The locations and species for upland bird hunting in North America seem endless. To help you get ready for your best bird season ever, we rounded up 6 great bird hunting trips and info you need to make them happen. From tactics and dogs to guns and loads, here’s how to get primed for the coming upland season.
1) Dixie Duo
Species: Doves and Bobwhite Quail
Best Bet: Experience old-time quail hunting in the piney woods at Blackwater River State Forest WMA in Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties in Florida’s Panhandle. Co-managed by the Florida Forest Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the WMA consists of more than 170,000 acres of rolling hills and drainages lined with titi thickets. The topography is characterized by vast stands of longleaf pines, wiregrass, and other wild grasses, and an understory of oaks and dogwoods. Routine prescribed burnings help forbs and grasses flourish. The 8,000-acre Apalachee WMA, two hours east on I-10 in Jackson County, is a miniature version of the Blackwater. A bonus here: about 300 acres of managed dove fields. Florida has a number of good dove fields within its WMA system, especially in the Panhandle, but its statewide Dove Club is unique. It consists of six “special opportunity” dove fields that are planted with choice dove grub like sunflowers, milo, and millet. It costs $150 to join the club and be able to participate in a hunt every other Saturday, provided you’re lucky enough to have your name drawn. Draw hunts are available for $35 per day.
Prime Time: Florida’s dove hunting begins in October, which coincides with the onset of the crisp fall weather that marks quail season in the South. Some of the best bobwhite hunting also occurs in January and February, after the deer hunters have left the fields and forests.
Top Dog: Typically, there’s a lot of wide-open space between quail coveys, so a hunter wants a hard-charging dog that has a lot of staying power. English or German shorthaired pointers are best suited for the job, with Brittanys ranking near the top of the list. An English setter trained to stay close to his handler is a good choice when hunting wild birds that tend to flush at the approach of a dog. Yellow Labs are to Southern dove fields what beagles are to rabbit country.
Load Up: Farm boys armed with single-shot Stevenses, country gentry swinging over/unders or side-by-sides, meat hunters carrying autoloaders such as the venerable Browning Sweet Sixteen–there’s no wrong choice when it comes to a quail gun. The decision is most often based on your circumstances. A lightweight over/under, side-by-side, or autoloader in 20-gauge, fitted with an improved cylinder choke and fed No. 7 ½ shot, will do the job. Given how much we shoot–and miss–in a dove field, recoil can be an issue. A lightweight semi-automatic 12-gauge such as the Remington 1100 is easy on the shoulder. For most dove hunts, a modified choke works well, but a full choke handling high-brass loads is better for long crossing shots. No. 7 ½ or 8 shot will do the trick.
The Challenge:** After bagging a limit of quail in the morning, head to the dove field for the evening flight. The hunter who can get his limit of 15 doves and average 3 shells per bird is a good shot. See how close you can come to a limit with just one box of shells. It won’t make ammo manufacturers happy, but it could do wonders for your ego.
Population Trends:** The general decline of quail populations that began in the 1960s throughout much of the South continues unabated. That being said, the birds are still prospering on private and public land actively managed for quail restoration. There’s never been a shortage of doves in the South–just of places to hunt them. That’s been changing for the better in the last few years, as states are setting aside land dedicated for dove hunting on WMAs, or actually leasing croplands from farmers and temporarily turning them into dove fields during hunting season.
2) Timber Rockets
Species: Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock
Best Bet: As residents of young, thick second-growth timber, ruffed grouse and American woodcock rely on forest disturbance to regenerate good habitat. New England was once prime, but the rolling forests and abandoned orchards grew old. The Appalachians offer decent hunting, but the habitat is limited. The Mountain West holds ruffs in select areas, but no woodcock.
That leaves the Upper Midwest as the last bastion of great grouse and woodcock hunting. Among these states, Minnesota is king. More birds are harvested here than in either Michigan or Wisconsin, and even in a poor year, visiting hunters are astounded at the grouse and woodcock numbers. Head to Minnesota’s north-central counties, specifically Itasca, Cass, and Beltrami, but also Aitkin, Crow Wing, and Koochiching. The Chippewa National Forest offers 666,623 acres of prime habitat. Public access abounds on state, county, and tax-forfeited lands, too. You could hunt many lifetimes here and never have to ask for permission or flush the same covert twice. Logging, fire, and windstorms are friends to grouse and woodcock and the hunters who chase them. Look for aspen blocks five to 10 years old (trunks from buggy-whip- to baseball-bat-thick) edging up to marshes or wetlands with tag alders, dogwood, willow, and other shrubs along the margins. Hunt these seams. Grouse trend to the dry side, timberdoodles to the wet edge (good woodcock cover looks like good grouse cover–your boots sink in a little). Also work edges and transitions between mature and young aspen; young aspen and pines, spruces, tamaracks, or cedars; and forest and meadow. Wander snowmobile paths, logging trails, and tote roads planted to clover.
Prime Time: Hunt the second week of October. Migrating woodcock are arriving then, and most of the leaves are down so you can see birds to shoot.
Load Up: The brush, briars, tangles, and thorns of good grouse and woodcock cover beat up fancy guns fast. Go with a tough 12-gauge pump (like a workhorse Remington 870) with a short barrel of 21 to 24 inches and an Improved Cylinder choke. Pumping helps you “catch up” to a rocketing grouse or dodging woodcock after an initial miss. Opt for a straight English stock so you can carry the firearm one-handed like a torch as your non-trigger hand moves brush away. Winchester’s AA Heavy Target Load with 1 1/8 ounces of No. 7 ½ shot will drop birds all season.
Top Dog: If you like flushers, a close-working springer spaniel is perfect for ruffs and woodcock. Keep him tight (within 10 to 15 yards) while he’s quartering ahead of you into the wind. When you have to loop across or go with the breeze, let the dog work small circles around you. As for pointing dogs, your best bet is a calm, cautious English setter. Let her glide nose-up through cover, and encourage her to point skittish ruffs at first whiff. Woodcock can be approached a lot closer, and a good dog soon learns the difference.
The Challenge: A full double limit of five grouse and three woodcock is awfully tough on even the best of days. Instead, go for a “double triple”–a limit of three woodcock (very doable if the birds are in), matched with a trio of ruffed grouse. Or go for the holy trinity of color-phase grouse in one day: a gray, a red, and an intergrade bird.
Population Trends: Ruffed grouse follow 10-year cycles in the Northwoods. While Minnesota birds are back on a downward trend, populations are still within sight of recent highs. Woodcock are having a harder time because they rely on ideal conditions across multiple regions for migrating and winter habitat. Fortunately, Minnesota is a stronghold of good woodcock populations, mostly because the logging industry keeps cutting back old, nonproductive forests.
3) Alpine Avians
Species: Blue and Spruce Grouse
Best Bet:** The southern limit of the western spruce grouse’s range is northern Washington, Idaho, and Montana, where they dwell near their larger cousin, the blue grouse. Idaho’s Panhandle National Forest and the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana are good places to find both birds. A hunter with mud on his boots is in the right place for mountain grouse.
During the warm days of early fall, blues are at the forest’s edge near springs, where they peck insects and munch moist plants like clover and snowberries. Grasshoppers are another favorite food, and at dawn the birds can be found in open parks seeking sluggish hoppers. By midmorning, the grouse waddle into the shade to loaf for the day. Spruce–aka dusky–grouse are tied to spruce and pine forests in various stages of fire renewal and small clear-cuts. The little black and mottled grouse stay on damp north-facing slopes and near springs and bogs, where they eat berries and buds. Last fall, I hunted both grouse in the Kootenai. For blues, I walked the edges of parks and ridgetops scattered with Douglas firs, and trailed veins of seeps and springs. The grouse flushed with a racket in singles, twos, and fives, their plumage the same diluted blue hue as the decayed deadfall. As the mornings warmed, I hiked over the tops to spruce bogs on north-facing slopes, cool and scented with ferns. Occasionally through the quiet came the spruce grouse’s soft clucks, like water dripping over rocks. The barred brown hens blended with the rough bark of the spruce tree trunks; the black males merged in the dark shadows, noticeable only by the red crest over their eyes.
Prime Time: September is the best month to hunt blue and spruce grouse. After the first frosts of the year kill insects and wither berries, both grouse turn to conifer needles, which impart a turpentine flavor and a leathery texture to baked grouse.
Load Up: The spruce grouse earned its nickname, “fool hen,” through naive behavior. Most are potted with either a blunt rubber-tipped arrow or a .22 LR handgun by big-game hunters. A shotgun is more honorable for blue grouse–but not too much gun, as hikes are long in steep and high country. My wife likes the light carry of her Beretta 20-gauge over/under, at a feather under 6 pounds. Most shots come at 20 to 35 yards, so she keeps an improved cylinder and a modified choke in the barrels. Her load is ¾ ounce of No. 7 ½, because even though they are the size of pheasants, these grouse don’t require a lot of killing.
Top Dog:** A flushing dog, like a Lab, works fine if she hunts close. I give my pointer some freedom to quarter. When she goes on point, I hurry up to her. It’s best to keep all dogs close once scent has evaporated in the heat of the day, as they’ll plow right through a flock.
Population Trends: Both grouse are keeping even with their long-term averages. However, populations vary greatly (as much as 60 to 80 percent) from one year to the next, depending on spring and summer weather. A wet June–but not too wet and cold–grows protective cover for chicks. Rain every couple of weeks throughout the summer hatches a continual supply of bugs, which chicks need for protein. Prescribed burns and small clear-cuts create early successional forests and edges that the grouse need.
4) Partridge Family
Species: Chukar and Huns
Best Bet: You’ll pay hell to get there, pay it again to hunt it, and pay double to get out, but its dramatic, isolated landscape–and the chukar and Huns that live in it–make Hell’s Canyon a bird hunter’s paradise. The tortuous path of the Snake River dividing Oregon and Idaho is the deepest canyon in North America, and virtually all of it is public land. On the Idaho side, approach via Highway 71 from Council or Forest Service roads from Riggins and White Bird. Or jet upriver from Lewiston or down from Hell’s Canyon Dam. On the Oregon side, take Highway 86 east from Baker City, or the Hat Point Road east from Imnaha.
One boot over the other, you’ll climb–sometimes 2,000 feet–before you even get into birds. Huns haunt the grass flats, tilted though they are, and chukar laugh from rocky slopes. As a bonus, you’ll often discover California quail along brushy stream courses, and blue and ruffed grouse pad the north-facing, forested ridges. Birds can be anywhere from the river’s edge to 8,000 feet up. Key on water (creeks or springs show as green oases on the seared yellow slopes) before fall rains kick in. Listen for chukar and approach from above. When snow pushes birds down, hunt the edge of the snow line, watching for tracks and droppings. When you find birds, continue at that elevation.
Prime Time: Be there for the opener, usually mid-September in Idaho and early October in Oregon. Birds concentrate around springs and creeks or along the river. Late December snow squeezes them into valley bottoms, and January can be good, too, if the snow sticks.
Load Up: Leave the heirlooms at home–if you hunt a day without falling, you’re Olympic gymnast material. I like the light weight and three-round capacity of my 5 ½-pound Franchi 48AL in 20-gauge. Many a gentleman gunner has returned from a chukar hunt a semi-auto convert. Spend half a day cornering a dozen chukar or huns only to take a long poke at a wild flusher, and you’ll kick yourself when the rest swarm up at your feet and you have just one shot left. Magnum charges are not necessary; 2 ¾-inch shells throwing an ounce of No. 6 shot–maybe No. 5s in late season–are perfect. Modified and IC chokes suffice, but bring a cylinder tube for early-season hunts and a full choke late. Seasoned birds can flush at 40 yards.
Top Dog: A chukar dog in Hell’s Canyon needs be versatile and tough in order to cover this vertical terrain paved with loose, abrasive rock. He should point and be willing to hold that point for the half hour it might take you to reach him. And then he must be eager to drop 300 feet, retrieve the fallen bird, and climb back up with it–again and again. Muscular German shorthairs and wirehairs, pudelpointers, Gordon setters, Vizslas, and Weimaraners excel. Don’t forget dog boots, a first aid kit, 20 feet of rope (to lower the dog off ledges), and lots of water.
Population Trends: Hun numbers increased last year and have been trending upward for a decade, but drought dried up chukar recruitment in 2011 and 2012. Chukar numbers could bounce back, depending on spring nesting and brood rearing conditions, but a dry winter didn’t help. Rains are needed, but extended, cool rains during hatching can kill chicks. Somehow, though, come autumn chukar always seem to be laughing from the hillsides.
5) Desert dynamos
Species: Scaled, Gambel’s, Mearns, and California Quail
Best Bet: Arizona’s Coronado National Forest in the southeastern portion of the state covers almost 1.8 million acres of Sonoran Desert and mountains. The largest city in the region is Tucson, but more of the hunting is centered around Nogales, to the south. Mild temperatures and abundant food and cover make the Coronado a haven for scaled, Gambel’s, and Mearns quail. Search out areas in the valleys and foothills that offer this ideal habitat–the quail likely won’t be far away. Early in the season, look for scaled and Gambel’s quail at lower elevations in the mornings and spend the afternoons hunting in mixed timber for Mearns quail. Spend time pinpointing habitat near water sources and give special attention to southeastern slopes that are protected from the sun. Areas with a mix of open ground and patches of low-growing grasses mixed with oaks, cacti, and forbs are the ticket. Most quail species have a small home area, so once you locate productive habitat, expect to find quail there year after year. If you seek California quail, your best bet is the Owyhee Range in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. Focus your efforts along waterways with cottonwood trees and work your way along the edge of the cover with or without a dog.
Prime Time: December hunts are best for Arizona quail. The weather is cooler and quail will be located near water. You can hunt all three species (Gambel’s, scaled, and Mearns), and you won’t be facing the opening-day crowds. For quail farther north, anytime from late October to early December will work.
Top Dog: German shorthairs are the favored breed because their short hair is suitable for hunting in the desert and their keen sense of smell allows them to find birds in the dry, dusty terrain. No matter which breed you choose, be on the lookout for snakes and watch for thorns in the dog’s feet. Keep plenty of water handy, and avoid hunting altogether on especially hot days.
Load Up: Benelli’s Ultra Light 28-gauge weighs just 5 pounds, so it’s easy to carry all day long. The Inertia System functions reliably, and oftentimes that third shot is valuable when trying to pick birds out of a covey. Most standard 7/8-ounce shells work well, but Fiocchi’s nickel-plated Golden Pheasant with either No. 6 or 7 ½ shot gives consistent patterns and offers plenty of power for quail. Most quail hunters are overchoked; unless the birds are flushing at 20 yards, stick with an improved cylinder, and spend some time at the trap range prepping for the season.
The Challenge: Taking all three of the common Arizona quail (Gambel’s, Mearns, and scaled) in a single day is an impressive and memorable feat. This is best accomplished late in the season, when the birds are more stationary and all three species can be found in heavy sheltering cover.
Population Trends: Unlike their Eastern cousins, Western quail are flourishing. Mearns quail are the least common in Arizona, but bird numbers remain consistent. Farther north, California quail are abundant and common. Research into the population factors for Western quail has shown that regulated hunting has very little impact on any species, and the money generated by hunters through licenses, tags, equipment, and conservation organizations helps support habitat and research.
6) Prairie Slam
Species: Pheasants, Sharptails, Huns, and Sage Grouse
Best Bet: Lewistown, Montana, in the geographic center of the state, is the perfect base for a public-land prairie bird bonanza. Fergus County, for which Lewistown is the seat, holds pheasants, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, and sage grouse. Stunning buttes and mountain ranges serve as surreal backdrops for the plethora of public state and federal land. Two keystone Pheasants Forever wildlife habitat projects are 45 minutes from Lewistown. Six miles north of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Denton (pop. 254), the 800-acre Coffee Creek Block Management Area is situated between 320-acre and 880-acre parcels of land, and all three areas are open to public hunting. The conservation group also acquired a 1,000-acre parcel known as the Wolf Creek Property–14,000 contiguous acres open to public walk-in hunting–8 miles east of Denton. You can find pheasants, sharpies, and Huns on these properties. Look for pheasants in the thicker cover and along creek bottoms, and search the shorter grasses and stubble for the covey birds. Tree and shrub lines can yield any of the species, depending on time of day and conditions.
Prime Time: Let the residents own the weekend pheasant opener (October 12-13). Hunt Monday through Friday, when they’re back at the office. Load Up: When you’re hunting wide-open country and piling up the miles, you want as light a firearm as possible. My pick is a 20-gauge Browning Cynergy packed with Federal’s one-ounce No. 6 Prairie Storm. This combo provides enough punch to drop a rooster, as well as knock down skittish sharpies, Huns, and sage grouse. Plus, proceeds from every box of Prairie Storm benefits pheasant habitat.
Top Dog:** There’s a reason top professional pointing dog trainers migrate to this part of Montana every summer–the state’s wild birds have a knack for nurturing bird dogs. An English setter or pointer, or a German shorthaired pointer, can cover the abundant public ground found in Big Sky country.
The Challenge: Collect a three-species mixed bag that includes a limit of either three pheasants or four sharptails around Lewistown, then head to northern Fergus County or bust west to Petroleum County and work the brush for sage grouse.
Population Trends:** Since 2007, Montana has lost nearly 1.5 million acres (42 percent) of its Conservation Reserve Program acreage, which, predictably, has affected the bird populations. Lack of habitat not only reduces nesting and feeding acreage, it negatively impacts winter survival rates and the birds’ ability to evade predators. A new federal Farm Bill with strengthened conservation measures could help stem this loss of habitat. Sharptails–a native bird of Montana–would benefit from proposed “sodsaver” legislation that discourages landowners from plowing up native prairie to plant cash crops.
Illustration by: Tim McDonagh