Big Country Flushers: DIY Hunting in the Midwest
When Eastern hunters head west, the learning curve is steep, but oh so enjoyable.
The idea of quail never really caught on with me.
As a lifelong resident of Minnesota, it has never been an option to hunt them in my home state—at least not in my lifetime. It wasn’t until I started traveling to Nebraska to bowhunt deer on public land that quail entered my thought process.
I flushed coveys multiple times while hiking to my hunting spots, and I learned quickly that if a ruffed grouse blowing up from underfoot will cause you to jump, a full covey of bobwhites will nearly cause a major chest-grabber—every single time. Of course, I didn’t have the benefit of a good dog in front of me to let me know things were about to get interesting. But that would change.
After taking a trip to South Dakota to chase roosters and sharptails and finding that the public land was lacking cover and birds but not resident and nonresident hunters, my buddies and I figured western Nebraska would be a safer bet.
It was, but it wasn’t easy. Since then, we’ve travelled at least once each season south and west of our home territory to branch out into multiple states and run across not only quail, but also sharptails and prairie chickens. And of course, bonus roosters.
Here’s what we’ve learned.
Read the Cover & Observe
Aerial photography, via apps like HuntStand or onX Hunt, is a great way to dissect a parcel of public land. While they won’t tell you for sure whether it’s loaded with birds, they can provide better odds than just flipping a coin on whether or not you should uncrate the dogs and head out. We live off of aerial photography to not only find public land, but also decide if it is worth the walk.
This is just smart, but also a matter of self-preservation. For the Eastern hunter to head west and stare at rolling hills pockmarked by islands of cover, whether cedars or plum thickets or what have you, it can all look good. It’s not, of course, but you don’t know that until you get in there.
We quickly learned that we could narrow down potential properties by scouring aerial photography and looking for the right cover. With quail, this consisted of pockets of brush in a sea of grassland. Not surprisingly, we also ran across roosters and prairie chickens in some of those spots.
When it came to sharptails, we have yet to figure out how to look at a satellite view of the land and come anywhere near being able to call our shots. The learning curve for hunting new ground can be steep.
We don’t stare at our smartphones the entire time we are on the hunt for good ground, however. With some species, like sharptails and prairie chickens, we’d occasionally see them posing bowling-pin style in pine trees, or perched on an old wooden fence framing a long-unused cattle corral.
Actual sightings are pretty useful when it comes to putting together a pattern, even if the birds are on private ground that is off limits. At the very least, while you can’t hunt them, you can learn from them. I keep binoculars with me when I’m driving big country for this very reason. Sometimes, you just see a big flock of birds in the distance, pull up the glass, and realize they are all sharpies lighting out for a good patch of cover. Sometimes, they are seagulls. It’s good to know the difference before you hike two miles while following the dogs across the prairie.
Follow a Pattern
Big cover isn’t ideal for flushers, I’ll admit. But I also advise any adventurous Easterners to not buy a new pup and train it for years, simply to hunt a few days out west. A flusher can do it; you’ve just got to work with them on the best way to get on birds.
This is where the aerial photography comes back into play. If you zoom in on a parcel and can see a few patches of cover and maybe an old homestead, you can plan the shortest route possible to hit all of the best stuff. Watch your dog when you do, because he’ll be learning along the way. And once he figures out that the quail like the thickets, or that the prairie chickens hold tight in the tallest grass, that’s where he’ll hunt.
I’ve witnessed this with my own Lab, and it’s something to behold. We take it for granted when a good dog masters their home terrain, but to put them in an entirely new situation and watch as the wheels start to turn, is one of those rare treats in life only a bird-dog owner gets.
The drive out is a glorious experience, where it’s safe to assume you’ll be thinking you’ll develop lower-back problems due to all of the birds in your game vest. Reality will tell you that your back might hurt from hiking all day, but it won’t be exacerbated by hauling around limits of roosters or sharpies.
While many Western states offer good hunting on public land, I’ve never found it to be easy. You’ll be forced to work for your birds, and that means covering ground. If you’re more accustomed to walking mowed trails, I’ve got bad news for you.
We usually keep track of the distance we cover on a freelance, Western-style bird hunt, and the light days will have us doing five or six miles. The days we get after it, we will have a half-marathon in the rearview mirror before we load up for the day and call it. Imagine how far the dogs go on a day like that?
Everyone in the group, two- or four-legged, needs to be ready to push it. This is not the time to try out a new pair of boots or whistle-up a dog that has been laying on the couch for months. Treat a Western foray like a real hunt, because that’s what it will be like if you want to enjoy it to the fullest, see as much country as possible, and pose for a few photos with birds you can’t find at home.
It’s also important to note that even in the states where you can start at sunrise and go till sunset, you aren’t going to have so many hours in the day that you’ll be bored. We always start out with a predawn breakfast, and then pack sandwiches for the midday. I can’t stand trying to track down a restaurant in good bird country when I could be hunting, so it’s best to plan ahead in order to make the most of each day.
The Measure of Success
If you need to have a limit a day to prove a trip’s worth, heading west might not be for you. My hunting partner and I have had some special days where we picked up multiple birds and multiple species, but mostly the hunting is humbling. It’s a rare day when you’ll put in a good effort and not end up with a few birds, but even rarer to end up having to quit early because the shooting was so good.
The thing about a trip like this is that it’s a great way to spend a couple of days with the dogs in unfamiliar territory, enjoying the entire experience. If that sounds like a good idea, go. But go with like-minded individuals. If you have one person in your party who measures his success by a pile of dead birds, the whole experience can be tainted.
And on that note, consider keeping your group small to be nimble and avoid potential conflicts. This is not the 10-guys-in-a-row hunting that you might find for roosters in some states. It’s a two- or three-hunter mission where the whole group can go where the will and whim says, and not have to worry about taking into account too many opinions on the matter. This also allows everyone to stay on the same page with the dogs, which not only allows them to hunt better, but keeps the whole operation safer.
Campers, Glampers & Motels
If you’ve never tent-camped with a dog, you’re in for a treat—at least the first night, anyway. And the only thing that can make it more special is putting two dogs together in a tent after a 10-hour drive. Let me tell you, I’d never strangle a dog, but I can imagine at least considering it for a few moments when being in a tent with fresh bird dogs ready to hunt.
Day two is different, of course. When a couple of dogs push it all day long, their will to wrestle in a tent disappears by nightfall, and it’s a wonderful thing. The point of this is to consider where you’ll stay. If you want to sleep where the action is, tents are the way to go. You might get away with a camper as well, but be advised that hauling anything into some of the roads and two-tracks that lead to Western upland adventure is a dicey proposition.
There are, strewn across the flyover states that are my favorites, plenty of motels that allow dogs as well. We usually divide our time between camping where we need to, and staying in motels when we can. This used to be a logistical nightmare as far as planning was concerned. Now, it’s a matter of a quick search on your smartphone. Being open to all options is the best strategy.
You don’t have to be tired of the ducks, grouse, or roosters in your home state to travel out west for new opportunities. You just need an adventurous spirit, and the willingness to strike out with a dog or two. Whether that’s a flusher or a pointer, it doesn’t matter. You’ll find plenty of reasons to praise either, if you plan your hunt accordingly and resign yourself to putting one boot in front of the other.