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21st Century Upland Bird Hunting

The upland days of the past may be long gone, but a new way of hunting is paving the way.

21st Century Upland Bird Hunting

Digital mapping apps make it easy for you to keep track of property boundaries while afield. (Ben Brettingen photo)

Remember the days when it was commonplace to walk into a South Dakota field and see hundreds of roosters take flight? There were less outfitters leasing up thousands of acres of ground across the country and landowners were more likely to offer you a beer than reach out an open palm looking for money. It’s easy to start reminiscing with hunting buddies about what once was, and how easy we had it. Over the past few years, I’ve come to the realization that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, and we are currently living in the good ol’ days.

If you look back at historical bird numbers, there’s no doubt  populations have suffered. Sage grouse were once estimated as high as 16 million birds, now down to less than 500,000. In 1945, South Dakota, the mecca of pheasant hunting, boasted 16 million birds. It has now fallen to less than 5 million. I could go on and on with various species and how purely based on bird numbers, we are definitely not in the good ol’ days. 

Are you thinking I’m cracked? Maybe wondering if the lights are on, but no one is home? Here’s my glass half full look on why you shouldn’t hang up your vest, get rid of your dogs, and take up knitting.

upland bird hunters
We may not be looking at the record high numbers of bird populations from yesteryear, but there are still birds to be had—get out there and get them! (Ben Brettingen photo)

Digital Mapping  

Love it or hate it, technology is here to stay and by adopting it, you’re going to be more successful. The first technological advancement that has completely changed the game for me is digital mapping apps such as onX Maps. I remember back in the day when finding public property entailed getting an atlas, a public land pamphlet, a lot of time, and gas. Unless somebody you knew had hunted the area, or you put in the countless days to learn the spots, it was difficult to justify driving many hours to chase birds. That’s just trying to hunt public land! If we’re talking about trying to get permission on a property, it was a whole new ballgame. 

upland bird hunter with American Brittany
Contemporary e-collars are easier and more effective while GPS tracking collars allow us to monitor our dog's movements at incredibly long ranges. (Ben Brettingen photo)

One of the reasons I love to hunt upland birds is because they often live in areas of the country where people do not. However, this posed a whole new set of challenges if you had found a piece of property you wanted to ask permission to hunt. If luck was on your side, you could scan the horizon for the nearest farmhouse and hopefully it shared a common owner. If not, things could get more difficult. Who remembers the trusty old coffee-stained county plat books? At the time, $30 to $50 a county was expensive. Not to mention many rural counties didn’t even have the GIS information available for a plat map. 

Now, when I’m feeling bored at work or laying on the couch, I can open my onX app and in mere seconds be looking for prime hunting ground in any state I may feel like wandering. The amount of information at your fingertips now is ridiculous! It doesn’t matter which state you’re hunting, you’re able to see all of the private, public, and walk-in areas across the country. Just this last year I was reminded why we have it pretty good right now.

The World Wide Web  

I had the bug to hunt sharp-tailed grouse on the open prairies of Montana. Having hunted them in North Dakota more opportunistically through the years, I knew a fair amount, but had never driven over 15 hours to specifically target them. Other than the exact coordinates where the birds lived, I had everything I needed to be confident in creating a successful trip. So, where do I start to find information about a bird I wanted to learn about? In my younger years it meant going to the reliable book, Upland Birds of North America, and reviewing pages of information dedicated to almost every species of bird, and how to hunt them. In my recent years, I’ve come across some great books such as American Wingshooting and Western Wings by the legend Ben O. Williams, but without being in the know, how would I have ever found those books? Maybe my dad knew somebody who had hunted sharpies, and I would try to glean information from him. That’s how it was done, and at the end of the day, boots on the ground was how you learned, and the learning curve was steep. 

Now, I pick up my phone and go to YouTube. I can’t tell you how helpful searching “state + species” can be. Last summer I typed in “Montana sharpies,” and I was amazed at the endless hours of footage available to watch. It’s so inexpensive now adays to go buy a GoPro, strap it on your head, go shoot a few birds, and post it on the internet. Watching it is almost like being alongside the hunter, seeing what areas the birds were using, how the dogs worked, and what terrain features were prominent so I could get an idea of what type of ground would be potentially productive.

upland bird hunter
Modern mobile technology and online forums have given us much more confidence on destination hunts to take a walk and find birds in new places. (Ben Brettingen photo)

Additionally, the number of blogs, articles, and forums available to use as research is astounding as well, and people give out some amazing nuggets of wisdom. Podcasts have exploded. A simple search for “upland hunting” on any podcast platform results in hundreds of podcasts dedicated to the subject. I’ve clocked thousands of hours listening to podcasts that have shared with me priceless information you could only have dreamed of back in the day.

After absorbing all of the information from the digital world, it was time to put it to the test, and hit the maps. I turned on the private, public, Block Management, and the Upland Game Bird Project layers on onX Maps and went to town. I would look at aerial imagery and identify what I deemed to be “good looking habitat” along major highways. Never stepping foot in the areas I was looking at, it was hard to gauge what it actually looked like, and this is where Google Maps came into play. Have you ever seen those Google cars with cameras on top? They have driven a lot of miles to capture landscapes. When you grab the little orange man in the bottom of the screen, you can drop him on the map and see actual images of the cover. Now I knew what the aerial imagery actually looked like, all from the comfort of my own home. Technology is amazing, if you want to embrace it.

From all of this research, my chest was puffed out and I was thinking this was too easy. Fast forward 1,000 miles, and two days into the trip. We had gotten our teeth kicked in, and I was feeling pretty demoralized. After consulting the map, and all of the waypoints strewn across the state, we made a big move. Within half a day, we were 200 miles in a different direction, the grouse were thicker than thieves and we were back in “good ol’days” mode! A decade ago, I more than likely would have stuck it out in the same area and maybe got lucky, but most likely went home with my tail between my legs.

Social Media  

Social media has its ups and downs, but what I love about it is how easy it is to meet like-minded hunters who live across the country. After our sharpie hunt in eastern Montana, I wanted to spend a day or two hunting one of America’s truly iconic species, the sage grouse. I had been following the sage grouse guru, Brandon Moss, on Instagram (@upland406) for a number of years and would send him messages asking questions about how to target these birds, and he laid down some significant knowledge on me.

upland bird hunters
Social media has allowed us to connect with each other in a new way. (Ben Brettingen photo)

I didn’t ask for spots, but rather what to look for when scouting, and how to hunt them. During the summer he had asked if I wanted to join him on a hunt. Talk about a learning experience! I picked his brain about chasing those stoic birds as we walked the expanse of prairie. He showed me a hunt I won’t soon forget, as hundreds of sage grouse rose skyward in front of his Britts. Without social media, there would be slim chance in hell we would have ever connected. It would have been even a smaller chance I would have been able to witness such a sight and have so much more knowledge about hunting bombers. I now consider Brandon a friend and can’t wait to share a field with him again this fall.

The Best is Yet to Come  

Yes, bird numbers suck compared to when you hunted back in the 1900s. Yes, it’s harder than ever to get landowner permission, but it’s time to suck it up butter cup. The way you have to go about things has definitely changed, but the change has facilitated so many opportunities for you to experience hunting different species in new areas with old friends, and friends you may not have met yet. 

If you want to do things the way you’ve always done them, more power to you. If hearing the faint ring of a bell strapped to the neck of a setter fall silent in lieu of a GPS charged gadget beeping, makes you happy, I love it! However, if you start complaining about low bird numbers in your area, it’s going to fall on deaf ears. I have no time for somebody grumbling about not having opportunities to hunt. Go forth, the good ol’ days are right now because tomorrow isn’t promised, and the past is just that—the past.  

upland hunter with sharp-tailed grouse and pointing dogs
The author with his two Drahthaars and a couple of sharpies, proving that the new good ol' days are here. (Ben Brettingen photo)
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