We use some words so often that they lose their meaning. Words like ‘amazing’, ‘awesome’, and ‘incredible’.

Was the salad you had last night really AWESOME? You found yourself in awe of that mix of spring greens, and olive oil and lemon dressing, with some shaved red onion and almonds? Delicious. Sure. Awesome? Maybe not.

For four days in September 2016, I used those words, and probably for the first time ever, understood what those words really mean.

I was in awe of what I was seeing, and doing.

I was amazed by what was surrounding me, what I woke up to every morning, and at how the dogs were able to find a chukar in the middle of a heavy-cover field.

Looking up at the mountains going down the river, I had to keep reminding myself that yes, it was real, and my eyes were actually locking at what I was looking at. It was incredible. I did not believe what I was looking at and actually had to think to myself, ‘Yes, this is happening right now and what you’re looking at is actually there.’

So what the hell am I talking about and where in the world was I?

Flying B Ranch in Kamiah, Idaho for two days of wing shooting and an afternoon of sturgeon fishing. 

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I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of cool shit with my job at Hunterdon Brewing (NJ’s largest craft beer distributor). I’ve gotten to travel, see countless breweries, and meet some of the most influential people in the craft beer and spirits world. This, though, takes the cake. It was, for most of us on the trip, a once in a lifetime experience. Admittedly, I’m already trying to figure out how I can afford to go back.

So what is a beer distributor doing at a Ranch in Idaho, and what happens out there? Well, it really had nothing to do with beer. It was quite honestly more along the lines of team building. What better way to connect with your colleagues that staying in one of the most beautiful spots in the US, eating wonderful food, and hiking through 5000 acres of ranch in the middle of 11,000 acres of the Nex Perce Reservation looking for game birds to hunt?

Wing shooting. I can honestly tell you this is something that never in a million years did I think I would do. I’ve shot guns before. At ranges. At inanimate objects. The don’t move. I was extremely nervous about my first hunting experience. I’ve never killed anything outside of a bug that was somewhere ut shouldn’t be before. I was pretty certain that I was going to immediately burst into tears. Scratch that. I was relatively sure that I wouldn’t even hit anything, anyway.

 

We arrived Wednesday afternoon. First thing’s fist – skeet shooting. After an extensive safety talk (we were all required to attend hunters safety courses prior to our visit, but safety was everyone’s primary concern and still highly emphasized), we split into groups, grabbed our shotguns and headed out to the stations to practice on some clays.

The guns deserve a moment of discussion. Beautiful, Fabarm Italian-made, over-under barrel shotguns. The Axis RS12 Sporting, for the my enthusiasts out there (or at least a model close to it). Even if you’re not not shooting, but you’re into craftsmanship…you would be able to appreciate the detail and quality of these firearms.

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I stuck with a 20 gauge for the weekend. Not much kick back, not too heavy. I have to say, I surprised myself. Apparently I’m pretty damn good and shooting orange clay spheres flying through the air. My confidence was up. I awoke the next morning, at 4:30am (thanks, pacific time!), though we didn’t head out to the fields until 8:00.

We were working with bird dogs. They were fantastic. Moose, Dog (yes, the dogs name is Dog), Ginger, Avalanche (Ava for short), Patty (Patricia when she’s got an attitude), Tank, and Gabby to name a few. They can barely contain themselves. All they want to do is get out, run around, and find some birds. So excited, in fact, that they literally tremble in the back of the truck, anxiously awaiting the command that will set them free. After a few sprints back and forth, they’re off into the brush. Last year, the ranch had a serious fire. Far more than what is typically burned. Thanks to that blaze, the regrowth, the ‘coverage’, was tall and thick. Ideal for birds to hide in. Pheasants, Hungarian Partridges, Chukars, and Quail. The dogs seem to just be running around, having the time of their lives, their heads popping up and down in and out of view, when all of a sudden….silence and stillness. Their noses intently pointing ahead. They don’t move. They wait. ‘Woah, Moose.’, our guide commands. He waits. Our group of three gets into position. We ready. BJ, our guide, gives Moose the OK and he darts forward, flushing out the Rooster Pheasant. I take a breath, aim, pop the safety off, and pull. Down the bird goes.

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To avoid the dogs overheating, there are these tubs of cold water all over the property. The jump in, either on command or when the feel like a dip, cool off, then it’s back out on the hunt.

Now Moose is back on. ‘Hunt dead! Dead bird.’ BJ tells him, in a low, steady tone. Soon, Moose emerges from the tall, thick grasses, with a colorful (and large) Pheasant in mid mouth. So proud, he brings it over, dropping it at BJs feet. He receives his congratulations and he’s off again to find another.

Now, I’m going to stop here for a second. Remember a few paragraphs back when I said I was pretty sure that I would burst into tears upon my first time actually killing something? I’m going to be real REAL honest with you here. I didn’t I didn’t feel the deep guilt that I expected to. Truthfully, I didn’t feel much guilt at all. Perhaps it’s because this is how humans have always survived. Hunting. Sure, not with trained dogs and $2500 shotguns. But it’s a part of our ancestry. Perhaps it’s that. Perhaps is that I know this bird that I had just taken would be cleaned, packed, and shipped to my home in a few days so that I could eat it. It was not simply for sport, it was, on some level, for sustenance. 

I am a person who advocates the eating of properly raised and fed animals. I believe we must do this for optimal health. In order to advocate that, I had always felt that it was important for me to insert myself into the process. I know that one day, I was going to have to kill something myself. I think that this is a big part of the connection with our food that is missing. We go to the store, we buy a perfectly trimmed, skinless, boneless chicken breast. That’s it. That’s the extent of our involvement. In order to be a part of this cycle, I knew that I needed to actually be a PART of it. Maybe it was that, that saved me from the guilt I expected to wash over me. Also, maybe it was just because birds aren’t very cute. I may never know. What was interesting, is that when I posted a photo of myself with a few of the birds we took on Instagram, I noticed that I quickly lost a chunk of followers! This leaves me feeling that I need to say something:

If you are eating meat of any kind and you are against hunting, made uncomfortable by it, or want to shield your eyes from it – that is a problem. You cannot shut out where the food you eat comes from. You cannot be against the thing that gets that chicken to your table. In fact, this time of ‘harvesting’ is much more peaceful and with nature than the feedlot that your conventionally raised chicken breast came from. The birds roam free, eating bugs like grasshoppers and crickets, right up until the moment that a spray of pellets finds them. Hell, they even have the opportunity to get away. If that fucker flies faster that I can aim, he’s free. In order for him to end up on my plate, I have to actually do something. Something more than going to the store and picking out the first perfectly plastic wrapped poultry I see.

To cover your eyes, and say you ‘don’t want to see that’, is hypocritical. To say that hunting is inhumane is simply ridiculous. This is a major part of the problem we have with this vast disconnect with our food supply. It’s why giant corporations are taking over our food system. We’re too scared to look. We don’t want to look. But we HAVE to look. We have to understand. We have to be involved. We say that we hate how these factory farms operate. How poorly the animals are treated. How they are fed unnaturally for the goal of fattening them up by any means necessary. We can’t then also turn our nose up at the other options. The natural options. The options in our genes.

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My boss (left) and founder of Hunterdon Brewing Co, myself and our web graphic designer (right) at the end of our second hunt day.

I don’t say that to be crass, to be shocking, ‘I killed a bird’. I say that because that’s what it is. Yes, it was ‘hunting’. Yes, I ended up eating it. I still killed it though. It’s a fact. It wasn’t done for survival. I could’ve gotten dinner without it. It was done for sustenance, yes, but it was also for sport, even though the meat as not wasted. That may sound terrible, but consider this: even so, that meat that is now in my freezer, is 10 lbs of meat that I’m not buying from the super market. 

I digress…

I’m realizing now that the challenge of this post is going to be getting everything in without leaving you stuck reading a twelve page essay. 

After a few hours out in the fields, we came in for lunch. The timing was perfect because I had taken a hard left turn. The weather, though beautiful, changes in terms of temperature drastically througout the day. In the morning, it was a cool 60 degrees. Come noon, it had shot up to nearly 90. I made the mistake of wearing all black. Black 5.11 tactical pants and a black long sleeve shirt. You need good pants out there, pushing through wheat that stretches almost 6 feet, prickle bushes, poison ivy…it is nature afterall. Our cocktails the night before didn’t help either. By the time we were sitting down to eat, I had been feeling pretty shitty. I went into the lodge, immediately de-robed in my room, and laid under the huge ceiling face with a cold washcloth across my face for two hours. I was ready for our 2pm second run. Lunch, by the way, was venison stew. Comforting, rich, and packed with potatoes. The energy was NEEDED. Tramping through this terrain is a beat down!

Our second hunt of the day was though what I later deemed: Jumanji. Three foot high, lush green grasses and vines. It felt like trudging through six feet of packed snow. My hip flexors were screaming and my hamstrings felt like they were about to bust. The dogs ran through it all, barreling past it, under it, through it, with seemingly no issue.They come out with cuts and scrapes, but they can’t wait to go back. They’re remarkable. A few more hours and a few more birds and it was back to the lodge for dinner and a near instantaneous sleep. I don’t think I’ve every slept so hard and so well in my lfie. The level of tiredness was astounding. Everything was drained. My legs we spent. My hamstrings felt like they were about to snap from the bone. My brain was fuzzy and I hadn’t even had a drop of booze! 

Up again (at 5:00am this time…getting better) to head out for a day on the river fishing sturgeon. It’s all catch and release. Only Native Americans are permitted to keep and eat the tremendous, prehistoric fish. We drove nearly two hours, moots which was down a winding rod on the edge of a mountain, leading us to Pittsburgh landing were we hopped on a jet boat and sped down the river to our first spot. This is where I finally understood what the words ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ mean. Looking up at the huge mountains on either side of us, I found myself thinking how I could not believe my eyes. Reminding myself, assuming myself that I was in fact, starting straight up at magnificence. 

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The day went on, we caught some trout, some white fish, the worlds smallest bass and the largest squa-fish that our guide had ever seen. Even a cat fish. As the day went on, we bounced to new sturgeon holes, in hopes that something would bite. Finally, at our last stop, the reel started to wiggle. Our Operations Manager, Rich, had his eyes on it all day. He acted quickly, grabbing the rod and giving it a yank to set the hook.

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This shit was harder work than I expected. Seriously a full body endeavor.

Little did we know we were about to go 13 rounds and two hours with this monster. I suppose that’s what happens when you go fishing for dinosaurs. We all took a few minutes with the fight belt, reeling the sucker in. The fight belt is basically a weight belt with a slot in the from to set the end of the rod in. It allowed you to use your whole body to pull in the fish…and you need it. Slowly pulling up, then quickly reeling down…never losing tension so the bugger at the end of the line doesn’t have an opportunity to jet. 12 times, he would be right under us. We would get into position to bring him near the boat for our photo-op. 12 times he would turn, and swim out back into the current, forcing us to begin again. Upstream, the dam lets water out in the late afternoon. Rusty, our captain, was beginning to worry about the rising tide. The higher the water, the higher the rapids and the more difficult our route home becomes. Then. Finally. Lucky number 13, and our opponent gave up. We pulled him in to a roar of cheers, jumped in the water, gathered around and took our picture to prove that we were, in fact, successful. Nine feet. This son of a bitch was near 400 lbs and nine goddamn feet long. I had never seen anything like it. This, is not something I think I will experience the likes of again in my life. A two hour fish fight. What the actual fuck?!

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Now we could head back out. What I’m about to tell you is not a lie. It is not an embellishment. It is 100% true. As we headed back down the river, which was now significantly higher and rougher than when we entered, we saw a man in his 60’s who had been tossed from his raft. He was floating, alone, in the cold water. He managed to find his way to a rock. Rusty navigated the jet boat to him. We pulled him aboard, and crossed the river, reuniting him with his party. Had the fish come in on attempt number 12, we would not have been there. Hell, if he came in 5 minutes sooner….2 minutes sooner…we would not have been there.

Then on the way our we saw a huge black ram, stopped, and it practically posed for pictures 5 feet away from us. “This is all going to sound like a lie when we tell people”.

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We returned to Flying B for a dinner that featured a pork chop that cut with a butterknife and back fat that melted away. Again. Instant sleep.

Our final day at the Ranch was back out on the property for more wingshooting. it was cloudy, cool, and a little rainy. Perfect for the dogs. The scent of everything is more potent when it’s cool and a little wet. We had high hopes. 

Our morning was a little rough lots of misses of easy shots. In fairness, one of our dogs was a little too pumped about what we were doing and chased out 5 or 6 birds before we were anywhere near her. Hey, it’s a dogs life. A little extra fun chasing some birds around is fine by me. After lunch (pheasant enchiladas in corn tortillas), we regrouped. “If we’re going to be terrible, we have to make sure we’re not all terrible at the same time”, my boss Mike declared. Good plan. Turns out it was a great plan. We took 16 birds in a few hours, not including the one that was apparently resurrected. See, sometimes the dogs get a little over zealous. Instead of waiting for the go-ahead, they will occasionally jump in and grab the bird, brining it to your feet. At this point, it’s injured. It can’t fly and is half dead. The kind, but frankly unpleasant, thing to do is to quickly break its neck. This was the case with our rogue chukar. The dogs got it, and its neck was rung. Packed away in the back of Mike’s vest, we continued for another 30 minutes or so. Back at the truck to switch out the dogs and drop off the birds, I head Mike say sternly, ‘We have a problem’. There, in the back of the truck…is the chukar. Standing at attention. Perfectly fine. He jumped in the truck to grab it, but before he could, the thing hopped out of the truck and ran down the road, all the way down the road, and was soon out of sight. We all just stood there, jaws on the ground, in amazement. I hope he’s doing well. He deserves it after that spectacular getaway. 

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The day ended on a high note, with 27 birds. Lots of pheasants and a few chukars (though not our escape artist). After a hot shower and a gin and tonic, a tremendous meal of mashed potatoes and buffalo short ribs, we shared stories of the day and many…many drinks. 

Sunday morning, I woke up early, a little glassy-eyed. I had packed the night before so I could relax before it was time to be dragged off to the airport, forced to return to the real world. It seemed I was the only one awake. The ranch was silent. I grabbed myself a cup of coffee, and found a seat outside, to enjoy the mountain view outside my window one last time. As the morning went on, it was clear that I was not the only one with that idea. Slowly, bodies came out of dark rooms (some a little worse for the wear than others), with mugs full of hot black coffee. Everyone seemed to do the same thing. Stretch, look out at the landscape, and take a big, deep breath of the crisp, clean air. 

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Sooner than we all would have liked, our shuttles pulled up, we landed our bags, and began our journey home (which would take 12 hours….but I’m not about to complain).

It feels like those four days went by in the blink of an eye. I still can’t believe that I actually did that. What an adventure. I am extremely lucky to have been able to experience something like this, in a place like that. It might be a little while before I can get my ass back out there…but it’s going to happen one way or another.

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Here’s what I did with the pheasant breasts when I got home: Tacos. I seasoned them with kosher salt, and Teeny Tiny Spice Company Yucatan Recado Rojo and Oaxaca Adobo. I seared them in a cast iron pan over high heat on each side. Then into the slow cooker with 5 cloves of smashed garlic, 3 sliced shallots, 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar, and 2 cups chicken broth. Set to low for 8 hours. Shred and mix with the liquid when ready to serve. I topped my tacos with goats cheese, jalapeño sauerkraut, salsa verde, and sliced radishes.

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Here’s a hot tip when cooking pheasant legs: BE CAREFUL. There are a lot of little tiny bones through them, almost like fish bones, that can be hard to get out and you may chomp down on one.