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A Guide to Upland Hunting

A Guide to Upland Hunting

A new upland hunter with a bird dog and grouse.

This simple guide will give you a basic understanding of upland bird hunting and what you need to know to start the journey of becoming a new upland hunter. 

If you find yourself reading this, it is because you are interested in becoming a bird hunter. In the cultural sense, upland bird hunting is the pursuit of upland game birds with gun dogs to shoot a bird on the wing. This definition and methodology have evolved with time based on strong conservation ethics, something we will discuss in greater detail shortly.

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Contrary to popular belief, the term “bird hunter” is similar to “big game hunter.” Like someone saying, “I am a deer hunter,” or “I am a bear hunter,” people often identify by the species they hunt. For example, folks will be more specific and state, “I am a grouse hunter” or “I am a chukar hunter.” Each upland bird species has its own complex behavior, habitat, and even hunting methodologies. Be wary of “Upland Hunting 101” articles when searching for information for this exact reason. 

As a starting point, I would give three critical pieces of advice to any new bird hunter:

  1. Obsess over the science of the bird species you plan to hunt. Read research papers, learn its habitat like the back of your hand, and become a student of the bird.
  2. Seek our professional bird dog trainers and their content to get legitimate advice about whatever type of bird dog you end up with. There are no shortcuts here, and it’s essential to vet the credentials of every trainer. 
  3. When shooting a shotgun for wingshooting, practice, practice, practice. 
blue grouse, and upland bird in North America

Choosing What Upland Bird You Want to Hunt

The simplest way to choose what upland bird you want to hunt is simply based on geography. The huntable bird species near you depends on where you live. While it is tough to generalize a region for game birds, we will give a rough overview. Always check state seasons and regulations to understand what species are available. 

You will find ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and snipe in the northeast. In the southeast, you will find bobwhite quail, American woodcock, and isolated pockets of ruffed grouse. You will find pheasant, bobwhite quail, American woodcock, and various prairie grouse in the Midwest. In the upper midwest, you will find American woodcock, ruffed grouse, pheasant, Hungarian partridge, and other grouse species. 

The prairie states are iconic for their prairie grouse (sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens), wild pheasant, Hungarian partridge, and some pockets of forest grouse. In the sage steppes we find the sage grouse. As we transition to the mountain and western states, the varieties of game really open up and include California quail and mountain quail, dusky grouse and sooty grouse (blue grouse), ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasant, chukar, and Hungarian partridge. The Southwest, while holding various other mentioned species, is famous for various quail species. Southwest quail species include scaled quail, Mearns quail, and Gambel’s quail.

A pheasant in flight. A non-natove upland bird

Some Wild Upland Game Birds are Not Native to North America 

That’s right. Pheasants are not native to North America. Hungarian partridge, or “huns” as their name implies, are not from here, either. Even chukar are immigrants to the chukar hills of the West. These birds can offer wonderful wild bird hunting opportunities in certain parts of the country. For example, I absolutely love hunting huns on the prairies of North Dakota

As a New England native, we have no wild populations of non-native uplands game birds. State agencies and game farms stock pheasants. I will put this bluntly: shooting released birds is not upland bird hunting. It mimics almost none of the actual aspects of what should be the draw to upland hunting. True upland hunting requires learning about complex habitats, relying on a solid hunting dog on challenging wild birds, and the variable shooting conditions. There are no guarantees when hunting wild birds. Put and take is not hunting. 

Sure, you can hunt birds without a dog. It’s even legal to shoot birds on the ground, but these practices are generally frowned upon in this culture. 

An upland shotgun in a truck drawer on an upland hunt.

Shotguns are an Essential Part of Upland Hunting 

The invention of the shotgun was ultimately when modern wingshooting began. Shotguns are different from rifles in many ways. However, the fundamental difference between shotguns and rifles is that shotguns are designed to be shot at moving targets. Bird shot, a defining part of the shotgun, is a collection of smaller pellets that spread out when fired to create a large pattern area to hit moving targets. Shotgun barrels are usually smooth, and outside shooting slugs in rifle-restricted locations, are not commonly used for big game hunting. 

Variety is the spice of upland hunting; you might have already realized this considering North America’s vast collection of upland bird species. Shotguns have a variety and subcultures in of themselves, too. You will encounter side-by-side shotgun shooters that speak of their make, model, and gauge as if it were a religion. There are also semiautomatic shotguns, pump-action shotguns, single-shot shotguns, and over/under shotguns

The most commonly used shotgun gauge in upland hunting is the 20-gauge, followed by the 12-gauge. You will see entire subcultures around the 16-gauge, 28-gauge, and .410. 

The most significant advice anyone can give on choosing the right upland shotgun is to use what works for you. Whatever you can afford, already have, or just plain like is best. There are no correct answers here as long as one is conscious of their ability to take game with said shotgun. 

shotgun hunting ammunition during an upland hunt

Choosing Shotgun Ammunition and Chokes Sizes

Choosing your shotgun ammo and shotgun choke of choice can feel like climbing a mountain. Remember the part where I said to be wary of “Upland Hunting 101?” This is a great example. Using No .4 shot for pheasant can be a great idea. Using that same load for American woodcock is a horrible idea. 

The most popular more universal loads are No. 6 and No. 7 ½. Choke sizes for ruffed grouse hunters will be wide open, like cylinder and skeet. As one moves to shooting further birds on the prairie, they may step up to choices like the improved cylinder and modified. 

The type of material shot is made up of is also a factor. Lead, while the most common type of bird shot,  is toxic to the environment, and many non-toxic alternatives exist. Steel is the cheapest alternative, and steel is an effective shot to hunt most upland game. My favorite shot type is bismuth, but the cost of bismuth can be limiting. 

My suggestion here is simple. Once you have decided what species to hunt, simply Google it: “What size shot and choke should I use for chukar?” 

A German Shorthaired Pointer bird dog with an upland hunter

The World of Bird Dogs

Bird dogs add an exciting layer of options to hunting upland birds. Want to hunt over a pointing dog? What is a pointing dog, after all? How about spaniels, retrievers, or versatile breeds? Pointing dogs are the most popular bird dog breeds in 2023. But that does not mean you need to choose them as your method of hunting birds. 

My first suggestion is to hunt with other people who have bird dogs. Experience the different core methods, like the flushing breeds, spaniels, and retrievers, and the pointing breeds, like the various pointers and versatile breeds. 

Flushing breeds, as you may have gathered, search the ground for birds within shooting range of the hunter with the intention of flushing a bird into the air, offering a shot opportunity. A well-trained spaniel will sit on flush. These breeds are known for their strong retrieving abilities that take less effort than other breeds to train. Recovering your downed birds is important to maintaining a strong conservation ethic. 

Depending on the breed, pointing dogs will range at various distances and varying paces to find upland birds and point them. Pointing is when a dog stops in its tracks and stands perfectly still to indicate to the hunter that game is present. While I am oversimplifying here as some birds are more challenging for dogs than others, you would then walk up to the pointing dog and flush the bird yourself to shoot it. 

Versatile dogs point birds but also have other abilities, like sounding off on fur game like rabbits or hares. The German testing system is among the most famous of versatile dogs, including breeds such as the German Shorthaired Pointer and the ongoing debate about the difference between the Deutsch Drahthaar and German Wirehaired Pointer

While one can hunt upland game without a dog, it differs from what the wingshooting world is truly known for. The dynamic of adding a dog is the true allure of bird hunting. Keep an open mind and explore the bird dog breeds that appeal to you. 

Woman hunter with an upland bird

Bird Hunting Seasons, Bag Limits, and Licenses 

There is a lot of regulation around hunting in the United States. Hunting is not a right; it is a privilege. It is also not a free-for-all. Each state (and, in some cases, the federal government) set season dates and bag limits. One must not only purchase a hunting license to hunt but also pass a hunter’s safety course before being legally allowed to buy said license. 

You cannot just hunt any bird. Check your state’s game regulations to see what upland species you can hunt and when you can hunt upland birds. Most seasons occur in the fall and winter because they are outside the breeding seasons and other vulnerable times for birds. 

Game management is an essential part of hunting. For these species to exist perpetually, bag limits and hunting regulations must exist. When limits and rules are adhered to, bird populations are protected, habitat is created, and research gets done. There are even more things that state and federal governments and nonprofits do to further future generations of game bird populations in the US. 

There is no excuse for not knowing the laws regulating hunting upland birds in the states you hunt in. For example, simply Google “Bird hunting seasons in New Hampshire.” You can easily find the information.

upland birds prepared for cooking

Eating Upland Birds

Upland birds are like the tapas of hunting. While bird hunting will not fill your freezer like a whitetail deer, they each have unique flavors that make for incredibly diverse culinary experiences. The cooking styles feel endless, whether it’s the white meat of ruffed grouse or the rich red meat of a sharp-tailed grouse. You can check out all sorts of upland bird recipes here on Project Upland’s website. 

Upland birds require handling skills, like cleaning, dressing, and even aging, if you wish to get that complex with your culinary adventures. But the challenge of handling an upland bird for the dinner table is a much lower bar of entry than it is for big game.  

Sage grouse, a Western upland game bird

Upland Bird Conservation 

Upland birds, particularly native grouse and quail species, face critical issues in the United States. Sage grouse are a powder keg of environmental and political issues as the species faces drastic population declines. Ruffed grouse hunting has been closed in several states due to dwindling populations resulting from habitat loss and climate change. 

Many upland birds are “bellwether” species. This means their need for complex habitat makes them a marker for identifying critical environmental biodiversity issues. After all, the great ecologist Aldo Leopold said, “The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

If anything is taken from this article for those curious about taking up the path for upland bird hunting, I hope it is that these birds need our help, whether hunters exist or not. We need to support legislation that seeks to create more habitat and funding for birds, research that helps us understand them better, and support the nonprofits that work tirelessly to help these species survive a challenging modern landscape. To get involved, check out organizations like Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the American Bird Conservancy, and the National Wildlife Federation

A group of upland hunters at various ages

Find Help Becoming an Upland Hunter

Many nonprofits and state agencies offer educational programs to help people learn more about upland bird hunting. Finding a mentor can be difficult if you do not have hunters in your inner circle of friends and family, but many in the community are eager to help newcomers. Feel free to hop on places like the Project Upland Community Facebook page to ask for guidance. Many books are written on these topics, including our most recent upland hunting classics on Audible. There are also a vast amount of online resources on becoming a bird hunter that are tailored to the game bird you choose to pursue. 

The world of upland bird hunting is exciting. Its inherent variables, including birds, dogs, and shotguns, allow people to tailor a style of hunting that fits their personality uniquely. It’s a beautiful challenge and you will soon find any “Upland 101” article is a pathetic attempt to explain the rich culture that awaits any new bird hunter.

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