Top 5 hunting tips for upland game birds
Our pointers for chukar, quail, pheasant, grouse, and gray partridge
Washington offers great fall resident game bird hunting, so WDFW has gathered tips to help hunters on both sides of the state bag their limits.
“Chukars are nervous, skittish birds by nature…be quiet and stealthy…”
1. Chukar prefer rock outcroppings, grassy terraces, rocky chutes, and scrub. Hunting them from above is generally more productive because they will hold longer before taking flight, offering shot opportunities. You can also watch where they land and work down and above that location. Be sure to pick out a landmark where shot birds fall as they can be difficult to locate.
2. The most common and productive approach is to hunt with a dog as closing the gap on these elusive, fast birds can be exhausting. A dog will smell the birds and key in on their location and point birds, providing more preparation for the fast shooting that is to follow. Dogs also aide in retrieving birds, which is a huge advantage.
3. Chukar are very fast, whether running uphill or flying down off a bluff like darts. A proven strategy is to put one hunter high and one below, with the dog working the space between as you work parallel to a canyon or ravine.
4. If hunting without a dog, you can learn chukar vocalizations and try to locate them by calling. Birds use calls to reassemble after the covey gets scattered, so if you’re not seeing birds, try making 6-8 calls during a water/snack break. You might get a response and can work in above them.
5. Chukars are nervous, skittish birds by nature so being quiet and stealthy will work to your advantage in approaching birds. Keep voices to a whisper and try to avoid kicking rocks, whistling, and other loud noise like Velcro, metal-on-metal clanking, etc. Birds will see you but are more prone to stay put and allow you to close the gap whereas if they hear your loud approach, they’ll be gone before you even get close.
A word on safety: Chukar live in the more arid, steep, and rugged environments in Eastern Washington. It’s safer to hunt with a partner in case you twist an ankle or otherwise get hurt and need help. Bring plenty of water for yourself and your dog.
“Hunt first light and the last hour of daylight…”
1. Avoid shooting low-flying birds. You’ll drop your muzzle parallel to the ground, which can create an unsafe situation for your hunting partner(s) or dog.
2. Hunt near open fields or preferably crop fields that offer a variety of food sources, including insects and worms that might also thrive in these locations. Natural edges and habitat transition areas, such as natural openings, clear-cuts, and land that may be adjacent to marshes or wetlands, are good areas.
3. Be quiet and move slowly so as to not spook coveys prematurely. Quail will run fast if the habitat allows and may or may not take flight. The closer you can approach before alerting them to your presence, the better.
4. Hunt first light and the last hour of daylight, as birds are most active as they transition from roosting to feeding and back again.
5. Late in the season, quail will find thermal cover along brush lines, ditches, or other brushy habitats. Focus on these areas, moving slowly and ready to take aim.
“Those willing to gear up for cold weather can capitalize on lighter hunting pressure…”
1. Stealth is the name of the game with these crafty birds. A rooster pheasant can virtually disappear by weaving itself among grasses and brush if it hears you coming. The element of surprise is more apt to cause the bird to take flight and offer a shot opportunity. So move slowly and quietly, using hand signals with your partner and dog, whenever possible.
2. Zig. Zag. Repeat. Working cover in a zig-zag pattern will allow you to cover more ground thoroughly instead of moving too fast by prime habitat. Take time to pause, which can cause holding birds to erupt at close range and provide high-odds shot opportunities.
3. Hunt edge habitats such as fence lines, irrigation ditches, blackberry patches near or in fields, or timber edges adjacent to open fields that are primary food sources.
4. Hunt mid-day to evening for more action. While hunting first light is often quite productive, many hunters nap or take long breaks during the mid-day hours. Birds start to become more active later in the day as they move out of heavy cover into more open roost sites. Grassy areas along field or crop field edges are prime evening habitat.
5. Hunt the last season. As the temperatures drop and the days shorten, many hunters tend to clean and store their shotguns. Not so fast. Those willing to gear up for cold weather can capitalize on lighter hunting pressure and birds that are actively bulking up on leftover corn and grains in stubble fields. Adjacent cover, including those marshy areas that held water earlier in the year, might be covered in ice, which provides excellent cover for winter birds.
“If you locate or harvest birds one year…take note in a logbook or drop a pin on your GPS…”
1. Grouse prefer a mixed habitat of conifers, brushy undergrowth and a good dose of gravel, either natural or by way of road systems. Focus on areas that provide a combination of these elements, and especially areas exposed by direct sunlight during mid-day hours.
2. Grouse are habitual in their behavior and often can be found in the same small areas year after year. If you locate or harvest birds one year, be sure to take note in a logbook or drop a pin on your GPS or mapping tool of choice.
3. If you miss a shot, scan nearby tree limbs with binoculars as grouse will often land to regroup. They will often bob and move around in the trees and can be located for a second shot opportunity.
4. Grouse eat a large variety of foods, from bugs to blackberries. If you harvest a bird, check the crop to see what it has been eating, then key on those food sources for the remainder of your hunt.
5. Move slowly through cover in an unpredictable manner, zig-zigging, stopping to pause, then changing direction again. The unpredictable pattern can unnerve birds that would otherwise hold tight as you pass by in a steady cadence.
“When flushed, gray partridges usually don’t fly high, but they might fly far…”
1. Gray partridge hunting is a fun challenge for those who like to cover a lot of ground. Your best bet is to cover miles of decent partridge habitat in hopes of flushing a couple of coveys in a day. A well-conditioned, wide-ranging pointing dog is an immense help, and two well-conditioned, wide-ranging pointing dogs are just about twice as helpful. A gray partridge hunter, of course, must also be well-conditioned and wide-ranging.
2. Gray partridges, also called Huns, like to feed around the edges of grain fields and in patches of seed-bearing weeds and grasses. They tend to roost, hide, and rest in hay fields, tall grass, brush patches and along fence lines. All the aforementioned places, then, are good places to look for birds. On windy days they may take shelter behind tree lines, fence rows, boulders, even buildings, or in narrow draws and on lee hillsides.
3. Gray partridges tend to be more skittish than quail and other upland species and might run or flush wild when a dog (or hunter) approaches. Some veteran partridge hunters prefer and recommend dogs that are trained to lock up on point as soon as they get a noseful of gray partridge scent, even if it’s some distance from a bird, rather than get too close and spook birds into flushing out of range. When a dog does lock up on gray partridges, the hunter should move in fast to shorten the shooting distance before the birds fly.
4. When flushed, gray partridges usually don’t fly high, but they might fly far, especially later in the season when they’ve had some hunting pressure. What’s more, after they’ve been flushed once, they’re likely to flush farther in front of you or your dog on the second approach, and still farther out on the third. In other words, it’s a good idea to do all you can to make your first opportunity count. Although flushed birds usually stay together, the good news is that if you are able to locate singles or doubles after the first rise, they tend to hold better for a dog than coveys will. You might also consider equipping a full-choke shotgun for those long-range shots.
5. If you’re hunting pheasant, you might also have a chance to harvest gray partridges as well. These upland species have similar habitat preferences and you might be able to take partridge opportunistically when hunting for pheasant.
We hope you picked up insights here to use in the field this year and wish you a safe and successful season!