Upland, Wingshooting, and Field Trialing, these are the bird dog sports that are often passed through family generations and run through hunters’ blood. The world of bird dogs and their sports can seem so unfamiliar and unattainable for a new enthusiast. But here we explore the regions, the birds, and the dogs that lead the hunt during peak seasons throughout the US.
Quail, pheasant, grouse, chukar, and several other bird species are considered upland game birds. This term refers to non-waterfowl game birds that live above the wetlands in groundcover-rich ecosystems throughout the United States. Traditionally hunted with gun/ bird dogs, upland birds provide one of the most thrilling and enjoyable hunts. Staying on the move with a bird dog, walking or riding through prime habitat, searching for virtually invisible birds is irresistible to many hunters. Found throughout the country, but localized in ideal regions nationwide, it is important to distinguish where these upland game birds’ native habitats and ranges are located in order to know where to pursue them.
Pacific/Pacific Northwest: This region is home to quail, grouse, and chukar, among other upland bird species. Specifically, along the Pacific Crest Trail, California Quail, Sooty Grouse, and Ruffed Grouse can be found. This temperate region provides everything from pine forest to prairie, hills, and mountains that these upland birds need to thrive. The strenuous terrain of this region creates a physically demanding hunt.
Grouse present the formidable challenge many upland hunters desire: the need for a sure aim on a swiftly-departing bird with only seconds to find the target and fire. Challenging, fleeting shots are what allure hunters nationwide to this region throughout grouse season. The season varies by both endemic region and state, but typically falls between mid-September and mid-January. Most grouse are nonmigratory (resident) birds. However, some subspecies will become short-distance migrants between wintering and nesting areas.
Traditionally, the English Setter is the quintessential grouse hunting dog. Its natural ability and intelligence make it a classic choice for hunters seeking a close-working bird dog to effectively cover the desired range. Both drive and restraint are heralded in this breed. Their inherent drive is what locates the birds. Controlled restraint then comes into play as the English Setter is expected to prevent the grouse from feeling pressure of being pushed.
The chukar’s habitat consists of dry and rocky hillsides, covered in scrub grasses where it can easily feed. The arid, sagebrush steppe terrain east of the Rockies is where the chukar resides. A long chukar season combined with the challenging nature of the hunt draws hunters to this region throughout the fall and winter. A bird dog well-equipped to handle the rigors of chukar hunting, such as the German Wirehaired Pointer (GWP) is favored among chukar hunters. The GWP ``is an all-around bird dog that is able to hunt many types of game on almost any terrain,” according to pheasantsforever.org.
Southwest: The Dusky Grouse is the prominent upland game bird found in this region. New Mexico and Arizona create the southern edge of this bird’s range. Dusky Grouse live in higher elevations than the Ruffed Grouse and can be found in the mixed conifer and aspen forests above 8,500 feet. For traveling hunters, there are numerous destinations in the Southwest that provide a pursuit of these mountain birds, including the North Kaibab mountains and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. Dusky Grouse Season typically runs from September 1st- the first week of November in the Southwest region.
Mearns Quail, Gambel’s Quail, and Scaled Quail are also found in this region. These desert birds offer quail hunters a unique and challenging hunt. Hunters can expect to traverse many miles over rough terrain through thick cedar bushes and native brush, such as catclaw.
Consistently winning more grouse field trials than any other breed, once again the English setter is the most commonly used bird dog to hunt grouse and quail in this region. The Vizsla is also used, as it is a lightly-built, energetic breed that both points and retrieves.
Great Plains: Although other upland birds can be found here too, this region boasts the most huntable pheasant populations in the US. Common or Ring-Necked pheasants are notably the most recognized upland game bird in the world. The Great Plains offer open grasslands, brushy meadows, woodland edges, hedgerows, and farmland habitats that this iconic bird calls home. Hunted not only for the sport they present, but the quality of what they bring to the kitchen table as well, pheasants can often sneak ahead of hunters, providing a challenge for pointing dogs. Flushing dogs, such as the Springer Spaniel and Labrador Retriever, are companions of pheasant hunters as well.
Northeast: Quail and Ruffed Grouse are the most common upland species found in this region, although the American Woodcock calls the Northeast home as well. This region attracts grouse hunters because of bird populations and the tradition that accompanies the hunt. The Gordon Setter is a popular bird dog here. Pheasantsforever.org states, “They are not generally fast but are patient and have very good stamina. They exhibit natural abilities to point and retrieve and are well suited to hunt in adverse weather conditions.”
Maine specifically provides an extensive habitat for quail and grouse with its forestry and healthy timber industry. The last two weeks of October is a great time for hunters to plan to be in the woods in Maine. Most of the leaves have made it off the trees and onto the ground at this point, and there is a break between the state’s big game firearm seasons during this time. A liberal bag limit of four grouse per day also attracts hunters to the state.
South: The main upland game bird in this region is the Bobwhite Quail. With its beloved namesake call, the Bobwhite is an excellent upland bird to pursue for both the novice and experienced hunter in the South. There is hardly anything more exciting than the explosive flush of a covey of quail. In fact, the thrill of success is what draws most upland bird hunters to pursue them. According to quailforever.org, “Quail hunting is both an American pastime and outdoor tradition which renews its roots every fall as countless individuals and families set out to pursue America’s original game bird.”
Pointing breeds such as the American Brittany and German Shorthaired Pointer (GSP) are common versatile bird dogs used to hunt quail. “The Brittany is a close-working pointing dog with natural hunting and retrieving ability,” as quailforever.org states, and the GSP “should range and hunt within a comfortable distance from the hunter. They work well with other dogs in the field and should honor instinctively.” English cockers are also finding favor on southeastern US quail plantations as flushing dogs. However, the favorable bird dog athlete leading quail hunts in the south are the English Pointers. Known for having a tremendous amount of speed, they are true competitors. The English Pointer champions over others at Pointing Field Trials.
Great places to hunt quail, pheasant, grouse, chukar, and other upland birds exist all over the country. State Wildlife Agencies can be a plethora of information when it comes to deciding where and what to hunt. With a little effort, research, and travel, a thrilling and successful upland hunt is within reach throughout the fall and winter, so start planning your hunts now.