One of the biggest challenges facing upland bird hunters is finding good hunting opportunities for wild birds without paying exorbitant access fees. Keep your wallet in your pocket–we’ve found six great upland hunting destinations around the country on everyone’s property.
These public lands are accessible to anyone with a valid license, although sometimes a permit is necessary. Contact the appropriate agencies to verify seasons and check on special requirements before planning your hunt. Also be aware that wild upland bird populations can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, depending upon weather.
1 THE BADDEST QUAIL
Of America’s six quail species, the mountain quail is the largest and most difficult to bag because of the habitat it favors. Try for these tough birds in California’s 1.2 million-acre Sierra National Forest in Fresno and Madera counties, where mountain quail populations are good to excellent in most years. Keep your eyes peeled for blue grouse. You’re apt to flush a few of them here, too.
Avoid opening weekend, when hunting pressure is higher, but hunt before fall rains scatter quail throughout the forest. Focus on clear-cuts, stands of mountain whitethorn and other areas of thick, brushy cover near water. Approach downward from the uphill side, as mountain quail prefer to run uphill and fly down. Get in really good shape before you try this hunt.
The season runs from September 16 through January 30 for mountain quail, September 11 through October 11 for blue grouse. The limits are 10 quail and two grouse daily.
The city of Oakhurst makes a good base of operations (559-683-7766, www.oakhurstchamber.com). While you’re in town, sample the excellent fresh seafood on the menu at Crabcake’s Restaurant.
Must-see: From your hotel in Oakhurst, you’re only 13 miles from the gate of Yosemite National Park.
2. THIS ISN’T OZ–OR IS IT?
Bobwhite quail, prairie chicken, and ring-necked pheasant ranges overlap in north-central Kansas. You and Toto will find ample room to hunt all three species on the 11,300-acre Glen Elder Wildlife Area and the 5,200-acre Lovewell Wildlife Area. Both are located west of Concordia. If you still have boot leather left, try some of the tracts enrolled in the state’s Walk-In Hunting Area (WIHA) program, which provides public access on select private lands.
Look for ringnecks, quail and prairie chickens in native grassland plantings near grain fields. This region has a generally hospitable attitude toward bird hunters; morning coffee-shop conversations with farmers can often turn up invitations to hunt private lands. Some of these are superb.
Pheasant and quail seasons are scheduled for November 13 through January 31, with daily bag limits of four and eight, respectively. Prairie chicken season runs November 6 through January 31, with a daily bag limit of two.
Concordia has many accommodations in all price ranges. (800-343-4290; www.dustdevil.com/towns/concordia)
At the end of a hunting day, comfort your sore legs with good pub grub at Jammer’s Sports Pub and Grill on East Sixth Street in Concordia.
Must-see: Two lovely historic buildings in Concordia warrant a tour: the Brown Grand Theater and the Nazareth Motherhouse. The Brown Grand is an opera house dating back to 1906, and the Nazareth Motherhouse is a beautiful 19th-century convent.
3. MICHIGAN DOUBLES
The grouse cycle is up again in Michigan, and Kalkaska County is tops in the Lower Peninsula. The Pere Marquette State Forest occupies about half the county, with most of the public land lying in the southeast and northwest quadrants of the county.
Plan your hunt for late October and you might find woodcock, too. Both species are highly dependent on thick, second-growth habitat. Look for “beanpole”-sized aspens and alders. If the weather turns foul, hunt the edges of a cedar swamp.
Woodcock season opened September 25 and continues through November 8, with a daily bag limit of three timberdoodles. Grouse season is much longer and more generous, running September 15 through November 14 and December 1 through January 1, with a daily limit of five grouse.
The city of Kalkaska makes a convenient base for your hunt. (231-258-9103; www.kalkaskami.com)
When you get really hungry, stop by Whitetail’s Steak and Ale in Kalkaska for its Friday night perch fry or Saturday night prime rib buffet.
Must-see: Take a drive up highways 31 and 22 around the shores of Grand Traverse Bay. Stop at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and have a look at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Tours are given daily from noon to 4 p.m. through October.
4. BLUEGRASS BIRDS
Despite what John Prine once sang, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has not hauled away Muhlenberg County, Ky. On the contrary, 60,000 acres of reclaimed Peabody strip mines now offer good hunting to the public. The Peabody WMA is chock full of turkeys. Quail can also be found on the area wherever suitable habitat exists.
If turkeys are your quarry, get out on the ridges on a calm morning or evening and listen for the yelps and flapping of turkeys at fly-up or fly-down. Early the next morning after they’ve flown down, run screaming and hollering toward the flock when you find it, in hopes of scattering the birds in all directions. Then lure them to you with a kee-kee run, which is a comeback call. Locate quail similarly, by listening at daylight for the bob-WHITE whistles of the cocks, or the hens’ Purr-RIT-tee.
A small user fee might be required in addition to your Kentucky hunting license. Check ahead. Quail season is set for November 15 through February 10, with a limit of eight birds daily. Turkey season runs September 4 through January 17 for archers; October 23-29 and December 4-10 for shotgunners. The limit is one.
My favorite hub in the western coalfields is Owensboro, about 40 minutes away. (270-926-1860; www.owensboro.com)
One reason I like Owensboro is because it’s home to the Moonlite Barbecue Inn, where the best barbecued pork and mutton in the solar system is served. If you get the chance, eat there.
Must-see: The Peabody WMA is only about an hour away from Mammoth Cave National Park, which lies east of Brownsville on Highway 70.
5. MOUNTAIN PHEASANTS
The “Endless Mountains” region of northeastern Pennsylvania might not be the first place that comes to mind when pheasants are mentioned. But Bradford County, located in this region, has nearly 20,000 acres of State Game Lands where pheasants are stocked regularly by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Ringnecks are released during each of the three hunting seasons here, so don’t overlook the late hunts. Hens are also legal game. Look for thick cover in the valleys, hunt during the week if possible and use a good dog to get birds missed by weekend hunters.
The split season runs October 23 through November 27, December 13-23, and December 27 through February 5. The limit is two pheasants daily, with four in possession.
Numerous hotels are available in Scranton, but the Endless Mountains region is famous for its antique bed and breakfast establishments and country inns. (800-229-3526)
While you’re in the neighborhood, clean yourself up and order the Andalucian braised duck at the Stone Bridge Inn in Union Dale.
Must-see: Hunt early in the season and enjoy the fall colors throughout this region, which has many scenic driving routes.
6. PECAN COUNTRY DOVES
The fertile Rio Grande valley near Las Cruces, New Mexico, is famous for its vast pecan orchards, which fatten pesky hordes of white-winged doves. Bureau of Land Management tracts around Las Cruces provide the best chance to hunt America’s biggest and rarest dove.
Hunt early in the season, before whitewings head south for Central America. Try the BLM lands adjacent to large dairy operations between Las Cruces and El Paso, where cornfields draw doves like a magnet. Take up a shooting station near a watering hole in early morning or late afternoon.
The second half of the dove season is December 1-30, with a daily limit of 15 doves (aggregate of white-winged and mourning doves).
Hotels are numerous in Las Cruces (505-524-1968, www.lascruces.org). For grub, try La Posta restaurant in Mesilla, south of Las Cruces. Bring a strong antacid and order combination platter No. 2 with a house margarita.
Must-see: Sights in Mesilla include a historic Spanish mission and the court where Billy the Kid was tried.
CALIFORNIA Maps and Information: Sierra National Forest, www.fs.fed.us/r5; California Department of Fish and Game, Fresno office, 559-297-0706, www.dfg.ca.gov/hunting/index.html. Download the excellent Guide to Hunting Quail in California from the California Fish and Game Web site, or call for a hard copy.
KANSAS Maps and Information: Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Region 1 Office, 785-628-8614, www.kdwp.state.ks.us. On the KDWP Web site, go to the hunting section, where you’ll find information on state and federal hunting areas, as well as a downloadable WIHA atlas.
KENTUCKY Maps and Information: Kentucky Fish and Game, 800-858-1549, www.kyafield.com.
MICHIGAN Maps and Information: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, 231-775-9727, www.michigan.gov/dnr.
NEW MEXICO Maps and Information: New Mexico Game and Fish Department, 505-476-8000, www.wildlife.state.nm.us; BLM Las Cruces Field Office, 505-522-9796, www.nm.blm.gov.
PENNSYLVANIA Maps and Information: Pennsylvania Game Commission, Northeast Regional Office, 570-675-1143, www.pgc.state.pa.us; Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau, 800-769-8999, www.endlessmountains.org. Click the “State Game Lands” link on the Pennsylvania Game Commission Web site and you’ll find maps of public lands by region.
Fashionable Bird Hunting
The Gun Dog Vest (top) from Boyt has a durable mesh back for comfort on those warm days afield or when you want to wear something light over thicker clothes. The bloodproof game bag is removable. The vest (about $110) has plenty of shell loops covered with Velcro flaps to prevent losses when you bend over. There’s also a chest holster to secure an electronic dog-collar transmitter–not that you’ll ever need to use it with your favorite hunting companion.
I’m also fond of Boyt’s Upland Chaps (about $50), which are available in nylon or waxed canvas (bottom). They’re rugged and comfortable and have zip sides for easy on and off over boots.