An article from the new July/August 2017 issue of Sporting Classics, on newsstands now.
Traveling in the company of George Hage, the owner of V1 Ranch, we left the San Diego airport and headed south along the coast. The landscape was conventional California stuff—sprawling condominium complexes and hotels and resorts and shopping malls. Then we turned inland and headed north, soon entering a “brave new world.” Vast orchards with big trees heavily burdened with bright orange and yellow fruits, the ground underneath them carpeted with the same fruits, spread out for miles and miles, and high above them in the distance rose the snow-covered Palomar Mountains. The hillsides too steep to plant in citrus trees were armored with thick stands of nopal cactus. Higher up, the hills were covered with avocado trees.
As the road climbed up and away from the coast, we spotted a series of elevation markers—1,000 feet, 2,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 4,000 feet, and so forth. The temperature dropped precipitously as we climbed, from the middle 50s to the high 20s. Finally, we entered a primeval forest of oaks and cedars ranging in age from 200 to 800 years, with trunks from three to eight feet in diameter. Some of them had died, victims of the prolonged drought that has afflicted California for years. As we passed through the cool, green gloom of the trees, the wonderful lines from Robert Frost kept recurring to me: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”
The road climbed around and around through the ancient oaks and cedars, and at last we arrived at the grand lodge at V1 Ranch. It sits far up a steep hillside among those grand oaks and cedars, commanding a panoramic view of the valley and lakes below. Once the home of a plutocratic gentleman, the lodge shows all the marks of intelligent design consistent with high standards of beauty and luxury.
Inside are cathedral ceilings towering high above a huge plasma television mounted on one wall, and below it a fireplace that is almost always burning and sending forth redolent fragrances. Overstuffed, leather-upholstered sofas sit atop oriental carpeting, and carefully selected big-game trophies decorate the walls. Among them is a rug made of the Turkish national record brown bear. The flooring is an attractive curly maple parquet. At one side of the social area is the dining area and the amply stocked self-service bar, and beyond that, the fully equipped kitchen.
On top of the large garage is a helicopter pad, and on the ridge high above that, two prominent observatories owned by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California.
The lodge sits at an elevation of 5,500 feet, which explains why it can get cold and why heavy snowfalls occasionally occur. Even so, the fall and winter weather is much more pleasant than in, say, South Dakota.
The entire place has a most warm and welcoming atmosphere that makes guests feel that they’re “at home,” so to speak. Moreover, George Hage and his staff go out of their way to make everyone feel as if they are part of the family.
Hage owns and leases about 55,000 acres; the land near the lodge is used strictly for bird shooting. Farther afield is a mix of trees and meadows that offer excellent hunting for trophy mule deer and wild turkey.
I was joined by two other shooters, namely, Tony Crabb, a gentleman from Hawaii who had never seen snow before, and “Wild Bill” Utz, an old hunting buddy who has accompanied me on many trips to Argentina. Immediately upon our arrival, George, who is a master chef, and his lovely daughter, Tina, set about preparing a grand welcoming feast. While we sipped an outstanding Daou red wine blend from Paso Robles and listened to the great French chanteuse Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” George and Tina were busily preparing a huge tub of spaghetti al dente with a spaghetti sauce made of tomatoes, olive oil, oregano, thyme, garlic, and parsley, and a fine insalata caprese. Tina served as a very charming hostess and waitress.
We started with the salad and soon moved on to the spaghetti. Then Tina brought out the third course—Italian sea bass, poached and flaky and full of delicate flavor. Then we returned to the fireside for dessert—a fine chocolate cake, followed by little glasses of chilled lemoncello. Wild Bill puffed on a fine cigar, which George had selected from his large collection. We finished a wonderful first day at V1 Ranch by watching The Accountant on Netflix.
It rained intermittently all night, but we got the first morning off to a fine start. Tina served up a power breakfast consisting of fried eggs sunny-side up liberally sprinkled with black pepper and oregano; slabs of crisp, applewood-smoked bacon; oatmeal sweetened with honey and loaded with pecans, blueberries, and red raspberries; hash browns; and coffee laced with honey from local hives and cream.
Since conditions were wet, George decided to set up a driven shoot. He issued Benelli Vinci shotguns to the three of us, and soon we were in position—Tony to the left, Bill to the right, and I in the center. Dave the Dog Guy and Dany Hage, George’s nephew, pushed birds off the top of a high hill.
The winds were blowing so hard to the right that Bill got the most opportunities. The pheasants sailed high over us, and as they came on we dropped them in a continuous cascade. In fact, not a single bird got by us. I killed 15 cleanly and joint-ventured on three more with Bill. This was a glory day for me!
George nicknamed us The Deadly Dudleys right there on the spot.
Dave released five of his efficient black Labs, and in no time they had assembled the birds in a pile at the bottom of the hill. Soon after it started to rain again and became downright miserable. George and I returned to the lodge, while Bill and Tony enjoyed a walk-up hunt over two of the Labs and Eika, a German shorthair that won the German national field trials in 2013. The dog is the very soul of Germanic precision and style.
By lunchtime a serious rainstorm with powerful winds had moved in, turning the sky as dark as a dungeon in Denmark. Dany said the temperature was expected to drop to 27 degrees overnight, which meant that we would have snow in the morning.
It rained about five inches overnight, then changed to snow mixed with hail, all driven by strong winds. After the usual power breakfast, George decreed another driven shoot, and we lined up precisely as we’d done the day before. Conditions were tough; the wind was gusting from 25 to 30 miles per hour, blowing waves of sharp-sided hail across the sky and into our faces. The ferocity of the wind forced us to move to the very edge of the hill, directly below where the birds were being released.
The Deadly Dudleys got to work once again and hardly missed a bird. Grand, gaudily colored birds crumpled and fell in long arcs onto the snow. Dave’s Labs dashed back and forth, collecting the birds at the foot of the hill.
George and Tina put on a grand gastronomical celebration at dinner that evening. They started with New York strip steaks, tender and juicy and full of flavor, with Brussels sprouts, caramelized pecans and apple slices, accompanied by terrific baked sweet potatoes, split down the middle and loaded with butter and bacon bits, and then a big fruit plate and a fine carrot cake. George, who is also a master sommelier, moved among us, decanting a fine Daou red wine blend and a very nice Silver Oak cabernet. These are wines that sell for $150 a bottle or more at top-quality restaurants.
The next morning we awoke to glorious sunshine on snow and a temperature of 29 degrees. The dogs frolicked irrepressibly in the snow. Bill and George manned the guns, and I followed with a camera. Dave the Dog Guy followed me with two Labs on leash.
The snow was about eight inches deep, and the going was tough. We hunted a field of high tussock grass about a mile long and a half-mile wide that sloped down from the oak and cedar forest to a dense stand of willows fringing a small creek. The stream’s edges were frozen solid, but cakes of ice flowed down the center. Pheasants love to hide in the thick scrub because it provides nearly perfect shelter from foxes and coyotes—and hunters, too.
To start the hunt, Bill stuffed a big chaw of Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco into his right cheek and three shells into the magazine of his gun, then proclaimed in a loud voice, “Let the hunt begin.”
We hadn’t gone 20 yards from the truck when Eika slammed to a halt. The shorthair’s point was the epitome of elegance and style, her sinewy frame quivering like a high-tension wire with 10,000 volts flowing through it. Bill crept forward while George spoke softly to the dog, which readjusted its point and moved forward. No bird. Once again it edged forward. Still no bird.
Dave unleashed his Labs, and they quickly moved forward, located the bird, and pushed it into flight. Not one rooster but two got up, cackling with indignation, their flamboyant plumage resplendent in the morning sunshine. The birds climbed straight up to a height of 20 yards, at which point the shooters fired simultaneously, dumping them onto the snow where the Labs made a quick retrieve. Our day was off to a great start.
Things continued that way all morning. Some of the pheasants were dug into the snow and simply did not want to fly. The Labs, however, put every bird into the air, and George and Bill did not miss a single pheasant of the 15 that flushed.
Three of the birds got up out of range and sailed into the willow scrub. George and Bill took up stands alongside the cover, while Dave sent in his Labs. The pheasants flew straight up to clear the willow tops, and George and Bill brought them down just as they towered high overhead. To paraphrase a famous poet: “Oh, to be in the Palomar Mountains in January, for then if ever come perfect days!”
Back at the lodge, the sun was streaming into the kitchen, where the women were hard at work. Soon we were into a Mexican-style luncheon, with roast chicken, black beans, Mexican cheese, guacamole, diced tomatoes, and cilantro lime rice; for dessert, a big fruit platter and a terrific berry/apple crumb pie. After lunch Wild Bill and I teamed up to put down ten more roosters, then returned to the lodge for another feast to celebrate a memorable day afield.
The next day we bid adieu to Tony and Wild Bill. Within two hours Dean Kayler and Greg Favretto arrived to take their places. Both are old shooting pals of mine, veterans of many a trip to Mexico and Argentina and colleagues in the seafood business, commonly known as “The Mackerel Mafia,” though Greg is sometimes referred to as “Doctor Pasta.” Greg Favretto’s wife, Peggy, came, too.
We had a nice reunion and happy hour drinking a fine Spanish wine called Mas Sidonis, and then moved to the dining table. We simply had to have seafood for dinner, and Tina did herself proud with delicious filets of wild-caught Alaska salmon honey-roasted in the oven with a sauce of guacamole and orange sections, garlic, salt, and pepper on a bed of green beans surrounded by three kinds of roasted potatoes. To finish up, we had the usual big fruit platter and a fine chocolate cheesecake called a tuxedo cake. We washed it all down with copious amounts of Silver Oak cabernet and finished up with miniature glasses of chilled lemoncello in front of the fireplace.
The cold temperature created a hard crust on the snow overnight, and the next day we crunched through it to enjoy perhaps the finest shooting of our stay. Eika pointed impeccably, and Dave’s Labs pushed 27 grand roosters into the air. Our guns roared all day long, bringing down every single bird. Two more wonderful days of wingshooting ensued, but alas, it was over all too soon.
George Hage has all the credentials for creating and operating a first-rate bird-shooting resort. He has hunted with some of the finest hunting and bird-shooting operators in the world. He has shot pheasants and partridges in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and a variety of upland birds in Lebanon. He has shot ducks and doves and perdiz in Argentina and Uruguay, and made several African safaris. He has hunted ducks in Arkansas, quail in Texas, and more ducks in Mexico. He has hunted at some of the top bird-shooting resorts in the U.S., the very places he is competing with now.
But most importantly, he has the vision, the determination, and the money to make V1 Ranch the best of the bunch.