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Best Bird Shooting in the West!
The upper Columbia Basin drainage in general, and western and southern Idaho in particular, get my vote as the best all-around upland bird shooting Mecca in North America!
By Lew Watson
Where else can you hunt pheasants, chukars, Hungarian partridges, sage grouse, sharptail grouse, ruffed grouse, blue grouse, Franklin’s grouse, bobwhite, valley quail, and doves – all within a few miles of each other? Where else can you camp in lonely canyon or sageflats splendor, often with a trout-filled stream at your camper’s doorstep, and hunt directly from your rig in cool, dry temperatures anywhere from 2000’ to 7000’ in elevation?
All this is commonplace in Idaho, yet sportsmen here have so much big game and high-quality fishing to pursue that they often overlook our incredible bird hunting. That’s fine with me – it leaves more game for my ever-eager Brittany and more gunning solitude for me and my buddies!
I’ve had eastern hunters inquire if they needed guides to hunt Idaho’s upland bird mix, or if hunting permission was hard to come by out here. The questions always seemed odd: except for chukars and forest grouse, bird guides are nearly nonexistent in Idaho. Permission? Well, heck, who cares if you chase a bunch of six-pound "sage-chickens" across an empty 20-mile sage flat controlled by the BLM, or a bevy of hill-climbing chukars up a dry lava ridge that ain’t good for anything else anyway?
Other questions are much more relevant. What kinds of dogs and guns are best for Idaho upland birds? What sort of campgear and personal hunting attire will I need? How do you hunt chukars and blue grouse, anyhow? Where are most of Idaho’s gamebirds found? -- and so on. Here’s a quick rundown on these and other Idaho bird-hunting questions:
For starters, any 20 or 12 gauge smoothbore with improved or modified choke throwing at least one ounce of 7 ½ shot will adequately drop every upland bird in the state. That said, I’d probably go to light loads of 8s or 9s on doves, valley quail, and bobwhite. Especially in 12 gauge, I’d probably pick magnum-load 6s or 7 1/2s for pheasants, sagehens, and chukars. Beyond that, my first statement stands. As to gun action, I like a 5-shot pump, mainly because I’m used to the blamed thing but also because Idaho gamebirds tend to get up in staggered flushes – they rarely rise as singles or all-at-once bevy flushes. A side-by-side or over/under allows just two shots at a wild single before another 20 birds explode unpredictably in your face! Yeah, autoloaders are fine too, if they'll feed a mix of light and heavy ammo all day at various birds without jamming.
Dogs? Hoo, boy! An excellent bird hunter once told me he thought a flushing breed was ideal for all western birds. I absolutely disagree. For one thing, you haven’t lived till you’ve approached a Britt, shorthair, setter, or pointer locked quivering over a hot covey of upland birds. Secondly, Idaho bird terrain tends to be rugged and brushy, so it’s easy to get separated from a flushing pooch. Result: wild flushes beyond range. (Flushing dog advocates know perfectly well that any dog of this kind that ranges too far ahead is a total abomination.) Flushing mutts work fair on ringnecks in heavy brush and corn patches, on dense-grassland Huns and broken chukar coveys in jumbled rock/sage cover if you can keep dogs in close, and especially on brush-hugging valley quail where a pointer tells you birds are in there, but refuses to root them out! Otherwise, give me a staunch pointer every time for Idaho upland shooting.
If you hunt in September, take a canteen or two of water for both yourself and your dogs. Wear at least 8-inch leather boots for arch support on rugged lava rocks and especially to keep hillside cheat grass and occasional cacti from chewing up your ankles. Dress lightly even as you approach snowy late autumn, since vigorous hill-hoofing will keep you plenty warm with just a light sweater and nylon windbreaker. Come late November and December, wear gloves. I still remember a big ringneck jumping under my feet one winter twilight and my bare fingers were so cold I couldn’t feel the safety. The pheasant escaped.
Sagehens, pheasants, forest grouse, and mature chukars are relatively large birds and are slow to cool out. It’s best to field dress them right away in warm weather, or at least use a screened game vest or neck-carrier to help disperse body heat quickly. Use a cooler, strapped gamevest, not a fun hunting coat, unless you’re hunting in deep snow and cold. With the bigger gamebirds and liberal bag limits, leave those rinky-dink little quail and dove vests home – they won’t even begin to carry limits of multi-species Gem State gamebirds!
Chukars have long been my favorite upland target in Idaho. These Himalayan imports usually dwell high on 45-degree slopes, in shallow cheat grass and broken lava rocks. Never try to chase them uphill. They’ll outrun you, then flush back downhill or cross-canyon beyond reach. Try at all costs to approach large coveys silently around convex ridges and through broken rocks, not across open basins. Break a big chukar covey into scared singles and your day is made! Each time your pointer locks up, circle downhill of the dog so flushing birds are forced to climb against the sky rather than skim the ground downhill, making tough targets and endangering your pooch from a low shot. Chukar dogs should be flawless retrievers; downed birds often flop and tumble 200 yards downhill, and you want to contour chukar slopes, not run up and down them!
Idaho sagehens are huge, slow birds and very easy to hit and kill. The problem is locating them in vast sagebrush seas to start with. Our best sagehen shooting lies in the triangle between Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, and Salmon. Within this region try locating birds by pre-season scouting, local inquiry, finding all-important waterholes, driving backroads while looking for tracks and feathers, locating lush farm greenery near sagelands, and using binocs to spot birds flying long-range between water, food, and roosting areas. If you just start walking across unmarked sageflats, you’re likely to half-kill both yourself and your dogs. Ditto for Idaho’s more scarce sharptails, which inhabit grassier regions in the southeast corner of the state.
Hunt ruffed grouse along moist deciduous-foliaged ravines, pretty much statewide but especially in northern half of the state. Western ruffs are pretty tame till chased a bit. You can snipe them, as well as blues and Franklin’s with a .22, slingshot, or even a thrown rock if you like. Once ruffs fly, they’re a great and difficult target in the thick brush they inhabit. In early fall, look for bigger blue grouse about halfway up steep, moist north slopes, usually near hillside springs. They have the odd habit of migrating uphill in fall, spending winters at high elevations, then descending to valleys in summer heat. Go figure! Blues often fly onto low tree limbs when disturbed.
Pheasants are mainly farmland birds, so you usually must ask permission to hunt them in irrigated valleys. By mid-season, many longtails are hiding out up foothills willow ravines, though they’re hard to hunt there. Hunt that first week for easiest shooting; later in the season ringneck chasing is more like an expeditionary big game hunt, where sneaky bloc-and-drive methods work best.
Valley quail are simple: just surround any thick stand of ravine willows and toss rocks, yell, or send in your dog or weak-witted buddy to flush them out. Hitting them, well, all I can say is shoot fast with small shot and a wide pattern!
Hungarian partridges inhabit Idaho statewide except for dense forests and higher elevations. Their habits aren’t very predictable, so I usually think of them as a target of opportunity. Rolling sage hills with good grass undercover, especially if it borders stands of grain, is usually good Hun country. They tend to flush either very close or at maximum range, make rather long flights in a tight bunch, then run over the nearest ridge together. Let them do all this before you pursue a bunch, or they’ll reflush out of the country.
To hunt Idaho’s great mix of upland birds, all you need is a general hunting license (plus an upland bird stamp for quail, chukars, Huns, and pheasants). Seasons on different species run variously from September 1 through December 31.
Check the Idaho regulations to pack in the most bird shooting in the shortest time!
Dan Mitchell’s Clay Target & Wingshooting School