Pheasant hunters flock to Northwest Colorado

Maybell ranch offers unique bird-hunting experience

It took hundreds of years for pheasants to make their way from China to their new and temporary home on Paul Gowdy's ranch in Maybell.

Gowdy is the owner of a pheasant hunting operation, where people come from hundreds of miles to experience a bird hunt that rivals those found in South Dakota and on the plains of Kansas.

As the season for hunting pheasants gears up, Gowdy is worried that the 1,400 pheasants and 500 chukars that call his coops home are not enough to meet the demand of the hunters.

"Last year, we went through 5,000 birds," Gowdy said.

Usually, he buys his pheasants at a day old, so he can brood them himself, the 30-year Maybell resident said.

Construction projects kept him too busy this season, so he purchased 5-week-old birds to grow in his coop. Gowdy currently has his flock ready for the season that runs from about mid-September until March.

The hunts are conducted on five ranches that form a 1,000-acre private preserve between Colorado Highway 318 and the Yampa River.

Gowdy has a commercial game-farm license that allows him to raise Mongolian ring-neck pheasants.

"All pheasants hail from China. There are 52 species of them," Gowdy said. "These are a cross between Mongolian and Manchurian pheasants."

The chukars roaming the coops are actually Hungarian partridges, a species now found in the wild in Colorado after releases by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Raising birds is no simple task, Gowdy said.

"It's tough in the brooding stage," he said. "They are very susceptible to water-borne or air-borne diseases. You need to keep everything really clean and dry until they're old enough."

Gowdy said that at 2 to 3 weeks, the birds are allowed into a day-run, a small outdoor pen, if the weather is nice.

At 5 weeks old, the birds are transferred to the flight pens -- outdoor coops with netting over the top to prevent escapes.

Here, the birds can stretch their wings and learn to fly, but they are also exposed to the hazards of living outdoors.

Gowdy has experienced losses in his flock from foxes, hawks and great horned owls on his ranch.

He gets his pellet feed from Snyder and Counts, which mixes a special blend for the birds. That is what makes them taste good "when they hit the table," he said.

Gowdy said it's important not to let the birds overeat, but a good feed also counts for a lot in the taste department.

"We're looking for fast, hard flying birds that taste great," he said. "That's the name of the game."

And it's big game hunters who are a large part of Gowdy's clientele. Hunters looking for a break in their deer and elk hunts will set aside a day for bird hunting at the preserve.

For a starting cost of $100 per hunter, pheasants are released with various types of cover for the birds to hide in.

"Everybody asks about cover when they come to hunt. We have corn, hay, alfalfa, grass and sagebrush," Gowdy said. "We also have trees, and down by the river, there are lots of cattails. We have cover here that will skunk your dog."

Training for hunting dogs is also one of the big reasons hunters come to the Maybell ranch.

Gowdy has some well-known guides who come to train their hunting dogs.

Hunts often begin with shooting skeet to warm up the hunters and to get the dogs used to gunshots.

Corporations will sometimes organize hunts for clients or employees. Gowdy can take a dozen hunters out without being crowded on the preserve, and he will have lunch waiting when they return to the ranch.

Gowdy is quick to respond to comments that these hunts are less sportsmanlike than you might find hunting in the wild.

"You can pay hundreds to hunt in eastern Colorado on a farm, and maybe you'll get one bird," he said. "Once I turn these birds loose, they have wings. When they're freed, they're as wild as any bird."

Gowdy said that the chukars are especially fun to hunt.

"They're hard to hit," he said. "They hold well. Sometimes you can walk right up on them. They make for a great shoot."

Many pheasant hunters are looking for that long, distinctive tail that pheasant are known for.

"People want good looking birds with nice tails. Twenty-four inches is a good tail," Gowdy said. "This kind of weather -- the rain and cold -- makes the tails grow fast, maybe two inches a day."

Business has been so good that Gowdy has never needed to advertise. Word of mouth has kept his hunters coming back for the four years he's been in operation.

Working with his brother Dave as Gowdy Construction keeps Paul busy enough, and he can make more money in that profession than in raising birds. But he has no plans to quit this business.

"I do it because it's something for the kids -- mine, my brother's and the neighbors'," Gowdy said. "Seeing them shoot their first pheasant, that's something."

He calls his 4-year-old son, Noah, a professional bird-farmer, and said he helps out with the pheasants.

As for the hunters who stop by each year to get their bird before heading home, Gowdy said, "I make sure you have fun. Nobody goes away disappointed."

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.