If it flies, it dies. That’s my mantra as I stalk through a knee-high thatch of golden wheat grass toward an English Pointer named Bill, who is fixing a frozen stare at a nearby thicket hiding unseen prey, his nostrils flaring wildly as they fill with bird scent.
Using the dog’s nose as a sight, I aim my 20-gauge Beretta shotgun and wait. A few seconds later, a spooked Chukar Partridge erupts from the grass, and I blast it out of the cool mountain air. The dead bird falls quickly, a trail of feathers and a few tiny droplets of blood following at their own speeds. The scent of gunpowder is still pungent as I stare down in shock at the bird’s broken remains. It’s the first animal I’ve ever shot dead, and I have to admit: It feels amazing. “That’s the way to kill right there, baby!” yells Karl Paige, the head guide at Aspen Outfitting Company, which arranged my day of bird-slaying at the North Rim Hunt Club in Hotchkiss, Colorado. “Nice shot, dude.”
From September through March, Aspen Outfitting hosts upland bird hunts designed for trigger-happy travelers who want a day off from skiing or accompanying their surgically enhanced wives to the luxury boutiques sprinkled throughout Aspen like so many snowflakes. It’s not just random rich guys, either: Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson, Kevin Costner, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have all arranged pheasant and partridge hunts through Aspen Outfitting, which is headquartered at the swanky St. Regis Aspen Resort. So have members of the Saudi and Qatari royal families, who often charter private helicopters from Aspen to the hunt club, located about a two-hour drive from the ritzy resort town.
The 6,200-acre Hotchkiss property—the smallest of the three locations Aspen Outfitting uses for bird hunts—is a wide-open expanse covered by tall and tawny wheat grass and patches of alpha and burnet. This gorgeous, rolling valley landscape is surrounded by cloud-scraping mountain peaks, and, being a hunting ground, has a certain menace to match its raw beauty. The property’s wild bird population is augmented by pen-raised birds that are sometimes released – as in my case – only days before the hunt. It’s a practice euphemistically known as an “early release program,” designed to give newbies like myself the best chance of downing these doomed-to-die fowl. I wonder if I’m a sicko for taking part in the carnage, or just too much of a neurotic New Yorker to properly enjoy it. But it’s too late for moral quibbling. After all, I’ve got bird blood on my hands.
In addition to my guide, Karl, who patiently shows me how to load and shoot a shotgun before the hunt, I’m accompanied by an experienced dog handler, Matt Owens, who rumbled up earlier with a truck full of extremely enthusiastic hounds. The English Pointers sniff out the birds, while the Springer Spaniels flush them out. Think of them as the Key and Peele of avian annihilation: each are very good at what they do; together they’re pretty much unstoppable.
The hunt itself is a brisk walk in search of feathery prey, with the mountain altitude making me huff a little heavier than usual. Matt directs the constantly circling dogs with a series of whistles, yelps, and voice commands, and Karl makes sure I don’t jam my shotgun or run out of shells. Bill the Pointer stops short and stares again at a brownish scruff of grass. “You gotta read his eyes,” Matt tells me. “He’s real bird-y right now.”
Only a few minutes after blasting the Chukar, I speed-walk toward the grass that’s the subject of Bill’s stony death stare. A rooster pheasant flies out in front of me. I squeeze off two quick shots, which, somewhat disconcertingly, blow off both his legs. The bird keeps flapping skyward for several seconds before crashing to the ground, where Bill retrieves it. Matt collects the carcass from the dog’s mouth and stuffs it into his jacket.
After these early kills, I miss a succession of birds as I shoot too fast, too high, or too late. I can’t seem to make the “lollipop”—lining up the bird’s head over the raised front sight of my shotgun - as it tries to fly away. More often, I’m firing wildly in a bird’s general direction, missing with both shells, and reloading as it flutters off to live another day or get clipped and fall wounded, to be feasted on by a coyote or golden eagle that night.
After several missed opportunities, I’m beginning to suspect that Kate Hudson was a way better shot than me, a humbling hypothesis I purposefully fail to confirm with my hosts, who are busy advising me on how to up the body count my next time out.
“Go clay shooting the day before,” advises Karl. “Remember when I was telling you to look at the head and not the tail? That’s something you can work on at the range.”
“You just wanna keep your gun moving after you pull the trigger,” says Matt. “You’re gonna spread the shot. You definitely stopped your gun a few times and hit ‘em in the legs, and hit ‘em in the butt.”
“You shot that last bird’s leg off,” agrees Karl. “He just kept flying over the valley. But he’ll be coyote food tonight. He’s toast.”
This is meant as encouragement, but I find little solace in knowing that I’ve just mortally injured a bird for sport, not to mention shooting several others dead. While I’ve often fantasized about murdering the pigeons that coo outside my East Village apartment, it feels strange to kill just for the thrill – even if I am pretty terrible at it.
But at least we’re eating what we shoot. When we break for a lunch of pleasantly gamy smoked pheasant over spaghetti, I’m pleased to learn that the protein is as locally-sourced as it gets: Every downed pheasant or partridge is plucked, cleaned and turned into food, whether the meat is smoked, made into sausage, or simply sautéed.
“A big part of it is the food, and bringing it full circle and being respectful to the game that you kill and using it,” says Jarrod Hollinger of Aspen Outfitting. “It’s wonderful meat. There’s no hormones, no antibiotics. It’s completely natural, beautiful stuff.”
Since the birds typically die of shock from the force of the shotgun blast, the meat is well preserved, and can be packed with dry ice in a cooler for hunters who want to take home what they’ve killed. (Just make sure to check for errant pellets, unless you're into that sort of thing).
I leave with a package of frozen pheasant sausage in hand, and drive back to the sumptuous comforts of my room at the St. Regis, where I store the links in the hotel restaurant’s freezer. As far as I know it’s still there, since I flew home to New York without it. Now that my curiosity for bird hunting has been sated, I figure someone else can enjoy the spoils of the kill.
Photos by Amiee White Beazley