Though we often think of trucks when it comes to bird hunting, a car can truly make do.
Let’s face it, a truck or sport utility vehicle makes for the ideal hunting rig. But let’s consider that for those who own neither, but drive a passenger car or even a van, how does that affect their capability to go bird hunting?
I met Erin Woodward in the early part of 2018. He had reached out to me via email after reading a Project Upland article of mine about hunting prairie chickens. Erin was interested in becoming a bird hunter. His hunting experiences included deer and turkey. We met for lunch and discussed everything under the sun related to upland bird hunting. Prairie chickens. Public lands. Shotguns. You name it. However, not one word was uttered about the type of vehicle he owned.
Fast forward several months later to mid-September. The early prairie chicken season had started on the 15th and we made plans to meet in the parking lot of the local outdoor sporting goods megastore. I arrived early in my truck. I had stowed my gear and strategically placed everything for easy access, leaving room for Erin’s gear and an Ithaca vintage pump shotgun he had told me about when we’d met.
The clock in my truck read that Erin was late. Time lapsed and I wondered if he had “chickened” out. I looked for headlights from trucks entering the parking lot. Nothing. More minutes passed and suddenly there appeared a dark colored passenger car, headlights pointing in my direction. The four-door sedan parked next to me, a 2008 Mercury Grand Marquis. I thought to myself he had perhaps driven his wife’s car.
Greetings were quick and apologies for his tardiness offered while he loaded his things into my truck. We jumped in and headed for the Flint Hills for prairie chickens. About the third question I asked Erin was, “Do you own a truck?” He answered, “No.” That was all that was said pertaining to his car. I never mentioned it again, nor was I curious as to why not. Or was I?
A year passed and Erin and I became good friends. He accompanied me in my truck on several occasions as we traveled to his first dove, duck, and quail hunts. We revisited the Flint Hills a couple of times in search of chickens. During this time, he was able to experience the flush of a covey of bobwhite quail at his feet for the first time. Erin has become a bona fide upland bird hunter.
Erin called me one day in January 2020 with questions on where he could go hunting. Everyone else was busy and he opted to go it alone. It was the late season of 2019 and time was dwindling. I shared a couple of locations using onX for Erin to try. All are tracts enrolled in the WIHA (Walk-In Hunting Area) program. Each area had a history of success with pheasants and quail.
The weather consisted of cold temps and snow, mixed in with periods of rain. The roads would turn into Kansas gumbo if the snow started to melt. I knew he would drive either his car or perhaps his wife’s minivan. I envisioned him in his car driving the back roads, all the while looking at the WIHA atlas booklet for public accessible tracts to hunt. Later the next day, Erin texted me saying he had had no luck. Again, nothing was said about the type of vehicle he had driven.
It was Monday, January 27, 2020, only four days before the 2019 season ended. The previous night, Erin and I spoke of plans to once again hunt prairie chickens and quail. I had given Erin an excuse for him to drive this time. I was curious to see what (if any) difference there would be in hunting out of a car. The large blue car pulled into my driveway and we loaded our gear.
The hour-and-a-half trip went by fast. Things started to change quickly as soon as we drove onto a gravel road. Soon, the sound of splattering debris could be heard. Looking down the road in front of us, it appeared almost black. Wheeled tracks were evident. I silently wondered if we would make it to our destination. I suspected that the car’s low clearance and rear-wheel drive would be a hindrance. However, Erin was able to maneuver the car deftly down the road for another mile or so and we arrived at our location. The large trunklid acted as a field table for shotgun cases and ammo boxes. The backseat was an array of outdoor related items. We loaded our shotguns and off we went.
We spent the day watching flocks of geese fly over us. A large covey of bobs flushed at my feet where prairie chickens are usually encountered and walking miles across the rust colored landscape was breathtaking. Upon our return to Erin’s car, we returned our shotguns to their cases and placed our vests in the backseat. It was time for the ride home.
We made ourselves comfortable in the car once again as we slowly made our way down the less than ideal roadway. The road’s frozen surface had melted even more. The car swayed from side to side, slowly making its way in the tracks of previous vehicles, probably trucks which had driven down the road since we had arrived. As we approached the paved road, I was relieved. Not a word was uttered about the car.
As Erin departed from my house, I watched him drive out of my cul-de-sac and wondered — does owning or driving a passenger car have any real bearing on being a bird hunter? It didn’t affect us one bit. I needed better shot placement on the explosion of bobs that I missed with three shots from my 16-gauge pump. But there were no adverse effects that I could tell and certainly no correlation tied to driving a car, as much as I would like to use that as an excuse.
There were obvious limitations that we both saw with driving a car. But our time afield was enjoyable, and we had done what we had set out to do . . . get into birds. Why had I been focused on this trivial thing about going hunting in his car? This may sound absurd, but it was a real question I had. A week later, I asked Erin to answer a few questions for me to shed light on the subject.
My conversation with Erin resulted in my asking a barrage of questions in the hopes that it would give me a little bit of insight on using a passenger car for hunting. Erin started upland hunting late in his life. It was 2018 when he took the plunge. During that year, Erin’s exposure to bird hunting consisted of only one outing and that was for early season prairie chicken. Since then Erin has hunted for doves, bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasant, and waterfowl.
Erin has discovered that driving a vehicle without AWD (All-Wheel-Drive) or four-wheel-drive is a hindrance in getting around on certain roads during inclement weather, bad driving conditions, and even the roads themselves. He knows that the roads can get bad during the fall and winter stemming from late-season rains, winter storms, snow and ice, and the roads can be difficult to access. Even in September farm roads can get dicey with a good amount of Indian Summer downpours. We all know that those backcountry or farm roads can be less than ideal even for those driving four-wheel-drive vehicles. His car has limited capabilities, and Erin understands those limitations with certain terrain and access points.
Even if the conditions are perfect, Erin has discovered that his greatest obstacle with driving a car is access. Access to Kansas’ 300,000 acres of public lands and the 1.1 million acres enrolled in the WIHA (Walk-In Hunting Access) is not without some difficulties. With all this “accessible” public land, a bird hunter has a lot to choose from. However, simply getting there can be a problem if driving a car as accessibility can be more difficult.
Erin has not made any modifications to make his car “hunt ready.” He merely hopes that his car turns on with the turn of the key. One major area where Erin absolutely feels the effects of driving a car for hunting is the limited amount of space. Although the Grand Marquis is a large vehicle by car standards, he still finds that his backseat is inadequate for him to stow gear. When the car’s trunk is not full, it helps with storage. Erin has learned to carefully select the bare minimum needed for a bird hunt.
Owning a truck provides a convenient place for more storage, especially for longer or overnight hunts that may or may not include camping. The bed of a truck provides a place for more storage, such as dirty and muddy boots, waders, and a dog kennel. Erin knows that when a bird dog comes into the picture, he worries that the issues of hunting from a car with a dog would be an even greater challenge. Questions arise in Erin’s mind as to how does he securely strap down the kennel? Where does his gear go? Where can he put the dog’s food, water, and so on.
Erin also understands that a car or truck does not make or break a hunter. He has become a better hunter by being surrounded with people who’ve taught him about the diversity in upland bird hunting through hunter mentorship.
The best advice Erin offers for bird hunters who own cars would be to always pre-trip your vehicle. Check your tire pressure, fluid levels. Know your routes. Car drivers doing pre-season scouting or hunting during the regular season should mark gravel and paved roads versus driving back and old-farm roads to determine which are inaccessible to cars.
Can hunting using a car be done? Erin positively says, “Yes!” Through careful planning anyone can hunt using a car. Use what is available and make it work. And yes, Erin sees a truck in his foreseeable future. In the meantime, if you’re driving around Kansas and see a blue Mercury Grand Marquis, you may want to stop and chat with Erin. And while you’re at it, ask if he needs any help in getting to his next location.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.