Every upland hunter should experience prairie bird hunting at least once. Both you and your dogs will love the prairie. My wife, Susan, the dogs and I have traveled to Montana three of the past five years. And, we’re already planning our trip to the American West for 2016.
There are many reasons that influence our love of hunting the prairies. The wide-open spaces are easy to hunt, beautiful and have plentiful bird populations. Plus, the local folks are darn right nice to strangers.
The upland birds available in Montana are the ringneck pheasant, sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge. The ringneck pheasant season does not start until October and Susan, the dogs and I only want to be in ruffed grouse territory in October so we miss the Montana pheasant season. In September, when we hunt sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge, we never see another hunter in the fields. We’re told, however, that the fields are full of hunters during pheasant season so we’re very happy with September hunting.
There are two methods of hunting in Montana. You can hunt Block Management land, public land or gain permission from a rancher/farmer to hunt their private land. Block Management land is privately owned land which has been contracted by the state to allow public hunting. There are sign-in stations where you must register to hunt Block Management property. During September, we never see another hunter on the Block Management properties so there is always plenty of land to hunt. In August, you can print a Block Management map from the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website: fwp.mt.gov. Public land is usually state owned property that is open to hunting. And, there is always private land that is not part of the Block Management system. Permission to hunt private land is obtained the old fashioned way…knocking on ranchers doors and asking for permission to hunt.
Let me add a few additional comments on hunting private land in Montana. Susan and I have done very well with getting permission to hunt land that is even posted. Ranchers/farmers are not enthusiastic about letting large groups hunt. Your chances are better if there are only two or three in your group. Have a smile on your face when you knock on their door. Promise that you will not drive into their fields or over their crops. If you have top-notch dogs, invite the rancher/farmer to join you on the hunt. If all their crops have been harvested, they may very well accept the invitation. Most of the land owners have never seen really good bird dog work. We take a farmer who absolutely loves to see the dogs point birds.
Hunting prairie birds is not much different than anything else you hunt. They feed early in the morning and late afternoon. In the morning they migrate from their roosting field to their feeding field. The feeding field may consist of wheat stubble or a pea or bean field. All three have either grain, peas or beans that dropped during the harvest. After feeding, the birds migrate to prairie grass where they loaf for the most of the day until it’s time to feed again in late afternoon. Although there is no rule that always holds true, both Huns and sharptails like to loaf in high spots so they can see danger coming. Walking the prairie grass, after the birds have left the feeding fields, is how we locate most of our coveys. If the day is exceptionally hot or windy, then try the coulees where they can get relief. A coulee is simply a ravine. For September hunters, I offer a bit of a warning about hunting coulees. You’ll get numerous pheasant flushes in a coulee and they are of no benefit; unless you simply want dog work.
For ruffed grouse hunters, we’ve learned through GPS systems that our dogs run about three times the distance that we walk. In wide-open prairie hunting, the formula is four times what we walk. With the dry prairie air, that means your dog will get thirsty very quickly. For a one to two hour hunt, make sure you carry at least two bottles of water for every dog on the ground. They’ll need it. And, don’t forget your own water needs. Your dogs will, of course, maintain a high energy level if fed Native Performance Dog Food.
Go West…you’ll never regret it.
Paul Fuller is host of the Bird Dogs Afield TV program. Paul’s website is www.birddogsafield.com.