Top Tactics for Upland Birds
September 27, 2010
By December the easy birds are a pleasant memory, the wingshooting crowds are gone, and wintertime upland hunting brings its own rewards for those versed in late-season strategies.
by John Shewey
"You better hustle on up to the top," Forrest said, "because I'd bet on those dogs being on point by now."
Hustle on up to the top? I was already panting like a hard-run pony and, facing another 300 yards of insanely steep incline, Forrest wanted me to run on up ahead?
"If they don't find birds on top within five minutes I'll be shocked," Forrest continued, "but they won't sit tight forever."
He was laboring as hard as I was. We'd just climbed most of the rim on our way to the top. Late-season chukars don't need to hang out on the side slopes. Winter moisture allows them the luxury of enjoying a leisurely existence way up on top, far above the water sources on which they rely during October when most hunters pursue them.
Well, somebody had to get up there and I guess it was my turn for a workout. Up I went, chugging along as fast as possible and hoping my heart didn't explode in my chest. Forrest was right. As soon as I topped out, I heard the distant wind-driven beeping of Jake's electronic locator collar. I followed the sound for what seemed an eternity until I finally spotted Jake, my 5-year-old Weimaraner, locked up in one of those cover-boy points: Flat back, head low, front leg up, tail stone still.
Approaching from Jake's left, I walked right past him until a covey of chukars exploded under foot. The covey broke right, back over the dog, but two singles split off to my left, offering an easy double. I dispatched them and enjoyed Jake's enthusiastic retrieves. Forrest and I finished the day with a dozen more chances and then we stood atop the high rim as a January sun faded into the southern horizon, marking the season's end.
We had earned our late-season birds the hard way, by climbing to the top and working the dogs hard all day. And we had it all to ourselves.
Late in the season, ruffed grouse prefer coverts rich in alder or aspen. Photo by John Shewey
LATE-SEASON STRATEGIES No matter the specific quarry, end-of-the-season upland birds demand a different way of thinking on the hunter's part. The easy marks are gone and what's left are the survivors - the battle-tested birds that managed, by chance or by education, to outlast the enthusiastic crowds of the early days of the upland seasons. Each different species - grouse, quail, partridge - learns its own modes of survival after being subjected to hunting pressure.
At the same time, the changing weather patterns between early and late autumn force birds to adopt new but predictable day-to-day behavioral patterns. They rely on different foods, occupy different preferred cover and often seek new territories as they switch into winter survival mode. Hunters who understand these changing patterns invariably enjoy season-long success.
All of the upland game birds share another common trait and one that is critical to your success: As the season progresses, upland birds invariably become increasingly difficult to find without the help of good dogs. Certainly you can walk up a few birds, especially in areas not bothered by significant hunting pressure. The more typical scenario, however, is that dog-less hunters walk all day and the birds never show themselves. They just sit tight and quiet. Only a good dog tells you the birds are still about.
FOREST GROUSE Blue grouse and ruffed grouse may seem easy to find during September, but come November, they pull a disappearing act. For starters, the family coveys disperse, especially in areas subject to moderate hunting pressure or heavy predation. So the late-season hunter is looking for singles and must concentrate on areas of ideal habitat, hunting these places thoroughly. That, however, is where the comparison ends between late-season blue grouse and ruffed grouse.
Ruffed grouse occupy the same general territories throughout the autumn and winter, rarely wandering too far from their chosen coverts. Dispersed young-of-the-year birds seek unoccupied coverts or pioneer suitable new habitats, so places devoid of grouse during September might hold a bird or two by late autumn. Conversely, the same brood habitats that held family coveys during the first week or two of the season often remain unoccupied the balance of the year as young grouse switch from a diet rich in insects, berries and greens to the foods that sustain them over the winter, including alder and aspen buds.
Late-season ruffed grouse hunters should thus focus on mixed wood lots laden with alder or aspen. Once the snow falls, ruffed grouse rely heavily on the buds from these trees, along with the few remaining seeds and fruits. During the early season, ruffed grouse invariably feed on the ground, but once the snow accumulates, don't be surprised to find birds feeding amongst the branches of the trees. If you hunt arid mountains, look for aspen- or alder-filled ravines and steep draws leading up from creeks or river bottoms. In wetter climates, west of the Cascade Range, for example, seek mixed riparian woodlots featuring extensive alder growth interspersed with logging roads or other clearings.
Blue grouse require an entirely different strategy. They actually migrate uphill during late autumn, wintering in old-growth timber atop steep ridges. After heavy snowfall, they also become arboreal, living amidst the tree branches and spending only minimal time on the ground. Thus for all practical purposes, blue grouse become difficult to hunt once the snow accumulates in the mountains.
If you hunt them prior to heavy snowfall, however, you will find late-season blue grouse fairly easy to locate. Walk the top of steep ridges where stands of old-growth Douglas fir and true fir are interrupted by well-spaced clearings or logging roads. Expect to find singles or occasional doubles, so plan your hunts to follow the ridges for several miles where possible. The easiest hunting invariably occurs where logging roads traverse the tops of such ridgelines, so check your maps carefully.
While rarely hunted as heavily as ruffed grouse, blues nonetheless get edgy by late season. By late October the birds have been subjected to a few bird hunters and a lot of deer and elk hunters. Coveys that lounged about on the logging roads during September tend to get broken up and scattered by the massive influx of vehicle traffic during deer and elk season. One strategy that pays dividends is to look for closed logging roads where no vehicle access is possible. Study the topo maps (Forest Service Ranger District maps are best), looking for closed roads that run lengthwise along the higher reaches of steep, timbered
CHUKARS Chukars, like blue grouse, tend to migrate uphill during late fall and they will stay on top unless snow accumulation forces them to lower elevations. Early-season wingshooters, hunting the creek bottoms, take advantage of the chukar's need for daily or twice-daily trips to water. But by late autumn, cool weather and increased moisture allows these hardy birds the luxury of moving to the top of the rims and canyons. They completely abandon the creek bottoms and low-elevation haunts they were forced to occupy earlier in the year. Instead, they roost high in the rimrocks and then feed on top during the day.
If you hunt chukars during the cold-weather months, just head straight for the top and hunt the relatively flat terrain behind good dogs. Look for extensive tracts of cheat grass, the birds' primary winter food and study the south exposures for the first hints of green cheat-grass shoots. In many places, these shoots appear during the latter half of the year; chukars love them.
Should snow accumulate in the highlands, hunt immediately below the snowline. Even then you may find few birds. Often the coveys prefer to remain at high elevations, so they seek the "blow-offs" - areas where high winds sweep the slopes clear of snow.
Last January, for example, I hunted a snow-laden desert mountain range where the birds enjoyed respite atop high exposures blown clear of snow. I had to trudge through several hundred yards of deep powder to reach each promontory, but I was rewarded with a covey each time I made such an effort. Likewise, I found coveys high atop ridges with direct south exposures where the snow had melted.
In addition to creating blow-offs in the snow, brisk winter winds play another significant role in chukar hunting. Hunters who keep the wind in their face not only get the best out of their dogs but also enjoy those common winter days when a cold wind blows so hard that chukars don't want to fly until absolutely necessary. Such conditions often reward hardy wingshooters with shoetop flushes.
HUNGARIAN PARTRIDGE Perhaps the kindest of game birds for pointing dogs, Hungarian or gray partridge occupy agricultural areas, typically wintering in and around stubble fields or nearby tracts of CRP and other such environs. Coveys range from five or six individuals to several dozen birds.
The primary difference between early- and late-season Huns is their approachability. If they've been hunted, Huns tend to get flighty. Coveys will break at the sound of human voices, car doors being slammed, far-off gunfire or even dogs working too hard and fast.
To combat these flighty late-season Huns, just approach good habitat with care. Park well off the coverts and walk in from a distance. Hunt the dogs elsewhere for an hour to run the edginess off them. When possible, maintain visual contact with the dogs and a wide field of vision over the tracts you are hunting. If birds flush wild, watch where they land. If they don't stray too far, you'll have a chance at them later.
Above all else, don't even bother with late-season Huns without the help of a good bird dog or two. Once they've been pressured for a month or more, Hungarian partridge make life miserable on hunters without dogs. Wide-ranging pointing breeds make the best dogs for these birds and the vast stretches of cover they occupy.
VALLEY QUAIL Valley quail always come in bunches. Early-season family coveys generally include one or two broods plus one or two adult birds. Sometimes two or three such coveys gather together by the time the season opens. These family groups form coveys of five to 25 birds or so. As winter approaches, however, the birds typically gather in large wintering coveys that can and often do include anywhere from 40 to 100 quail or more.
By forming such large coveys, valley quail necessarily leave much of the early-season range devoid of birds. So the key for hunters is to find the big winter coveys - at least until such coveys get broken up by hunting pressure. Large coveys need ideal habitat as they forage for seeds and grain. Often they gather close to humanity in agricultural areas, so December is the time to take advantage of those relationships established with farm and ranch owners or to seek out tracts of CRP or similar public-access lands in heavily farmed areas.
If they've been hunted to any extent, you may find small coveys even late in the season. Once scattered, quail habitually gather back together. Nonetheless, enough hunting pressure often splits up large coveys, some members of which form secondary groups that stay together for the balance of the season. In either case, look for late-season birds near heavy cover. Brushy draws and shallow, brushy canyons offer ideal habitat during the winter, especially if these areas lie adjacent to prime feeding locations. Of the latter, grain stubble ranks amongst the best, especially where the fields meet heavy cover. Throw in an old homestead, a barn and a few trees, and you've found perfect cover.
Once you find quail, stay on them. The initial flush typically breaks up the covey, after which a good bird dog can work singles and doubles, often for hours on end. Notorious runners, late-season quail demand a slightly different approach than the tight-sitting birds of early autumn. Once you bust up a covey, watch where the birds land and walk a big circle around them so you can approach from the far side.
REWARDS OF WINTER Late-season upland hunting offers rewards unavailable during the early autumn. No longer is hot weather a factor, so hunter and dog can work all day without the fatigue typical of September. The dogs love cold weather for its ideal scenting conditions. Hunters are few and far between, and instead of having to try to avoid the multitudes of early season enthusiasts, the sparse ranks of late-season wingshooters gather willingly at favorite campgrounds, dog-friendly motels and bird-country restaurants. Here the stories fly - stories of dogs pointing in the snow, of vibrant winter sunsets and lonely high ridges offering spectacular Western vistas.
Gear Up For Late-Season Birds Heavily hunted birds get edgy, often flushing much farther out than during the early part of the season. For that reason, you'll need heavier loads and tighter chokes than you used earlier inn the season on partridge.
Where size 6 shot suffices for close-in work during early autumn, try a full choke and No. 5 loads during late season. During winter, my hunting partner, Forrest Maxwell, shoots a tight full choke on chukars. If you're shooting double guns, try full and modified. For pumps and autos, choose one or the other and then mix your shell selection. Often I shoot modified with two rounds of No. 5s followed by a "duck load" of No. 4s.
For ruffed grouse, stick to open chokes, either improved or modified, depending on the cover. Unlike partridge, ruffed grouse tend to stick tight for close-in flushes -- or they bust well out of range. Tight flushes and heavy cover demands open shot pat
terns. No. 6 shot -- even 7 1/2 in tight confines -- does the job.
Blue grouse offer every imaginable type of shot, from under your feet "heart-attack" flushes to mad downhill dashes from the tops of fir trees. During the late season, when the birds get a little edgy, opt for a modified choke and No. 5 or No. 6 shot, a combination that gives you a fighting chance at long-range treetop flushers.
Early or late in the season, valley quail demand small shot sizes, typically No. 7 1/2. Anything else risks ruining perfectly exceptional table fare. My only concession to late-season quail is a modified rather than improved-cylinder choke. The modified choke delivers a better shot pattern on birds flushing a little farther out than usual.
Remember to pack for cold-weather hunting. Drink plenty of water and carry water for your dogs, especially in arid country. Dress in layers and take along a few basic survival items: food, matches or a lighter and some dry tinder, flashlight, knife, map and compass or GPS.
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