Old West wingshooting at Castle Valley Outdoors
by Ed Carroll
Jim Fauver didn’t intend to stay long when he first traveled to the Castle Valley region of central Utah, but now he has been there for decades. It is an area of stunning landscapes, where towers and buttes of sandstone and shale dominate the skyline; it is also a rugged and austere land of sagebrush and sparse grass—the arid Old West of cowboy movies—and it is well off the beaten path.
It doesn’t look like bird hunting country, suitable perhaps only for pockets of the hardiest breed of chukar. But near the small town of Emery, inside the ranch gate at Castle Valley Outdoors, water—meandering Muddy Creek—turns the valley floor into an oasis of verdant bottomland and a riparian zone with towering cottonwoods. And the valley does, indeed, hold birds, as it has come to hold Fauver, who started work there in 1999 and has managed Castle Valley Outdoors for many years.
“It’s the most picturesque place you’ll ever hunt,” Fauver said during a two-day visit I made with friend Marty Grabijas last December. From the main lodge to the dogs to the bird hunting, the experience has been fashioned to meet the standards of an Orvis-endorsed Wingshooting Lodge, an endorsement CVO achieved in 2005 and a bona fide it alone holds in Utah. “We spend a lot of time and effort growing and creating wildlife habitat,” Fauver said—and it is abundant from every vantage point in the hunting fields.
Hemmed by the dramatic panorama of the landscape, the valley drew homesteaders in the late 19th Century, and weathered buildings and the marker for a common grave area are testament to that history. Current owner Woody Johnson and his late father, Glendon, bought Castle Valley Ranch in 1994. The property now comprises 12,400 acres at the main location, with much of the area above the valley used to graze cattle. The valley includes more than 11 miles of lush river bottom managed for silage crops and wildlife habitat, with 12 separate areas dedicated to bird hunting from September 15 to March 15. When bird hunting ends, the cattle are moved down for a month to graze on the leftover timothy, wheatgrass and cover crops. After a single early harvest, the second planting is a wildlife mix left for the birds.
Marty and I had driven west from his home in Durango, Colorado, with his eight-year-old Lab, Joker. We had met more than a decade before when Marty had designed one of the first upland packs with modern materials and features that made his Mother brand a hit among backcountry hunters. He had trained Joker to NAHRA working-retriever standards and hunted him through many upland seasons. Sadly, Joker had been diagnosed with cancer in mid-September and was going through chemotherapy. We had scheduled the visit between treatments, when he’d be strongest, to ensure one epic bird-finding spree just in case it turned out to be his last.
From start to finish over our two-day hunt, the bird fields and brush lines of Castle Valley were everything we had hoped for. We enjoyed deep-blue skies and a comfortable chill—and plenty of pheasants and chukar. Wild Gambel’s and valley (California) quail can be part of the package, as well, though they were not on our agenda and required “getting into the very thick cover down along the river bottom,” according to Fauver. Nearly all of our hunting was relaxed walking in and around fields of cover crops, though we also chose to hunt into washes and heavier cover.
On our first morning our young guide, Kannon Toomer, put down a pair of the lodge’s 20-plus German shorthairs. The dogs ranged well and pinned pheasants in the thigh-deep crops and a few chukar around the edges. We hunted an area called the Orchard Fields, named for the ancient fruit trees that line one edge.
For us, though, Joker stole the show, coursing energetically but with a veteran’s discipline, covering the ground methodically on Marty’s side of the field and hunting within proper flushing-retriever range. We watched him closely for the quickened pace and maneuvers of birdiness. He was in top form all morning, putting up pheasants and chukar as birds fled his stutter-step approach or all-out charges, and he proved steadier to flush than the “pros.”
Castle Valley offers an all-inclusive hunt with an unlimited bag, and we took almost 20 birds before lunch, the vast majority being pheasants. Fauver described the bird population as approximately 60 percent pre-released and the remainder either wild or essentially so, the latter applying especially to the chukar.
This success—with plenty of birds and plenty of shooting—made us feel good. It did not feel good that the restored and upgraded A.H. Fox Marty had loaned me, for reasons of stock length, grip shape or unfamiliarity, was pounding the base of my middle finger with the trigger guard at every shot. For the afternoon I borrowed the other gun Marty had brought: a pristine side-by-side made by Emil Flues of Ithaca Gun fame that weighed a lithe six-plus pounds with 30-inch barrels. The next day I used a B. Rizzini field-grade 20-gauge over/under from the lodge’s rack that was a new arrival and fit me well.
After a break for a lodge lunch hearty enough for a cowboy, we headed farther up the valley to fields around the Jacobsen homestead, established in the late 1800s amidst the wild backdrop of high redoubts and castellated spires. Jacobsen descendants stayed on into the 1940s, and visitors get a sense of that history from the bleached remains of a low cabin and small barn.
Marty rested Joker for the afternoon, so Kannon put down three GSPs from the ranch’s kennel. The cover and birds proved sparser here, though the numbers still were excellent. The dogs found more chukar than pheasants, with most holding in the brushy field edges and around the old buildings. The birds held well; Spade, Tonto and Pete locked reliably into backing honors; and the chukar, when flushed, burst up and out in singles, twos and threes, beelining for the safety of the steep slopes a half-mile away. It all made for less-frequent-but-more-challenging shooting.
At the lodge that evening—after plenty of time to care for gear, clean up and enjoy some socializing—we helped ourselves to a buffet of perfectly grilled steaks, potatoes, plenty of vegetables, sides and salad. All three meals each day were delicious and plentiful, with lots of variety. As with all of the staff we met, the kitchen crew was genuinely friendly and thoroughly professional.
The Castle Valley Connection
Castle Valley Outdoors is about a 2½-hour drive from Salt Lake City. Private airstrips are available in two locations, each about an hour from the lodge.
Between the main lodge and two satellite buildings—the Pioneer House and Muddy Creek Lodge—Castle Valley offers a total of 15 guest rooms.
Wingshooting packages include meals, lodging, unlimited-bag guided hunts, the use of lodge guns, two boxes of shells per day, bird cleaning and packing, and use of the ranch’s 5 Stand setup.
Guided fly-fishing, big-game hunting and predator hunting are also available, as are scenic tours. Guests have full use of ATVs and the stocked trout pond.
For more information on Castle Valley Outdoors, visit castlevalleyoutdoors.com.
The dining area shares a high, vaulted ceiling with a comfortable lounge sporting leather chairs and heavy oak furnishings—the two spaces divided by a massive floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace. With their Western décor and plenty of windows looking out onto the valley, the lodge and its rooms are perfectly rustic-deluxe and comfortable. Guests want for nothing.
While it was chilly in the evenings during our visit (the trout pond froze over), the allure of a roaring blaze in the fire pit on the lawn was too great to pass up. The clear skies provided a blanket of stars arching overhead as we relaxed in the comfortable furniture by the glow.
Our second day started in Tombstone Field, a large plateau of grasses and forbs that runs to the base of a ridge. Joker rejoined us, hunting with enthusiasm and putting up the occasional chukar and pheasant the length of the field. In the open as we were, there weren’t many layups, and long crossers required conscious, pull-away shooting. On the way back to the truck, Marty hunted Joker closer, letting the GSPs cover more ground.
That afternoon we closed on a high note, enjoying a relaxed hunt in some of the sweetest bottomland in the valley. After combing through a grove of old cottonwoods, we headed downstream to Wheatgrass Field for the magical couple of hours before sunset.
Our last hurrah was in a patch that was unplowed and overgrown, undulating ahead of us through an old wash and up a bank and then sloping behind toward the damp of the creek itself. That’s where my favorite photo from Castle Valley was taken: of Joker in the glowing light of late afternoon retrieving a final rooster. The bird’s head is up and its wings are wrapped awkwardly around the dog’s face—not a perfect photo by any stretch, but it captures the moment and the dog’s joy in the hunt. It’s a reminder to seek the best places and moments we can gather and to hunt while we can.