We are down to the wire. For most of us, the upland bird opener is a matter of days away, with all the joys and trepidation that come with the start of a new bird hunting season. We’ve waited, planned, practiced, anticipated, maybe dreaded, everything from the alarm clock’s buzz to the smell of Hoppe’s Number Nine, to the post-hunt celebration.

Okay, I’ll say it: Kind of like Christmas Eve.

But ensuring a fantastic opener takes more than trusting to luck. Relying on a wing and a prayer is not a strategy. Orchestrate your first day afield to ensure a safer, more enjoyable start for you and your dog. Here’s how:

Gear: Like any athletic event, half the game is in your head. Familiar gear and mastery of it creates a level of confidence in both hunters. Shoot the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one last year. Then, pack a spare shotgun and extra ammo. Are you wearing your broken-in boots and lucky hat or vest? You’ll have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff but on that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, or at least bring the user’s manual.
And you packed it all into your truck last night, right?

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, hunt a spot you know. Again, you will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply couldn’t resist the siren song of a new covert, then I assume you’ve already done your research, talked to the regional biologist and brought that topo map, right?

People: You invited the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while you handle the dog if necessary, holding off when you are working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds if that’s your preference. You’ve already secured permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands. You’ve left a responsible party with a note of your destination and a map of the place. They know when to call the sheriff if you’ve not returned.

Dogs: To enhance performance and stamina, and guard against the risk of stomach twist, you didn’t feed him this morning. You will run him through a quick drill of obedience and field commands before you unclip the lead. He gets to run solo for a while, free of competition and distraction from another dog. You’ve brought plenty of water for him, and a high-fat snack for quick energy in the field. And please, please, promise you’ll carefully monitor his behavior in the opening-day heat. When the guns are cased you’ll give him a nose-to-tail check for cuts, seeds in eyes, broken nails, etc.

It looks like a lot, but you’re in it for the long run. In many states, bird season is four or five months long. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Might as well make it the right step, in the best place, with a good partner, and a dog that will be able to work for you all season.