Keys To Late-Season Upland Bird Hunting
December 15, 2010
Wintertime bird hunting is considerably easier when you know a few crucial details about your quarry.
A wise man once observed, "In pheasant hunting there are sets of paired contrasts: Two pheasant seasons. Two kinds of hunters. Two sets of birds."
The same can be said for all wild upland game birds. Opening day's sure thing later on becomes more an act of faith. Bagging late-season limits almost always translate to leg-weary, brush-busting campaigns where a hardcore, never-say-die attitude, sharpshooting and, yes, a good dog and a healthy dose of luck helps. But the real key to success is to know your bird. Late-season birds -- quail, sharp-tailed and mountain grouse, Hungarian and chukar partridge or pheasant -- are survivors. Seldom easy, barring luck, the better you know your quarry, the better your chances of success.
Through experience and heeding the advice of experts -- savvy veteran hunters and professional biologists -- over the years we've strived to learn all we can about the various game birds. With our learning curve finally beginning to flatten out we now actually prefer to hunt later. Yes, the hunting is more challenging, nasty weather can put a crimp on the operation and bagging the limit is never a sure thing. But a little knowledge can tip the odds in your favor in a big way.
For example, do you know that blue grouse are reverse migrators, moving up the mountain as December approaches? Cousin Ruff, however, often lives out his life on just a few acres. Or that desert quail -- Gambel's, Mearn's and scaled -- occupy distinctly different desert habitats? That sharp-tailed grouse spend more winter days in the trees than they do in the grass?
KNOW YOUR BIRD
Before the snow flies, sharpies prefer a healthy mix of grass and hard cover (brush) -- native plums, wild rose, winterberry, chokecherry and such. Russian olive, which holds its fruit and provides roosting cover long after snow blankets the prairie grass, is a particular favorite. As winter deepens, sharpies -- often in large flocks numbering dozens -- abandon the grass and literally take to the trees. Believe it or not, winter sharp-tails are notorious for posting sentry birds. OK, maybe they don't really post look-outs but . . . . When in the trees, invariably a bird or two perches high above the rest. And, trust me, such birds will see you coming, will spook far beyond shotgun range and will take the rest of the flock, and you will not get much shooting.
But the good news is, even at long range, such birds are easily spotted against the stark white background. And, with careful planning, good shooting is possible. Here's where experience comes to the fore. Over time we've accumulated a long list of preferred winter hangouts. Through much trial and error we've discovered how best to pull off a sneaky approach, remaining unseen until well within shotgun range before releasing the dogs. Not only do we ge to shoot, we sometimes even bag a bird or two.
HUNGERING FOR HUNGARIANS
As the saying goes, Hungarian -- or gray -- partridge are where you find them. Once found, though, they are seldom far away. Of all the upland birds, Huns are perhaps the most eclectic when it comes to habitat preference. I know the zip codes of coveys living well above 6,000 feet -- far removed from flatlander relatives who prefer plowed ground. Huns are also the most structure-oriented, preferring an abandoned homestead, obscure fence corner, certain pile of rocks on a rock-strewn ridge. Except in dire emergencies, they rarely wander much beyond sight.
We once found the dog pointing staunchly at a long-abandoned shed. Thinking feral pigeons, when the Huns busted out an open window, two of us were so taken aback we each emptied both barrels and touched nary a feather.
Tales abound of how individual Hun coveys "always" flush in the same general direction. How, after several repeat flushes the hunter finds himself standing where it all began, but don't count on it. In my experience, Huns, especially late in the season, are just as apt to leave the country. Still we try our best to mark the covey down; a good place to start looking for follow-up shots. However, do not be surprised to find the dog locked up over yonder hill, perhaps several hundred yards beyond the landing zone. Like all late-season birds, Huns are savvy customers, almost never stay put upon landing, and some sprint a lot farther than you might expect.
The author bagged this rooster on a mid-December morning in a Montana cattail swamp, dawn temperature: -28 degrees. Photo by Chuck Robbins.
CHESS WITH CHUKAR
Chukar inhabit the most inhospitable places -- typically dry, rocky and severely tilted. Never far from water early on, once the snow flies, water becomes a non-issue. By the way, don't be surprised to find Huns sharing the same rim-rock. And I know a spot in Idaho where at least once a season we flush valley quail in the bottom and both chukar and Huns up top. I like to start on top since wind blows the snow away up there first, affording the birds better foraging conditions and geezers easier walking. Besides, chukar are notorious for flushing downhill, allowing opportunities to hunt them up again on the way back down to the truck.
By year's end quail seasons are well along. And in areas of intense hunting pressure, coveys are likely to be well-thinned and scattered. Hunting anywhere near easy access can be frustrating. For example, we Montanans usually don't head to Arizona for our annual desert quail fix until after Christmas. By then, all the easy canyon bottoms and washes have been well-gunned by locals. Thus, we ignore the easy stuff near roads or trails, lace up the hunting boots and take a hike -- usually the farther off the beaten path the better the hunting.
Desert quail numbers tend to fluctuate wildly according to seasonal rains -- up in the wet years, down in the dry. But by seeking out those places other hunters pass by, even down years can result in plenty of chances to pull off a decent hunt. Two tactics that almost always pay big dividends are to concentrate on the higher, more rugged terrain or simply digging deeper than most.
One thing to keep in mind: late season birds often present longer shots. Think tighter chokes and somewhat heavier shot. Even in the warmest spots it can and does get cold and wet, so traveling wingshooters should come prepared. In winter, dogs don't require as much water but still need to drink -- more so in the driest spots, naturally. Eating snow is not a substitute. In fact, it can cause increased dehydration.
Aside from extending our hunting time, the la
te season has other advantages. Competition can be minimal to non-existent. Access to private land is much easier once the early season mob retires. While it's no secret gaining access is getting tougher with each passing season, believe it or not, there are still plenty of landowners out there where a timely knock on the front door and a courteous request still works. Note the emphasis on "timely."
Landowners -- ranchers and farmers -- like most of us are busy, especially so in fall, what with harvest and livestock chores and such. Dealing with hunters then is not a high priority. "NO!" is quick, easy and effective. Avoiding most face-to-face hunter requests is as easy as splashing every other fence post with orange paint and/or tacking up a few ominous warning signs -- Keep Out! No Hunting, Don't Even Ask! But, come winter, life on the farm slows down, relatively speaking anyway. Now is the time to proffer that courteous request. Play it smart. Be courteous, speak face-to-face, arrive at a decent hour and dress neatly. And don't bring a crowd and don't argue -- take what you can get. ("No pheasants? Hell man, we're Hun hunters. No problem.")
So there you have it: A bit of study and careful planning, a dash of determination, a few contacts and, while you won't beat the cold, it won't beat your hunt, either.