By Scott Linden
The pointers stood quivering as we dismounted and bulled our way through tufts of bluestem bunchgrass toward a skittering covey of wild Hungarian partridge. Two shots, one bird down—a propitious beginning to our horseback hunt at Oregon’s Ruggs Ranch.
Ruggs is at the nexus of paths trod long ago by natives, fur trappers, Oregon Trail pioneers and cowboys. Astride a horse, one is immersed in the legacy. For those less inclined to buckaroo life, the sere hills, rocky draws, lush creek bottoms, cropfields and vast plains offer walk-up shooting for pheasants, valley quail, Huns and chukars. Afoot or on horseback, be forewarned: Some of the climbs will leave you breathless—but the exhilaration is worth the exhaustion.
Ruggs’ entire operation covers almost 100,000 sprawling acres in the northeast corner of Oregon near Heppner. Wild birds are hunted on 21,000 acres of prairies, canyons and foothills of the Blue Mountains, while much of the 8,000-acre preserve portion is just steps from the lodge and (thankfully) level. Even so, one might be tempted to stay inside, where a rustic elegance includes vintage Western movie posters reflecting the “working side” of what is still—over a ridge and far away—a working cattle ranch. Taxidermy includes a pouncing cougar, and furnishings are cowboy-chic with a touch of Pendleton.
Pointers work in concert with energetic spaniels, which dash among the sagebrush to put birds in the air. A compact sporting clays course will dial in your shooting eye, and the rustically haute cuisine will fuel you.
You’ll be guided by laid-back staff supervised by Ruggs owner John Flynn, a stickler for detail. A gathering room showcases big-game trophies, a gun-cleaning station, lockers, and pool and shuffleboard tables.
Ruggs manages much of its habitat solely for hunting. Nurturing and retaining birds are priorities. On the preserve, birds are liberated in spring and summer and “wild up” by the season’s start. From the deck overlooking Rhea Creek, you’ll hear roosters crow in the fields and chukars call from the rocky crags. Coyotes singing in the distance are a bonus.
Intimate, personal and hosting a maximum of 16 guests, Ruggs Ranch is no corporate chorus line of blockers and drivers whipped in by drill-sergeant-cum guides. The pace is cowboy casual, like a John Wayne drawl.
Halfway up a draw, you may find yourself on a faint path trod by hunters carrying bows and stone-tipped arrows long ago. At Ruggs you venture back in time, hunting where game has been pursued for millennia—and still is.
For more information, visit huntruggs.com.