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The Difference Between Upland Purists and Opportunist

The Difference Between Upland Purists and Opportunist

A group of bird hunters follow a dog through thick cover

At the end of the day, Upland Purists and Opportunists have the same goal.

The older I get, the more I’ve realized that everyone has their own way of hunting. This is especially true when it comes to upland game, for either upland purists or opportunists. Some dog snobs will only hunt with an English Setter and consider labs the poor man’s dog. There are pointer snobs who will only shoot at a bird their dog pointed and held. There are also heathens. The meat hunters. You know the kind—they punch out after a long day at the factory, grab their 12 gauge and throw a box of shells into their truck. They’ll take the long way home on backroads and kill any bird they happen to see. Then they get home, give their mate a kiss, and perhaps hand them a clutch of birds to cook or grill for supper.

But in the end, are any of these people that different?

The Upland Purists

Upland purists can be broken down into several categories, but since we don’t have all day we’ll just hit a few things that define an uplander as a purist.

Upland purists are traditionally those who hunt with English Setters, yielding a classic “fine” double. A side-by-side of high stature. Preferably in 28, 20, or 16 gauge. You’ll see a lot of waxed clothing on a purist and a plaid shirt made of seventy year old wool. A Stormy Kromer is optional, but applauded. Their kennels are shiny; their boots worn to perfection. These are the people that George Bird Evans would have called “purists of the highest order.”

In all seriousness, there are several levels of “pure” in the upland community. The type of gun you pursue game with is an important factor. A classic double is one of the common themes amongst all purists. Dog breeds is another. While one person considers Setters to be the end-all-be-all in upland dogs, another thinks that a Draathar is the kitten’s mittens. Ground swatting and limb shooting is strictly forbidden. Shooting a bird that wasn’t pointed is frowned upon as well. Some accept the practice of shooting birds while the dog is off somewhere else. Others let them fly. In short, a purist is defined as: looking good with a good dog, classy gun, and the utmost respect for the sport.

The Upland Opportunists

George Evans Bird wrote in The Upland Shooting Life, “If I could shoot a game bird and still not hurt it, the way I can take a trout and release it, I doubt if I would kill another one.” That’s pure in every sense of the word. The only problem with that statement to opportunists is that they’d never get to enjoy a meal of freshly killed birds.

The opportunist typically lives in good bird country. Birds are abundant and seeing a road bird on the way to a favorite area is common and considered a free meal. ATV hunters fall into this category. It’s people sans dog who like to put a lot of miles on their ATV while scouring the thickets for birds. They’ll ground swat a dumb bird that won’t leave the trail edge and pop a gigantic smile when they come up on a cranberry bush with a handful of birds pecking away.

The attire is different, often consisting of a pair of work boots and a single piece of orange. It might just be a hand-me-down vest or a hat from the local sporting goods store. The bird dog of choice is the one they have available—even if it’s their son or daughter busting through the thick stuff while they walk the edges. Many cannot afford a good bird dog and don’t have the time or monetary resources for good dog training.

The opportunist isn’t a heathen. He is just a person who loves hunting and enjoys eating birds.

Whom do most of us Identify with?

It’s really hard to be yourself when talking about upland hunting with other fanatics. You can give into the temptation of hiding who you really are, because you’re scared of the other person’s opinion. But when it comes down to it, why do you care?

I consider myself a mix of both upland purist and opportunist. Some days I’m as pure as a fresh snowfall, others I border on being a heathen. I’ve let birds fly just to watch them disappear into the start of a sunset. Other days, I’ve thrown lead through the thickest cover I could find in hopes that just one pellet would connect.

I run a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. He’s gone through NAVHDA testing and he sleeps in bed with me and my wife. He loves to play with the kids. My hunger for a dog that was versatile with northern Minnesota’s harsh weather swings led to him. Before him, I ran a duo of German Short-haired Pointers. They were also family dogs and loved to run. They pointed birds, retrieved when they wanted, and were loved dearly. Every dog I’ve owned did the job: found birds.

My guns vary from beater pumps to classic doubles. I’ve got a $400 SxS and a $1200 O/U. They both kill birds and I don’t feel better about myself when I shoot a bird with one or the other. Once I took a ruffed grouse with a bow and arrow with a snare tip. I also purchased a classic 16 gauge to do a write-up on classic 16 gauges. I hunted down every piece of history on that gun I could. At the time of writing this, it’s older than I’ll ever grow to be.

Some days I wear shoes, jeans, hoodie, and an orange cap. Other days I wear my leather treated boots with my strap vest, RGS/PF embedded logo wear, and my oilcan chaps. I’m not too proud to take a road bird. I grew up hunting that way! I can also hold my own in a dog debate and will pass on a woodcock if it didn’t hold until I could see its eyeball. I’m all over the board, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Common Ground

The bottom line is this. We all love hunting, and we all love the birds we chase. From the guy or gal who giggles like a 3 year old with an ice cream cone when they shoot the first grouse of the season while out ATVing with their buddies, to the upland purist who bags a clutch of bobwhites from a covey rise over a $3000 Setter.

Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a decrease of roughly 35% in hunters. Our youth just aren’t as interested as they were before tablets and cell phone gaming. I don’t care if you’re a purist or a borderline heathen. Take your kids outside. Teach them what it feels like to flush a wild ruffed grouse at their feet. If you don’t have kids, mentor a friend’s kids or an adult who hasn’t ever picked up a gun. Programs like the recruitment program through the Ruffed Grouse Society target people who want to get into the sport, but don’t have the means or family history to get into it. This is specifically women, kids, and adults in the 15-30 year old demographic. Get involved.

When it comes to the debate between upland purists and opportunists, in my opinion nobody is right if they aren’t a member of a conservation society. It could be Ducks Unlimited, Ruffed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, American Woodcock Society, Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Prairie Chicken Society, National Wild Turkey Federation, and more. If you can afford a classic double or a trailer for your ATV, you can afford a membership to one of these great conservation groups. A little bit goes a long way.

As long as everyone is hunting within their state’s laws, as long as they care about the conservation of our hunting heritage and the habitat where the birds we all love so much reside, we’re family.

View Comments (12)
    • Thanks, Patrick! I think we all have a bit of an identity crises when it comes to where we fit in. And that’s okay, because it’s not about us or them, it’s about the birds and experiences…

  • Excellent Matt, and straight from my own heart. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and feel I have an appreciation for each. These days I hunt with and English setter and carry a vintage side by side. Yet, I can still remember the first grouse I ever shot on the side of an old logging road in northern Minnesota, with a single shot 20-gauge and my dad and uncle cheering me on, it was magnificent! From that day forward I’ve been stricken with an absolute passion and desire for upland hunting in all of its different forms. At the core of it all lies a deep respect for the birds and their habitat. If we can, at least, all agree on that we’ll be in good shape!

  • Nice article Matt. I’m one of those elitist grouse hunters. Well not entirely, but mostly, some days. Although I do have three setters so maybe I am all the time. Seriously though it’s a great article and I feel very much the same way you do. I moved to MN 12.5 years ago specifically to hunt grouse and woodcock so while I may be somewhat particular about how I go about it I really don’t care how others go about it as long as they obey the laws.


  • Great article Matt! Really resonated with me and like you, I see myself a mix based on the circumstances. Enjoy reading your work!

  • Excellent article and perspective. I’ve journeyed over most spectrums as I’ve aged. Now it’s all about the dogs, friends, kids and time spent in the field and memorable Adventures. Get the kids outdoors!!!

  • Good sentiments, and important to hear. Most of us have a foot in each camp. I’ve seen excitement, limited hunting opportunities, and a miss or two, turn a purist into an opportunist in an afternoon…and I see no shame in it. Follow the laws, appreciate the birds, and take some newbies into the field, and you’re OK in my book.

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