Hunting upland game is full of a lifetime of variables and knowledge that we can only take one step at a time.
Upland bird hunting is anything but easy. Numerous moving parts and thin margins for error make returning home with wild meat a challenge every time. As a new hunter, getting everything to align can feel frustratingly unreachable at times.
Appreciating the complexity of hunting and identifying your own strengths and weaknesses are the foundation for setting goals that are attainable. It took me a full season to weigh my expectations against my experience to realize that with every hunt I was, in fact, getting better; even when the scoreboard remained at zero.
My first year hunting, I was fortunate enough to have an experienced mentor, Thomas, and his fantastic, 10-month-old French Brittany pup, Harper, to guide me. Even with the leg up, it still took me a full season and nearly 50 miles on my boots to finally hit a wild rooster.
More times than I care to mention, Thomas would coach me into a point only to have the bird flush out of my novice reach. Sometimes, I didn’t have the wherewithal to even pull the trigger. Other times, the bird would flush at an unexpected angle, or I would shoot way too far behind it. Not wanting to waste the opportunity for baby Harper to complete a retrieve, Thomas would often decide the 2-3 second lead he gave me was up. He’d take his own shot.
Truthfully, this was one of the best ways for me to learn. We would discuss the point and flush when it was all over and talk about strategies for improvement. This method also allowed me the opportunity to enjoy generous pheasant meals to help motivate me for next time.
While I was putting everything together, Thomas was beyond patient, for which I will forever be grateful. When I finally connected with a bird, Thomas was just as excited as I was.
It happened exactly like so many times before. Harper locked on point. Thomas walked behind me 15 degrees off my right shoulder, coaching, when two pheasants rocketed out of a nondescript clump of dried wheat. To this day, I am not sure how I did it.
The roosters came up four feet behind Harper, each one flying in the exact opposite direction the three of us were facing. I spun around, shot the first bird dead, and fired at the second one as it got up to speed. Before I could register what had happened, Harper was delivering my hard-earned bird to Thomas’ hand. I had missed the second bird, but it didn’t matter. I had done it at last; I had shot my first upland bird.
We celebrated so rambunctiously we probably scared away every bird for the next mile. Never has a pheasant tasted so sweet.
Set one small goal every hunt
There is not a hunter in existance who has mastered every skill. Even the best still set personal goals for themselves and their dogs. For any hunter, but especially a new hunter, every trek into the field with a shotgun is an opportunity to get better.
Therefore, during every hunt you should challenge yourself to improve on one specific item.
For example, when Thomas and I would discuss points and flushes, he would instruct me to watch the dog more often and much more closely, suggest quartering into points to have a better shooting angle when the bird flushed, and encourage me to plant my feet and shoulder my gun every time, even if it wasn’t a worthwhile shot.
Initially, I tried to work on every single suggestion Thomas gave me at once. I wound up feeling like I was never going to get it right.
That’s when I started setting one goal at the start of each hunt that I would nail that day. I began with watching Harper more consistently, which was as enjoyable as it was rewarding. Then I worked on approaching the point more mindfully; avoiding the desire to rush straight at the dog. Progressing to shouldering my gun and planting my feet took more time to master, but slowly it became reflexive.
Once I felt like I had the basics more or less done, it was time for my maiden solo hunt. Being alone in the marsh for the first time was as exhilarating as it was intimidating. I hunted a completely new spot and actually found birds. I was flying high for a week, even though I hadn’t gotten close to shouldering my gun.
Guess what became my goal for next time?
To my surprise, once I had some semblance of foundational skills, I started creating my own, unique goals. The first stemmed from my fascination with the species and habitat. Every time I saw bird signs such as feces, dusting bowls, or feathers, I would stop and take a full 360 degree view of the landscape.
I quickly found patterns in plants I was seeing, water accessibility, and the general terrain. Then I went full nerd with it. I started keeping a journal with dates, number of bird sightings, elevation, time of day, weather, shots fired, birds shot, and dog work notes. Compiling data has been as entertaining as it has been educational for me.
Overall, regardless of what goal you choose to hone in on, make it one that is appropriate for your experience level, your body, and your brain. Remember, goals are individual. Yours may look very different from mine based on your own strengths and weaknesses.
Hunting is a hobby, first and foremost. Don’t forget to have fun as you learn!
Set one big goal every hunting season
Setting one big goal per season helps build upon the small successes. It gives hunters of all experience levels something to strive for and focus on while also removing the tendency to compare themselves to others. Instead of spurting out some overarching generalizations, I thought it best to share my own as examples. Here is the list of goals I set for my first four seasons:
Year One: 1 wild pheasant
Year Two: 2 new species- grouse and quail (I also got my first pheasant limit that season. It was a really good year)
Year Three: first chukar
Year Four: first Hungarian partridge (didn’t make it, those birds are so dang fast!)
Creating goals like these allowed me to set reasonable expectations for myself. Even when I didn’t meet a goal, I remained confident that I was at least getting closer. Plus, at the end of the season, it was such a joy to look back and see all my progress in a tangible way.
Everyone starts at the beginning
Bad days happen. I have gone out with other newbies and been the only one not to bring a bird home. I have been the slowest hunter in a group. I have been the clumsiest hunter. I frequently am the worst shot.
However, good days happen, too. I have been the one to bring home the most upland game. The one to make the best, most unexpected shot. The one to find that random ruffed grouse no one thought we’d see in a chukar canyon.
Being new and not very good is okay; in fact, it is more than okay. The beginning is where everyone else starts, too. Give yourself some grace. Set goals that are fun and uplifting, have reasonable expectations for your experience level, and hunt with people who encourage you. Most of all, spend as much time in the woods as you can.
I am a very new, first generation, adult-onset, female uplander from Eastern Oregon, where I live with my husband, Tanner, and our two dogs, Lenny and Hayward. The untainted meat and exercise is what got me into it, but the love of bird dogs gets me out most weekdays and nearly every weekend during the season. I am passionate about sharing my experience as a novice bird hunter in order to encourage others, from all walks of life, to try it out.