Best of Both Worlds

upland birds

Chasing upland birds in Big Sky Country, in a fine lodge and on public land.

by Russ Lumpkin

It’s good to have friends in high places and . . . well, friends in good places. At least that’s how things worked out for me in fall 2019, when Jason Gilbertson, an old friend and man of some responsibility at Winchester Ammo, invited me to attend a hunt at Flying B Ranch in northern Idaho.

The trip comprised a three-night stay that included two days of hunting pheasant and Hungarian partridge. Knowing the reputation of Flying B as an Orvis Endorsed Wingshooting Lodge, I certainly looked forward to the trip, but I didn’t want to fly all the way to Idaho and spend only three days in that part of country. So, I called Tom Reed, who lives in Montana and is an occasional contributor to Gray’s.

Flying B Ranch sits in a valley that is rugged, beautiful, and carved by Lawyer Creek.

We’d met just once but conversed as if we’d been longtime friends, and before parting ways, he invited me to visit him in Pony, Montana, if I ever had the chance. Well, the chance had arrived, so I called  him. “Come on,”  he said.  He told me he knew a spot of public land near his home that held a few coveys of Hungarian partridge. He offered me accommodation in a camper he keeps behind his house. Perfect.

The plan fell together just right. I’d fly to Lewiston, Idaho, pick up a rental vehicle, and then drive 90 minutes to the Flying B. After three nights, I’d make the drive to Pony—a very scenic six-hour tour through Nez Perce country, then right into Lolo and on through Missoula, Butte, and genuine Big Sky Country.

The drive from Lewiston to the Flying B, which is in Kamiah, Idaho, roughly parallels the Clearwater River, which has seen a share of American history—the Lewis and Clark Expedition, on its way to the Pacific, spent five miles on the river in 1805, and the Battle of Clearwater, which pitted Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce band of 200 men, women, and children against nearly 500 US soldiers, took place in 1877 near the present-day town of Stites. Geographically, the river flows north from its headwaters in the Bitterroot Mountains and eventually joins the Snake River near the Idaho–Washington border.

Mabel is all smiles after a couple of successful retrieves.

I hit the town limit of Kamiah just as a drizzle began to fall, and after a series of turns, motored onto Flying B property, where a covey of valley quail promptly ran in front of me before disap- pearing into some tall grass. I parked by the main lodge, which sits on a little rise above the floodplain of Lawyer Creek, but before I could get out of the truck, an employee ran out to tell me the rest of the party had already gone to the sporting clays course. Rich Coe, Flying B’s wing shooting and fishing manager, soon came out and drove me toward the sound of shotgun fire.

I knew ahead of time that a couple of folks in the party were “social media influencers.” Prior to the trip, I’d never heard of such, and this would be my first time seeing influencers in action. Their work entails creating content—photos and brief commentary often in support of some manufacturer—to post on social media. The two young ladies I met represent a variety of companies, but specific to this gathering, Britt Jill (britt_jill_ on Instagram) represented Winchester, and Allie D’Andrea (outdoors_ allie) represented Browning. And on the clays course, each handled herself well. I would hunt with each of them over the next two mornings.

Britt Jill, a social media influencer, swings a Winchester on a flushing partridge.

The following day, after a delicious  and heavy breakfast that would fuel lots of walking up and down golden hillsides, Allie, her partner, Nick, and I climbed aboard an upland truck, and Rich manned the wheel. With a chill to the air, we headed off behind the lodge on a two-track that angled upward before reaching a fork  that ran downhill to the left and uphill to the right. Rich took the uphill route and soon parked on a flat that looked over the creek and beyond to the rugged hills on the other side of the valley. He explained that the other party would hunt the flood-plain primarily for pheasant and a few Hungarian partridge, while we’d hunt the hillsides for Huns but would also see pheasant and chukar.

He was right, of course. What he failed to tell us is just how many birds we’d see. As we moved above the road to follow the dogs, we regularly pushed up pheasant from fields of standing grain or from under heavy brush. From cut fields or areas of steep hillside that get burned regularly, the dogs found coveys of Huns just every few hundred yards—sometime less. And nearly every rock out-cropping produced partridge.

All morning, we moved steady to keep up with the dogs or to maintain pace with Rich, a tall, rangy guy who took one step to my two. We stopped only to grab golden delicious apples from wild trees or cool the dogs in well-placed water-filled bins that were wide enough to handle a couple of dogs and deep enough to cover them from the neck down. With the creek far below us, the bins were  a necessity. “Water, water, water!” Rich would yell, and the dogs would splash in, drink and cool off, jump out, shake, and take off again. And we’d follow right along.

By the time lunch rolled around, all of us were ready to eat. All of us had experienced plenty of shooting and some hard walking.

Britt Jill and the author, flanked by golden grass, call it a day.

The next morning I joined Britt and Derek Jerrell, a photographer for Winchester, and we hunted with Ian Privette, who wears many hats around the Flying B, but wing shooting and fishing guide are among his duties. The other crew was in the truck in front of us, and they took a right at the fork, heading toward the very top of the hill to chase chukar and work downslope to Hun altitude.

Clouds lingered in the sky, remnants of a light rain that had swept through during the night. Despite the cool rain, the temperature was a lot warmer than the day prior, but the shooting proved to be equally as hot.

Ian let loose his pointers, which were immediately and continually on birds. Large hedges, stumps, wild rosebushes laden with hips, any scraggly bush—just anything that provided enough cover to hold a pheasant usually elicited a flush. It was almost like fishing around structure, but instead of catching fish, we were shooting pheasant.

Later in the morning, we walked the low-elevation hills and found partridge with regularity. And our shots were interspersed with shots from high above, where the other folks in our party were finding chukar.

Here, the birds are a mix of pen-raised and born free, but they often flushed wild and always flushed hard—erupting as if launched, then instinctively orienting themselves to take advantage of any tail- wind, just as wild birds do. In short, I couldn’t tell the difference between birds that had been released into the wild and birds that had been reared there. And my experiences later in the week would reinforce that judgment.

So on the final morning at Flying B, I ate breakfast, then bid adieu to the kind folks there, and began heading toward Pony. Once out of Kamiah and then through the smaller town of Kooskia, the road became a winding ribbon that followed the meander of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater until it reached the confluence of the two rivers that form it—the Lochsa and Selway. There, the road curves northward and follows the Lochsa most of the way to Lolo. There’s very little human habitation between Kooksia and Lolo, but along the way, I passed through clouds of hatching insects and saw numerous fly anglers who ignored the rain and were either coming up from the river or going down to it.

The sun appeared about the time I reached Missoula and afforded breathtaking views in all directions. The natural beauty kept pulling my attention away from the near empty highway as I made it through Butte and on into more rural areas, and finally to Tom’s place, where he shook my hand and we fell into conversation just as we did the only other time we’d met.

He invited me inside and introduced me to his wife, Shauna Stephenson, who’s also a writer and gardener extraordinaire, and their children. Soon, after introductions, Shauna shared some of the bounty from her garden—including a variety of tomatoes. As we ate, three handsome setters, knowing only we had food, peered in from the back porch.

Tom then showed me to a small pull-behind camper he’d parked in the backyard. Opening the door, he gave me a tour—pointing out the light switches and outlets, the wood-burning stove and where he stored some wood, and  how to operate the water pump. We stepped outside, and he told me supper would  be ready in a bit. He walked back to the house, and I made myself at home, resting till dinnertime.

After a hearty elk stew and a good night’s sleep, Tom and I had breakfast and some good coffee before heading out. We stopped in town to buy some stuff for lunch, and then he drove an hour or so before turning onto a nondescript two-track that led to a common parking area at the base of the hills. There were no signs indicating public hunting land; it was just a place he knew. The parking area was empty save Tom’s truck.

We geared up and loaded our shotguns, and he turned Mabel loose. She ran straight uphill about 500 yards along a fence line and pointed near a bush on the other side of the fence. Tom was below me a bit, and he told me to go get them. The dog held solid, but the birds flushed just as I got into shooting range. They erupted from the downhill, shady side of the bush but immediately flew behind it. I shot to no avail.

Then we commenced walking across the hills. Occasionally, we’d come to steep and tree-studded ravines, which Tom said might hold some blue grouse. At each draw, he’d let the dog hunt and cool off in the mud or water collected in the bottom. Then we’d move on.

All along, the views from the hillsides were stunning. Up high, we could see for miles—a couple of tidy homesteads in the distance, golden fields of cut grain, cattle in semi-green pastures, and the tiny speck of Tom’s truck. Just beauty from horizon to horizon and right beneath our feet.

We hunted hard awhile longer, finding only a covey that flushed wild before we broke for lunch. Tom decided to drive to another spot nearby. There, the parking area had other vehicles, including a couple that appeared to belong to elk hunters. We set out again across the face of the hills, and soon Mabel pointed near  a large rock. We moved up to where she stood like a statue. The birds flushed and Tom and I took a bird apiece.

We hunted for another mile or two before finding the next covey. This time, Mabel pointed below us. The birds flushed, but somehow we both missed easy shots. Heading back to the truck, as we began to drop into a ravine, the dog pointed on the opposite side. Tom approached from the top, and I stayed low. When the birds flushed, I swung on a low flier that held course below the lip of the ravine. It was flying away from me. I dropped him, and Tom had killed a bird up above.

We hunted on, but didn’t find other birds. But with fresh memories of the wild and pen-raised Huns I saw on Flying B compared to the true wild birds Tom and I encountered on public land, I didn’t see much difference in their escape behavior.

There’s a lot to like about living near public hunting land and having a good dog to work it. There’s also a lot to like about a nice lodge and being catered to. It’s rare to enjoy both in the same week. And I’m thankful for good friends who are willing to share their good fortune with me. And I can say that my first experience with social media influencers was very pleasant. Britt and Allie were sweet people and more than capable in the field. Still, I’m old enough to be surprised folks can make a living that way.