November 03, 2021
Adjusting your shotgun choke-and-load combination to meet the conditions at hand will help you bag more upland birds.
Today's choke options and the better and more varied shotshells available present opportunities for hunters to take matching the right load to the bird to another level.
First, remember that patterning is essential in determining the maximum effectiveness of your shotgun/choke/load combination. Without patterning, you'll be hunting without knowing both your maximum effective range and shot pattern, or even if your shotgun shoots to point of aim. It may take several loads and chokes to find the ideal setup. Be sure to pattern both improved cylinder and modified choke tubes.
There is no one “perfect” upland load because effectiveness depends on several variables, including wind, thickness of cover, average shot distance and time of season, among others. And, of course, if you are in a place where you can hunt two or more different bird species in a single trip, shotshell and choke selection will depend on the size and toughness of the two target species.
In general, pheasants, quail, grouse and other upland birds that dwell on heavily hunted public lands become more cunning and tough to bring down as the months go by (think thicker winter plumage). Lighter shot that produces great pattern density for killing birds that hold tight to cover and flush at close range might be a top choice for opening day. But later in the season, when these birds become track stars after the initial wave of early-season hunters, they will run and flush at greater distances. It takes “more gun” to cleanly kill them as the season progresses and pressure mounts.
Regardless, I never go cheap when buying hunting shotshells. If lead shot is legal, I prefer copper- or nickel-plated pellets. They are less likely to deform, helping them fly more uniformly and penetrate deeper than uncoated shot.
Mid- to heavyweight payloads containing 1 1/4- to 1 5/8 ounces of No. 4, 5, 6, or 7 1/2 shot sent off at relatively high velocities are ideal, the exact load being determined by the conditions. Generally speaking, I go with smaller shot early and larger shot late in the year. Early in the season, try Federal Hi-Bird 12 Gauge, (1 1/4 oz. No. 6 lead shot; 1,330 fps) or Winchester Rooster XR (1 1/4 oz. No. 6 shot; 1,300 fps).
Later in the year when the birds can be really wild, carry some Federal Prairie Storm FS Lead 12 Gauge, which sends 1 1/4-ounces of No. 6 shot off at 1,500 fps, Federal Upland Pheasants Forever High Velocity 12 Gauge (1 1/4 oz. No. 5 lead shot; 1,500 fps) or Winchester Super Pheasant (1 3/8 oz. No. 6 shot; 1,450 fps.). For non-toxic requirements, Federal Prairie Storm FS Steel (1 1/8 oz. No. 4 shot; 1,600 fps) is good stuff.
Quail and Grouse
While some like No. 8 shot in a target load for early birds, I prefer No. 7 1/2 shot sent off at a velocity of at least 1,200 fps. A big reason is that in heavy cover you don’t want a crippled bird to be able to burrow and become tough to find. Bigger shot and higher velocities will hammer them.
Late in the season, No. 6 shot can be a better choice. Federal Game Load Upland Heavy Field (1 1/8 oz. No. 7 1/2 shot; 1,255 fps) and Winchester Super Sport Sporting Clays (1 oz. No. 7 1/2 shot; 1,250 fps) are great all-around upland loads. For non-toxic requirements, Federal Upland Steel 12 Gauge (1 1/8 oz. No. 7 1/2 shot at 1,400 fps) and Winchester Super Sport Steel Sporting Clays (1 oz. of either No. 7 1/2 or No. 8 shot; 1,400 fps) are solid choices.
Carry extra choke tubes and a couple of different loads in your vest in case conditions change and you need to change with them on the fly. For example, if the afternoon wind kicks up, it may necessitate going to a larger shot size and/or a tighter choke for those turbo birds riding a stiff breeze.
Top performance without the lead
On many state and federal lands, and in all of California, the use of lead ammunition is illegal. Today, there are several non-toxic shot options that, while pricier than lead shot, will do the job quite well. These include shotshells filled with steel, bismuth-tin or tungsten pellets.
Remember that non-toxic shot performs differently than lead. Generally speaking, I find that in 12- and 20-gauge shotguns, steel 3s and 4s do well on pheasants, while steel 6s and 7s work well on quail and grouse. Extra velocity is required with steel since it’s lighter than lead and doesn’t carry as much energy downrange. Conversely, bismuth-tin and tungsten shot are denser and heavier than lead, meaning you can drop down in shot size, all other things being equal. Here, 6s and 7s for pheasants and 7s and 9s for other upland species are good choices under most conditions.
There are also non-round pellets, such as the cube-shaped steel Hex Shot in Winchester Blind Side Magnum Pheasant. As is the trend with modern turkey loads, there are now combination upland load offerings. One is Hevi-Shot Hevi-Metal Pheasant—duplex payloads of tungsten-based Hevi-Shot pellets stacked atop standard steel pellets. Another is Federal Prairie Storm FS Steel—a 50/50 mix of regular, round steel pellets and banded Flitestopper steel pellets.