Fantasy Upland Bird Tour

Offered a few weeks for wingshooting anywhere in the Rocky Mountain states, where would you go? Here's our Top Five picks. (October 2007)

California quail, also known as valley quail.
Photo by Chuck Robbins.

These days, not many of us have the luxury of hunting out the back door. Each fall, road trips are a way of life, to the tune of several thousand miles.

When I hit the upland bird trail, my foremost goal is a mixed bag. Bad weather you can't do much about. But bad planning is preventable and, to my way of thinking, downright foolish to boot.

THE FIVE TOP STOPS

Great bird-hunting destinations exist all across the region. In fact, it's the rare spot that doesn't offer something of merit. But things do change: Where and what was hot last season may not be so this time around.

Check things out first, and then hit the road. Remaining flexible lets you tweak your itinerary at the last minute.

1. Montana Prairie Mixed Bag

Draw a line from Great Falls north to Sweetgrass on the Canada border, then east to the North Dakota line, south to Wibaux and back again to Great Falls. You will have enclosed what I believe is the best mixed-bag hunting the Rockies have to offer.

To be sure, it's a vast chunk of real estate. But each October, we hitch up the travel trailer -- our Bird Huntin' House -- hang out the "Gone Huntin' " sign, load the dog and hit the road. We're bird bums, for want of a better term, in search of wild birds: Roosters, sage hens, Huns and sharpies abound. But perhaps best of all is the access.

Across the West, locked gates propagate at alarming rates, thanks to National Wildlife Refuges and Waterfowl Production Areas. But at state-owned Wildlife Management Areas and Montana's Block Management Program (nearly 9 million acres enrolled last season), hunters have free access to large parcels of productive public and private upland bird cover.

For a modest fee, there is also the sprawling Fort Peck Indian Reservation in the northeast.

Timing is everything. To get the most in mixed-bag hunting, we time our trip to overlap the pheasant opener first Saturday in October.

Here's my theory: Since sage and sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge seasons open Sept. 1, come October all but the most avid hunters are likely to be planning their next excursion to coincide with the exceedingly popular pheasant opener. With most Montana bird hunters, pheasant is king; all other species are taken more or less incidentally.

Many hunters I know get in a few grouse and partridge licks early, then put away their fowling pieces, anxiously awaiting our version of the Glorious 12th to roll around.

Each fall, a week or 10 days prior to the madness, we head north of the Hi-Line (U.S. 2) to set up a comfortable camp and enjoy what usually amounts to hunting a huge private preserve. Sitting in the midst of what also amounts to endless bird cover, and with virtually no competition, we enjoy several days of some of the finest mixed-bag wingshooting available to John Q. Public anywhere.

While there are plenty of public lands up there, most is private, so be sure to pack along current Block Management info. There's a ton of land available, but to take full advantage of it all, you'll need the maps and contact information.

Keep in mind that sage hens and sagebrush are inseparable: No sage, no sage hens. Huns and sharpies also frequent sage, but more hang out in and around grass, and grain-mature CRP is often primo. Early pheasants and CRP go hand in hand also.

Ripe alfalfa and sugar beet fields are early hotspots as well. Later on, as the season progresses, look for dense cover near water -- the gnarlier and wetter, the better.

Seasons and bag limits vary: For Hungarian partridge, eight daily, 32 in possession; and for sharp-tailed grouse, four daily, 16 in possession.

Season dates are Sept. 1 through Jan. 1.

For sage grouse, it's four daily, eight in possession. The season is Sept. 1 through Nov. 1.

For pheasants, three cocks daily, nine in possession. The season is Oct. 7 through Jan. 1.

Non-resident license fee is $110, plus a $10 conservation stamp.

2. New Mexico's Blues and Bobs

The Pecos River country in southeast New Mexico is one of the few places in the region where a hunter can reasonably expect to find scaled and bobwhite quail within walking distance of each other. A mix of agriculture and desert sand covered in mesquite, catclaw, prickly pear, snakeweed, Spanish dagger -- and in the wet years, bunch grasses -- along with an enlightened gulper system provides suitable habitat for both species of quail.

But when the rains don't come (and of late, they've been spotty at best), the country is awash in drifting, shifting sands and tumbling tumbleweeds, otherwise devoid of ground cover.

Bare ground adds a whole other dimension to the hunt. Rumors of scaled (blue) quail in track shoes abound. Track shoes or no, these little rascals are speedy enough to rattle even the staunchest veteran pointers, to say nothing of their owners.

Truth is, all desert-dwelling quail run like hell on bare ground. Trust me, on bare ground, the only difference between a blue and a bobwhite is color. And in my experience, little brown quail sprinting like hell are every bit as baffling as little blue quail.

So the scalie swarm was currently vamoosing over yonder hill. Unfettered, Kate gave me that conspiratorial look and took off, hot on the track. We panted along behind as best as geezers can.

Knowing that we were about two decades past actually keeping abreast of the action, we hoped to at least keep the streaking dog in sight. But by the time we crested the hill and reached the far side, both the birds and the dog were nowhere in sight. But . . . by some freak of nature, there was lots of brown grass, as well as other assorted desiccated brown plants. Even the over-story mesquite, catclaw and prickly pear seemed almost lush -- comparatively speaking, of course.

Stepping lightly down the hill, we soon found Kate stretched tight, peering intently toward the sharp edge of a deep arroyo. And then the air suddenly filled with buzzing blue and -- surprise, surprise! -- brown quail.

This rare mixed-covey provided an even ra

rer (for us, anyway) instant mixed bag.

Moral of story: Find the grass, shoot the birds. Lacking grass? Well, my best advice is to invest in good running shoes for you and your dog.

Season runs from mid-November through mid-February. The daily bag limit is 15 combined quail, with no more than five Mearn's. Possession limit is twice the daily bag limit.

License fees are subject to change, but the last non-resident I bought cost me $75, plus a $5 habitat stamp.

3. Arizona's Dove, Quail Feast

North and west of Wickenberg is Gambel's quail country. Scaled and Mearn's live farther south. Normally, we try to target all three. But do you recall our emphasizing the importance of research, planning, flexible itineraries and the like?

Well, here is a prime illustration. At the last minute, our plan to head south and hunt the trifecta was squelched by reports of dismal summer nesting and brood-rearing conditions from drought, heat and wildfires throughout much of Arizona.

Hasty inquiries revealed our best shots: Gambel's in the Kingman region. So here we were.

We set up camp amid a sea of cholla cactus overlooking a huge sand wash. Next morning, the dogs found several large coveys of 15 to 30 or more birds each. But it soon dawned on us that a wealth of birds does not translate to easy shooting.

Obviously due to the poor to non-existent hatch, young foolish birds were in short supply. Coveys dominated by older, wiser birds required a change in operations -- more carefully executed attacks.

The key, of course, is to find and utilize niches within the habitat --grass, rocks, edges, and thickets -- where the birds might hold. Luckily for us, there were enough such spots surrounding camp to provide 10 days or so of OK desert quail hunting.

That's OK considering the conditions were less than ideal. Typically, six hours or so of tramping results in six to eight flushes of covey. Our best day, we counted 12 coveys, including a couple of certain re-flushes. All in all, none too shabby, compared to almost anywhere else in the country.

To enjoy some of the country's finest dove shooting, you need to get to Arizona before the season closes in mid-January. Water is scarce in the desert and each evening, mourning doves flock to any waterhole where, more often than not, the shooting is off the charts.

One evening after shooting our limits, we sat around until just before dark, then walked into the water. The rose-colored sky suddenly turned black! Literally hundreds of flushing doves fled at our approach.

Trust me, Arizona dove shooting is well worth the price of admission.

Arizona's upland bird season runs to mid-February. The bag limit for quail is 15 per day, 30 in possession. Quail cleaned in the field must retain one leg for identification.

Dove season closes in mid-January. The daily bag limit is 10 doves, with 20 as the possession limit. A non-resident season license runs about $150.

4. Northern Idaho Grouse

Boundary County, the northernmost county in the Idaho Panhandle, is a grouse hunter's paradise. More than 75 percent of the land is public, and access is nearly unlimited.

There's a healthy mix of softwoods and hardwoods -- maple, alder, serviceberry, snowbush, ocean spray, honeysuckle, huckleberry, syringa, chokecherry, wild rose, thimbleberry, willow, elderberry, mountain ash and snowberry. In addition, there are considerable amounts of kinnikinnick, twin bells, Oregon grape, wild strawberry, ferns and a multitude of native grasses provide a veritable forest smorgasbord for grouse.

Ruffed grouse occur throughout, but are most abundant at lower elevations. Blue grouse and spruce grouse occur primarily at mid- to higher elevations above 3,000 feet. Land above 3,000 feet in the county is largely public, federal or state, or held by private timber companies that allow public-hunting access.

Two wildlife areas, the Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area and the Ball Creek Ranch, as well as the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, provide most of the county's pheasant and valley quail habitat. As a bonus to hunting the forest grouse, the pheasant and quail hunting can actually be quite good.

When it comes to being wary and savvy, all grouse are not equal. The "fool hen" label applies to all grouse species, but blue and ruff survivors quickly wise up once guns come into play. For whatever reasons, spruce grouse just don't seem to get it.

Northern Nevada in the dead of winter is one of the Rocky Mountain region's best-kept bird-hunting secrets.

Speaking of blues and ruffs now, as with grouse everywhere, populations are cyclic. In a good year, with good dogs in service, 25 or more flushes a day are not out the question. Depending on cover and how hard-hunted the birds are, the shooting can vary from ridiculously easy to impossible.

The secret is to find the food (see the above list) and go from there.

Edges are always worth a try. Countless gated logging roads offer hunters miles of easy access to prime habitat. From the gates, many roads lead uphill, offering chances for ruffs at the bottom and blues higher up.

The season runs Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, with a generous bag limit of four birds in aggregate.

A non-resident season license runs about $80.

5. Nevada Chukar Chase

Northern Nevada in the dead of winter is one of the Rocky Mountain region's best-kept bird-hunting secrets. Vast, empty and blanketed with snow, canyons and rimrocks covered with sage and cheatgrass hide countless chukars, seemingly lying in wait to challenge man and dog. That is, man and dog strong of lung and limb and adventurous enough to cope in such a rugged, alien world.

The key is to learning how to break down the winter vastness into more easily manageable portions. Wandering about the tilted landscape might be good for the old ticker, but it's also a good way to come home tired and empty handed. The country is too big, and the birds too scattered and concentrated in specific locations.

Chukars are homebodies, spending most of their lives within a relatively small home territory, largely centered on water and their home nest site. But with snow on the ground, water becomes a non-issue. And their home range increases more or less directly in proportion to the availability of food and protection from wind.

Chukars live in windswept country, but they don't like wind. When the wind blows, a chukar will find someplace to get out of it. Often holing up in the lee of rimrocks, steep draws and canyons, tall

sagebrush, anywhere that affords protection. South-facing slopes are often most productive. These are the spots to send the dog and concentrate your efforts.

Winter or not, chukars run uphill and fly downhill. Count on that and plan your hunt accordingly.

The best hunting is in the northern third of the state in Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Pershing and Washoe counties, about 95 percent public. Winnemucca is a good spot to headquarter. It is common to find Huns and chukar living on the same mountain. In the right light, it's difficult to tell what a dog has found until he fetches it up. In agricultural areas, valley quail are a nifty add-on to any mixed-bag hunt.

The chukar-Hun season runs from mid-October through January. Bag limits are six daily, 18 in possession, singly or in aggregate.

The non-resident license fee is $142, plus $10 for an upland bird stamp.

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