These are vexing times for American upland bird hunters. Our opportunities, like marshes parched by drought, seem to shrink year by despairing year.
The noble bobwhite quail, perhaps the most beloved gamebird of all, has disappeared from vast portions of its former range. For virtually an entire generation of sportsmen, the only quail hunting they’ve ever known has been the stocked-bird variety.
Populations of ringneck pheasants, the brassy bird of Everyman, are also tanking. In their frenzy to cash in on historically high commodity prices, Midwestern farmers are converting every acre they possibly can to grain production—plowing up the places pheasants live and kicking them to the curb.
There, in the immensity of the high plains and the sage-grass steppes and the intermountain plateaus, a cornucopia of game awaits the sportsman willing to accept the challenge. Hungarian partridge and sharptail grouse are the bread-and-butter Western birds—you’re liable to flush them almost anywhere, and at any elevation—but if you know where to look, you can find others. Pheasants down in the riverbottom tangles…chukars up on the arid talus slopes…ruffed grouse in the golden aspen draws…the list goes on.
Unaffected by the vicissitudes of the modern agricultural economy, these birds exist as they always have: wildly, their numbers fluctuating in response to weather conditions, the natural rhythms of the predator-prey dynamic, and little else. In some years they’re abundant, in others they’re scarce, but rarely is the availability of habitat the limiting factor.
The fact that they live amid some of the grandest scenery on earth doesn’t hurt, either.
This brings up another asset Western bird hunting has going for it: millions of acres of public land, as well as a ton of private land (depending on the state) that’s subject to liberal trespass laws. No knocking on doors, no chasing down absentee landowners, no hassles—and almost no limits on where you can hunt.
How sweet is that?
So when Shawn Wayment invited me to join his brother Andy, their friend Sterling Monroe, and him on their annual October hunt in Idaho last year, I didn’t just jump at the chance—I did an entire gymnastics routine. A veterinarian in Castle Rock, Colo., Shawn and I connected several years ago when I discovered his Setter Feathers blog. His accounts of the challenges and delights of hunting Western birds struck a resonant chord, and soon we became e-mail buddies. A good portion of our correspondence took the form of his tantalizing me with photos of mixed bags from Idaho. One I remember in particular showed several valley quail, a few Hungarian partridge, a chukar or two, and a rooster pheasant, all laid out on the tailgate of a pickup.
I dearly wanted to get in on it.
A Sharp Surprise
It’s a long drive to Idaho from Wisconsin, and while I expected to see a lot of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, I didn’t expect to find myself in the wasteland of central Asia in a blinding snowstorm. But that’s what it felt like when, tooling through the Sandhills, I was literally stopped in my tracks by Atlas, the freak October blizzard that dumped 4 feet of snow on the Black Hills and killed thousands of cattle in western South Dakota. I was forced to hole up for the night in Valentine, Neb., putting me nearly a full day behind schedule.
Shawn and I talked via cellphone and revised our plans. While he, Andy (an attorney in Idaho Falls), and Sterling (a retired soils analyst) would stick to the original agenda and hunt the Emmett area north of Boise for valley quail and chukars, I’d take the Sublett exit off Interstate 84 and head east. Shawn directed me to a place where he’d moved a big covey of Huns the year before, and he noted that any of the aspen draws—“quakies,” he called them—that snake up into the high country were likely to hold grouse, both ruffs and blues. (Sage grouse are also found in the state’s high elevations, but range and numbers are limited.) We’d touch base later in the day and, depending on what kind of successes we’d had, decide on our next step.
My first move, though, after parking and scrambling up a steeply pitched embankment, was to stop, catch my breath, and let my heart rate find its way south of the red line—an act I’d repeat more than once in the days to come. Like the old refrain we’ve heard from our parents about walking to school, bird hunting in Idaho is uphill both ways. And even when you’re not climbing (or clinging to) some lung-searing slope, the ground tends to be so slabby and broken that keeping your feet beneath you is a constant struggle between the forces of friction and gravity.
Fortunately, I was enjoying a moment of secure footing when a dark-brown bird burst from a clump of sagebrush. I hesitated for a fraction of a second—Shawn hadn’t mentioned sharptail grouse as a possibility in this area—but recovered in time to make the straightaway shot. Tina, my English setter, raced in and scooped up this most iconic of Western birds.
In less than an hour of hunting I was one-sixth of the way toward bagging all the species potentially available to me now: sharptails, Huns, chukars, valley quail, ruffed grouse, and blue grouse. Pheasant season wouldn’t open for two weeks, but who needed ringnecks when you already had access to half of the upland birds in the book?
Tina and I moved several more sharptails as we crisscrossed the sage-dotted plateau, but none gave us a good chance. Back in the car, we probed deeper into the high country. We entered the Sawtooth National Forest, and I began to spy the quakies, bright yellow seams tracing between severe, thinly grassed slopes, their vertical extremes marked by jagged spires of black timber.
Some seams were a little too vertically extreme for this flatlander, but eventually I spotted one whose pitch appeared manageable. I’d hung a bell on Tina to keep tabs on her in the heavy cover, and after we had worked up the draw several hundred yards, its ring went silent. Point!
She wasn’t far, but as I clawed through the thick stuff I was stopped by a rumbling sonic disturbance—the muffled thunder every grouse hunter recognizes as the sound of birds flushing wild. This thunder had a deeper, heavier note to it that led me to believe we were dealing with blues, not ruffs.
We were. Soon Tina pointed again, and this time—although I was teetering between the rock of an impossibly steep slope and the hard place of the all-but-impenetrable cover—I had a clear view as two big, dusky-blue birds hammered up. I focused on one, tracked its rise…and pulled the trigger a nanosecond too late as it vanished into the canopy.
Thankfully, I had a chance to redeem myself a little while later. It all went according to the script: Tina pointed, the grouse flushed on a sharply rising trajectory, and when I pulled the trigger it obediently fell, crashing lumpily through the tangled limbs.
My first-ever blue grouse, it was an impressive bird, larger by a third than its ruffed cousin, its plumage shading from soft tans and dove grays to slate blues and even blacks. By any measure, its heft in my gamebag was pretty damn pleasing.
Walking out, I was shocked at how far below me the car was when it finally came in sight. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Or Wisconsin.
It turned out I’d had the hot hand that day. The other guys had hit it hard, trying several spots near Emmett and King Hill where in years past they’d had good luck, but only managed to dig up one scratchy covey of quail and a lone out-of-season rooster pheasant. We decided to meet in Burley, on the table-flat Snake River Plain, and make it our headquarters for the rest of the hunt. From there, we’d be within striking distance of plenty of covers that collectively offered all the species we hoped to bag.
That morning we gathered at Connor’s Café, a truck stop out on I-84, at an hour when the stars still glittered and caffeine was an urgent priority. That breakfast meeting turned out to become our m.o. for the rest of the trip: While we tucked into enormous platters of eggs, sausages, and fried potatoes and bantered with the kind of sharp-tongued, softhearted waitresses C.W. McCall sang about, Shawn and Andy would pore over the Idaho Gazetteer and map out the day’s strategy. Quail and chukars in that wild high-desert country north of Bliss? Huns, sharptails, and ruffs on the pretty spread in the foothills near Pocatello? Blues in the thick alpine firs near the 9,265-foot summit of Mount Harrison?
Back in Burley come nightfall, weary but hungry, we’d make a beeline to El Mirador. One of those hole-in-the-wall taquerias you’d drive right past without the requisite local knowledge, it served up soul-satisfying tacos—carnitas, lengua, carne asada—whose chile-spiked juices dribbled down my chin. The challenge was knowing when to stop.
That first morning we left Connor’s and caravanned south and east to an expanse of rolling sage-grass steppe that Shawn and Andy described as a honey hole for Huns. The Huns must not have gotten the memo, though, because other than a small bunch that flushed from the dusty road we drove in on, and never saw again, we didn’t move a one. We had five dogs on the ground there, too—Brandie, Andy’s German shorthair; Misti, his Brittany; Shawn’s English setters, Jessie and Gretchen; and my Tina—so it wasn’t for lack of dogpower.
Sterling got into a scattered group of sharptails—he preferred to strike off on his own so he and his yellow Lab, Buddy, could hunt at their own pace—but wasn’t able to connect on the dicey chances they gave him.
“I’ve never seen it this dry,” Shawn observed as we looped back to our vehicles. “I’m wondering if the Huns haven’t moved down into the ag land where there’s more water.”
We spent the afternoon hunting the quakies in the same general vicinity that I’d hunted the day before, but without the same results. Andy got one fleeting shot at a ruff, Shawn and I flushed a blue that gave us no chance, and that was it. I did, however, stumble across—as in literally trip over—a minor trophy: a big Shiras moose shed, which I managed to stuff in my gamebag and pack out.
“That’s awesome!” Andy exclaimed when he saw it. “I’ve hunted this country all my life and never found a moose shed.”
I wasn’t unhappy with the shed, but I would much rather have found a few more birds.
The next morning, following up on a tip Shawn had gotten, we drove to the sprawling C.J. Strike Wildlife Management Area, near Bruneau on the south shore of the Snake. The tipster’s dope was straight: There were, indeed, quail in the shelterbelts of silver-leaved Russian olive that veined the property.
There’s bullion in Fort Knox, too.
That Russian olive was perfect quail cover—as in perfectly impregnable. Although we took some shots at birds, it was more out of an obscure sense of obligation than out of any genuine hope that something might fall. At least the lay of the land was flat, for once.
From there, after scouting the lunarlike cliffs above the Snake for a spot that might be worth trying for chukars, but not finding one, we dropped down and followed the river east. The reed-rimmed backwaters were alive with ducks—mallards, pintails, wigeon—and while I’m the world’s most casual waterfowler, it was hard to keep the wheels from drifting over the center line.
We struck north at Bliss and soon entered a vast, sage-dotted plain. We drove, and then we drove some more, the road dwindling in definition until it was little more than parallel ruts in the dirt. I wondered how whoever had made them had found the place.
But then we reached a height of land and saw our destination: a long, winding creek, its margins festooned with thickly clustered willows, the slopes above alternating between gentle grassy benches and fields of massive, rust-colored boulders. This creek emerged from a kind of box canyon, its towering and nearly perpendicular ramparts giving it the appearance of a cleft in the earth.
Almost immediately we were into quail, the first covey running ahead of Tina’s solid point to flush just beyond range and fan out across the creekbottom—which, once we were in it, proved to be wider, rockier, and more willow-choked than it had looked from above.
I personally discovered that the creek was a lot deeper than it looked, too.
Shawn broke the ice a few minutes later, making a nifty save with his second barrel when his first try at a low-flying single missed the mark. It seemed as if something was happening constantly from then on, whether it was dogs pointing, birds flushing, shotguns booming, or merely sharp-eared Andy saying that he could hear birds chattering on the ground as they scooted ahead of us.
Valley quail are quick—Ted Trueblood called them “the fastest upland bird we have”—and know how to use the terrain and cover to their advantage. It seems as if you’re always in the worst possible position when they flush, as if they’d calculated the move. After a couple of shots that were little more than panicked stabs, a single tarried a bit too long, giving me an open right-to-left crosser as it buzzed in front of a sheer rock face. It puffed at the shot and splashed into the creek, and I had my first-ever valley quail. A cock, he was as handsome and elegantly tailored a bird as I’ve ever seen.
We continued to pick up quail here and there, but only a tiny fraction of the ones we flushed. Shawn, as was his custom, had “gone high,” and after we’d turned and begun to work back toward the canyon, a single report signaled that he’d gotten into birds. He came into sight a couple of minutes later, picking his way down the slope.
“Chukars,” he said, shaking his head. “I walked right into them—and then I stepped on a loose rock. It’s hard to get a good shot off when you’re falling on your ass. I think I know about where they went, though.”
With Tina scampering ahead, I huffed and puffed my way up to the prow of scruffy grass where Shawn had marked the birds. And when she whirled and pointed, I’d have wagered serious money that we were in business. But the chukars, as they so often do, had hit the ground running, leaving only the moist trace of their scent in the high, thin air. We made an enormous loop hoping to intercept them, pushing ourselves to the ragged edge of our resolve, but it was not to be.
“You know what they say, don’t you?” asked Shawn when we got back to the truck. “You hunt chukars the first time for fun. After that it’s for revenge.”
If the parched landscape around Bliss looked like the setting for a gritty John Ford Western, the scenic panorama that greeted us the following morning from the Pocatello foothills seemed to come straight out of a Ken Burns documentary. The lower elevations were a mosaic of muted golden stubblefields, bands of bright-yellow aspen, and splashes of scarlet maple. At the next level, the steeper, higher slopes were shrouded in mist, and above them all loomed ranges of snow-dusted peaks, marching off to the horizon. It was truly spectacular.
The hunting wasn’t bad, either. There was one sequence during which Tina was pointing in the aspens at the edge of a grassy opening. A ruffed grouse blasted out of a tree—heard but unseen—so I called Tina back to the opening, where we’d scattered a covey of Huns. Just as we came to the edge a single Hun flushed, flaring over my left shoulder. It crumpled at my shot.
A few moments later the balance of the covey flushed just out of gun range, and while we didn’t see them down, we had a good line on their direction. We headed that way, and soon Tina was on point in some aspens to the left of a grassy lane. She was on ruffs again, a small family unit that we made one member lighter.
The Huns ultimately gave us the slip, although we got into a couple more coveys over the course of the day. They were not inclined to cooperate, but by dint of luck and persistence we managed to scratch down a few. All upland birds are tough, but Huns, in my experience, tend to be downright nasty.
Our last morning, we decided to ascend Mount Harrison in the Albion Range south of Burley—via truck—and try for blue grouse in the thick firs at treeline. Up at 9,000 feet it was winter, with subfreezing temperatures, a biting wind, and several inches of crusty snow on the ground. There were grouse tracks in that snow, too, but other than one bird that flushed from a tree—and turned Andy inside out—we came up empty.
We had one more card to play: a tip we’d gotten our first night in Burley from a convenience-store clerk—which says a lot about Idaho and the place the outdoors holds in its culture. Noticing our clothing and guessing correctly that we were bird hunters, she’d told us of certain sage draws near the village of Malta where she’d frequently seen Huns.
We found the draws—or at least Shawn and Andy were pretty sure we did, based on the clerk’s directions—but no Huns. There was no Hollywood ending, but that’s the thing about hunting wild birds in wild places: It’s unpredictable. We live for those brief moments of grace when the reality matches up to our imagined flights of fancy, but there’s a lot of scuffling in between. It’s simply the nature of the game, even in a place that has as much to recommend it as Idaho.
And we wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
The Idaho Seven
Few if any other states offer such exceptional mixed-bag upland opportunities.
Here’s where to find the most popular species:
California (Valley) Quail
These elegant speedsters are never far from brush and water. They’re found in the western third of the state, but rarely above 3,500 feet in elevation.
No gamebird says Idaho like the chukar. Most common in the southern third of the state, they live up in the high, barren rimrock.
Gray (Hungarian) Partridge
Perhaps the state’s most widely distributed upland species, the Hun is a bird of the sage-grass steppes. Areas of CRP or other grassy cover are money for Huns.
This most iconic of Western gamebirds is found only in extreme eastern Idaho (check regs for legal areas). Look in grasslands and along edges of brushy coulees.
Find an aspen draw pretty much anywhere in the Idaho high country and chances are you’ll find ruffies there.
Dusky (Blue) Grouse
The classic place for these big, handsome birds is a band of firs at or near the treeline—high on a mountainside, in other words—throughout Idaho.
If you’re not on or near ag land, you’re not going to find pheasants. The best populations are in the Snake River Plain, from Oregon east to the Rupert-Burley area.
Land, Licenses & Lodging
– More than two-thirds of Idaho is public land. There are 33.4 million acres in federal ownership (primarily national forests and BLM) and another 2.7 million acres of state-owned property. Virtually all is open to hunting. In addition, Idaho allows hunting on unposted private land that isn’t under cultivation. If it isn’t posted or planted, you can hunt it.
– The 2014 Idaho season for blue (dusky) and ruffed grouse opens Aug. 30. The seasons for valley quail, chukar partridge, and Hungarian (gray) partridge begin on Sept. 20. Sharptail grouse season starts on Oct. 1. Pheasant season in most of Idaho opens Oct. 18; a week earlier in the north. An Idaho nonresident small-game hunting license costs $97.75, with an additional charge of $4.75 for a sharptail grouse permit. For details, visit fishandgame.idaho.gov.
– We stayed in Burley, a city of about 10,000 in south-central Idaho with more bird hunting within a 100-mile radius than you could experience in a lifetime. Accommodations run the gamut from campgrounds to chain hotels. For our purposes, the Super 8 was ideal: reasonably priced (about $75 per night) and dog-friendly.