Rocky Mountain Upland Bird Hotspots

Load up the shotguns and bird dogs -- these are upland destinations you won't want to miss this season. From desert quail, various grouse and even pheasants, these are the country's best bird hunting opportunities.

Hungarian partridge offer sporty and abundant upland sport. They are found in great numbers alongside sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse and pheasants in eastern Montana's Big Sky country.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Meitin

Nothing in hunting quite matches the subtle romance of upland hunting behind good bird dogs. And nowhere does upland bird hunting offer so much variety, wide-open spaces and sheer solitude as is found in the West. The Rocky Mountain West and desert Southwest provide upland opportunities that are unrivaled anywhere else, with lightly hunted coverts and bird numbers hard to fathom.

This is the best bird hunting around, and these are the best of those austere occasions.

SOUTHERN ARIZONA

Montezuma Quail

The novel Montezuma, a.k.a. fool's or Mearn's quail, is a little understood game bird of the desert Southwest's grassy highlands. Once believed to be nearing extinction because sportsman observed so few of them, it took savvy biologists employing bird dogs to prove that the birds were in fact quite abundant. They are such tight-holding birds that most of us simply walk right over them and never know they are there.

You'll need to get into shape and climb if you expect to bag Montezumas. They seldom venture into river valleys or desert floors where you would seek Gambel's or scaled quail. The Montezuma prefers treeless ridgelines, grassy bowls and high benches from 5,000 to 7,000 feet elevation.

Because Montezuma quail hold tighter than most bobwhite, you'll be hunting in vain to try going dog-less. Also concentrate efforts in areas where cattle grazing is lightest, owning few trees but abundant grasses, forbs and tubers. Tubers are the Montezuma's preferred food, which explains their pronounced digging claws.

There's plenty of ground to investigate in southern Arizona's Patagonias. To the east, try ridges running from 9,500-foot Miller Peak. Just north of Coronado State Park, check out high-rolling plateaus with grassy benches falling away into broad valleys above cienegas of sycamore, cottonwood and live oak. Hunting's good around the town of Patagonia and in forest areas to the east and south toward Mexico. This is all Forest Service land, with unlimited access.

Arizona's season runs Oct. 7 through Feb. 6, 2006, and the limit is 15 birds, no more than eight of which may be Montezumas. Call (602) 942-3000 for additional information.

NEW MEXICO'S BOOTHEEL

Quail Hat Trick

The Bootheel Region of extreme southwestern New Mexico holds much history, few people and some of the best quail hunting in the state. It also offers great variety, harboring abundant Gambel's, a fair number of scaled quail, and plenty of Montezumas in its higher reaches for those willing to work a bit.

The bootheel region is the place to go if a desert quail hat trick (bagging three species in a single day or foray) is something that grabs you.

Gambel's are easily the most abundant and reliable, though a detailed map is needed to assure you stick to patches of BLM (yellow) and state lands (light blue). This is not a place you want to even accidentally trespass. Landowners here are a bit touchy in this regard. Savvy hunters cover a lot of ground, stopping at windmills and stock tanks where water concentrates birds. Gambel's might also be found on Forest Service lands of the Coronado National Forest, on any major draw emptying from either flank of the Peloncillo Mountains, into New Mexico or Arizona, listening for calls and going to them in a hurry.

Scaled quail are found largely in lower grasslands, near water just south of Animas, N.M. You might also trip over these subtly gorgeous quail in the lower portions of the forest where Sycamore or Hog canyons spill into the brushy desert of Arizona (just over the border), or low on Clanton Canyon or near Black Point on the Coronado National Forest. They can prove the most difficult to locate purposely, a bonus for the most part, and generally the trip-up in a hunter realizing a hat trick.

Montezumas are found at the crests of grassy ridges and benches, mostly in New Mexico. Climb into the old burns found at the top, and don't be afraid to hike into more remote areas on both sides of NM 338. Finding the best Montezuma areas normally involves much hiking, but they are novel and gorgeous, and something many want to add to a life list.

The limit is 15 birds, 30 in possession (only five of which can be Montezumas); the season is generally Nov. 15 through Feb. 15. Call 800-862-9310 for more info.

NORTHERN COLORADO

Blue Grouse

Blue grouse, sometimes called fool hens by locals, are creatures of high altitudes, and the biggest of the forest grouse. This thin-aired altitude and the difficulty of traversing rugged alpine environments are what can make the blue grouse somewhat naïve, as few have the fortitude or conditioning to reach such habitat.

Blues seldom experience real hunting pressure. Blue grouse subsist on the needles of Douglas fir, so hunting them means haunting patches of evergreen from 7,500 to 9,000 feet. Aspen stands with berry patches and old burns with healthy second growth are also prime. The man without a dog will find the blue grouse somewhat unsporting, flushing a short distance to perch on an overhead limb and peer down stupidly. A flushing dog can light a fire under the blue's tail feathers and encourage spirited flight, making challenging targets darting through fir boughs.

Blues are found up and down the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Wyoming, but the Steamboat Springs area provides reliable and easier access to high-altitude coverts that often involve less climbing. It also offers endless miles of public Forest Service land. The high Routt National Forest offers plenty of access roads, in areas such as Rabbit Ears Pass, Buffalo Pass and the Columbine area farther north. Abundant Forest Service trails make traveling to altitude afoot easier.

Hunting early involves pure shank's mare and classic bird-dog hunting, though long seasons provide the more novel approach of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing to reach productive areas later, as blues actually migrate into higher altitudes during winter months.

Season opens Sept. 1 and closes Nov. 10. The limit is three, nine in possession. Contact (303) 297-1192 for additional information.

NORTHWEST NEVADA

Chukars

Nevada beca

me a chukar haven in 1935 after the Division of Wildlife transplanted the eastern European and Asian birds to the Silver State to create the state's most popular upland opportunity. The sturdy birds fare well in the dry portions of northwestern Nevada, making a living amongst the food and escape cover offered by abundant cheat grass and sage, and sloped talus habitat.

Their numbers increase dramatically during wet years, such as we seem to be presently experiencing. Northwestern Nevada's mountains allow mobile chukars to adjust elevation to avoid winter snows and find food sources. Even during a wet year, concentrating efforts near creek beds and water guzzlers at the edge of rough mountains is smart thinking.

The most reliable chukar country lies north of Interstate 80, about 100 miles north of Reno. Typically the best gunning is found between Battle Mountain and Gerlach. This is Nevada's Big Empty -- stark and mountainous, interspersed with basins, elevations running 5,000 to 11,000 feet. The rough ranges run north to south with steep slopes covered predominately in sage and desert grasses.

Where you find occasional tree cover you'll not find chukars. Finding birds can require plenty of hiking and climbing. Chukars can be fairly vocal, so keep a sharp ear tuned to their whistling calls. Strong physical conditioning is the name of the game -- chukar shooting isn't for sissies.

A flushing dog is a great boon, if only to locate downed or winged birds in jumbled terrain after a hit. A busted covey will sometimes hold for a pointer, but flushers serve better as birds typically run instead.

Season opener is generally the first Saturday in October, continuing through Jan. 31. Depending on snows, later dates can prove best, making birds more accessible, saving the climbing involved during earlier hunts. The limit is six birds, 12 in possession. Call (775) 688-1500 for more details.

EASTERN MONTANA

Mixed Bag

The Big Sky country of eastern Montana is upland hunting nirvana, with not only abundant sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge but also pheasants and huge sage grouse. This variety makes the Glendive area a destination for serious bird hunters.

The native sharptail is simply awe-inspiring and beautiful. The Hungarian partridge, which is also called a grey partridge or Hun, is a newcomer from eastern Europe and Asia, first introduced during the early 1900s when railroads firmly penetrated the area. While pheasants often create the most hysteria among hunters, sharptails and Huns are what bring sports in search of quiet solitude.

Be it sharptails, Huns, pheasants or sage grouse, all are found in close proximity, making it easy to take any of them in a single day, though they seldom are flushed from a single swatch of cover. Sharptails prefer wild grasslands interspersed with coulees of wild rose, chokecherries and buffalo berries just above the Yellowstone River north of Interstate 94. Seek Huns where grassland and grain stubble meet. You're more likely to flush pheasants while hunting Huns, sage grouse while hunting sharptails.

Bird numbers have dropped slightly recently, but hunting is still considered excellent. There is plenty of elbowroom out here, and very light hunting pressure. There are good-sized swatches of BLM land southeast of Glendive and northwest of Terry, while private landowners are generally gracious to polite hunters. Montana's Block Management Program also makes private ground available to the public. Visit a regional office to discover areas with desired species, then sign up for hunting on a first-come, first-served basis. The program opens plenty of prime hunting ground, and blocks seldom fill up, though the state's mid-October pheasant season opener can prove the exception. The most popular pheasant areas are generally farther north near Plentywood, so the Glendive area normally offers plenty of unhunted ground even when enthusiastic pheasant hunters arrive en masse.

Contact the Miles City office at (406) 232-4365 for more information on Block Management areas. Seasons are as follows: sharptails, Sept. 1 through Jan. 1; huns, Sept. 1 through Dec. 15; pheasants, Oct. 8 through Jan. 1; and sage grouse, Sept. 1 through Nov. 1. Limits are four sharpies daily, 16 in possession, eight and 32 for Huns, three and nine for pheasants, and three and six for sage grouse.

WESTERN IDAHO

Pheasants

Papa Hemingway loved his bird hunting, and when he wanted the best pheasant hunting of his time he traveled to his beloved Sun Valley. Today the Sun Valley area has been turned into a land developer's dream, and an outdoorsman's nightmare. Pheasants no longer roam those storied valleys of Hemingway's best days.

Farther from civilization, the Clearwater region near Lewiston, between the southwest and Panhandle regions, now reigns as Idaho's pheasant hotspot. This is farm country of rolling hills with a mixture of stream bottoms, river corridors, brushy draws and canyons -- in short, the perfect pheasant habitat of abundant agricultural foodstuffs and amble cover. Typical crops include dry beans and various grains.

Consequently, it is also made largely of private property. Many prime properties are leased by groups of hunters annually or for the long term. If you intend on hunting this area you will need to do your homework and get hold of landowners to arrange access and a trespass fee long before seasons open. On a rare occasion you may gain permission to hunt without paying, but don't count on it. Daily-rate hunting can be reasonable, though. Other options include Idaho's newly installed Access Yes! Program, and nine state wildlife management areas. Nearly 300,00 acres of Access Yes! properties are now available for various hunting activities, many of these areas holding pheasants in abundance.

In the case of management areas, Idaho releases birds to assure some action, permits available over the counter, allowing a limit of two birds a day, and up to six birds total for the season. Generally, the farther these places are from large population centers, the less pressured they will be. Also, some of these places are vast, so the hunter willing to walk away from obvious access points can find better shooting even when hunters arrive en force. Consult regulations for more information.

Though pheasant populations have not rebounded to the highs seen 25 years ago, they are currently the best they have been in 10 years. Seasons open the third or second Saturday in October (depending on region) -- close the end of November in the eastern portion of the state, the end of December in others areas. The daily limit is three, possession double -- except in wildlife management areas where the limit is two daily, and six for the season. For more information, contact (208) 334-3700.

SOUTHWEST WYOMING

Sage Grouse

Sage grouse are the largest grouse in North America. Locals may call them fool hens, because in the remote and desolate areas they inhabit they encounter few humans and can prove somewhat dimwitted. Still, after wandering endless miles of high desert waste and having a sudden sage grouse flush from under foot can be a bit disarming. It's pretty easy to miss. When this happens, you carefully mark your b

irds, calm your heart, and start over.

Sagebrush constitutes about 70 percent of the sage grouse's diet, and the usual suspects of overgrazing and brood-habitat destruction has exterminated the sage grouse from many areas. Wyoming has proved big and lonely enough to prove the exception, with sage grouse continuing to prosper in the Cowboy State.

Drought has given sage grouse a rough time recently, but increased annual precipitation and mild winters have combined to bring sage grouse on strong again. They are not at the decade-long highs seen perhaps 20 years ago, but the situation is definitely on the upswing.

If forced to point to a single place, I choose southwest Wyoming, just south of Rock Springs. This huge expanse of country includes vast sage wastes, few people, abundant springs and ponds, and fewer cattle than other portions of the West. I especially like the high-mesa country tight to the Colorado/Utah border. There is no shortage of roads crisscrossing this vast BLM-dominated landscape to help ferry you about as you seek wet places where birds can be located dependably. You might road-hunt these expansive mesas productively, but don't hesitate to get out and walk.

With a two-bird limit there's no hurry.

The season runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 3; the limit is two, four in possession. Call (307) 777-4600 for more information.

Whether looking for upland opportunity close to home, or planning a longer road trip with a truckload of camping gear, shotguns and dogs, it's hard to steer wrong in these places. These are places that promise plenty of shooting, plenty of opportunity to watch your dogs work, and in many cases, another check off the accumulated life list. Life just doesn't get any better than this.

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