Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Wild World of Wild Birds

 If you are old enough to remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports, you distinctly recall Jim McKay uttering the words “the thrill of victory and agony of defeat”. While a tough day in the field doesn't rival an epic crash on the Giant Slalom, it does occasionally make us question our choice of hobbies or sanity. When entered into my hunting journals, this season had no shortage of peaks and valleys when compared to previous years.


Singing The Blues

The opening day of the season on September 1st, found us in blue grouse country. Dad was only three months into his warranty period on his new knee, so we planned to take things easy. Five miles and 2,000’ feet of elevation later, I reminded him not to overdo it on the first day. Too late. He wasn’t able to walk the next day, let alone hunt.  It was a strange day as we moved about a dozen blues, but many of them blew out of trees, not offering much dog work.  We each shot a bird, so we were not skunked. I returned to the woods and Dad’s RV two days later and had a great hunt in the hills. I found plenty of birds and had fairly open shooting over points.  If you haven’t hunted blues, it is great sport, in majestic country for a bird that is wonderful on the table.


No snakes and usually 10 degrees cooler than the prairie

Hunting For Cover, Not Birds

As I moved north on the Montana prairie, it was good to see that the birds bounced back nicely since the dreadful summer of 2017. The drought that season virtually wiped out all reproduction for Hungarian Partridge and sharptail. (Pheasants fared slightly better) This fall, sharptail were abundant and seeing three or four coveys of Huns a day was the norm. Shooting a limit of Huns isn’t always the goal, but when it occurred over the 6-month old pup, I made no apologies. The light really came on, as they say.  Unfortunately, the continued drought reduced the habitat for the birds on the landscape. The lack of grass resulted in more haying and more grazing. A definite double-whammy which may carry over into spring 2022 nesting.


Its Ruff Without Woodcock

The trip to the grouse and woodcock cabin in MN also produce mixed results.  The woodcock had already come and gone, but the hunting for ruffs was decent.  I hunted some untouched ground via my fat-tire bike where I only saw the tracks of wolves and some old whitewash from timberdoodles.  The final day I shot a true double on ruffs, which I don’t recall happening in 40 years of hunting in the north woods.  I won’t bore you with the details, but that mental image will stick with me for a while.


Everyone Wants a Rooster

Montana pheasant opener: Plenty of birds, good dog work, but too many people. I have hunted the same spots in NE MT for years, but this was the first opener in which vehicles and RVs were strategically parked to reserve spots. People were trespassing with reckless abandon. To the guys from Idaho said they new it was private land and didn't care, we need the opposite of an R3 program for folks like you.  I keep saying I am going to avoid pheasant opener, but 30 years later….   

Burned In Hells

Idaho chukars. The first day was a disappointing bust as our destination was a black moonscape from the wildfires this summer. We saw a few birds, but their remaining cover were rock piles. On day two, I fell on frost-covered rocks and put an ugly ding in my 28 gauge. Good thing I packed an extra 20 gauge and shells.  Finally, on the third day, our luck changed and we found a supercovey of birds in some rugged country, miles from the nearest road. 

I think about chukar country 12 months a year. 


Kansas quail. In southern Kansas, we had a great start on bobs, on a bitterly cold, snowy day. I was able to hunt both dogs, who worked as a team. I moved five coveys and shot a limit and I am glad I did.  The next morning, when we had bluebird weather and high expectations, I never saw a covey. To make matters worse, Lena the pup, found a trapper’s leg-hold unit and howled until I ran over and set her free. An event like that really puts a damper on your enthusiasm. After seeing a snare in the same area, I was more than content to call it a trip and make the 15-hour drive back to Montana.

Legal on public lands, but not a lot of fun for bird dogs. 


We had just the right enough snow for a Montana Hi-Line pheasant and Hun hunt so I took a break from chukars and went north. Overnight temps were around zero, so I rented a dog-friendly motel instead of hauling the RV. While I was mostly after Huns with a side of pheasants, I could not get close to the Huns. They flushed wild repeatedly from the hard-packed snow and eventually I gave up. The Huns were acting more like pheasants.  I moved to slightly heavier cover and focused on ringnecks. The tight-sitting roosters and hens were great practice for a young dog. The hunting was good, the driving on icy roads was not. 

Cowpoke Partridge

Wyoming chukars and Hungarians. When a rancher tells you he has never seen a bird hunter before, you chalk it up as a plus. Due to a dry spring and summer, amidst an already arid climate, the bird numbers were down from previous years. But, the weather in South Montana was balmy until the very end of the season, while snow was piling up in my Idaho haunts.  

My final bird was a Hun, over a point by both dogs at sunset on January 30th, along the snowcapped Rocky Mountain Front. I ended that day and my season with one chukar and one Hun which doesn’t sound like much of a day. But, when you look at the big picture of finding wild birds in wild country with your own bird dogs, there are always more good days than bad.  

Final bird of the season. Now we wait. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Swiss Army Dogs

 The past decade or so, I have left the pheasant belt of eastern Montana immediately after the opening weekend each year. The hunt is mostly a tradition amongst friends with good dog work on young birds, often ending our hunts by mid-morning each day. After the two or three days of hunting wild roosters in CRP and brushy draws, I repack my gear and head to Minnesota for ruffed grouse and woodcock. The mid-October window is a good balance that is late enough in the season to offer some leaves on the ground, but not far enough into fall to miss all of the resident woodcock.

Maggie and Katy. All they knew were grouse and woodcock and it showed.

Growing up in the north woods, our dogs were specialists. It wasn’t an attempt at elitism, but strictly a pragmatic decision.  We never considered traveling, leaving birds to find birds. Blaze, Maggie, Katy, and Lucy hunted ruffs and timberdoodles exclusively, with maybe one or two outings for sharptail that were just outside of the big woods.  When you combine that narrow focus with great hunting in your backyard, a young setter learned the game very quickly.  Woodcock were a great training tool, the wary grouse a slightly more advanced course. I took our good hunting and stellar dog work for granted.

Now, with just a handful of days in the MN woods each year, I won’t pretend that my current pair of bird dogs have that duo mastered.  Sure, they do well-enough, but I can notice they handle ruffs better on day three or four, then on day one. I am not sure they even remember the smell of woodcock until they bump one and grouse, well, they might get a bit too close for comfort when the tailgate first drops. Switching from running roosters to wobbly woodcock in 24 hours, is a significant change. 

Huns. Great dog work + sporty shooting. 

A feathered stew of chukars, blue grouse, sharptail and Huns, an occasional sage grouse and a few valley quail each year, only adds to the diversity that my dogs see. September sharptail usually play fair, but the weather can be hot and dry.  Are mountain blue grouse an adequate fill-in for ruffs?  Do Hun coveys act and smell like a bunch of chukars?   Does the variety of birds make them mediocre at each species or are bird contacts all part of the bigger picture?  I am not sure what the answer is, but I know in my six-month sojourn chasing birds each year, it is sure fun to see a variety of country, with a lot of unique birds alongside my “good-enough” dogs. 

Chukar country.  Birds that run like pheasants, flush like Huns. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Season That Wouldn't End

Growing up in the icebox of northern Minnesota, I didn’t fathom hunting upland birds after Thanksgiving, let alone January 1st or into February. We got our licks in though, hunting steadily from September 1st (woodcock only) until deer season in early November shut down the setters and hunters.  There were a few years where the snow didn’t accumulate to levels that impeded our search for December ruffs, but usually Thanksgiving was the tail end of our season.


When I finally ended up in Montana, the climate allowed for ample pheasant hunting until January 1st, many years without any snow on the ground. The birds were as crafty as heck in the late season, but it didn’t matter. Hunting pressure was nil and the dogs were in prime shape.  The four-month season offered a lot of variety from blue grouse at 8,000’ in September to Huns and sharptail in October. Pheasants were the primary quarry the final half of the year, which often varied from the easy birds of the opener to tougher days of busting cattails and deep snow. Four months of bird hunting seemed adequate.


When chukars, and to a lesser extent quail, entered the picture, instantly an additional month of hunting and road trips were attained.  Idaho chukar and valley quail and Wyoming chukars and Huns, had become my addictions. While I have traveled to Kansas and Arizona as well, they weren’t getaways that could be done on a long weekend.  I could be in Wyoming chukar country in four hours, so why wouldn’t I sneak to the Cowboy State as often as I could?


And, sneak I did this season (often alone and wearing a mask). For all of us in the North who value a good ice-auger more than golf clubs, winter weather can shut down the hunting season or make the travel back and forth miserable. We tell our spouses, “one more hunting trip is needed before the snow flies”, a line I used repeatedly this fall. Four trips in a five-week span were made to Wyoming, with varying results each sojourn south.  My goal was to find birds in a new location each trip, so I did cross off some areas about as often as I successfully scribbled Chuk on my maps. 


I also made two trips to Idaho, both of which were enjoyable as I took two different hunting partners to see the majestic Hells Canyon. Hunting in that scenic terrain, with all public-land, is hard to top.  No fences, no permission needed, the only requirements consisted of being in good physical shape and remembering which ridge the truck was parked.


When January 31st came and went, I had partially cleaned up my bird hunting Ready Piles in my den - collections of things I used so often that I really never unpacked from each getaway. Dog collars, my 28 gauge shell bag, dog food and boots I rotated based on the upcoming terrain, were always at the ready.  But, when I realized Nevada’s chukar season remained opened until February 7th, I quickly restocked. While a winter storm was going to impact the home front in central Montana, northern Nevada was downright balmy, with temps in the 50s.  I would worry about returning home later.


It was my first trip to Nevada, outside of many work trips to Las Vegas, which really do not count.  Like many expeditions to a new area, one wastes a lot of time scouting and finding the birdy ground.  Letti did her part and found plenty of Huns the first day and finally struck gold with chukars on the second.  It was an enjoyable, albeit short trip, but I hunted into February for the first time in my life, so what’s not to like?  The season ended abruptly, as I drove the final 300 miles on ice, all the way to my doorstep.  But, I had to make the final trip, before the snow came.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

2020 Hits and Misses

 September 1- October 10

How will we remember the 2020-2021 hunting season?

One expects the first two weeks of the Montana season to be hot and dry. Often smoky. But, this fall, conditions of Hades lingered all the way to pheasant opener. The days trekking up high for blues were productive, but by noon, water bottles were empty and the dogs were looking for shade. Salt was rubbed in the wound even more when an October fire struck said blue grouse coverts. Time will tell if that high-elevation habitat is altered forever.

Based on my days afield, sharptail seemed to be nearly recovered from the drought of 2017, while Huns aren't quite there yet. On second thought, sharptail were more abundant than any season since 2007.  (I would still like to see a 3 birds/day limit and 9 in possession) I never did hunt sage grouse this September, with most of my excuses revolving around snakes, warm temperatures and more snakes.

The smoky, dry September conditions hindered dog work to some extent.

October 10 - October 23

Pheasant opener was played according to Hoyle.  The birds had a good hatch and we had our bag limits early each day. Dog work was good, allowing us to pick out mature birds and avoid any heckling over juveniles that were lacking color. Only the pheasant opener can become amateur hour when other hunters drive past your vehicle and deliberately cut you off on a coulee. Cooler heads prevailed when the final showdown occurred, but man.......

Other than that, the opening weekend was full of good laughs, good food and good weather. The dogs were machines, doing what they were bred to do.  And, Brian ended his shooting slump too, which had been on the books for a decade. Give or take. 

Can you come home Sunday after hunting pheasants?  I have had contact with some Covid-positive people.....And just like that my trip to the grouse shack in MN was cancelled with one simple text from my wife.  Dad claims the birds were already on the downhill slide, but I think he was just trying to talk me off the ledge.  Next year. 

Now, as of October 23rd, we have a foot of snow on the ground in the middle of Montana, two feet in the mountains.  It could be a year to hunt more chukars in Idaho and Nevada or look for elk in the hills. Time to put away the flatlander boots and dig out the stiff-soled ones. 2020 isn't going away easy, so why should I?

Pheasant opener is always a social event, as much as a hunting trip. Covid didn't change that.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Season Needed More Than Ever

My mind is already wandering to cool mornings in camp, as we prep to head uphill to search for blues. Admittedly, it is a bit premature, as the birds have just hatched and we had mountain snow in the past ten days.  Ripe berries and hoppers of the dog days of summer are weeks away. Regardless, there will always be a few blues in their reliable high-elevation haunts on September 1st.
With upland bird season just two months away, I am formulating a more deliberate list of hunting trips for the upcoming season than normal. I started a list on my iPhone of places I want to not forget about in the next 4-6 months, as I think of them. In other words, ideas gleaned while at work or during “conversation” with the wife. Some brainstorms involve new areas I have never traveled to, some out of state, a few here in Montana.  Old coverts that I have neglected the past few seasons for whatever reason are also on the list.

Nevada- is in the former category. Every year I attempt to make a late season chukar trip and every year a winter storm pops up as I pack up. I guess that shouldn’t surprise when trying to travel 12 hours, across three mountain passes in January, but this is the year. I swear.  The vast amount of public land is intriguing, as is the topography that appears much more hospitable than the Hells Canyon vert.

The Charlie M. Russell Wildlife Refuge – While I live only an hour from the western-most edge of the 1.1 million acres of public land, I haven’t hunted it much the past four or five years. While bird densities can be fairly low per mile on the CMR, it is truly endless walking for those that seek sharptail and sage grouse in their native range.   I don’t own a horse, but if I did, saddle up. I will also probably invite along a sage grouse rookie, so they can have a chance at checking off the big bombers from their life-list.

Wyoming Blue Grouse- Sure, leaving blues in my backyard to search for blues in another state seems foolish.  But, the satisfaction of finding birds in new country is always enjoyable.  Early September is the window for this hunt, as snow comes early in the high-country.  There was plenty of white stuff on the ground last September 15th when I promised the family a “camping trip” in the Cowboy State.
Blues are a great early-season opportunity - in any state
Minnesota Sharptail- Same. Montana has ample sharptail. Minnesota’s numbers are a fraction of Big Sky Country’s.  No matter, this is mostly nostalgia, to check on some of the grouse habitat that I first hunted in as a youngster.  I don’t think the peat bogs and birds have gone anywhere. It will be interesting to see if the countryside appears the same way that my memory paints it. I will already be back in the North Woods hunting ruffs and woodcock, so this can be a side trip.
Minnesota "chickens" circa 1985 

The usual favorites.  I have already made one trip to Idaho scouting for chukars and saw plenty of breeding pairs in new areas. This research combined with an off-season knee adjustment, makes chukar hunting a priority.  Wyoming chukar hunting is also decent and offers another late-season option when Montana is shut down. It appears Montana Huns and pheasants populations will be on the rise, so a few prairie road trips are also in the cards. Specifically, I noted a large, remote parcel that I discovered while hunting mule deer last November.  Flushing sharptail, Huns and a few pheasants while sneaking on deer may be annoying to some, but I was laughing the entire time. September can’t get here quickly enough.  

Chukar habitat, settter on point, public land. That's all. 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Walking Your Way Into Birds......

is the only practice I vouch for and is really the only part of the hunt we control.   The adage isn't complex, but to what degree we take it, varies from hunter to hunter. It simply means the more you walk, the more birds you find.  As Yogi might have said, the mantra is 90% accurate, half the time.

But, the theorem was tested and failed a few times this fall, regardless how many times the boots hit the ground.

When asked by first-timers and bucket-listers hunting sage grouse, my reply has been consistent: find good sage in the eastern 1/2 of Montana and Wyoming, walk in a straight line until the dogs find a flock.  You will eventually encounter a group of bombers.

Well, that routine let me down one day this fall near Winnett, MT, an area that is the epicenter for endless sage range.  I left the truck one cool September morning,with less water than normal, assuming that the young setter Letti and I would find a reservoir holding some adequate liquid and/or we would quickly shoot our token sage hen for the fall.   I was wrong on both accounts. By 2PM, we had walked 6 hours straight, ran the well dry and only saw some grouse droppings.  The sage itself was healthy, very little sign of cattle traffic, but the birds were simply not in our swath. Could they have been 50 yards to either side of us? Yes. This day, eight miles was not enough and I had to get back to town for some less important task.

Kansas was also a bit of a puzzler this year.  Ryan and I were after bobwhite, something that is a novelty for us Montana types.  We hadn't been down to the sunflower state for a couple of years, but based on the bounty we had discovered two years prior, we were optimistic. Just walk the known coverts until we find a covey or two.  And we did. (The walking part, not the finding)  We literally walked from breakfast until darkness each day.  Our frustration (more for the dogs than us) did a nice job of masking the fatigue and sore feet.  Two coveys and two birds the first two days. One of us, never fired a shot the entire trip.  The other gent, fired four shots to kill the two bobs and one rooster.  The third day, we changed our focus to prairie chickens, but it was also a dud.  Walking definitely didn't reward us in southwest Kansas.
Kansas bird numbers were in the tank for us this fall. 

But, there were days where a long walk led me to the promised land.  I left the truck a couple of days in Wyoming this fall hunting new territory, not knowing if I was 100 yards or 100 miles from wild chukars.  When Letti eventually locked up, I knew I had found undiscovered chukar country and a covey that would not need to be shared with anyone, maybe ever.  The danger that day was when one covey lead me to another and I didn't know when to quit.  The harsh reality was I had a two-hour return hike ahead of me with about one hour of daylight.  But, at least I had walked myself into a few birds.

Chukar coveys in Wyoming can be miles apart.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Lewistown to Lewiston

Getting to the point is sometimes the hardest part

500 miles one-way.  Two mountain passes to cross. Two round trips in two weeks.  One with human co-pilot, one with only dog as co-pilot. Mix in some dreadful night-driving dodging deer and elk. Borderline crazy. Chukar crazy.

My L-town in central Montana is regarded and regurgitated by outdoor media as an upland bird hunting mecca. With sage grouse, sharptail, Huns, pheasants, blue grouse and ruffs all within an hour of town, there is a lot to like. However, the amount of access may not justify the hunting pressure or the notoriety. To prove my point, I have only hunted two half-days locally, spread out amongst 25+ days afield.  And the biggest drawback to Fergus County, Montana? There aren’t any chukars. 

I first shot wild chukars south of Billings, MT in marginal habitat about 15 years and three setters ago, on my third attempt.  I opened my over-under after four birds bagged as I didn’t even know the limit.  I assumed it was the same as Hungarians (eight), but wasn’t 100% sure.  No regrets as I look back, knowing that a four-bird day is respectable anywhere.  I mounted one of those first chukars, the catalyst for my current addiction.
This bird was close to dropping off the edge of the world

Fast-forward to 2019 and the challenge and pure sport of chasing these imported birds have not waned. So much of one’s success is determined by 1) your ambition level 2) quality of the dog work.  99.9% of the hunting occurs on public land so the barriers to access have been removed.  For those hunters that are looking for adventure, great exercise, tremendous scenery, majestic dog work and tricky shotgunning, chukar hunting offers all of it. 

Imagine your heart-pounding as you shift down into uphill gear, alternating your view from the ground to the dog to the ground and back to the dog.  She looks birdy, hunting deliberately toward a rock outcropping near the top of the ridge. You question if you can pause a second to catch your breath, but you think better of it, wanting to stay with the dog as she approaches the crest.  She does her part, locking up on strong scent, giving you time to try and find solid footing.  Just as your eyesight clears the horizon, the covey rise explodes, giving you milliseconds to pick out a single target, two if you are fortunate.   In good chukar country, this excitement is repeated throughout the day. Over the course of several hours, you will have taken a number of shots that didn’t connect, a few that do.  You will have fallen a few times, hopefully with only minor damage to both your gun and you.  Your evening is spent reliving the dog’s greatest hits, eating as many calories as you care to enjoy, hoping you can muster the energy to climb the hills again tomorrow.  Somehow you always find that reserve tank to return. Even when those hills are 500 miles from home.
Backpacking into birds. Where do you put your vest?