December 11, 2018
By Scott Haugen
As the sun dipped below the mountains, dark shadows descended upon the meandering river bottom. With dusk, valley quail started to move, and Echo, my 3-year-old pudelpointer, knew it.
Fresh scent filled the air, and birds could be seen scampering amid the sparse willows and scrub-brush thickets. We worked into the wind. In less than five minutes, a limit of 10 valley quail were in hand. Echo pointed every covey and retrieved all 10 birds.
The flurry marked an end to a perfect afternoon of wingshooting, which began with jumping puddle ducks on the river before dropping a brace of ring-necked pheasants along the way. The mixed-bag limit provided fond memories and great-eating meat, something bird hunters yearn for.
While many hunters turn their focus to deer and elk this time of year, don’t overlook the many bird hunting options that exist throughout the West. With your hunting companion by your side, there’s no better way to spend a fall day than chasing feathers.
FALL TURKEY FEST
One of the most underrated — and under-hunted — birds this time of year is the wild turkey. Because turkeys congregate in large winter flocks, they are easy to locate and pattern. A turkey’s daily movements in fall center around food and seeking shelter on stormy days. Locate the flocks, watch them from a distance, then make your move.
Turkeys can be called in during the fall season, and a lot of hunters throughout the West enjoy putting their big-game, spot-and-stalk skills to the test with turkeys. These birds have incredible eyesight. If you’re looking to take your fall turkey hunting experience to the next level, however, bring your gun dog. Most Western states allow the use of dogs for hunting fall turkeys. Not only will they point and flush them, many dogs can retrieve them if the load isn’t too big. With every step they take, turkeys leave a lot of scent on the ground. Dogs can track them with ease. Turkeys will often hunker down and hold tight, like quail, but they will also flush, depending on the situation and habitat.
When working turkeys with a dog, try to approach the flock feeding uphill, working into cover and beneath trees, then turn the dog loose. Turkeys have a tough time taking flight when moving uphill and will often hold in thick cover. If they do take to the air, they’ll land in nearby trees. Upon approaching them, turkeys will often flush, making for the ultimate wingshooting thrill.
If you really want to test your dog’s will-power, send them in for a long-distance flush. Once the turkey flock has busted up, “whoa” your dog or call it back to you. Together, approach the flush site, sit against a fat tree and 10 minutes later, start delivering “kee-kee” calls. This assembly call will often bring the turkeys right to you, just make sure your dog can handle multiple turkeys walking within spitting distance.
CHUKARS AND HUNS IN THE HILLS
For the ultimate physical test in bird hunting the West, head to the mountains for chukars. Running the rugged terrain where they live, chukar hunting can push you and your dog to the limit. Hit the highest rocky points, listen and look for chukars, and plan your attack.
Gaining the high ground and working along ridge lines, rather than up and down, is the most efficient approach to chukar hunting.
Be sure and work into the wind, so your dog’s nose can do its job. When closing in on a flock, be ready — shots will come fast, but beware of where you take your final shots. A bird may be in shooting range, but it can fall several hundred yards into the bottom of a canyon, making for a tough retrieve.
Drop to the rolling hill country below where chukars thrive and try bagging a few Hungarian partridge. Search for “the Huns’” in dry, grassy habitat, where they seek food and cover. This terrain is flat compared to chukar hunting and makes for an enjoyable change of pace.
WATERFOWL FAR AND WIDE
November marked the start of waterfowl migrations throughout the West, and there are no shortages of hunting opportunities. Be it ducks or geese, multiple species can be hunted in an array of habitats.
From big bodies of water to meandering streams, from small ponds to the open ocean, from wheat stubble fields to green farmland, waterfowl hunting options are many. If looking to combine a duck-hunting adventure that offers divers and puddle ducks, consider hunting big lakes and rivers that lie between the Cascade Range and Rocky Mountains. While hunting from shore will get you into puddle ducks, a boat is a must to reach diving-duck action.
Goose hunters shouldn’t be afraid to knock on the doors of landowners whose fields you see occupied by flocks of geese. It doesn’t take a flock of 5,000 geese very long to decimate a winter crop. A good decoy spread and a willing farmer can bring exceptional hunting.
RINGNECKS AND SNIPE IN THE BOTTOMS
It’s no secret: Populations of ring-necked pheasants have dwindled in recent decades across their historical range in the West. Agricultural practices have changed, indeed, altering both the diet and cover needed by pheasants to survive, but good numbers of pheasants commonly take up residence in grassy ravines and river bottoms, where cover is ideal for nesting success and avoiding predators, and year-round feed abounds. Better yet, pheasants that seek cover in thick river bottoms venture out onto fringe cover to feed.
If time is limited, and you’re looking for a sure bet, don’t overlook the many pheasant preserves throughout the West. Public land in many states carry enhanced habitats that offer good hunting fun for hunters of all ages and experience levels.
If hunting pheasants along river bottoms, keep an eye out for snipe. Wilson’s snipe are for real — you don’t need a flashlight and gunnysack to hunt them. Despite the myths surrounding these birds, snipe are ranked by many avid hunters as the toughest game bird to shoot. Snipe quickly reach top speed, and their continual juking and jibing make them a challenging target to connect. Snipe also abound in flooded fields, where waterfowl are hunted.
GROUSE AND QUAIL TANDEMS
In many regions throughout the West, quail and grouse can be hunted at the same time. Of course, this depends on species and ranges. Perhaps, the most common quail-grouse tandem lies in the Pacific Northwest, where valley quail and ruffed grouse can be hunted in the Coast Range and western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Other opportunities to hunt these two species exists in pockets throughout the region.
The Coast Range is the best habitat in which to hunt highly prized mountain quail, North America’s biggest quail and, likely, the toughest to hunt. Even when you’re in prime mountain quail habitat, seeing them is tough in the dense, jungle-like fortress they call home. Walking and mountain-biking behind gated roads that offer non-motorized access only are good places to find these secretive birds.
High nesting success and recent mild winter conditions have created pockets throughout the West where multiple species of upland birds are thriving. These are the places you want to research and where to plan your wingshooting.
Blue grouse, because they migrate to higher elevations as winter approaches, are also good to hunt in the Coast Range. Mature blues are tough to find late in the season. Again, escaping habitats that have been occupied by big-game hunters since September are where your best bet lies to bag a blue. If you’re lucky, a quad can be pulled off in the Coast Range or Cascades. This is where hunters bag valley and mountain quail, blue and ruffed grouse, all on the same hunt. It can be done but typically requires a lot of ground be covered, and you best make good on all shot opportunities.
In some northern parts of the West, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are doing well. Some populations were hit hard with winter kill, but other regions escaped, unscathed. With ample tall grass and surrounding food sources, hunting sharptails in the northern Rocky Mountain states can be very good.
Look south to the region’s desert lands for hunting Gambel’s and Mearns quail. Mearns quail occupy expansive grasslands bordered by strips of oak trees. Mearns are quiet birds, very secretive and many hunters rank them the most challenging of all quail to hunt.
Gambel’s quail are also found in desert habitats of the Southwest but hunting them is more like hunting valley quail. They occupy a range of habitats, from river valleys to oak woodlands. Brushy fence lines and mesquite thickets are a couple of their preferred habitats.
With all quail, the more ground you and your canine companion can cover, the better the chances are for finding birds.
An overlooked oddball among wingshooters, crow hunting can be excellent this time of year. As with all game birds, make certain of the seasons in the areas you plan to hunt, as well as bag limits and hunting methods.
Some states allow the use of electronic calls for crows. Teamed with a dozen crow decoys, calls can create an impressive outcome. Once one crow commits, the whole flock, called a “murder,” usually follows. Before you know it, 200 birds can be swarming overhead. The loud, taunting crows will test the obedience of any dog, and once the shooting starts, reload — fast!
Not only are crows great work for your dog, but despite what many folks believe, they make very good table fare. Remember, these crows aren’t feeding in dumpsters or theme parks; they are wild birds in big winter flocks, feeding on seeds and insects, like most upland birds this time of year.
Their meat is very tasty, and we’ve had many people comment on how much they liked it, be it fried or sautéed.
With winter upon us, plan your next bird hunting adventure now. Do the research and make some phone calls to local wildlife officials. Hunting on private land can be best due to less pressure, but don’t overlook state and federal lands. Use state and federal wildlife officials to help direct you to areas where birds are doing well; they also can tell you where not to hunt. Sometimes, that’s the key to locating your best hunting sites. Once the homework is done, all that’s left to do is get out and hunt!
PRE-PLAN YOUR UPLAND ADVENTURE
The past two winters have been hard on some upland birds in specific areas of the West, so don’t go into a hunting area if you’re uncertain of bird population trends. What used to be great hunting sites five years ago, may be void of birds today.
At the same time, some pockets throughout the West are thriving with multiple species of upland birds. This is due to high nesting success and mild winter conditions. These are the places you want to research and where to plan your hunts.
Call regional wildlife agencies in the state and area you wish to hunt to get the latest on bird densities. Upland bird numbers are usually fairly simple for wildlife agencies to estimate, and a great deal of your scouting can be done by phone. Sure, it takes time, but it’s much easier making a few phone calls, versus driving to all corners of the state, hoping birds are present.