When I’m asked, as I often am, which hunt in North America has been the most challenging for me, I don’t give the response most people expect.
Perhaps those who ask the question anticipate my response to be that I found a high-mountain elk hunt to be the toughest or maybe some long trek through the dry thornbush of southern Africa, in search of a crafty, old kudu bull. And while both of those hunts—and many others like them—have been real challenges, the one hunt that left me broken, beaten and bootless occurred in the wild Owyhee Mountains of southern Idaho while chasing … wild chukar.
And I do mean chasing. Uphill. Downhill. Through steep canyon country that was hot and dry, navigating over lava rock that quite literally ate the soles from my boots and left me wondering if I were insane or stupid (or both) for pouring so much sweat and effort into finding a drab bird that was slightly smaller than your typical barnyard chicken. But that was the toughest hunt. And maybe I am stupid and insane, because I chase chukars every chance I get.
“Long-barreled guns can be a liability in thick cover, and many grouse hunters prefer light, handy scatterguns that won’t hang up in dense brush.”
Upland Bird Hunts
Upland birds are one of my passions; and, unlike with many big-game species, opportunities to hunt wild birds abound across the nation. Whereas you could wait years to draw a coveted elk tag or a lifetime to get a crack at a sheep, you can hunt wild birds on public land this fall—and next fall and every year that follows. All you need to do is homework and, in many cases, a lot of walking.
Public hunting for upland birds can also be quite affordable. Sure, you can book guided hunts (which are often significantly less expensive than big-game hunts), but you can also purchase a hunting license, an affordable shotgun and a good pair of boots (or two) and be fully equipped to bag your limit of birds on a regular basis.
I can’t offer you insight into all the public land bird-hunting opportunities that await you, but here are five of my favorites. None of them is easy (and one will require a Herculean effort), but these hunts offer outstanding experiences in some of North America’s most beautiful country.
Eastern Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed grouse hunting is a time-honored tradition in many areas of the country, and there are plenty of areas that offer excellent grouse hunting, from New England to the Appalachian Mountains to the Great Lakes. My favorite grouse hunt took place in the seemingly endless forests of northern Maine, where birds were plentiful but other hunters were not. You can simply walk through the timber or along cut lines and jump-shoot these birds (however, a good dog offers a huge advantage). Finding grouse is largely a game of scouting out prime areas where food sources such as wild grapes attract and hold large numbers of birds. The key to grouse hunting is to learn to shoot quickly and accurately in dense, forested cover. Long-barreled guns can be a liability in thick cover, and many grouse hunters prefer light, handy scatterguns that won’t hang up in dense brush. Grouse rank among the most delicious of all wild birds.
Pheasants in the Dakotas
Pheasant hunting is to the Dakotas what surfing is to southern California, and the sweeping vistas in this region offer plenty of chances to bag your limit of roosters. Unlike grouse hunting, which often demands hiking through heavy cover, pheasant hunting most often occurs in more-open country, often CRP ground or in agricultural fields. Traditionally, hunters use blockers at the end of a field to make running birds rise, and this method works well—as long as everyone is very careful not to take a dangerous shot when birds rise between hunters. Of course, having a really good bird dog helps, and your four-legged companion will not only flush or point birds, it will also help you retrieve downed pheasants (which can be a real chore in tall grass).
“Pheasant hunting is to the Dakotas what surfing is to southern California.”
Chukar and Huns in the West
Chukar and Hungarian Partridge were introduced into the United States, and both species have flourished here. They are particularly common in areas such as Idaho, Montana, Utah and other Rocky Mountain states, but finding them usually means a lot of walking. Chukars tend to move down with the snowline, offering hunters a lower-elevation hunt later in the season—although Huns are capable of thriving in deep snow. You can scout for chukars by listening for their distinctive chuck-chuck call, and while you can hunt these birds without a four-legged friend, a good dog really ups the odds of success—and significantly lessens the amount of ground you need to cover for success.
Mountain Grouse in the Rockies
Blue grouse are a common bird in the high, alpine timber of the Rockies and are often encountered when driving Forest Service roads throughout the year. You can scout along these roads and hunt in areas where you have seen a lot of birds or bird sign, and having a dog isn’t as important when hunting blues as it is when hunting chukars and huns. Simply walking along the wooded fringe of pine forests at high elevations can produce great results, but you need to pay close attention and move slowly. When these birds fly, they often dart and dodge between trees like their cousins in the eastern United States, and fast, accurate shooting will help you succeed.
Sage Grouse in the Sagebrush Sea
Sage grouse numbers fluctuate from year to year, and while these birds might be prevalent in an area, finding them can be a real challenge. I walked about 15 miles through ankle-grabbing sage before I had my first shot at a bird, and that was in some excellent habitat with numerous birds in southern Wyoming. But for an upland hunter, sage grouse are among the rarest and most sought-after trophies, and there are few experiences in upland hunting more rewarding than seeing a grouse explode from the brush. If that ever happens, you’ll know you’ve accomplished one of wingshooting’s most difficult feats. It’s also worth noting that flocks of sage grouse often flush in intervals, so if the first bird you jump takes you by surprise and you don’t get a shot, be ready—more are likely to follow. This is one of the most challenging of all wild-bird hunts, and I was lucky to have encountered my first bird after just 15 miles. This might not be the best hunt for the novice uplander, and success often takes days, months or even years.
Lightweight, efficient and offering low recoil for fast follow-up shots, 28-gauge shotguns are quite versatile for upland hunting.
One of the best new 28-gauge loads for upland hunting is Federal’s Game-Shok offering. Available with 5, 6 or 7.5 shot in 1-ounce loads, Game-Shok pushes a payload of hard, uniform shot at 1,220 fps for maximum lethality, even at extended ranges. These loads pattern well and burn cleanly, and I have found them to function well in various 28-gauge semiautos and pumps. They’re also very effective on game birds up to, and including, pheasant. Because light sub-gauge guns weigh a pound or more less than most of their 12-gauge counterparts, they are ideal for long walks in upland country.
Even though the Game-Shok’s payload is quite effective and quite impressive, recoil is manageable. Plus, the Federal loads are affordably priced for 28-gauge offerings with an MSRP of $19.95 (and street prices will likely be lower). These versatile loads are also great for quail and small game such as rabbits.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.