There was a time when a bird hunter could throw a dart at a map of the United States and land on some pretty good bird hunting opportunities. Sadly, continued habitat loss, changes in farming practices and epic drought have wreaked havoc on many upland bird populations.
The good news is that plenty of high-quality wild bird hunting still exists. Even better, those birds can be found on land open to public hunting. All you need is a good pair of boots, a straight-shooting shotgun and a sense of adventure. Here's a look at eight great upland bird destinations you might not have known about.
Maine: Grouse and Woodcock
Grouse have fallen on hard times throughout much of their traditional range, but thanks largely to timber harvest on vast private forests, grouse populations remain strong in northern Maine.
Woodcock aren't quite as abundant as they used to be, but it's not unusual to flush dozens of birds during the peak migration. Timing is everything, so get there when the birds are there, usually in mid- to late-October. Check the Ruffed Grouse Society's
migration map for woodcock migration data.
The two birds share similar habitat. Look for young aspen and birch forests and a mixture of openings and evergreens. Excellent public opportunities abound in northern Maine, where vast tracts of land owned by private timber companies are open to public hunting for a nominal fee.
Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
North Dakota: Pheasants and Sharptails
South Dakota may call itself "the pheasant capital of the world," but plenty of ringnecks inhabit North Dakota. Even better, the hunting hasn't become as commercialized as it has farther south, so access to private property can be as simple as asking.
Also, private land that isn't posted does not require permission to hunt. Focus on south-central NoDak, but don't hesitate to venture a bit farther north and west. Public land in the form of waterfowl production areas are generously scattered throughout central North Dakota, and the thick cattails and grass surrounding the wetlands are brimming with roosters and sharptails.
North Dakota Game and Fish
Quail hunting in Florida is nothing like it used to be, but if you just can't stand the thought of not hunting bobwhites, head to the 66,000-acre Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area. It's located in southwest Florida about 20 miles from Ft. Myers and is the best public quail opportunity in the state.
There are no secret spots anywhere in Florida, at least not on public land, so expect to bump into other bird hunters and to hunt hard. Other WMAs that surrender fair numbers of wild quail include Three Lakes, Bull Creek and Triple N Ranch, all in northeast Florida. Snipe are a bonus and hold well for pointing dogs. Babcock/Webb is rated excellent for snipe by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It also has good dove hunting.
Florida Fish and Wildlife
You better be in tip-top shape if you want to chase chukars up and down the open slopes of Idaho. There's no other way to hunt them than to climb steep hills. That's where they live. Take a moment to soak it in, though. Chukars live in some of the most spectacular regions in the country.
These hearty gamebirds are generously scattered throughout Idaho...and so is public land. One of the best areas is along the Snake River that divides Oregon and Idaho, particularly in the Hell's Canyon area. Be warned: The region lives up to its name. It's rough, unforgiving country, but chukars and even Hungarian partridge abound. Head to the top of the nearest hill and walk until you find birds. Focus on similar elevations.
Idaho Game and Fish
; Oregon Fish and Wildlife
Minnesota is the king of states for the King of Game Birds. No other state harvests as many ruffed grouse as Minnesota, thanks in part to an abundance of public land and an active grouse program. The Minnesota DNR manages 43 grouse-specific areas, with 600 miles of trails. The 1.6-million acre Chippewa National Forest also has an abundant trail and road system for plenty of easy hunting.
Bird populations cycle, and the population in Minnesota is on a downward trend, but that's relative. Even in a bad year, a dozen or more flushes isn't out of the question in the right habitat. Look for areas that were clear-cut five to 20 years ago. Also look for shrubby cover, particularly those with berries. Hunt edges along logging roads, streams and other forest openings. The best grouse hunting is found in northeast Minnesota. Woodcock are also found in good numbers in prime grouse habitat.
Quail hunting the Arizona desert isn't for everyone, but for those willing to walk miles across loose rocks and plow through thorny cover, the rewards can be great. All three of Arizona's primary quail species are also runners, so you'll need a good dog to pin them down.
Gambel's quail are the most widely distributed quail species in the state. They can be found in all but the northeastern quarter of Arizona. Scaled quail are also abundant in some parts, mostly in the southeast, and Mearns quail, a unique species that are a destination species for serious upland hunters, are found in isolated pockets of habitat, also in southeastern Arizona.
It's not out of the question to find all three species in the same region, although Mearns quail tend to favor higher elevations and rough country. Annual quail populations fluctuate with nesting conditions, which are dictated by seasonal rains.
Arizona Game and Fish
Believe it or not, California isn't one big traffic jam. Much of the state is remote, rural and quite scenic — and it offers pretty good bird hunting. California and mountain quail ranges extend from southern California all the way to the Oregon border, and pockets of excellent bird hunting can be found throughout the state.
Some of the better opportunities lie in northern California, particularly in the northeastern region. Ample public land, mostly in the form of Bureau of Land Management property, is available near the Nevada border in Lassen and Modoc counties. The Fort Sage Mountains area has quail and chukar, which tend to stay at higher elevations.
California quail are typically found at lower elevations and around water. Mountain quail also stay within a relatively short distance of water, but they favor steeper slopes. Populations can vary dramatically with seasonal rainfall, so check forecasts before making a long trek.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Montana: Mixed Bag
Private land can be tough to access these days, but not on the wind-swept plains of southeastern Montana, where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
has unlocked 2.5 million acres of private land through its Block Management Program. It's an upland hunter's heaven.
A variety of habitat is open to public hunting under the lease program — and it's all free. Sharptails thrive around the grain fields. So do pheasants and Huns. Sage grouse are somewhat abundant in the rolling sagebrush thickets throughout the region.
If 2.5 million acres isn't enough ground, there are an additional 3.8 million acres of state and federal land in the region, and permission to hunt private property is often as easy as asking. Not all of it holds birds, but with a little experience you'll be able to identify the best habitat. Best of all, the remoteness of this region means you'll have plenty of room to roam without bumping into other hunters.