Each species of upland game bird has it own peculiarities, and these peculiarities change according to each bird’s whereabouts. From a hunter’s perspective, a ruffed grouse in a farm-country thicket of New England has little in common with a ruffed grouse in the mixed spruce and aspen forest outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.
While the former bird might be paranoid in the extreme, flushing at the mere sound of an opening truck door in the distance, the latter bird might have such limited experience with humans that it’ll walk ahead of a hunter at a distance of 10 or 15 yards and then take a position atop a stump as though offering itself as a sacrifice.
Despite the many differences between upland bird species and the glaring differences between members of the same species across varying habitats, there are still some loose rules and guidelines that can be used by all upland hunters regardless of their particular location and quarry.
Hunt Near Food
Upland game birds are almost strictly diurnal, meaning they rest at night and become active only during daylight hours. While pressured deer might start to feed at night in order to avoid hunters, birds do not. They feed during the day, and will do so every day except in the case of very extreme weather. Once you’ve identified a food source that is being actively used by upland game birds, the hardest work is behind you.
Figure Out What Works
Pay attention to what works, and then do it again. Hunting upland game birds is a numbers game; missed shots are common, and you usually need to generate a lot of flushes in order to put a few birds into your game vest. When you do flush a bird, especially the first one of the day, study the area carefully.
Even if you can’t figure out why exactly the bird was there, try to understand the look and feel of the place so that you can readily identify similar locations that will hold additional birds. For example, if you flush a pheasant from the cattails along the edge of a slough, start looking for more sloughs.
Beware the undisciplined dog. As a general rule, bird dog owners love dogs equally as much or more as they love hunting. That’s all fine and dandy, at least until their love of the dog begins to cloud their judgment about whether or not the dog deserves to be taken on a hunt.
The majority of “bird dogs” that are out there don’t deserve the title. Let them out of the truck and they’re flushing birds hundreds of yards away before you can even load your shotgun. And when they do actually execute a retrieve, they so thoroughly maul your bird that it resembles a feathery pate by the time you get it.
When it comes to friends bringing along their undisciplined dogs on an upland hunt, just say, “thanks, but no thanks.” Failing that, leave the dog in its kennel until you’re having trouble finding a bird, then bring it over to do a search. Of course, this isn’t meant to discredit the many finely tuned dogs that are out there.
Watching a good bird dog in action is a thrilling thing of beauty and it’s a great way to kill birds. But if there really was a great bird dog behind every kennel door, then it wouldn’t be such a surprise when you finally meet one.
Get Ready To Walk
Miles = birds. You should never go into an upland bird hunt thinking that it’s going to a cakewalk. Sure, when hunting the perfect location at the perfect time, upland birds can provide non-stop action with little effort. More often, a productive upland bird hunt requires hard work and dedication.
Success comes to the hunters who are willing to keep hitting fresh patches of cover in a relentless pursuit that ends only when the sun sets. When teaming up with another upland bird hunter, ask yourself: is this person willing to hunt as hard as I am? If not, you might be happier going alone.
Into the Thick of It
Walk through cover, not around it. No one actually enjoys busting through thick cover that binds up your legs and scratches at your face, but that’s often what it takes to get birds to flush. This is especially true with cover-loving birds such as pheasant, quail, and ruffed grouse.
A hunter who merely skirts around the edges of the nastiest briars and thickets is likely missing a lot of birds that have learned to stay safe by holding tight.
If a patch of cover really is too thick to penetrate, or if you’re hunting alone and can’t afford to be in a tight spot that makes shooting impossible, try lingering at the edge of the thicket as a way to unnerve the birds and get them to fly. If that fails, throw a few rocks or sticks into the thicket to stir things up. Often, that’ll get reluctant birds up and flyin’.
Even if you’ve been hunting for hours without flushing a bird—or rather, especially if you’ve been hunting for hours without flushing a bird—keep your shotgun in the ready position and stay mentally focused on shooting.
Upland birds have an uncanny knack for flushing right in front of you as soon as you abandon all hope. You should respond with a rapid shot rather than clumsily fumbling with a shotgun that’s slung over your shoulder because you’re tired of carrying it.
Take a Shot
Better yet, take two. When an upland bird flushes, things happen very fast. There might just be a whir of wings and a flash of feathers and that’s it – the opportunity has come and gone. Many beginner hunters miss these chances thanks to their reluctance to take what’s known as a “snap shot.” While such shots are generally a bad idea on big game, where accurate shot placement is of utmost importance, it’s okay with upland birds.
Just one or two pellets can be enough to knock a bird down, and the only way to get those pellets out there is to pull the trigger. And once you’ve touched off the first round, follow it with another unless you’ve clearly seen that the bird’s body has folded and its neck has dropped. A few extra pellets in the meat aren’t going to hurt anything.
Shoot a Bird, Not the Covey
Upland game birds often flush in groups, ranging in size from two to twenty depending on species and location. Inexperienced hunters have a tendency to “flock shoot” when presented with multiple targets; rather than picking an individual bird, they point their shotgun in the general direction of the flock and then shoot with the idea that surely they’ll hit something.
This strategy leads to failure. It’s imperative that you pick out a single bird and focus on it.
Find Your Bird Before Shooting Another
A bird in the hand is better than two crippled birds hiding somewhere in the bushes. Sure, nothing feels better than knocking down a pair of birds in quick succession, known as a “double” in hunter’s parlance but nothing feels worse than losing a bird that you’ve injured or killed. By taking your eyes off the landing place of a bird you’ve dropped in order to take a shot at a second bird, you risk losing track of the first bird’s whereabouts.
When you’re down a bird, it’s best to proceed immediately to the last place you saw it and begin searching. If you dilly dally, a wounded bird can easily walk off. This remains true even when hunting with dogs. Sure, dogs are an invaluable asset when it comes to retrieving birds, but they are not infallible.
Don’t Shoot Your Buddy
Firearms-related hunting accidents are quite rare, but many of those that do occur involve upland hunters who are swinging on a bird and fail to realize that one of their hunting partners is positioned beyond the target. Such accidents aren’t necessarily due to pure negligence.
Thick brush, low-flying birds that travel in unpredictable directions, and hunters who inadvertently stray from their position in the lineup can all lead to dangerous scenarios. If you get into a situation where you’re unsure about your partner’s whereabouts, stop hunting until you’re reorganized. If a bird ends up giving you slip, it’s no big deal. That beats hauling your buddy to the hospital to have shotgun pellets picked out of his flesh.