Understanding the differences in habitat and the ability to adapt on the fly will help you find success no matter where you are
It’s a frosty October morning in South Dakota. Friends hop out of warm pickups to organize gear and talk strategy; a line of hunters forms, evenly spaced along the edge of a walk-in Conservation Reserve Program plot. Led by a few excited dogs, the group marches in unison, raking the field for the pheasants that hide in the tall grass.
This scene is very familiar to anyone who learned to upland hunt in the fields of middle America––that is, a lot of us. Post a few blockers at the end to catch the stragglers, then reconvene to make excuses for your missed shots.
Yet, when hunters travel from the flatlands to hunt western birds, they find new challenges. Driving from Illinois to Montana, the dramatic changes in topography and plant communities are obvious, and with those, hunting strategies should change in these different landscapes as well.
Choose a spot
Unlike midwestern states, hunting opportunities in the west are more likely to be defined by habitat than by public access. With huge tracts of federal, state, and walk-in private lands to explore, the question becomes, “Where are the birds?” more than “Where are we allowed to hunt?”
Regardless of the species, birds are often concentrated in islands of ideal habitat. In productive seasons, these core populations will expand into less ideal habitat zones, making birds easier to find. In lean years, you can walk all day and see nothing, then find a lot of birds in a small area. Further, think about what each species needs to survive throughout the year—winter shelter and food often define the best hunting spots.
Consider your group size
Whether chasing blue grouse, chukar, mountain quail, or sharp-tailed grouse, consider the ideal number of hunters for your party. Generally, the steeper and rougher the terrain, the fewer hunters you should have in your party.
Skirmish lines become impossible to hold in variable topography. Even if all members of the party walk at the same pace, variations in the terrain will make some transects more difficult. This results in a messy and potentially dangerous situation where some hunters are far ahead of others.
If you are traveling with a group of friends, consider breaking up into groups of two or three to cover different patches of habitat. Make a clear plan on where and when to meet again.
Bring the dog power
If you are lucky enough to have a well-behaved hunting dog, you should absolutely give them the joy of hunting new species in new terrain regardless of their abilities. However, some dogs perform better on certain species.
Big running pointers are great for partridge, while close-working flushers are better for jumpy forest grouse. Some western bird species lend themselves well to a dogless hunter. Calling to quail can give away their location. Other species like blue grouse and sage grouse often hold better without a dog on the ground.
One of the most striking differences of a wild bird hunt out west is the isolation. There’s no game preserve office or farm nearby. In fact, many of the best hunting spots are dozens of miles from anything that could be considered a town.
If you aren’t able to get yourself out of trouble, it’s likely no one else will be around to help. A reliable vehicle with good tires and a full tank of gas is essential. Have extra food and water for you and your dog in case you get stranded. Your first aid kit should include a firestarter and insulating layers. Consider using a personal locator beacon as cell signal is usually spotty to nonexistent.
Prairie hunting strategies
Sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, and Hungarian partridge frequent expansive rolling terrain. Hunt grouse in native grasses that are full of flowering and fruiting plants. If there are brush-lined coulees nearby, all the better.
In places like Idaho and North Dakota, huns frequent the margins of wheat stubble. In Wyoming and Montana, they range into steep, brushy hillsides and tall sagebrush along washes. Hunt with up to four hunters per party, but consider breaking up where terrain becomes steeper and more dissected. Try walking shorter grass on ridgelines early in the season. Walk plum thickets and draw bottoms in the winter.
Mountain hunting strategies
Western forest grouse are often overlooked by traveling hunters. Ruffed grouse frequent thick stands of young aspen and alders in lower elevations of the mountains. Dusky and sooty grouse love high ridgelines and mixed parklands. Mountain quail inhabit dense brush on hillsides at lower elevations.
Due to close quarters, hunt these birds with parties of two people and one or two close-working dogs. While you can run a pointer, a spaniel or retriever can really shine in this habitat. Use a bell or e-collar to keep track of your dog in the thick forest. Even more so than elsewhere, it’s important for hunters and their dogs to wear orange in mountain forests.
Desert hunting strategies
Ranging from massive sage grouse to tiny Mearns quail, desert upland birds and their habitats are the most diverse. Sage grouse lend themselves well to midwestern hunting tactics—larger parties can string out over gentle sagebrush bowls. Run a few dogs ahead of your group, but keep them close as sage grouse are often easily spooked with dogs on the ground.
Chukar are usually found in rough topography and steep hillsides where invasive cheatgrass abounds. It is difficult to effectively hunt chukar with more than two people in a party due to the rough terrain. Try walking benches above steep slopes. Hunters who walk close together usually have more shooting opportunities when birds dive from the heights.
Swing back to your starting point along a lower elevation contour for a second chance at flushed birds. A dog with excellent recall is critical due to the oftentimes dangerously steep terrain.
When looking for Gambel’s and scaled quail, hunt dry washes and flats. Up to four hunters behind pointing dogs can work well, but reduce your party size as you venture from the scaled quail flats to Mearns’ habitat in the brushy mountain foothills.
Do your homework
Western upland hunting offers endless opportunities for adventurous travel hunters. Research the regions that you want to visit, but also learn the habits of the species that you want to pursue. Don’t forget, local bird hunters appreciate considerate visitors and are often happy to give direction.
Try to find ways to give back to the landscapes that you visit, and most of all, be flexible. Take what you already know about bird hunting with you, but be observant and ready to change your strategies to ensure a safe, successful hunt.
Josh Tatman is from northern Wyoming. He is passionate about conserving the last remaining wild places and the creatures that call them home.