Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I can't complain too loudly, but me and two other guys from work were treated to a weekend out at Highland Hills Ranch in north central Oregon. I love Oregon from when I used to live out there and I don't remember how exactly I first heard about HHR, but I was pretty excited to have the opportunity.

I am also a little skeptical about places like this -- skeptical about places that host British-style driven shoots (because they are 'shoots' not 'hunts'), and skeptical about places that claim four species of native birds and no bag limits. Even before they issue you your hunting license, it's obvious that HHR is a preserve and that these are therefore not truly wild birds in the sense of entirely self-sustaining, indigenous populations -- even though pheasant, chukar, Valley quail, and Hungarian partridge are all native to Oregon. As you can see from their website, some of their 3000 acres is pretty manicured terrain. I went imagining I'd shoot a couple of birds quick and then just take photographs. But shortly after we got out the first morning, I had to leave most of my prejudices behind.

Let me get the easy stuff out the way: this is plush. And even though you genuinely hunt pretty hard six hours a day, you're leaving fatter than you came. The facilities are fabulous and the food exquisite. I know that if the chef's parents, his kid's grandparents, didn't live in the area he would have been hired away many many times over. And this is a huge part of the HHR experience: if I remember correctly, the owner's family were five-generation farmers (which shows in not just the cherry orchards, but even how native habitats have been encouraged), and the idea of owning and operating a facility like this comes from love and passion. Dinner conversations about either windfarm operations and the mixed benefits for farmers and residents alike, the cherry crop, or the state of the mule deer population all made it clear that this was an operation being operated for the long haul by folks who genuinely care about the place they've built because their familes have lived there for generations.

As for the bird-stuff: we drove up to the lodge and shooed pheasants off the road in the process. In some ways, not exactly inspiring as to what the actual hunting might be like, but nevertheless a good sign that there are apparently plenty of birds hanging out on the grounds. I did manage to extract that the native birds were supplemented with release birds to ensure that there is consistency in clients' experience -- but I couldn't tell you how or when or in what numbers those birds were being released. And that's because a) it never felt like you were on a put-and-take kind of place, b) because there were none of the usual behaviors of farm-raised game birds, and c) I didn't hear or smell any evidence of ATVs sneaking around dumping birds in fields. I have no idea the actual numbers or distribution schedule, but it became pretty clear that HHR not only manages their terrain really well, but that 'native' might actually mean exactly that for a significant percentage of the birds a client will encounter. The owner expressed genuine surprise at how some of the roosters hadn't fully colored-up yet and speculated they were from a second hatch that year. I might be a sucker, but I believe him. Heaven knows, that in terms of how quickly a pheasant population can establish itself, one need only look at the history of pheasant introduction in OR and WA to see that Oregon, in particular, went from 0 birds in 1881 to a 75-day season in 1892 with an estimated 50,000 birds taken.

At 3,000 acres, there is plenty of space to allow multiple groups to hunt in multiple locations without shooting out the bird populations. As Dario, one of the guys I was with, said -- there were just enough birds. Meaning that they were both plentiful, but neither predictable, nor too many. And heaven knows, we missed our share and they got wilder as a result. There are essentially three different environments at HHR: plateau hunts up on the hills surrounding the ranch in low grass and sagebrush, primarily for Huns and chukar; milo field hunts for all four species of native birds; and creekbed hunts that could feature sagebrush, reeds, and waist-high grasses and, again, all four species. The first two pictures in this post are from our first morning's plateau hunt featuring the fabulous Tex on point, and then Dario, Scott, our guide, and Bailey & Mel (the GSP and the English cocker). This picture is from our milo field hunt -- and features Reuben and Otis (the GSP and the English cocker), cooling off halfway through our hunt.

As can be inferred, many of the guides at HHR use a combination of pointing dogs and flushing dogs to get the birds located, flushed, and retrieved. In this instance, Scott uses a mixed team of pointers and GSPs to locate and pin the birds and then a spaniel to flush the bird. As an aside, for someone used to preparing dogs for hunt tests and field trials, watching the bird flush and then all three dogs break on the shot took a little getting used to -- but as Scott said, if you have a bird that is clearly shot, gliding off the side of a hill, it can put a dog at a serious disadvantage for a blind retrieve if it stands through the shot and waits to be sent. And without wanting to brag too much about our shooting prowess, if all three hunters are able to bag a single bird each from a covey, then it's pretty cool to have three different dogs bring back a bird each. This final picture has my other friend, Ian, shooting a chukar over the lovely Fancy during our final hunt along one of the creekbeds below.

It was a great weekend filled with some miraculous shots (by Ian and Dario, I might add), some enthusiastic dogwork (including watching one of the cockers literally hip-check a GSP out the way to get a bird for the retrieve), good company, and excellent food.