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Unspoken Upland Etiquette

If you're lucky enough to get invited on a hunt, keep these key points in mind to keep peace with your hunting party and you just might get invited back.

Unspoken Upland Etiquette

There may be several unwritten upland rules to follow when it comes to sharing a hunt. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Without looking at a calendar, I can easily tell when the hunting season has arrived as my phone begins to buzz with text messages and DM’s start stacking up in my social account with friends that I haven’t heard from all year who are looking to link up on hunts. Each year there a few new ones, and thankfully, a few longstanding companions that I look forward to catching up with. But whether or not someone remains as a contact depends on how that first hunt goes.

First impressions matter and this introductory interaction is very telling as to whether we get invited to hunt again. There are a variety of reasons why things don’t work out for a “next time”, from serious safety concerns and bad attitudes to different motivations, but there are several things that often stand out, and they’re some of the unspoken etiquettes of upland hunting.

Whether you are new to the game and picking things up as you forge your own unmentored path, or you just need a gentle reminder, here are some key things to keep in mind when swapping hunts with each other this season.


Don’t Handle Another Hunter’s Dog

It goes without saying, yet it still happens out there. Commanding or controlling another hunter’s dog is probably the easiest way to get sent straight to the “never again” list. You can probably get away with slighting someone’s shooting or degrading their gear, but don’t ever handle or disparage their dog—that becomes a personal attack! We all take pride in and train our dogs in our own ways and sometimes have specific safety concerns, so when you show up to hunt as a guest, it’s best to keep your mouth shut and let the handler work their own dog.

grouse hunter in woods with english setter
It's always best to let gun dog owners handle their own dogs. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

An often-overlooked consideration when hunting with pointing dogs pertains to the practice of not shooting at birds that weren’t pointed. This gets at the fundamental duty that pointing dogs need to learn to stop and point as soon as they smell a bird, without rushing in to flush or grab the bird. Shooting improperly handled birds can lead to the dog thinking it’s more fun to rush in and chase for themselves. So, you don’t want to reward them with a mouthful of feathers if they haven’t properly handled the bird. When in doubt on this, or another other consideration you may encounter, just ask your host for their take on the matter.

Don’t Exhaust the Resource

As a traveling wingshooter, one of the common threads I’ve picked up on among hunters is the deliberate decision to protect the resource through metered hunting pressure and selective killing. As a New England grouse hunter, that translates for me to hunt the small local covers once or twice a season, only taking one or two birds per cover, and generally hanging it up once the snow and ice settle in. By that time, the grouse have a limited food supply, resort to snow roosting, and are in full-on survival mode. I’d rather see the strong ones survive to breed next spring than to get one last late season limit to brag about.

upland bird hunter holding an american woodcock
When did a full day's limit become the measure for a "successful" hunt? (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

In many places, certain upland bird species are at the edge of their range (and existence) while facing significant declining populations and loss of habitat. Take for example, the ruffed grouse (in the outlying Great Lakes states or in the mid-Atlantic seaboard) or the bobwhite quail (in many parts of the south); these birds have the odds stacked against them as monumental efforts are being made to protect their habitat and ensure the existing populations can remain—and hopefully thrive.

On a trip chasing Gentleman Bob in “Kentuckiana” last fall, I learned a little about hunting covey birds, which involves keeping close tabs on the status and health of coveys, not applying too much hunting pressure on them, and not cleaning out a covey or forever following up on singles that get broken up from the group. It may seem a bit of a paradoxical approach, to both consume and conserve such a delicate and limited resource, but with the right set of intentions and conduct, bird hunters could easily become the biggest asset to ensuring the long-term livelihood of threatened upland bird species across everywhere.

Don’t Run Your Mouth

It seems silly to have to say it, but I have seen it play out too many times, so it needs some attention. If someone invites you to their hunting grounds, don’t try to one-up them by telling them how much better your spots are, or carry on about the limit you shot last weekend. Your host is proud to share their favorite cover with you, so take it as a gift and appreciate it for what it is. You might learn something new if you remain a humble visitor. There’s not much else that turns most of us away than to hear someone ramble on about all of their best banner days or what they would do better. Take any invitation as a treat and consider returning the favor, no matter the outcome.

Dog denigration: Just don’t do it. You may have a field trial champion and could be quick to point out each and every fault you see in the dog work of your host, but keep it to yourself. We’re all doing the best we can and have varied expectations on performance, so leave the judging for the trial circuit.

Don’t Hot Spot

If you’re lucky enough to get invited to a bird hunt and encounter some success, don’t go broadcasting to all your buddies about how you found the next honey hole and blast it widely on social media. Hot spotting (publicly disclosing the location of a productive bird hunting area) is generally frowned upon and will likely lead to you never hearing back from your host.

two quail hunters walking in Kentucky woods
If someone invites you to hunt their cover, it's proper to safeguard that secret and not share it with others. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Likewise, if you’re privy to any public ground paradise or private-land “birdvana,” keep the secret stashed away and count your blessings to have had the opportunity to experience something special. Don’t assume that it’s ok to go back on your own or return with your ten best friends. If someone took you to an area, respect their gesture, and if you are interested in returning, have a conversation with your host first. Ask if they would meet you there again, or if nothing else, give a courtesy note to let them know you’d like to go back and see what they say. Don’t burn up their spot without asking.

Training dogs and hunting birds are hard enough, and our community is smaller than you might think. We owe it to ourselves to keep peace and work together to protect our favorite pastime for future generations. It may seem small and insignificant, but how we treat an invitation and handle the hunt can leave a lasting impression, good or bad.


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