A bird took flight thirty yards away, duplicating a typical left to right sporting clays crossing target. Powerful and fast, its wings slammed the air like muted helicopter rotors. Twisting to my right, I cocked the hammers as I shouldered my gun. A blast from John Coombe's Greener 12 bore and the falling bird prompted me to lower my unfired gun.
Moments later, the dogs dashed towards a thicket of oat hay and desert shrubs that abutted a road. A pheasant launched toward us like a missile from skeet station 8. Kevin Parks and photographer Phil Mumford swung their guns skyward and fired. Four colorful wads stabbed the sky like a modest Fourth of July display, much enjoyed, no doubt, by the unscathed birds. Mark and I swung our guns to the left and fired as the bird gained altitude. The pheasant dropped like an anchor. I graciously credited the bird to Mark but I knew the truth.
My Watson & Hancock was a side-lever pigeon gun boasting a masterpiece of a hand-filed top rib. My research indicated that it was made in their shop either on High Holborn Street or at 5 Pall Mall Place, London during the men's brief partnership in the mid-1880's.
Before switching back to his beloved Browning over/under 28 gauge, Kevin hunted with my rare Joseph Lang Damascus hammergun. This gun has 2 ½ inch chambers and is one of the few Lang made that featured a triple bite and rotary bolting system. When the top lever is manipulated, a steel cylinder that engages the bites and which goes completely through the bottom of the action, visibly rotates. Truly a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship and very strong, it was too expensive to manufacture and was supplanted by the Purdey bolting system.
Phil was shooting an extraordinary John Hobson hammerless gun of unique pedigree. The gun had nearly pristine Damascus barrels re-browned some years ago by Purdey-trained Paul Hodgins of Salt Lake City, Utah. According to my research, Hobson was an action maker at Boss in London from the mid 1880's to the early 1890's. Ill health of a family member required his leave from Boss and his return to his family's home in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, about thirty miles from London.
` Hobson began making guns under his own name at 63 Regent Street. Boss allowed him to use original Boss barrels on some of his guns in recognition of the high quality of his craftsmanship. The top rib on these barrels is inscribed: "Boss & Co. 73 Saint James Street, London, England."
This particular gun features a Kersten cross bolt, quite atypical for a London best gun, so perfectly crafted that its outline can only be detected by the most scrupulous study of the left side of the action. One reasonably concludes that this firearm was made for a knowledgeable and fastidious owner.
I confess the allure of these triumphant examples of the gun makers' craft, made slowly and laboriously, impelled by a man's pride and his will. Care must be taken when shooting them. They are, after all, 120 years old, give or take a few weekends, and their steel is not comparable to current alloys.
Prudent use requires special factory loads-Federal has offered a low-pressure load-or precise hand loads. For all my vintage guns I load cartridges with Hodgdon 7625 powder carefully measured to produce pressures of no more than 5,000 psi.
John's Greener boasted modern fluid steel barrels, 2 ½ inch chambers and a cheek piece. It swung as smooth as a conductor's baton and was lethal in his hands. For Phil, John and me, this hunt was an opportunity to take these precious possessions out of the vaults, get them into the fields and thereby honor their provenance.
After an hour and a half or so sneaked away as time well spent tends to do, we headed to our cars to get water for us and the dogs. The air had warmed considerably and the hints of ground frost had long since sublimated into the perfumed air. I exchanged my Filson wool shooting jacket for a T shirt and a thin sporting clays vest. I put away my Watson and retrieved my 20 gauge A y A #2, newly acquired from M. W. Reynolds, a high grade gun emporium located enticingly just a few blocks from my home.
The dogs now rested and pumped with excitement, we returned to the fields. Two birds rocketed from the grasses and headed right toward the towering San Juan mountain range. I was using one ounce loads of #5 shot from Rio Ammunition. I fired. The distant quartering bird dropped like a weight at the gym and was promptly retrieved by Mark's skilled Labrador. The other bird will join the wild birds and the unharvested birds and will stay on Rick's property because his habitat is bounded by high mountains and desert. Their offspring, too, will be strong and challenging.
Rarely do I experience the unique raw beauty of harsh terrain and gorgeous skies. Throughout the day a near full moon hung improbably like a theater prop, eliciting that wonderment of how it got there and why it stays where it is. Yeah, I know about gravitational pull and the Big Bang theory, but that moon caused a spine-tingling awe and sense of humility.
Intermittently shifting winds rewarded me with the ambrosial fragrance of my bridle leather English speed bag made by Jim Wear of Laramie, Wyoming. Bugling from elk resonated like rifle shots. Wisps of silver white clouds and occasional contrails from jets traveling to or from nearby tony Aspen accented the azure sky. All the senses deliciously fed, this was the vibrant moment I hoped to experience. Blessed with a gorgeous day, honorable friends, strong birds, well-trained dogs and beautifully crafted side by side guns, all seemed right with the world.
By early afternoon we left the fields and returned to the lodge at Black Canyon Wings and Clays. Mark, one of those extra fine folks one is blessed to meet traveling life's rivulets, and Kevin, had arranged for us to shoot at this superb private club located in Delta on Colorado's Western Slope. The region is renowned for its soul-stirring beauty, hunting, fishing, fruit and vegetables and, more recently, for producing some tasty wines.
Rick and Hanneke Nelson bought the 760 acre property in 1994 and commenced a labor of love enviably pursued by those that place independence and beauty high on their list of life's priorities. The club is about an hour's drive from Grand Junction and about four and a half hours from Denver. I first visited the area when John and his wife, Susan, invited me to their home in nearby Paonia. Its beauty and energizing ambience compelled me to return to the area as iron filings are drawn to a magnet.
Possessed with the vision that the long narrow fields were perfect for hunting, Rick invested in water irrigation and up grading the land. Working with an array of conservation groups and the agriculture department of Colorado State University, he planted grasses that were most efficacious for a thriving population of pheasant and grouse.
About 350 acres were developed into prime hunting habitat comprised of thirty fields in size from three to forty acres. Rick's birds are raised without blinders in huge football-field length pens where they fly freely, producing tough strong natural birds as close to wild ones as can be achieved.
Rick was waiting for us with steins of iced beer. John had wisely brought a backpack full of cheese and sausage and I had the foresight to bring a bottle of silky smooth Glenmorangie single malt. Cigars were handed out and collegial words filled the air.
Although private, the club is open to the public. Rick generally offers six hunts in the morning and six in the afternoon, striving to create what he calls "a high quality experience." Progressing methodically, scientifically and without rushing the project, Rick created a venerable facility well worth a visit. "Each year it gets better and better," Rick said.
Rick offers complimentary soda and beer and focuses on cultivating the participation of young shooters. Discounted hunts and free shooting classes are offered to them. "They are our investment in hunting's future," Rick said. The club also has a five-stand clays course on the back porch of the lodge and a wobble trap for which, remarkably, there is no charge. More than feeling welcome, the atmosphere is so friendly I felt I was visiting my favorite uncle.
Kevin hosted a pot luck dinner that evening at his beautiful home. Our shooting party was joined by my dear friend, Sally Kane, director of the local public radio station and a rancher in nearby Crawford with her husband, Tony, who is also an accomplished hunter and fly fisherman. Native American art and rugs profusely decorated all the rooms of the home I observed. A wooden canoe hanging from a living room wall was a whimsical decorating grace note.
The evening's culinary triumph was Mark's sautéed breast of pheasant. I have been authorized to share the recipe:
Sprinkle's Pheasant Phenomenon
Filet pheasant breasts and pound thin. Remove as much shot as possible unless you don't mind gaining weight unnecessarily. Coat the pheasant with flavored bread crumbs and dashes of salt and black pepper. Brown them lightly in olive oil on medium heat, taking care not to overcook. Set aside. Deglaze the pan with dry white wine and add 4 ounces of butter to the pan. Add ¼ cup Soy Sauce and the juice of 1-2 lemons. Simmer for a few minutes. Pour over pheasant and sprinkle with a handful of freshly chopped parsley. Bon Appetit!
The dish may be complemented equally well with a white or red wine. I sipped a glass - several, actually - of Farmers Ditch Red 2005, a tangy cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir blend produced by Paonia's Black Bridge Winery and named after the ditch that brings much of the water to the property. The winery is a gorgeous venue, owned by Lee and Kathy Bradley and is located off Highway 133. It is shaded by oak and pine trees and is graced by the soothing sounds of the Gunnison River that abuts the property.
I decided to sit outside on Kevin's back porch while waiting for dinner and drink in the solitude as well as some wine. A red-pink alpenglow hovered over the mountains as if smeared with a huge slab of pastel chalk.
The grandeur of the scenery can encourage expansive thoughts. I reminisced about the day's activity. We had been shooting shotguns more than a century old, made not only in a different era but according to a different ideology-the craftsmen's pride and will that put their names on their work. Using these guns exhibits respect for the tradition, the artistry and the creativity that made these firearms possible. Can we justifiably have an optimism that one hundred years from this day our guns-vintage and modern-will even be legal, let alone exist, I wondered?
Whatever may be, this day shall be a memory imbedded in my mind as if in amber, and I will take pleasure in my nostalgia for the past, whether real or imagined.
Phil and I had to return to Denver mid Sunday afternoon, but before leaving I persuaded Mark to take us fly fishing on one of the nation's great fly fishing rivers, the North Fork of the Gunnison, just east of the old mining town of Somerset. I include this vignette not only because it shows another marvelous experience on the Western Slope but also because it exhibits yet another of Mark's skills.
Few insects were on the river and no rising fish appeared in the shallow, yet gin- clear water. Yet again the sand in the metaphoric hour glass was quickly descending. I made a few casts with one of John's fly rods while Mark gave instruction to Phil. I got a strike but failed to set the caddis fly and lost the fish.
"Get me a fish to photograph," I ordered Mark. "You have ten minutes." Mark shrugged. He walked upstream twenty paces and made a rhythmic cast close to the bank. A sparkling flash of water erupted moments later.
"Got ‘em," Mark said without emotion. He walked the fish downstream toward Phil and then netted a gorgeous brown trout. I lamented, silently, if only the high price of the equipment could ensure success!
I thanked Mark for orchestrating the wonderful weekend. But the reality is that but for the shotguns, I would not have been there. I would not have seen the sunset while sitting on Kevin's porch. I wouldn't have met Kevin or Rick. I hope my sentiments are not interpreted as effusive, but without the guns, there would have been less richness in my life.