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Upland Hunting on The Western Prairie

Everything you need to know before hunting birds in the prairie country this fall.

Upland Hunting on The Western Prairie

Beautiful landscapes and great birds can make the Western Prairie a phenomenal place to hunt. (Photo courtesy of Jim McLennan)

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You don’t have to wear a Stetson hat when you’re hunting Huns and sharptails on the prairies of Montana or Saskatchewan, but you won’t look out of place if you do. In fact, you might be unknowingly emulating the late Charley Waterman, one of the first and best to write extensively about chasing bird dogs across the western plains.

If you don’t live near this prairie country, what should you expect when you start to consider packing the truck and hauling the dogs out here to hunt? While the premise of all upland hunting is much the same—follow the dogs until the dogs find the birds—there are some things to be aware of.

Where is the Western Prairie?

It ain’t called the Great Plains for nothing. I’m talking about the states from Idaho east through the Dakotas, and the southern halves of the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, with plenty of “leakage” into neighboring jurisdictions.

This is big country, and there’s always a discussion to be had about distance—between bird encounters, between covers, between hunter and dog, and sometimes between birds and barrel. The land can be flat, rolling, or downright hilly. The birds we’re after are generally tied to three things: native grasslands, grain—especially wheat and barley—and CRP grass.

The Best Bird Dogs for the Prairie

while upland hunting on the western prairie a Brattany points wild birds.
Brittanys are a common breed to see working the prairies of Montana or Alberta. (Photo courtesy of Jim McLennan)

The most effective dogs for the open country are those we’ve come to know as “big running pointing dogs.” These can be any pointing breed, but German shorthairs and Brittanys are the ones you’re most likely to see in an SUV parked behind a motel in Havre, Montana, or Hanna, Alberta in October. That’s probably because the continental breeds can be slightly better than high-test pointers and setters at the seemingly contradictory tasks of hunting far and wide in the open country one minute, and then down-shifting to thoroughly scour a pheasant creek-bottom the next. (Yes, yes, I know; generalizing about breed merits is dumb.)

Flushers and retrievers of course do great work on pheasants, and with experience can learn to handle the other birds.

Huntable Upland Species on the Prairie

Huns and Shartails are the most common prairie birds for hunting, although pheasants and other species may be scattered in the mix. (Photo Courtesy of Jim McLennan)

Huns (Hungarian partridge to be formal) are often in or near the grain fields, especially if there’s grassy, weedy, or low, brushy cover around the edges or running through. Technically, Huns don’t need grain, but they certainly like it and dine on it, and also consider grain stubble to be adequate cover at times, short and sparse though it is. In the words of Mr. Waterman, “Huns like to see what’s going on around them.”

Sharptailed grouse live in grasslands that are often used as pasture for cattle, especially areas with some scattered groundcover of hawthorn, wild rose, buffalo berry, snowberry, or willow. They don’t object to grain and will feed on it if it’s handy, but their main requirement is uncultivated native grassland.

As for ringnecked pheasants, through any of the cropland, the low dense cover along water courses and coulee-bottoms is the pheasant’s domain.

One of the great things about this country and these birds is the overlap in habitat. It’s possible to find yourself in a place with the potential for all three birds in the same day. You might be thinking sharptail, say, but find a covey of a dozen squeaky Huns getting up from a CRP field in front of the dog. Years ago in Montana, I shot a Hun and a sharptail from a group of a dozen birds that got up together. I think they call this a “mixed double,” which in this case was remarkable because of both the “mixed” part and the “double” part.

hick pheasant cover generally helps keep flushing dogs in gun range, but light sharptail and Hun cover doesn’t, so it becomes the handler’s job to keep the dog close. It’s often a big ask to convince an enthusiastic springer or Lab to stay close in skimpy cover. Full-choke, anyone?

If you’re used to hearing the dainty, crystalline tinkle of a bell while your setter politely and carefully works an old apple orchard in New England, you’ll need to adjust your expectations out here. Open country requires a different range from a bird dog—a greater range—and often the dog's sense that, stretching out before their handlers become comfortable letting them do so.

How far should a good pointing dog go to find some Huns? I’m only being slightly flippant when I say, “All the way to the next covey.” If your dog is trustworthy, meaning that he doesn’t run off or get lost, and is reliable with his birds, let him roll. My setters range out to two or three hundred yards but shorten up when the cover gets a little heavier or the bird scent a little denser. I can see them part of the time; the rest of the time, I rely on a beeper and GPS collar. When one of them disappears over a high spot in the field, I just stop and wait for him to swing back in front of me and then we carry on. When he doesn’t come back? One of the most exciting parts of this hunting is not just seeing your dog go on point but finding him already on point.

What to Expect from the Weather

And there's the weather, always the weather, which is characterized by extremes. In Montana in September, it might be too hot to safely hunt a dog for extended periods. In Saskatchewan or Alberta in November, it will likely be cold and can easily be snowy. There's also wind—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, but almost always some. If you need a convenient excuse for either your dog’s or your performance, the wind might be just the ticket.

Getting the Right Upland Gear

You’ll need all the usual stuff you use near home, with a few possible additions. I did a quick review, and here are some items that stay in my kit bag all fall: water bottles for the dogs and for me, dog first-aid kit, forceps (quill removal), dog brush, a stout pair of wire cutters, walkie-talkies to keep in touch with my partners when we find ourselves separated by a half mile or so. Cell phones work for this too unless we’re in a place with poor or no coverage, which is always a possibility.

Layers of clothing are best so you can adjust as the temperature climbs in mid-day and cools in late afternoon. I wear uninsulated boots because this hunting entails a lot of walking. If my feet get cold, I take it as a sign I should stay indoors and watch football.

A 12-, 16-, or 20-gauge will be fine, with chokes of improved or modified. You can get picky about shot size if you like, but #6s will work for all the birds.

Some Hazards to Be Aware of

I’ll try to mention these without making anyone unduly nervous. They’re out there, and you need to know about them, but they needn’t deter you from hunting in the West. Along with the usual skunks and porcupines there can be others. Rattlesnakes may be around in some areas in early season, which usually means September. If that’s your timeframe, consider carrying a snake-bite kit. Much of this land is ranch country so there will be cattle, but unless you see a field with bulls, it won’t likely be a problem (you should avoid hunting near cattle anyway). There will be coyotes and badgers about. You’ll probably see the coyotes but just the holes the badgers leave, and in certain areas near mountains there may be cougars. It’s rare to see one as they’re both secretive and mostly nocturnal. I live in an area with one of the higher concentrations of these big cats and yet have only seen one in my life. That was while hunting sharptail in rolling bench-land just east of the Rockies. It was an unsettling encounter, but all turned out well. The presence of any of these hazards can often be confirmed or clarified through conversations with landowners.

The biggest danger in farm and ranch country might be the possibility of a dog encountering a coyote snare. I’ve experienced this, and though it turned out well, it was frightening. This is the reason for carrying heavy-duty wire cutters. Always ask landowners if there are snares or traps on the land you’re inquiring about, and if the answer is yes, go somewhere else.

Where to Stay During Your Hunt

All the usual choices are available in the agricultural country of the West. There are campgrounds, motels, B&Bs, and hunting lodges scattered throughout. I gave up on the idea of tent-camping when I’m on a hunting trip because too much time is spent cooking, cleaning, and sleeping poorly. A travel trailer can work well, but I’ve settled on staying in inexpensive motels in small towns near the birds. With a little research, you can choose one completely adequate to your needs. I make sure they have satellite TV for watching October baseball in the evenings.

Hunting Public or Private land

Stubble fields and crop edges can be a great place to find birds. (Photo courtesy of Jim McLennan)

Learning the “lay of the land” and finding places to hunt is a critical part of any hunt in new territory and must be done well in advance of the trip. Don’t just show up out of the blue one day and expect to find and have great hunting, because it won’t happen.

Before your trip, you need to determine if there’s public land to hunt, or if you’ll need to obtain permission to hunt private land. In some areas there are “pay to hunt” opportunities. Some provinces and states have large areas of public land open to hunting such as Block Management land in Montana and Eastern Irrigation District land in Alberta.

The best information comes from the first-hand experience of friends or hunting acquaintances, especially those who have preferences and priorities similar to yours. If first-hand information is skimpy, or even if it’s not, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time with that new-fangled contraption called the Internet. It’s all there somewhere in the cyber-world: information on seasons, limits, license costs, and any unusual local quirks that may exist. For instance, in Saskatchewan, only residents of the province can hunt pheasants. With a little digging you’ll find forecasts for bird population trends in specific areas. These can help you avoid a place where a bad winter storm or other event has reduced bird numbers.

If you plan to hunt in Canada, check the regulations for bringing guns and dogs across the border. It’s a good idea to find out where the nearest vet clinic will be, and to put the phone number in your phone. While you’re doing that you might want to download onX so you can tell who owns the land you’re looking at when you see a covey of sharptails settle nicely into a field across the road.

Even if you’re well prepared for a trip, when you get to the area you intend to hunt it’s wise to dedicate the first day to exploration only—driving gravel, looking over the cover, knocking on doors, and making a plan for the rest of the time in the area. Of course, most of us are too eager to get the dogs on the ground to actually do that, but still.

I’ve always found planning a trip to a new area for hunting or fishing to be a significant part of the fun. A great way to become informed, motivated, and entertained about western bird hunting is to look to the writing of Charles Waterman and Ben O. Williams, both in magazines and in their numerous books that describe hunting these birds in these places.

And about that Stetson hat. If you can’t find one near home, you can always buy one out here. Just remember to tip it back a little before you shoot, otherwise you might lift your head.

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