16 Expert Upland Bird Hunting Tips
Turn your bird hunt into the upland trip of a lifetime
It’s dark when you pull up to the only breakfast place in town, but your guide is already there. How do you know? He’s the one in the truck with the dog boxes in the bed, and it’s hitched up to a trailer full of, you got it, more dogs. Your guide knows where the birds are, his dogs are sharp as tacks, and he wants the day to be your trip of a lifetime. But it’s going to take some teamwork from here on out. Here’s what he hopes you’ve done in anticipation of your hunt.
Guide: Brett Silliker
Hunting Grounds: Upper Oxbow Outdoor Adventures, Red Bank, New Brunswick
Birds: Ruffed grouse and woodcock
1. Wear more orange than you need.
“Because of New Brunswick’s active logging industry, we have an abundance of early successional forests,” says Silliker. “A lot of hunters from the U.S. come to New Brunswick to take advantage of the opportunities. Woodcock season opens on September 15, the limit is eight birds per day. Grouse season opens on October 1 and the limit is five. As it’s full foliage until the middle of October, safety is really important. Some U.S. states don’t require blaze orange, but in Canada, hunters need a minimum of 400 square inches. Personally, I’d prefer to see more, especially when all of the leaves are on the trees.”
2. Hunt single file in woodcock coverts.
“When we’re in a woodcock cover, I like to walk single file for safety. When the dog goes on point, we’ll spread out with defined shooting lanes, with me in the middle and one hunter on my left and on my right. Shooting lanes for the hunter on the left are between 9 and 12 o’clock, and for the hunter on the right, they are from 12 to 3. If birds go behind us, we may follow them up, but usually not. We’ve got a lot of birds in New Brunswick.”
3. Spread out and stay quiet for grouse.
“With grouse, we’ll spread out in a horizontal line and walk at the same pace. I’m in the middle with a hunter on my left and on my right side. Walking in a line like this is important because grouse prefer to run. When a dog locks up on point, one shooter will get a shot without having to reposition. Grouse are normally skittish, so keeping conversations to a minimum puts more in the bag.”
4. Open chokes and use light loads.
“Chokes and loads need to be open and light. Cylinder and skeet are ideal because the majority of shots are inside of 25 yards. Lighter loads help give a better pattern, and a lot of my clients use spreader loads.”
5. Take your time, especially on woodcock.
“A lot of our shots are much quicker than clients are used to. With so much brush and foliage, it’s important to take a quick shot. That said, make sure your shot isn’t rushed. Get a good gun mount, swing, and shoot. Quick shots kill birds; rushed shots and poor gun mounts are usually misses.”
Guide: Dave Brown
Hunting Grounds: Saskatchewan, Canada, and Arizona
Birds: Hungarian partridge, sharptails, and Gambel’s, Mearns, and scaled quail
6. Get up on the point quickly.
“A client getting up on a point is my number one request,” says Brown. “I like my clients to get up close to a dog when he’s on point and then to aggressively move past the point until the birds are in the air. Dogs are a threat to the birds so if the hunter doesn’t quickly get to the point and flush the covey, then the birds are likely to run off.”
7. Pick a bird, any bird.
“Covey rises intimidate a lot of shooters, and they get confused by all the action. When the covey is in the air, pick one bird and stay with it until it falls. Rushed shots resulting in poor gun mounts are a major reason my clients miss. Practice your gun mount so it’s an instinctive motion. Practice shooting at a clays course or mount your shotgun in your living room. Just be sure that your mount is smooth and solid.”
Read Next: How to Shoot Fast-Flying Birds
Guide: Don Brown
Hunting Grounds: Virginia
Birds: Wild quail
8. Bring your own dog, but…
Don Brown, no relation to Dave, has spent more than 30-years as a wild bird hunting guide, and he’s known for his string of excellent Vizlas. As a dog man, he encourages clients to bring their own dogs. But there’s a catch.
“I love clients who bring their own dogs, and I love seeing different breeds work. But be sure that your dog handles well and hunts under control. Dogs that are self-hunters range too far, and unless they’re broke, they don’t handle birds that well. We want to spend time hunting, not looking for dogs, so make sure your dog is responsive to your commands.”
9. Hunt under control.
“There is nothing like a fast dog with lots of prey drive. But those dogs have to be under control. If they’re not, they’ll bump or run over birds. I can provide a training session for clients if that is what they want. But if they’re booking me for a wild bird hunt then we all should have the same expectation which is to shoot over pointed flushes.”
Guide: Mike Thompson
Hunting grounds: Eaglerock Setters, Central Pennsylvania
Birds: Pheasant, ruffed grouse, and woodcock
10. Take a moment to appreciate the experience.
When he’s not guiding and training any breed of client dogs, Thompson breeds English setters. “Bird hunting is much more than just harvesting birds,” says Thompson. “It’s a total experience. Everyone wants to harvest one bird or five. More recently, a lot of folks are very interested in taking a slew of pictures.
“But I wish all of our clients would take a moment and ponder that they’re doing more than just hunting. They’re preserving and continuing a tradition and a lifestyle. A bird hunt is a holy union between dog and handler and between guide and gunner. Nowhere else can we touch the souls of those who have gone before us. It’s our connection with the past and our bridge to the future. So take a moment, savor the experience, appreciate the dogs, your company, and the environment. There’s much more to bird hunting than a tailgate full of birds.”
Guide: Stephen Faust
Hunting Grounds: Stoneybrook Outfitters, Minnesota, Virginia, and North Carolina
Birds: Ruffed grouse and woodcock
11. Get in shape to adjust to the terrain.
Hunting coverts of primary and secondary growth isn’t always easy, and Faust’s advice is to be physically prepared for a day in the uplands. “My clients don’t need to be Olympic marathoners, but they’ll have a better hunt if they’re in decent physical shape,” says Faust, a Eukanuba sporting dog pro.
“Endurance is the key to a successful day. Our covers are big, but we don’t race through them. We hunt slowly and thoroughly. Pre-season conditioning helps a lot, especially since you’re lifting your legs over logs and pulling through thick brush. Walking is good, but also do exercises that work your hip flexors. Walk up flights of stadium stairs, do squats, and you’ll be fine.”
“Minnesota is very flat, but Virginia is mountainous—where I hunt in North Carolina it’s in between. The birds are in wild places that are off the beaten path, so doing a Stairmaster, squats, and lunges are great ways to get into pre-hunt shape.”
12. Wear the right boots.
“Match your boots to the kind of terrain we’ll hunt. Lug soles excel on hillsides while rubber boots are good in wet woodcock lowlands. Add moisture-wicking socks to those comfortable boots and get your legs conditioned. Above all, break in those new boots long before the season starts. Getting blisters on day one will ruin the week.”
Read Next: Upland Bird Hunting: A Good Walk, Unspoiled
Guide: Tracey Lieske
Hunting Grounds: Wild Wings North and Meemos Farms, Michigan
Birds: Ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasant, and chukars
13. Practice the kinds of shots you’ll see in the field.
Lieske has been a professional guide and dog trainer for the past 25 years. He has guided for a wide variety of wild gamebirds in Idaho, South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. He’s also a Eukanuba sporting dog pro-staffer
“Shoot clay targets that simulate the kind of shots you’ll see on a hunt. Don’t worry about practicing batteaus, springing teal, or rabbits. For bird hunting, every shot needs to be at ballcap height or higher. Some are going away, some are crossing, and others are incoming. Specialized techniques like a snapshot for ruffed grouse in thick cover is ineffective on a covey rise. Work on the kind of shots you’ll see on the hunt that you’re going on and you’ll have an outstanding day.”
Guide: Ethan Pippitt
Hunting Grounds: Standing Stone Kennels, South Dakota
Birds: Pheasant and quail
14. Remember: Safety first.
Pippitt, a Eukanuba pro-staffer, is from Kansas. He guides in South Dakota for two different types of birds. “Most of the hunt will be running dogs and finding birds,” says Pippitt. “We’ll get lots of bird contacts and flushes, so field safety is my number one concern. In my eight years of guiding I’ve found that the more experienced hunters are more relaxed about safety than new hunters. Barrels need to be up throughout the hunt, I prefer hunters to hold their shotguns in the ready position with their fingers on the outside edge of the trigger guard.
15. Stay in line.
“Staying in line when running a pheasant drive is critical. I keep an eye on everyone and call out when adjustments need to be made. It’s super helpful if hunters keep track of the line as well. Most of the time we’re covering cattail sloughs, grass shelterbelts, or small fields, but we’ll set up on round bales at the end of larger, mile-long fields. It’s important to keep track of the shooters behind the round bales. Everyone has a shooting lane between 10 and 2.”
16. Be patient.
“Patience is key. I suggest that hunters pick their shots carefully. Pass on the birds that flush far out. Usually, those birds are at the outside edge of a clean kill range and flying away. More often than not, those birds will get winged but don’t come down. So be patient and wait for a good, clean shot. It’ll come at some point during the day.”