There is bird shooting, and then there is bird hunting. The former, in which pen-raised pheasants, quail, and chukars are released for the gunners, can be exciting, but it isn't a true sporting experience, no matter how well the stocked birds fly.
At these six lodges, the marquee event is wild bird hunting--no pens, no releases, no shortcuts to getting your limit. Each of these lodges offers comfortable accommodations, such as hot tubs, gourmet meals, and fireside cocktails. But all that pampering ends the minute you pick up your gun and follow the dogs into the surrounding fields, where acres upon acres of open space provide a home for wild gamebirds--and excellent hunting.
HORSEFEATHERS LODGE PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA
Early on a September morning, we slid our shotguns into saddle scabbards and rode Tennessee walkers across endless waves of prairie grass. Bison loomed on the flat horizon like small, dark hills. Lodge owner Bob Tinker, in his worn hat and duster, was the picture of a cowboy bird guide, and a pair of his setters ranged ahead of the horses, sifting the air for the faintest whiff of a sharptail grouse or prairie chicken.
When the dogs pointed, we'd urge our horses into their ground-eating pace, ride up to a setter, dismount, and load up. We never knew whether we'd find a single, a pair, or what locals call a "popcorn flush" of 15 birds.
Tinker's Horsefeathers Lodge specializes in horseback hunts for prairie grouse and pheasants. Prairie grouse season begins in September, and Tinker leads hunts into October, switching to pheasants when that season opens at midmonth, running through to the end of December. "We use the horses for pheasants early, but the later we go into the season, the more we hunt on foot," he says.
The lodge is a remodeled barn from the 1930s, up-dated to include three floors, a comfortable great room and bar, and seven bedrooms, all of which provides a perfect place to recover after a day of riding the prairies.
THE DETAILS: $2,595 per person for three days and four nights, inclusive: 605-224-9971; tinkerkennels.com
LOS OMBUES LODGE ENTRE RÍOS PROVINCE, ARGENTINA
On a mixed-bag hunt at Los Ombues Lodge, you'll shoot ducks that fly north for the winter, and you'll test your eye against locustlike flights of eared doves. But if you're an upland hunter, you'll love perdiz hunting most of all.
Perdiz is Spanish for "partridge," and its prime habitat consists of short grass. You can follow Los Ombues' English pointers across miles of cover, but it's rarely necessary to walk far to collect a 10-bird limit.
The service at Los Ombues is as good as the hunting. When I brought back a lone snipe with the day's bag of perdiz, the staff grilled the breast and served it to me at the evening meal. The lodge itself is a luxurious estancia-style home overlooking thousands of acres of duck marsh. At Los Ombues, the drill becomes routine but never boring: shoot ducks in the morning, have game or beef for lunch, nap, hunt doves or perdiz in the afternoon, eat dinner (with Argentinean wine), then step outside before bed to gaze at the Southern Cross.
THE DETAILS: Mixed-bag hunts run from May through August. Packages start at $2,850 per person for three days, inclusive (shells are extra at $10 a box): 5411-4821-8504; los ombues.com
FLYING DOUBLE F RANCH VALE, OREGON
Maryland attorney Jim Farmer and his dogs have hunted 40 states for upland birds. When he saw the clouds of valley quail--"like flocks of blackbirds"--in the arid, high-desert country near Vale, Oregon, he knew he'd found the perfect bird hunt. Farmer bought himself a ranch in the area and liked it so much that he bought another. Then he bought four more. He improved the already bird-rich landscape with buffer strips and brushpiles, remodeled the farm-house, and hired the cook from the local Japanese restaurant. Before he knew it, he had a hunting lodge.
Farmer maintains the quality of hunts at the Flying Double F by limiting pressure; fields are rested more often than they're shot, assuring that guests see plenty of birds. Pheasants and valley quail make up the bulk of the bag. Farmer says that you can see coveys of 500 or more quail. "It's not like hunting bobwhites," he warns. "Valley quail run, they flush wild, and they can carry shot. They're like miniature pheasants." Pheasants, quail, and Huns congregate around the irrigated grainfields, and chukars live in the rocky high ground. It's entirely possible to take all four species during the same morning hunt. Farmer has excellent bird dogs available but loves to see hunters bring their own.
THE DETAILS: $550 per person per day, inclusive: 541-473-3055; flyingdoublef.com
KING & BARTLETT FISH AND GAME CLUB EUSTIS, MAINE
Guests at King & Bartlett get a huge chunk of woods all to themselves. "What sets us apart from other places in Maine is that we have 39,000 acres that no one else can hunt," says manager Melody Rogers. This gated timber is actively logged and laced with logging roads, so there's plenty of early-succession habitat for grouse and woodcock. Grouse season runs from October 1 through the end of the year. Hunters hoping to take both species should schedule their visit for the second and third weeks of October, when flight birds join the natives. Not only will King & Bartlett's registered Maine guides steer you to prime coverts, but they'll cook you lunch in the woods as well.
Founded in the late 1800s by Maine's first governor, William King, and his head lumberman, King & Bartlett boasts Teddy Roosevelt's signature in its guestbook. Originally operated as a private club, it opened to the public as a commercial operation 16 years ago. The lodge and cabins overlook King and Bartlett Lake. Some of the cabins date to the founding of the club, but all have been modernized. An antique brass locomotive bell summons guests to meals, which are classic Maine: fresh-baked bread, blueberry pancakes, and a lobster bake once a week.
THE DETAILS: $440 per person per day, inclusive: 207-243-2956; kingandbartlett.com
RANCHO CARACOL TAMAULIPAS, MEXICO
When my friend Mark, a widely traveled wingshooter, returned from Mexico last year, he'd walk up to just about anyone and say, "Two words: Rancho Caracol."
Owner Dean Putagnet opened the lodge in 1999 with his father. "Before we started, we looked at other hunting operations in Mexico," he says. "Some had nice lodges and lousy hunting. Others had great hunting, but the food was bad. We wanted to be the one place in Mexico that did everything right."
Putagnet's lodge overlooks half a million acres of bobwhite habitat. Pointers search the brush while a Lab waits to pick up downed birds. Expect to see 10 to 25 coveys of wild quail a day. You won't hunt the same field twice. "When people ask when to come, I say anytime during the season," says Putagnet. "Every time we hunt a new ranch, it's like opening day."
Americans need not fear traveling to Mexico, says Putagnet. "We do everything we can to make this trip hassle-free." Guests fly into Harlingen, Texas, where they're met at the airport and driven to the lodge in vans. If you don't want to travel with your gun, the lodge has 70 Beretta auto and over/under loaners. Bobwhite season runs from November into February.
THE DETAILS: Bobwhite quail hunts start at $2,095 per person for two days and three nights, inclusive. Whitewing dove hunts are $1,995 per person for two days and three nights, inclusive: 888-246-3164; ranchocaracol.com
STASNEY'S COOK RANCH ALBANY, TEXAS
The wide open flats and low-lying, rocky ridges of Shackelford County in north-central Texas teem with game: deer, hogs, turkeys, doves--and on a good day, hunters at Stasney's Cook Ranch might see 18 to 20 coveys of wild bobwhites. Parties are limited to three hunters, who walk after the dogs or ride on customized Kawasaki Mules. The dogs, English or German shorthaired pointers, are top-notch and barbwire tough; everything in this part of Texas bites, cuts, or stings. Manager Johnnie Hudman says that this year's hatch promises another good quail crop. The season opens in November and runs into February, and Hudman says often the best hunting comes later, when birds move out into the flats to feed on ragweed seeds.
At the lodge's Cook Shack, you'll dine like an oil tycoon on Texas classic cuisine, from thick bacon at breakfast to rib eye and chicken-fried steak at dinner. And the comfortable accommodations reflect the history of Shackelford County: Two fully modern limestone cabins on the ranch are patterned after the officers' quarters at nearby Forts Griffin and Concho.
THE DETAILS: Quail hunts are $600 per person per day, inclusive. One- to three-day packages are available: 888-762-2999; stasney.com