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Using Stealth & Strategy for Upland Bird Hunting

Putting on the sneak and stalk are not just for big game hunters.

Using Stealth & Strategy for Upland Bird Hunting

There are lessons to learn from our dogs, birds, their predators, and our counterparts who hunt big game. So let’s go back to school. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

My wirehair quivered, nose vectored upslope at a covey of chukar. Stumbling, slipping, rolling rocks as I stepped on them…I wasn’t doing a very good job of being quiet. But at least I resisted yelling at my hunting partner as he admired his dog, the scenery, happy little clouds, and everything else but my frantic hand signals. I staggered uphill while he traversed the slope, unknowingly on a beeline for the birds. Whirrr-bang-“fetch!”

I’m learning slowly, but surely. Stealth is not just for the big game hunters.

We all want to shoot birds over our dog’s point or flush. But if we sound like the circus coming to town, we’ll scare away every bird in the county before a dog can pin them, push them, or you can shoot them. Game birds may not be as spooky as wild turkeys (late-season sharp-tailed grouse might get close), but they are still acutely wary of predators, their actions, and the sounds they make. 

desert quail
Follow these furtive suggestions to increase your odds of ambushing birds. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Stuff a Sock In It

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully and taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. Even though I own a half a dozen e-collars most times I’ll go unplugged, sometimes because the batteries went dead, other times intentionally. I try to ghost my way through brush, not bulldoze through it. My footfalls are those of an elk hunter, not a linebacker. And everyone knows you should close your truck doors gently, not slam them, right?

Plan Ahead, Way Ahead

One hunting buddy is also an elk hunter. He plots and plans online—scouting via mobile apps looking for ideal habitat, water sources, and terrain features that favor birds. He carries binoculars, ensuring those mirages are really dips in the landscape or trickles of stream. A recent Nevada trip started weeks ahead on my laptop, searching for guzzlers in a sere landscape made drier by a year-long drought. Best. Opener. Ever.

upland bird hunter in desert
Devise a plan before entering would-be bird holdouts. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Ruffed grouse hunters have their own variation on the map thing, with apps that show burns, timber cuts and other prime cover. My only caution on all mobile mapping apps is to make sure they are up to date. Much of the data comes from public agencies not known for their timeliness or accuracy. 

The Eyes Have It, Or the Hands Do

If you work with your dog frequently, you’ve probably already got a vocabulary of non-verbal signals. Body language and your own walking direction can send an attentive dog where you want them to go.  In some hunt tests, a silent search for wounded birds is required. But you’re allowed to face the direction you want them to go. In a hunting situation, “the look” just might keep that hinky bird from running, or give you a few more steps on a covey, ensuring a closer shot.

More formal hand signals are my go-to tactic. Basic commands can send him left and right, come back to you, go out for a search, or retrieve. One hint: a little motion in your hands is easier for a dog to see, especially at distance, so add a wiggle or wave to your signals.

Modern e-collars have stealthy applications, too. You might use the “tone” feature (not the “beep,” remember, we’re trying to be stealthy) to send a few commands. Come and change direction are in my lexicon. Vibrate feature, ditto. 

bird dog with beeper collar
Consider deactivating your dog's beeper collar when entering stealth mode. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Keep Them Close

I was panting up a rocky slope in chukar country when I heard them rise as one, sounding like a jet fighter on takeoff. My dog stared at me from their launch pad. He’d done his job, slamming a point and pinning the covey. But he was over 200 yards away, and uphill at that. My baseball-catcher knees simply couldn’t get there in time. The lesson? If you have an inkling birds are hunkering nearby, walk him at heel until you’re in gun range.

Most covey birds will post a sentinel on the lookout for coyotes, hawks, and humans. Did you bring your binos? You might be able to spot them and plot a route. Use terrain features or vegetation to block your ambush as you would putting the sneak on an elk. The last valley quail I shot was in a covey where the boss bird was surveying the creek bottom below, not the low hill I’d just topped. It was a tough downhill shot but very satisfying. Bonus: most days, a dog above birds is also advantaged as valley floors heat and breezes waft upwards.

Are You the Problem?

Okay, your dog is a wraith—quiet collar, adeptly following your non-verbal communications, light-footed and ghosting across the landscape. Now, let’s take a look at your own kit. You’ve seen the magazine ads: stuff hanging from a hunter’s every appendage and attachment points like pots on a Gypsy wagon. Collar control dangling and jangling, whistle, and empty shells clunking in the game bag. How did that guy ever kill the birds he’s holding? He didn’t. Don’t be a magazine model—stow your junk and turn off your phone. 

upland bird hunter
Secure the gear dangling around your neck or hanging off your hips to avoid giving away your position too early. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Finally, remember why you hunt: to watch your dog. Bet you never thought it had practical value! Like bad poker players, good bird dogs have “tells.” My dog’s actions shout “bird in here!” long before he points. His tail wags faster or his nose rises. His head might drop, or that ground-covering gallop will become a prance. None of it matters if I’m gabbing with my partner, admiring the view, or just lollygagging. I’ll be out of position or totally surprised when the bird gets up. The result is a rushed or long-distance shot or out-of-range flush. Save your jibes for later on the tailgate.

I know that’s a lot to think about, but it’s worth the effort. Our dogs hunt for us because we put birds on the ground for them—if we’re stealthy and employ some strategy.

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