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Your Guide to Heading West for Big Upland Bird Hunting Adventures

Public land and hunting opportunities abound in the land of cowboys, big skies, and exotic game birds.

Your Guide to Heading West for Big Upland Bird Hunting Adventures

If you go prepared, you’ll save time, aggravation, and boot leather, and you’ll come home with stories, photos, and maybe some wild, free-range food. (Photo By: Scott Linden) 

Western Bird Hunting Destinations

You’ve got a general idea where you’re going, but with millions of public acres, conserve some overpriced fuel by narrowing it down before you leave home. Consult wildlife agency staff for suggestions and monitor social media boasts. Then, seek out verifiable information from local contacts and do your own ground-truthing, even if it costs you a day of hunting when you arrive. Consider going to the second-best place rather than the magazine cover story’s location.

Motel or cousin’s spare bedroom, try to arrange lodging well in advance. Way out west, where Airbnb is still just a concept, you’ll want to get close to the good stuff. I’ve bunked in plywood shacks, laundry rooms, and rancher’s shops when lodgings were scarce. While you can pitch a tent almost anywhere on public land, you’ll want to make your bivouac in or near the good hunting grounds. 

Study maps—paper and electronic—in advance. Double check critical data with a call. Even government maps are suspect. I once had to re-orient a helicopter pilot who was so confused, he landed at my camp, walked over with a map in his hands, and asked where he was. Oh, he flew for the U.S. Geological Survey…the guys who made the map!

Hard-way tip: Mount a paper map of the area on your den or office wall. Pour a coffee and ponder it regularly. The land will speak to you—just make sure you’re listening. 

Western Bird Hunting Strategies

Montana may be called “Big Sky Country,” but the ground is damn big everywhere. Often, the best strategy is to hike beyond the comfortable limit of most other hunters, then load your shotgun. Those birds will be untouched. 

Your dog will also cover more ground and is subject to exponentially more risks. Bring an emergency medical kit. You’ll be shooting at longer distances than most quail and grouse hunts so consider tightening your choke a notch or use a bigger shot size. Speaking of ammo, you probably won’t find any for sale. 

Shots on these wildest of birds may be more rushed and shooting wild-flushed birds is considered sporting out here. Your dogs may not be steady on skittish coveys, so focus your dog training on steadiness to keep birds pinned while you huff and puff up a 40 percent slope.

Hard-way tip: Huns are bigger than quail, chukars are smaller than pheasants, sage grouse are bigger than mastodons. That boogers up perceived shooting distances and conveniently becomes my go-to excuse for misses. 


Western Bird Hunting Dangers

You can fall off a cliff, get eaten or poisoned, sink in gumbo mud, or become dehydrated. You may hear the telltale buzz of a rattlesnake; the hair on the back of your neck will stand up when you’re stalked by a coyote. That’s part of the allure. Just don’t be stupid about the things you can control. 

I was stumbling down a chukar canyon when my dog bounded over, face full of deer hair. Like Lassie, he led me to a dry stream bed and pile of brush covering a fresh-dead deer. A classic cougar kill; the cat might have been watching us at that moment. Montana ringnecks cackle in grizzly country. Wolves prowl grouse and Hun habitat. Strong current in western rivers can quickly drown a dog. 

Hard-way tip: Be aware of your surroundings, funny noises, and sixth-sense hunches. Your dog will clue you in before your own senses are alerted.

rocky cliff edge
The West is full of formidable terrain with hidden dangers. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Western Bird Hunting Gear

Your present kit should be supplemented with capacity for more water…up to a gallon on long days for you and your dog. Add a survival kit and emergency locator beacon. I’m carrying enough stuff to survive two nights out there. By then, the helicopter has arrived or the vultures are feasting. Your dog will run big, so a GPS collar provides peace of mind.

Hard-way tip: Deerskin calf roping gloves are a good idea—there is a lot of barbed wire and you’ll be handling it to go over, under, or through it.


Western Bird Hunting Terrain

The west is a microcosm of the entire world’s landscapes: Stark deserts, oceans of grass, steep mountains, thick timber, and massive, echoing chasms. You’ll sweat, shiver, ache, and pant. The placid-looking “plains” of Nebraska are full of holes to climb out of. The Dakotas are not flat as a pancake where you hunt sharptails. You’ll turn ankles on rocks and crawl on your hands and knees. For blue grouse you’ll be climbing to 8,000 feet. Volcanoes formed much of the west. You’ll walk on lava, and your dog will run on it—barefoot. Be ready, know your limits, and you’ll more fully enjoy the diversity of birds and covers, and thrilling dog work. 

Hard-way tip: Prevent night-time leg cramps with magnesium and potassium supplements and stay hydrated.

Western Bird Hunting Skills

Practice makes closer-to-perfect shooting: Downhill for chukars, brush-top level for jinking valley quail on one foot while falling over, at longer distances for sharpies, and through trees for forest grouse. Know how to use a paper map and compass should your batteries fail, otherwise you’re lost in some deep, dark river canyon. Learn to love your GPS. I panted up a steep slope at the end of a chukar hunt, intent on the crisp, icy, refreshing contents of my truck bed’s cooler only to find my rig had been stolen! Not really, but it took two more climbs and descents before I found the damn thing—if only I’d marked it on my GPS.

Hard-way tip: Plan hunts to work the wind most of the time (a big circle) or going uphill early and downhill late. 

pickup truck for bird hunting
Stock your vehicle with all the essentials, plus extra gear, food, and water when venturing into big, open country. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Your Dog

You can go to the gym, but your dog counts on you to condition him. Put in a lot of road miles well in advance. Train beyond your acceptable level of “finished” as he’ll forget some when you drop the tailgate in another time zone.

Start his internal conditioning at least 60 days in advance with a high-protein, high-fat ration. I supplement with additional fat on trips. Even the fittest pup will need rest every couple days. Take that time to sight-see, scout, fish, find a brewpub, or catch up at work. 

Hard-way tip: Care for your dog’s pads now with daily foot cream applications and teach him to tolerate boots and picnic-table doctoring.

hunting signs in western upland bird hunting country
Be prepared to go farther for birds and big adventure out West. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Western Mindset

Western public land is also open to hikers, bird watchers, hunters, miners, ranchers, and loggers. Getting along is an art form. Check your politics at the state line and be considerate of other legitimate users. Most are kind, helpful, smart, and share most of your values. Visitors will be welcomed or spurned based on their behavior toward locals. 

The same holds true for fellow hunters. If there’s a truck there, move to the next draw. If you hear or see someone, go the other way. Nobody likes a four-legged flea circus mooching at their barbecue, so control your dog in the motel parking lot. Share a beer, be helpful. I have emptied more than one tube of EMT gel, none of it on my dogs. 

Learn stuff, drive around, stop at small cafés, talk a bit, and listen a lot. I marveled at an old WW2 deuce-and-a-half truck with nine cow dogs in it; was invited to hunt the ranch. I pushed cattle back through an open gate and got to jump shoot a river bend across the alfalfa field. Those are gifts, not expectations.

german wirehaired pointer overlooking desert mountains
Pay special attention to your gun dogs and keep them safe and hydrated while hunting out West. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Go under barbed wire fences—climbing stretches wire, and cows have mastered the lean-fall-escape tactic on loose fences. Spend money locally; buy a round for the guy sitting next to you.

My last hard-way tip, for now: Remember why you came out west. You and your dog will experience all of that even without shooting a limit. You’ll have plenty of photos to share, a tired dog, a scary-funny-adventure story, and most importantly, you’ll have lived to tell it.

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