?When most people think of hunting in Montana, their thoughts turn to elk, deer, or pronghorn, or maybe mountain goats or bighorn sheep. But big game is not the only game in town. A growing number of huners are focusing their attention each fall on pheasants and other upland game birds.
I’m one of them. Of course, I still spend hours in my deer stand during November, and I still get excited whenever I hear a bull elk bugle during bow season. But increasingly I’ve been spending time with my son and friends out walking the landscape hoping to kick up a rooster or sharptail. One of the things I like best about upland bird hunting is the camaraderie. When you’re out on the prairie watching a dog work the cover, you can talk to your fellow bird hunters, kid each other about missed shots, and eat lunch together at a local cafe. Unlike big game hunting, which is usually done on your own, bird hunting is a sociable pastime.
It’s also one that can take you almost anywhere in Montana. The state has a wide range of upland bird species, including Hungarian (gray) partridge, sage and sharp-tailed grouse, and mountain grouse (ruffed, blue, and spruce—also known as Franklin’s). You can find upland birds from southeastern Montana’s Carter County all the way to the Purcell Mountains in the northwest. Though every upland species has its fans, the most popular bird—and becoming more so each year—is the ring-necked pheasant. I know hunters more secretive about where they hunt roosters than where they shoot trophy mule deer.
In response to the growing interest in bird hunting, FWP’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program uses hunter license dollars to plant nesting cover, shelterbelts, and food plots that benefit pheasants and other upland species. Begun in 1987, the program also pays landowners to release pen-reared pheasants on qualifying private land. More than 800 landowners have received funding from the program to improve upland game bird habitat while providing public bird hunting opportunities. I’d like to thank them and the many other landowners who continue to provide bird hunting access to the public. If you or anyone you know would like assistance in giving upland birds in your area a boost, please give us a call.
When I was growing up in the Havre area, we hunted the foothills of the Bears Paw Mountains for sharptails and the occasional Hun and sage grouse. Back then, almost no one hunted with dogs; you just walked a few hundred miles or so until something flushed, and then chased the bird yourself if you knocked it down. Today, more and more upland hunters are using pointers and flushers to find birds. It’s a thrill to watch a Brittany on a scent trail then lock into a point, or see a Lab come back with a wounded rooster you assumed got away.
I’ll always love to hunt big game. But as I grow older, there’s something about bird hunting that seems more and more appealing. It may be the social aspect, or the dogs, or the fact that you get to shoot a lot more. Or maybe it’s the fact that when you finally do hit something, it’s a heck of a lot easier carrying it back to the truck.
M. Jeff Hagener is Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks