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Upland Birds Tips To Tip The Scales In Your Favor

by Rev. Dr. David Q. Hall   |  November 17th, 2011 0

photo by Ron Sinfelt

“There’s one!” my truck-driving friend almost shouted. A plump ruffed grouse sat just on the edge of the little, rocky, mountain road. “I’ll ease the truck up; if he doesn’t move, stick your shotgun out the window and bust ‘im!”

“No!” I shouted. “I’ll get out here, walk up slowly, and try to get close enough that when he flushes, I’ll have a shot.” Leaning wearily on the steering wheel of the pickup, my rancher friend gave me his classic “another fool flatlander city boy” glare.

“I thought you wanted grouse for supper.”

I knew what Dave was thinking. What I proposed was not a very efficient way to put meat on the table — and not the most efficient use of his precious time, he having volunteered to drive me up the slopes on his big ranch to find birds. “Trust me, it’s more fun my way,” I assured him as I slipped my 20-gauge pump out of its case — another unnecessary complication in his book. But where we were, shooting out of the vehicle was not just unsporting, but illegal — a “double whammy” in my book.

“I’ll sneak up there and take him on the wing,” I assured him. And I did — a fairly easy straightaway shot. At least having a bird in the bag made my friend feel a bit better about my foolishness,. In a partial morning I took my five-grouse limit on that slope.

WHERE TO GO
I have successfully hunted ruffed grouse, blue grouse, chukars and quail all over our western states. There is literally a bonanza of under-utilized opportunities to hunt upland birds in all those mountainous areas and the canyon country that abounds, too. There is a good chance that the grouse I harvested that recent fall had never been hunted at all. If you don’t have a specific area in mind, there are several things you can do to find out where to go.

Contact the department of natural resources in the state you’re interested in … or even better, a regional office or a conservation officer/ranger in the specific area you want to try. They will often have an upland bird specialist on staff; and he or she will have a good idea of where there is apt to be a huntable population of the birds you’re after — and where you can try without trespassing concerns. Sometimes a helpful officer will even have a rancher contact who wouldn’t mind if you ask permission to hunt on his land.

Just about ideal was the situation I described on that grouse hunt — especially once we got past my friend’s frustration with making the whole grouse-on-the-table objective more involved than he thought necessary. If you have a rancher friend like I did — or know someone who knows someone, it saves a lot of trial and error. Driving around their ranchland, they see the birds on those roadsides and often have a shotgun in the rack or behind the seat. The landowner will know where birds are, or at least where to start looking.

HABITAT
The ruffed grouse I harvested above were pretty much like ruffed grouse anywhere they’re found in the United States — they love young aspens, thick brambles and bushes with sheltering conifers not far away — and especially “edges.” They hang out on the edges where roadside brush meets the road, where they can sun, dust and pick up gravel for their crops. They like the edges where tall, mature aspen transitions into open, meadow areas with edges of young aspen saplings and shoots. They like the edges where aspen grows next to the pines, spruce and juniper that provide them with roosting shelter from wind, storms and predators, both in the air and on the ground.

While the bigger blue grouse (also called “fool hens”) have just slightly different habitat preferences, they are often found in the same cover as the ruffed grouse. My five-bird bag contained a couple of blue grouse with the ruffs. The blues will seldom be found any distance from the evergreens they love; both of these common grouse in our western states like to be within walking distance of water — usually a mountain stream or brook.

DOG OR NO DOG?
Any veteran upland bird hunter knows that there are few joys granted us that are better or more fun than hunting with a good, well-trained bird dog. Having hunted with both, I’m personally fine with either a pointing breed or a retriever, so long as it’s — repeat the mantra — “good and well-trained.” A poorly-trained dog — or when you experience “that dog won’t hunt,” as indeed I have — is far worse than no dog at all.

Slightly larger than its cousin the ruffed grouse, the blue grouse often inhabits similar terrain and is nearly always found close to evergreens. Photo by Eric J. Hansen.

My best dog for all the upland birds we have in the West — grouse, pheasants, quail, chukars — was my black lab, Sheba. She hunted close, had an excellent nose and found what birds were there. We had a simple but powerful understanding: she’d find ‘em and flush ‘em. It was my job to shoot them, then she’d find them again and retrieve them to my hand. She almost never failed to fulfill and exceed her job requirements. I very often let her down on my part of the bargain.

My rancher friend, Dave, didn’t bother with a bird dog because he pretty much restricted himself to the shotgun-through-the-window-of-the-pickup-truck method of harvesting birds for the table — something I can’t endorse. But I have taken a dog along in the truck, spotted a bird on the roadside edge, let the dog out quietly, and together hunted it and any more birds in the area. And when you see one, there are usually others not terribly far away.

One rancher I hunted with once used both a pointer and a retriever at the same time. He kept the well-trained retriever really close to him while his Brittany spaniel found and pointed the bird. Then, when either he or I managed to walk up, flush and shoot the chukar or quail, he would command the retriever to “fetch.” Curious, I asked him why the specialization for his hunting dogs? “Oh,” he explained, “it’s just that my Brittany is better at finding the birds and ‘holding’ them until we can catch up and flush — almost no ‘wild’ flushes that way. But my retriever is best at finding the birds downed and hidden in the brush, and always manages to make the retrieve.”

WHAT ABOUT CHUKARS?
Long ago the late, great Ted Trueblood quipped to me that hunting chukars in his native West was about as close to heaven on earth as he could imagine — and divinely delicious in the dining room or roasted over a campfire. Chukars are the classic lower-land, canyon and dry wash, arid and rocky slope, upland game birds. While they were originally imported to the United States from the Middle East — an immigrant like our ringnecked pheasants — they are very common and well-established here in the West. As before, it helps to have permission to hunt a big ranch where the rancher knows he has a population of the birds.

Being very social birds, chukars are more likely than the grouse to be found in small flocks. When you find a bunch and flush them, it’s common to spend a good deal of time following up on the scattered “singles” — often with numerous shooting opportunities in their typically open terrain.

I like an energetic dog when hunting chukars, since a lot of territory may have to be covered to find and hunt the chunky little birds. And, while it helps a great deal in being a successful upland bird hunter to like long walks and “busting brush” when necessary, I have seldom hiked so far and so long in a day as when searching for chukars. But we almost always had some action, having determined first where we had good chances of finding them.

GUNS AND SHOT LOADS
Over the years, it has struck me that maybe most upland bird hunters choose their guns and shot size according to the species they’re after. Pheasants and the bigger blue grouse: 12-gauge, full choke, maybe 30-inch barrels, size 5 or 6 shot, usually magnum loads for distance and power. For ruffed grouse, chukars and quail, maybe the same, but maybe a drop down to 16- or 20-gauge, size 6 or 7 1/2 shot, but still a lot of preference for the longer barrels — at least 28-inch — and those magnum loads.

But the species is only part of the story of successful upland bird hunting. Just as important — and often more so — are the conditions and habitat you plan to be hunting. When hunting those chukars in such open areas, yes, I wanted the longer barrel and longer-range load — usually. But when hunting those brushy mountain roadsides with rancher friend Dave, I used a quick-handling 20-gauge, 26-inch barrel, with low-brass shells filled with size-8 shot. I knew that the range would be closer, and I wanted a pattern that would “open up” quicker, trying to catch the explosively flushing grouse before they disappeared in the thick stuff. It worked with only one miss on my part that day, admittedly, on a bird that flushed out at a longer range.

GEAR
Gear and dress for the kind of upland bird hunting I’ve described can be light and simple. Layering is important, because those fall days on the mountain slopes can start out freezing. But as the autumn sun warms up the slope — combined with all that walking — the bird-hunting jacket can be shed pretty quickly for a light mesh vest. And sometimes I would forego the game pocket in jacket or vest and dangle a bird or two from my belt with a thong, enabling me to hunt the warmer part of the day in just shirtsleeves.

But however warm the day, be sure to carry a canteen of water — or a good-sized bottle on a belt attachment. Even greater than your own thirst will be that of the dog, if you’re hunting with one. That exertion in the dry air can be dangerous if there’s not a mountain stream nearby. And you’ll have a much more effective hunting partner if you give your dog frequent gulps of water. My blaze orange bird hunting cap has often doubled very effectively as a water bowl for the better hunter on my team.

Also, there are many good reasons to carry a good, well-sharpened, sturdy knife. Whatever your preference — standard sheath knife on your belt, folding hunter in your pocket — not only is it an important survival tool, but field-dressing birds you harvest as soon as possible after possessing them is a better idea than most bird hunters seem to appreciate.

FIELD-DRESSING
Especially on those early fall days when the temperatures can become summer-like, promptly removing the entrails of downed birds allows the carcass to cool down better, reduces the chance of digestive materials and juices tainting the meat from shot perforation, and takes only seconds to accomplish.

And while there are implements manufactured for that field-dressing purpose — the “grouse sticks,” for example — it’s practically as easy to use that handy knife to cut a small stick with a fishhook-like fork on one end, insert into the body cavity, twist, pull out the entrails, and throw away the stick; no grouse stick to have to wash later and replace in your jacket or vest.

IT’S CALLED “WING-SHOOTING”
While it didn’t seem as efficient as his usual method of taking grouse, my rancher friend conceded after the first couple of flushed birds I had bagged, “I guess you have a point. It is pretty exciting to have them flush and have to take them on the wing. Certainly takes quicker reflexes and sharper shooting.” I smiled.

“Now you’re starting to understand why the challenge is so much fun,” I answered. From then on, he insisted on getting out and walking them up with me — just for the thrill of the hunt.

Our fine western upland birds are a precious resource. Sure, it doesn’t make any difference to the dead grouse or chukar whether it was taken with a “snap shot” on an explosive flush or “swatted” on the ground alongside the road (though from outside the truck). But the former is great sport and the latter is disrespectful of grand game birds. “But when I’m bouncing up the mountain slope to repair fencing in an upper pasture,” Dave admitted, chuckling, “I might still collect an occasional grouse on the roadside.”

Well, he has a lot of them there on his ranch — as do many ranches throughout the West. I guess I can’t begrudge him an occasional ground-swat. But as for you,  as you get out there this fall and enjoy a bonanza of great upland bird hunting, remember, it’s called “wing-shooting.”

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