditions
January 1 2013By Eric Flowers
"Shit! Unbelievable," mutters Tim Curry as his blaze orange baseball cap is ripped off his head by a gale force gust of wind and careens out of the truck cab—again. Curry, a veteran hunting guide and dog trainer, scurries around the front bumper of his pickup truck and snatches his lid from nearby sagebrush before it tumbles down the looming ridge.
It’s an inauspicious start to a two-day whirlwind wing shooting tour at the Highland Hills Ranch, a 3,000-acre destination hunting lodge that draws guests from around the world, but has remained a relatively well-kept secret among residents of this state.
There are plenty of other shooting preserves and hunting lodges in the West, and more than a few here in Oregon. Few, however, can match Highland Hills’ combination of natural abundance and meticulous management. From hosted three-course dinners savored around a communal table to traditional Englishstyle driven hunts with afternoon single malt Scotch around the bonfire, Highland Hills has elevated the wing shooting experience to an art form—at a price, of course. It’s $3,100 for a three-night stay with four hunts, and three-course meals in the Orvis-endorsed lodge that serves as home base and the center of social activity at the ranch.
Depending on whom you ask, the allure is the hunting or the accommodations. But that’s a bit like quibbling over a Napa Cabernet versus an Oregon Pinot—it’s a win-win proposition.
What everyone can agree on is that Highland Hills is one of the few places in the country where guests have a legitimate shot at bagging the proverbial “grand slam”—a pheasant, chukar, Hungarian partridge and quail in a single day. Although at Highland Hills, guests who want bragging rights are required to complete the slam in a single hunt, rather than an entire day, due to the prolific nature of the wing shooting opportunities. Today that goal seems like a long shot. A once-in-a-decade windstorm that’s brought 80 mph winds to the Oregon Coast has delivered 60 mph gusts along the ridge where Curry has brought my companions and me to work the rugged high country for chukar.
A relatively abundant breed of partridge, chukars were introduced to Oregon in the 1950s from their native India and have flourished, particularly in the eastern high desert. When it comes to game birds, transplants are the norm, though Oregon does have some native quail and grouse populations. Hungarian partridge, for example, were introduced into the United States from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century while ring-neck pheasants trace their origins to the country of Georgia in the former Soviet Bloc.
While prolific, chukar are valued more for the chase than the table. But like most guests at Highland Hills, we’re less concerned about filling our freezers than we are with testing our shooting skills. Though it seems unlikely at first, as the winds menacingly buffet Curry’s truck, shoot we will. Before the first hunt ends, I’ve shot through an entire box of number six, 12-gauge shells and have the sore shoulder to prove it.
By Highland Hills standards, this is difficult hunting. As Curry predicted, the birds had hunkered down. “They’re like people or anything else; they look for shelter in these kinds of conditions,” Curry advises as we plunge into the thicket of sage scrub that runs like veins up the hillside draws.
Curry’s pair of German shorthaired pointers work in tandem with a third dog, Rogue, an English Cocker Spaniel with a handsome face. (Curry was once offered $5,000 on the spot by a client who wanted the dog for his wife in Texas.) Using a combination of voice commands, whistles, and when all else fails, an electric collar, Curry guides the dogs in sweeping arcs in front of our hunting party. The trio bounds through the knee-high sagebrush, noses pinned to the ground in search of a scent that puts them on the tail of one of the tight holding chukar. The shorthaired pointers work frantically, spinning dervishes in the sage brush and letting out with the occasional yelp. Then they sight the bird and the dogs freeze stock still, tails extended in the classic “point” position. Unmolested, the dogs held their points for minutes on end in an almost comic standoff with the bird. Curry advises us to move slowly forward, closing in on the quarry. At that point, he sends in Rogue, a “flushing” dog, who scampers past the statuesque shorthair pointers.
The goal of course, is to get the birds into the air where my partner and I can have a clean shot as they peel away, wings drumming. This is the moment of truth—the so-called flush—a split second from the explosion of sound and flash of wings to the squeeze of the trigger. For veteran bird hunters it’s a pure reflex game. The index releases the safety as the gun comes to the shoulder, and the shooter draws a bead on the bird. A squeeze of the trigger is followed by either a tumbling bird or a second, usually unsuccessful, shot at a bird quickly moving out of range. According to Curry, a pair of accomplished shooters might bag thirty birds in a morning shoot. Our final tally after threeplus hours of hunting: sixteen chukar and a few tired dogs. We’re not disappointed, though. To the contrary, we’re delighted, given such difficult conditions.
Back at the lodge, we rendezvous with the other hunting party, a family of four from South Carolina, led by patriarch, Page Morris. Morris learned about the lodge from the Berretta store in New York City, which he frequented when his oldest son, Frank, was attending Columbia University. This outing is a makeup of sorts. In spring 2011, Morris brought only his youngest son, Ambrose, to experience the lodge first hand. That didn’t sit well with the two older Morris boys, who were regaled with stories of epic hunts in the ensuing days and weeks.
“When we got back and his brothers heard all about it, there was discreet jealously. And it was discreet,” Morris says of his sons, who are nothing if not well mannered. “So I said. ‘Let’s square things up. I’ll figure out a way to get you guys out there.’”
This past spring, he returned with eldest son, Frank, and middle son, Montgomery. Less than nine months later, the full contingent of Morris boys was back for a pre-Thanksgiving hunt.
With the impending holiday just a few days out, we had the lodge mostly to ourselves. Typically the 20,000-square-foot log lodge hosts groups of twenty-one people, who are privy to a well-stocked serveyourself bar, game room with a billiards table and soaring great room with panoramic views of the property.
The mood was casual as usual around the table, with owner Dennis and Mindi Macnab rounding out the lunch group. Sitting down for a good meal after the first hunt is a time to swap stories and to get to know our hunting companions and hosts. We discussed everything from the regal roots of driven hunts to the folly of alligator management in South Carolina. It’s all done over a tangy caprese salad served with warm artisan bread and a savory sausage minestrone soup prepared in-house by chef, Keith Potter, who works in an openair kitchen adjacent to the living room. Potter, who grew up in the area and previously cooked at the revamped Condon Hotel, provides intermittant insight and commentary on the food and the resort where he has served as the executive chef for three seasons.
After topping off with dessert, we’ve got some time to gather our thoughts and enjoy some downtime before the afternoon hunt. Our crew retires back to our wi-fi equipped two-person cabins to send a few emails, and rest our eyes and legs before heading out. The cabins are cozy, with two queen beds, a gas fireplace and a bathroom with a tile shower.
For Dennis Macnab, whose family homesteaded near the spot where Lewis and Clark crossed the John Day River at McDonald Ferry, the ranch represented a return to the land. When he is not overseeing things at Highland Hills, he is a dentist in The Dalles. Seventeen years ago, he and wife, Mindi, bought the property, and planted cherry trees and hundreds of acres of corn and milo to provide ample habitat for pheasants. While the hunting season runs roughly six months of the year from October to April, maintaining the ranch is a year-round job that the Macnabs balance with Dennis’ dental practice. The hunting business was hit by the recession, but things have perked up over the past couple of years, with small groups and corporate clients grabbing almost all of the available slots.
They know that once they’ve gotten a guest such as former governor Ted Kulongoski or former Anaheim Angels slugger and World Series hero, Tim Salmon, through the door for the first time, it’s likely that he will be back sooner rather than later. Mindi, who handles most of the group bookings, logistics and public relations, estimates that 80 percent of Highland Hills business is composed of return guests.
While even a half day feels like a full day at Highland Hills, Curry had saved the best for the afternoon, a lowland hunt along the banks of Rock Creek at the bottom of the valley in a thick patch of milo with Curry’s yellow lab and the ever-willing Rogue. Suffice it to say that the wind died down and the birds got up for us.
We finished the day with a catch of ring-neck pheasants that the staff cleaned and dressed for us. As dusk turned to twilight, we reluctantly shouldered our guns and hiked back to Curry’s truck. Dogs loaded and birds stowed, we climbed up the road toward the lodge, glowing in the distance on its hilltop perch. We knew that a warm towel, cold beer and hot meal would nicely fuel the conversation in anticipation of a full day’s hunt at Highland Hills Ranch tomorrow.
Top Hunting Lodges & Outfitters in Oregon
Highland Hills Ranch, Condon
Driven hunt includes five nights lodging, one day of instruction/ clays, two days of driven hunts and one day of walk-up hunting. Stays include three chef-prepared meals daily, hors d’oeuvres, drinks and unlimited shooting for pheasant, chukar, valley quail and Hungarian partridge. Rates do not include gratuity.
Three-nights stay, two days guided hunting - $3,100 per person
Four-nights stay, three days guided hunting - $4,650/person
Five-day, English-style driven hunt - $8,750/person
ROE Outfitters, Klamath Falls
ROE Outfitters offers single- and multiday hunts for valley and mountain quail in southwest Oregon. ROE arranges for guests to stay at the Running Y Ranch outside Klamath Falls. Guests hunt a mix of public and private lands that are leased by ROE and located anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour from the resort. Unlike many upland bird hunting outfitters in Oregon, ROE doesn’t rely on stocking or planting birds.
Single-Day guided hunt - $500 per person or $600 for two.
Two days hunting, three nights lodging - $1,100
Three days hunting, four nights lodging - $1,400
Four days hunting, five nights lodging - $1,800
Deep Canyon Outfitters, Bend & Sisters
Located just a short drive from the Redmond airport in Central Oregon, this relatively recent addition to Oregon’s upland game landscape allows guests to build a package to suit their needs, ranging from a half day of unguided hunting to guided multiday trips with meals and accommodations in the 6,000-square-foot lodge at Deep Canyon. Guests can choose their mix of terrain and quail, chukar and pheasant on the 750-acre hunting preserve.
$330/ half day, includes ten roosters or 18 chukar, or half of each.
$660 full day, includes 20 roosters or 36 chukar, or half of each.
$925 per day | $475 per half day
$150 per person per night. Two person minimum. Includes breakfast and three-course dinner.