By Gary Winterton
If you enjoy the outdoors and spending time with your dog, then upland hunting might be the perfect hobby for you. The season has already opened in most states, so if you’re interested in trying your hand at this type of fowl hunting, here are a few tips to get you started.
First, let’s go over what types of birds you’re allowed to hunt during upland season. There are many different sub-species that your state might have, but the most common types of upland birds are pheasant, grouse, quail, chukar, and partridge. These birds live in heavily vegetated areas above the wetlands, hence the term “upland.” The plants that cover their habitat provide protection and food, so they often congregate in areas where agriculture is flourishing, or in fields where there’s dense cover and lots of camouflage. This means that in order to find the birds you’ll need to either seek or flush them out, and that’s where the dogs come in.
There are a couple of different methods you can teach your dog to help you find upland birds. The first is called “pointing.” This is exactly what it sounds like, as you train your dog to sniff out and then point with their snout in the bird’s direction. There are dogs who are specifically bred for this purpose, but you can train your lab or other hunting dogs to do this — it’ll just take practice and patience. The second most popular technique is called “flushing,” which is when your dog is about 40 yards ahead of you and moving in a zig-zag pattern. The dog’s movement will startle any birds hiding in the growth into flight, and give you the opportunity to shoot them. You don’t necessarily need a dog for the flushing method, if you have a couple of buddies with you you can walk in zig-zag patterns yourself to flush the birds out, but dogs tend to be more effective and enthusiastic about it.
It’s important to note that puppies do not come trained as hunters, even if they’re bred for that purpose. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when upland or even waterfowl hunting, is not taking the time to prepare their dog for the experience. You’re going to be shooting a shotgun relatively close to your dog while hunting, and if your dog isn’t desensitized to the noise, then it’s going to be halfway to another county by the time that bird even falls out of the sky. And once they’re scared, you have twice the amount of work in front of you. You can pretty easily train a calm dog, but a scared or traumatized dog is a different story. You also can’t expect your dog to automatically know how to point or properly flush either if you’ve never trained or practiced with them. So take the time during the offseason to show them the ropes using dummy birds and blanks. Most dogs will think the experience is a game and gladly participate.
Now, your dog’s nose can be a great asset for finding birds, but you’ll have even greater success if you do a little research before you head out on opening day. Most states with an upland bird population have a wildlife resources department that’s in charge of tracking and growing the population for hunting and conservation. In Utah, we have the Division of Wildlife Resources and they raise pheasants and release them in the wild to help grow the population. They also plant crops in those areas to provide the kind of environment that upland birds seek. This makes them one of the most reliable and knowledgeable resources you can consult if you’re looking for a particular species or area to hunt. If you plan on hunting private land, get to know the landowners and learn from their expertise, as well as look for areas where corn, wheat, barley, and other edible crops are growing.
My final piece of advice is to always check the regulations. Certain upland birds are covered by your basic permit or license, but other species require special licenses or are only allowed to be hunted at certain times of the year. These regulations keep the population growing and sustainable, but they can change, so always check before you head out on a hunting trip. You can also go to private clubs which cultivate upland birds and have extended seasons. This is a great option if you’re new to the sport, or if you’re bringing along children or other inexperienced hunters. If you’re not so new to the sport however and looking for a challenge, there are certain species, like ptarmigan, that only live in small pockets in mountain strongholds. It’ll take a lot of hiking and exertion to get there and be successful, but it can be a really fun challenge. Just remember to always check the proclamation and to follow all of the laws and regulations.