Hunting Idaho’s Early Birds
Waiting for Idaho’s bird season to open is maddening, but hunting in September is often nuts! September days can still be too hot to chase upland game in Idaho. We try to advise ourselves to, "Wait ‘til October when it cools off and the spring hatch is older."
by Richard North
Our state’s low elevation bird country is indeed hot and dry until the first October rains. Rattlers are still crawling around. Young birds remain in pinfeathers. Ground-hugging dust and heat make tough scenting for dogs. Puffing up chukar slopes this time of year is masochism asking for sunstroke.
But, if you don’t hit dove fields before nights cool off, all your dipsey-doodle targets will head for Mexico!
Postpone forest grouse hunting until October and you’ll share aspen thickets with grumpy deer and elk stalkers. Sage and sharptail grouse seasons are relatively brief anyway, and you can find lots of birds at cooler 5000’ to 7000’ elevations. Young September gamebirds may still be in pinfeathers, but their unmolested numbers are at their highest.
A final clincher for September bird shooting is that October and November are just too short to squeeze in all of Idaho’s other good stuff -- steelhead, trout, bass, elk, deer, antelope, ducks, geese, pheasants, TV football...
Dove season kicks off Gem State bird hunting on September one, the earliest date allowed by the feds who regulate migratory species. Even this early date is too late some years, since cool nights will send thousands of birds south before a hull can be popped.
If you want to bag a dove limit, hit grainfields and waterholes near sunup and sundown the first three days of the season. After that try waiting a week, then go looking for fresh dove concentrations. If the weather turns bad during this period, forget pass shooting until ducks and geese open in late September or early October.
Blue, spruce, and ruffed grouse are generally underharvested over most of Idaho’s vast woodlands. Forest grouse season also begins on the 1st of September this year which means we have an entire month of early autumn grouse chasing before big game hunters invade the woods! Shotgunning forest grouse in September can be tough with deciduous foliage still hanging on.
Many grouse are clustered in small family groups, most of whose members hatched only last spring. With some adults already known as "fool hens" for their trusting behavior, juvenile grouse are absolute morons. Not much sport in scattergunning young birds you can’t even make fly -- so why not try plinking them with scoped .22s, handguns, archery, and even slingshots? As a one-time eastern squirrel shooter, I personally prefer these silent, sneaky methods of potting woods grouse over a noisy shotgun. Plinked birds also make great pellet-free eating.
On September 20, chukar shooting begins, and Hungarian Partridge (Huns), sage grouse, and sharptails. Since the last two plains birds can be hunted only for a week or two, late September usually finds me in the high sage country of east central Idaho. Locating sagehens and sharptails in endless oceans of sagebrush is the big problem for these species. Concentrate your efforts around waterholes and green meadows. Drive lonely sageflat roads in early morning and late afternoon when birds are moving around. Use binoculars to scan open areas. At dusk and dawn, watch the sky for grouse flying to water. Send wide-ranging pooches out to do your dirty work for you -- they’ll love the freedom to run.
With all these birds to hunt plus the start of fall fishing, I rarely pop a primer on quail in September. These small brush hunting birds are best saved until December when snow fills high forests and turns chukar slopes dangerous. If you do enter lowlands quail thickets in September, stay tuned for rattlers dozing in the shade.
Huns? Well, they’re worth working up a September sweat over. Mostly you don’t hunt Huns on purpose, but rather stumble into them while chasing more predictable birds like chukars, quail, or pheasants. Huns (also known as Gray Partridge) mostly inhabit rolling grassy hills less steep than those preferred by chukars, though the two species often overlap. After a little hunting pressure, these open-country birds tend to flush well out of shotgun range. They also repeatedly sail 300 yards as a tight group rather than breaking up as most covey birds do. This maddening late-fall behavior can lure gasping hunters for miles without ever yielding a shot.
With these problems in mind, I don’t feel guilty about busting a few tight-holding Hun family groups in September. Incidentally, an all-at-once flush of 15 to 20 of these European imports is one of Idaho’s ultimate challenges for fast gun handling. I’ve managed lots of Hun doubles, but no triples so far.
As mentioned earlier, chasing chukars up and down steep September slopes is borderline madness. Still, if a cool, over-cast day comes along, why not? Early-autumn chukars are often concentrated at fairly low levels near water where you can drive, rather than climb and pant, to within range. After fall rains begin, the larger and stronger birds scatter all over those hellacious slopes, drink from rock rain puddles, and cackle defiantly at us pitiful nimrods struggling uphill from far below. So go bushwhack the September buggers if you can!
Hunting Idaho’s dazzling variety of upland birds in dry early autumn does offer advantages and temptations. Not the least of these is the relaxed feeling that "serious" bird shooting hasn’t begun yet. That will start when nightfrost turns ravine leaves gold and red, chill breezes rustle dry cornstalks, and morning woodsmoke rides stormfront air currents. Once October’s pheasant-opener craziness subsides, Idaho shooters can then settle into the best all-around upland month of the year -- November.
Until then -- why not go September early-birding?