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Becoming an Upland Bird Hunting Guide

The tale of how one enthusiastic bird hunter turned his passion into a profession.

Becoming an Upland Bird Hunting Guide

Robert Jones ditched his day job to become a full-time upland guide. (Photo By: Robert Jones)

The wild uplands, birds, and gun dogs often compel bird hunters to push their passions to extremes. From the daily grind of every hunting season, to hard-earned road trips, to digging in deep when the weather and conditions seem to turn against us in the late season, this is what we love to do and we can’t imagine our lives any other way. But for a few of us, bird hunting and gun dogs evolves into a full-time profession.

Humble Beginnings

Robert Jones grew up in the central valley of California in a rural farming community and spent time outdoors, but hunting wasn’t something he took part in as a kid. After his grandfather’s prized shotguns were passed down to him, Jones enrolled in a hunter education program and got permission to hunt on some family farmland. His first-ever wingshooting experience was a September dove hunt, and by the end of October, Jones had brought home his first bird dog, an English springer spaniel. Fast forward 15 years to the present day, Jones has become nothing short of a bona fide upland hunting and bird dog junkie. “It’s pretty much all I do now,” Jones snickered. “I don’t bass fish, skate, or play in bands anymore. I just run dogs and hunt birds.”

After many seasons of chasing various upland species across the northern prairies, Jones said that he favors chasing sharp-tailed grouse the most. “I really enjoy training on them in August and then hunting them in September. There’s really not a better bird to be hunting that time of the year.” He went on to mention how as the season progresses the sharpies get tough, so he shifts his focus to other birds in other covers. “Once the weather moves in, I’ll transition more toward Huns, as well as finding those areas where there are a few pheasants mixed in.”


Leveling Up

Outside of hunting with his dogs (now a string of four English setters, two English pointers, and a cocker), Jones relishes in training and watching them run and develop into high-performing canine athletes. “I’ve been really pleased with my dogs and getting them on the ground as much as I can. All of them are getting tons of time and bird contacts now, it’s been incredible to see them really turn on.”

In the past five years, Jones has gotten even more serious about the level of dog he wants and is building the best dogs he can for himself. “I moved from California to Montana to be able to hunt and develop my dogs more. Out here, I can now run my dogs and be on birds within 15 minutes.” He added that it was this level of ambition and opportunity that began to pique his intent to advance his appetite for upland hunting and bird dogs into a vocation. “With all the extra time I now have with my dogs, I realized this is my favorite passion. It’s what I want to do. I just know that I want to be messing with dogs every day somehow.”

english setter pointing in the desert
With the utmost confidence in his dogs, Robert Jones decided to take the plunge and became a full-time upland bird hunting guide. (Photo By: Robert Jones)

From Passion to Profession

As a wandering wingshooter, Jones has been chasing the seasons across the country for several years and found himself in Arizona at the end of quail season last year where he hunted with Patrick Flanagan, owner of Border to Border Outfitters. The two have been in contact over the years, but hadn’t managed to connect for a hunt, until late December of 2021. After spending the day together chasing birds, the prospect of a full-time guiding position was presented.

“We hit it off and he offered me a job in the truck that day,” Jones chuckled. “I went home and thought about it. I was a heavy equipment operator for 16 years and had been looking for a way to get out of it and somehow make a living with bird dogs. My dream situation was always to spend my summers on the prairie and winters down in Arizona. I’m not getting any younger, so I wanted to see if this was something I really wanted to do. I was confident in my dogs and ready to showcase their ability, so I decided to leave my job in Montana to take the leap and go for it.”


A Day in the Life 

Jones began working full-time as an upland hunting guide this past season, and mainly focused on hunting sharptails (with some Huns and ringnecks) out of their lodge in South Dakota from September to mid-November. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work and that work seems to grow exponentially with every dog I’ve added,” Jones smirked. “Providing clients with a memorable experience is also challenging at times. You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather while bird hunting. I wouldn’t go out on some of those days on my own, but you just have to roll with it and do the best you can for them and work with what you get; our clients have always been understanding of that.”

Being a full-time bird hunting guide is way more than just hunting too, as Jones quickly found out. “It’s a lot more work than you would imagine. You’re up before the sun airing dogs and getting ready to roll before everyone else. You’re out hunting all day and then back after dark to feed the dogs…basically your day starts and ends in the dark and you’re always with the dogs first and last. They’re doing most of the work for us, so we’ve got to take good care of them.”

Jones went on to share that the guide grind is real, with long, 14+ hour days that are pretty standard. “Everyday is different. After airing the dogs and loading the truck, we sit down to breakfast with the clients to discuss the hunt. We get out early in the morning when it’s cooler and we may get one, two, maybe three walks in the morning, and then we’ll stop for lunch. After a little rest we’ll get one or two afternoon walks in before heading back to the lodge for dinner. After dropping the clients off, I’ll head off to feed, water, and air the dogs, then grab dinner—it’s a long day for sure.”

Jones shared some of the benefits and merits he’s found in his first season as a full-time guide. “There are times when we’re out working for days on end but many times there is a day or two between groups to run off with my dogs, go exploring, and do my own hunting. You’d think after guiding for 10 days straight the last thing I would want to do is go out and run dogs, but it hasn’t been yet.”

Jones added that helping clients to accomplish their goals is a lot of fun for him. “Seeing people get their first sharp-tailed grouse, their first double, or something else they’re super pumped about…I get a lot of enjoyment from that. I love it when someone comes out that has a particular objective that’s not just to shoot a pile of birds.”

upland bird hunter holding a shotgun and a sharp-tailed grouse
Helping clients check off a bucket list bird is one of the many rewards of being an upland bird hunting guide. (Photo By: Robert Jones)

Down in the Desert

When the South Dakota seasons wraps up, the operation moves down to their lodge in Arizona in early December to finish out the season hunting the rugged southwestern desert for scaled, Gambel’s, and Mearns quail. “I love scaled quail and they’re one of my favorite birds to hunt,” Jones added. “I’ve only been down there for a few days each year before this, but I’ll be down there all season exploring, finding some out-of-the-way spots, and just expanding what I know of Arizona. Of course, the big goal is to find that one spot where you could potentially find all three species on one walk!”

Jones concluded by saying he’s having a better time guiding that he ever imagined he would. ‘It’s been great. There’s been some ups and downs, but overall, I am very pleased with the clients and my dogs. This is my passion, and this is what I want to do every day.”

quail hunter with english setter and mearns and gambel's quail
When he's not running guided hunts, Robert Jones enjoys chasing desert quail with his dogs. (Photo By: Robert Jones)
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